To wrap up Lent in my class, “Finding the Face of God in the 20th Century,” I decided to concentrate students’ minds with a chorus of De Profundis. For two solid weeks, we have worked our way through literature of the Holocaust: Eli Wiesel, Victor Frankl, and convert Roy Schoeman. And the timing seems fitting: After all, Christ climbed the Cross to plumb the depths of human misery — and not just the unhappiness too often proper to our condition as fallen creatures subject to age, decay, and disease.
It’s not as if Our Lord had a tower fall on Him in Siloam, or was crushed in a tragic earthquake. Instead, Christ endured the cruelties man imposes on other men. He took on all the trappings and disgrace of a convicted criminal. He died condemned as a blasphemer by the priests of His own religion. The highest and purest faith upon the earth collaborated with the best government yet known to man to show the world what happens to pure innocence when it walks among guilty men: It is slandered by envious priests, framed in a crooked trial, condemned by a judicial coward, and tortured to death by sadists.
As G. K. Chesterton suggested in his timeless philosophy of history, The Everlasting Man, atonement had to happen in just this way: The Crucifixion, caused by the sins of all men, had to be carried out by mankind’s highest and best. Had Christ been simply stoned by a mob of Pharisees, or arrested and killed by pagans, we some of us could claim exemption. Either gentiles or Jews could beg off the blame for Jesus’ death and squirm out from the effects of the Redemption.
Not that it isn’t tempting. At the foot of the Cross, I often think to back away and say: “I never asked for this.” Watching Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ had just this effect: I said again and again, “This wasn’t worth it. He shouldn’t have come. We didn’t deserve it; and if this is the price, I’d rather not have the Resurrection.” I read long ago in St. Anselm that Christ could have redeemed us by spilling a single drop of His precious blood. Divine justice could have been appeased, man’s fall and all our subsequent sins — from Cain’s slaughter of Abel to the mass murder of Europe’s Jews — could have been blotted out by the blood Jesus shed . . . at His circumcision. That kept running through my head all through the movie, and it comes to mind whenever I see a realistic (that is, gory) crucifix: “He didn’t need to do all this. We could have been saved with less.”
What could have moved in the heart of God to choose this appalling path? Why does He lead some saints through dark nights of the soul? There are plenty of people in heaven whose paths there consisted of peaceful, fairly prosperous lives with only moderate suffering. What does it mean, then, when we read of the awful anguish of saints called “victim souls”? Of the near despair that afflicted St. Thérèse of Lisieux? Of the chronic illness, persecution, beating, starvation, and final murder by the Nazis of St. Maximilian Kolbe? For that matter, what can we make of the fate of the most devout Jews in Europe — the peaceful, mystical Hasidim whom the Nazis ripped out of Poland and sent to man-made terrestrial hells?
It’s tempting — darkly tempting — to say with Wiesel that, at Auschwitz, the Covenant was broken. Isaac was not spared, and Abraham’s descendants were burned up in a Holocaust that blotted out no sin, but instead became an apotheosis of evil. We might speak likewise of the pious farmers starved in Stalin’s Ukraine. The suffering of any innocent — anyone punished far beyond the sins he might have committed — partakes in the anguish of Jesus, cries with Him, “My God, my God, why have You abandoned me?” Perhaps the only meaning we outsiders can find in innocent, irreparable suffering — even in accounts of historic genocides — is to see in those who suffer glimpses of our afflicted Lord.
But why did He climb that cross? Why the “excessive” suffering, the extravagant humiliations, the almost complete abandonment? What does it mean? I can’t pretend to answer, except in halting suggestions that point toward a vast abysm of Mystery, little Post-It notes thrown off the Chrysler Building. Yet let me dare to try: It may be that Jesus so emptied Himself to show the immensity of His charity, to give us a tantalizing peek at the secret love that fuels the Trinity.
Creation didn’t happen on the cheap. God did not make a single planet with just one sun, or a stingy complement of plants and animals sufficient to keep us fed — but instead cast out a vast and gorgeous universe, and crafted for us a planet teeming with wild beauty. Likewise the Redemption: Christ would undertake no minimal intervention, no frugal-but-fair exchange of a drop of the God-Man’s blood for the billion petty squalors we pile up every day. Instead, He overwhelms us, explodes our sensibilities, and offers us in the Cross an appalling spectacle that thousands of years of contemplation can never exhaust.
He does not, thank God, ask each of us to climb up on a Cross and die with Him. Innocent suffering, willingly accepted and united to Christ’s, is indeed a valid currency in Heaven. But it is not, as Rev. Frederick Faber asserted, the only currency. Otherwise, we would have to dismiss as counterfeits every other act of devotion: prayers of gratitude for blessings received; acts of faith, hope, and love; ecstasies; devout receptions of the Eucharist; indeed, every consolation would have to be regretted or rejected, and no Catholic should ever use Novocain at the dentist. We are not called, as Hans Urs von Balthasar rashly suggests, to make of our lives one unending holocaust of suffering. If that were the case, one could hardly say that Jesus came to bring us life, and more abundantly; such a Christianity really might be that morbid, masochistic death-cult Nietzsche claimed it was.
Jesus never asked us to nail ourselves, daily, to the cross. Instead, we are most of us tasked simply with picking the damned thing up and carrying it. There will come mortifications, moments when we get a tiny, crushing glimpse of the Divine agony we will marvel at this Friday. Let us pray that they’re few, and rare. Sometimes I have to remind Catholics that suffering in itself is wholly evil, and the only thing worse is sin. God built our bodies and souls to suffer when we are wronging ourselves, being wronged by others, or enduring decay as contingent beings headed for death. These things are evil, though we can sometimes use them for good.
Sometimes we must suffer evil rather than commit it, or absorb suffering on behalf of someone else. (For instance, we might fast and do penance for souls in purgatory.) But that doesn’t make suffering sacred in itself, and we shouldn’t blithely tell others to “offer it up.” That phrase has been so often misused it is tempting to toss it down the memory hole. How many parents too lazy to change a child’s shoe that doesn’t fit, pastors counseling patience to battered wives, chaplains enabling cruel schoolmasters, devout apologists for slavery, or clergy covering up for abusive colleagues have callously told victims not to seek justice? The clerically fostered political quietism that afflicted too many Catholic countries for centuries is a historic scandal that has kept many a convert away — and has been used by enemies of the Church to whip up anti-Catholicism. We aren’t called as Christians to humbly accept every sort of oppression and injustice, only rising up when the Church itself is persecuted. For clergy to assert otherwise is frankly self-serving.
And yet — and yet. There is misery in this world, however hard we fight — and rightly — against it. Each of us will face emptiness, loneliness, bereavement, humiliating failures, illness, and finally death. Today, most of us hold, whether or not we know it, to a degraded utilitarianism that sees suffering not just as evil but as meaningless. We can’t face the fact that we suffer, or that we will someday die. And we’d rather not have to think about other people’s suffering. It unsettles us, spoils our fun. Unborn children diagnosed with handicaps, the terminally ill — we don’t want their futile pangs rubbed in our faces. So we put them out of our misery. Thus tenderness leads to the gas chamber.
The only answer to such deadly tenderness is tough-minded empathy. By practicing, through acts of will, at uniting our own darkest moments to the anguish of Jesus, an innocent victim of torture, we learn not to turn away or offer sour wine on proffered sponges. We learn respect for our own suffering and for that of others — to see it as a bitter, unwanted residue of evil that God, in His stupefying kindness, can transform to a healing balm. It’s a hard truth, and one I’d gladly wish away. But wishing won’t make it so. Happy Easter, when it comes.