The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer’s art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.
—T.S. Eliot, “East Coker”
So much of the misery we face, from sickness to death, are matters we cannot remedy, much less escape. But it does not follow that they are without meaning as well. Even the dead end we mistakenly drive down only to find that it goes nowhere can be a salutary discovery now that you know where it leads. There is no end of TV shows about nothing, including every episode of Seinfeld, but real life is not lived as though we were all in a sitcom whose outcome means nothing.
There is meaning, in other words, which is baked into our very lives from the beginning and thus flows out from them at the end. Besides, if life were only “a tale told by an idiot,” why wait to slit one’s throat until after all the “sound and fury signifying nothing”? Why not do it now?
“We cannot know,” writes Hans Urs von Balthasar, “how much of humanity’s endless suffering—the countless Auschwitz and Gulag Archipelagoes—has a direct relation to the Lord’s expiatory suffering; if the latter were not in the background one would wonder how God could bear to behold it.”
But He does behold it. In fact, He takes it entirely upon Himself, bearing it away in the fire of an infinite love. Who else but a God of love would dare to take on the world’s dereliction? Assume all its losses and thus redeem the senseless destruction wrought by sin? The only reason it is possible to speak of God after Auschwitz and Buchenwald, along with current places of death like Ukraine, is because God is steeped in suffering, acquainted with all manner of sorrow, infirmity, and loss.
How tragic that the image of the Suffering Servant of the Old Testament, the Crucified God of the New, should ever have been a flash point of division between Jew and Christian, when the reality to which both point is precisely the same reality. In his book The Prophets, movingly dedicated “To the martyrs of 1940-45,” Rabbi Abraham J. Heschel gives overwhelming evidence of God’s intimate identification with His people. The suffering of Israel becomes, quite literally, God’s own grief. Of Isaiah, the prophet who arose to announce the coming redemption, the lifting of captivity’s curse, Heschel writes: “No words have ever gone further in offering comfort when the sick world cries.”
For a long time I have kept silent,
I have kept still and restrained Myself;
Now I will cry out like a woman in travail,
I will gasp and pant. (Isaiah 42:14)
Think of it: a woman in travail. It is, says Heschel, “the boldest figure used by any prophet, convey(ing) not only the sense of supreme urgency of his action, but also the deep intensity of his suffering.”
In all their affliction he was afflicted….
In his love and in his pity he redeemed them.
He lifted them up and carried them all the days of old. (Isaiah 63:9)
How could a bond this profound, an affinity for affliction this intimate and persisting, take place between God and ourselves unless He were Himself already, and from all eternity, immersed in the world’s pain? “He will feed his flock like a shepherd,” says Isaiah 40:11; “he will gather the lambs in his arms…and gently lead those who are with young.”
There are two views of the world expressed by Abraham, our common father in faith, says Heschel in A Passion for Truth, a book which appeared in 1973, the year following his death. They are the two necessary perspectives from which Abraham looked out upon the world. In the first view, what Abraham sees is a world bathed in such “infinity, beauty, and wisdom,” that he asks how can any of this be possible without a God to whom we give thanks? Unless there be God, no such grandeur could exist. But, then, there is the other side, “a world engulfed in the flames of evil and deceit,” which brings Abraham to ask another question, one fraught with utmost urgency: “How is it possible that there is no Lord to take this misfortune to heart?”
For Christian and Jew alike, the question remains the same: What can it really mean to speak of a loving God if He does not reveal this mysterious capacity to suffer with and in and for others? A God who cannot do this, cannot extend Himself in this way, writes Jürgen Moltmann in The Crucified God, “is poorer than any man. For a God who is incapable of suffering is a being who cannot be involved. Suffering and injustice do not affect him. And because he is so completely insensitive, he cannot be affected or shaken by anything. He cannot weep, for he has no tears. But the one who cannot suffer cannot love either. So he is a loveless being.”
Can a God understood along those lines be any better than the god of Aristotle, the Unmoved Mover whom no one is moved to love? We may admire his many perfections, fear and tremble before the boundless terrors of his power, but in the end so loveless a being is more bereft than any potsherd of man who suffers because, at least, he knows how to love.
Here is where the Aristotelian hold on the mind and heart of antiquity finally snapped, giving way to a world in which not only is God free to love, but we are likewise free to receive and return His love—at a cost incalculably beyond our ability to reckon, by the way, much less pay back. And, quite astonishingly, it all happened in a week, this week; which is why, says T.S. Eliot, “we call this Friday good.”