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Guest Viewpoints

The Crucified Christ in a Suffering World

May 3, 2024
 By Rev. Dr. Emmanuel Clapsis

Jesus ended His earthly life on the Cross. He “uttered a loud cry and breathed His last” (Mk. 15:37).

The mission and ministry of Jesus reached a painful point of collapse on the Cross. Did God forsake Jesus? The God whom Jesus called Abba/Father suddenly had become silent. The coming reign of God was abruptly ended. Jesus’ cry of abandonment: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” taken from the opening line of Psalm 22, may lead us to believe that the suffering Jesus on the Cross may have felt abandoned by God. But this phrase should be interpreted by considering the entire psalm. This psalm of anguish is entirely a confession of trust in God. It concludes with an expression of praise and thanksgiving for God’s deliverance. These words reflect Jesus’ persistent trust in God even amidst the experience of darkness and the apparent failure of his mission. If we speak of Jesus’ real abandonment by God at Calvary, we could mistakenly assume that suffering human beings are also forsaken by God. Instead, we must speak of God as silently present to and with Jesus at this terrifying moment, just as God is silently present to all those who suffer.

The Crucifixion of Jesus is the ultimate expression of humanity’s rejection of the divine gift of salvation that God offers to them through Jesus. Even though humans rejected the gift of salvation and crucified Jesus, God did not abandon the world. His kingdom continues to be offered to humanity despite human rejection of God’s love.

The fact that Jesus, at the Last Supper with His disciples, offered the cup to His disciples for one last time, with the trust that he would drink it anew in the reign of God (Mk. 14:25), indicates Jesus’ trust that his communion with God and with his disciples was stronger than death.

God answered the cry of abandonment of the crucified Jesus by raising him from the dead. The resurrection confirms that the crucified Jesus was and is God’s embodiment and His salvific presence in the world. This is the church’s faith that God was, is, and will be victorious over evil and suffering. In the words of the Book of Revelation, it is the purpose of God to liberate the afflicted and suffering humanity and be their companion:

God will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away (Rev. 21:3-4)

The crucifixion of Jesus reveals how God is actively present in the world and relates, most significantly, to those who suffer, in most cases unjustifiably. In the Cross, God is active and present amid extraordinary evil, suffering, and death – drawing good out of evil, salvation out of suffering, and new life out of death. In virtue of the Cross, God is revealed to be most active and present in those situations where He, at least externally, appears to be silent and inactive or absent. The Cross captures the paradox of life that those moments in which God seems most absent may be life situations in which God is most present.

The presence and activity of God in Christ’s death put an end to the suggestion that God is indifferent to humanity’s pain and suffering. To say that the Cross of Christ is the revelation of God implies that God, in some way or other, is affected by human suffering. But is it conceivable that God can suffer and still be God? What is the significance of God’s suffering in Christ for our understanding of suffering today? In his book ‘Brothers Karamazov’, Dostoyevsky was seized with horror in contemplating the picture of suffering throughout the world, especially the suffering of the innocent and the little children. The only answer that Aliosha (representing Dostoyevsky’s faith and attitude) can give is the crucified Jesus. God does not remain a distant spectator of the undeserved suffering of the innocent. He participates in their suffering through the Cross, and plants hope in the life of all afflicted persons through the Resurrection. God, in his love, experiences suffering without diminishing the mystery of God. God suffers in the world and on the Cross of Christ out of the abundance of His love for the world and not out of some need or deficiency of His nature. Thus, for Christians, when faced with the mystery of evil and suffering, the story of the crucified and risen Christ Jesus is the only adequate response.

The Cross of Christ is neither a justification nor an explanation of the awful suffering that continues to tear the world apart. At most, the Cross helps us to live in hope with suffering and to realize, at the same time, that we do not suffer alone. The crucified Jesus challenges us to exercise our freedom and participate in God’s efforts for ‘the life of the world’. Our human vocation is to lessen the evil, injustice, violence, and suffering that prevails today. It is not our task to devise theories of why the world is what it is. Instead, we have a story to tell: it is the story of Jesus Christ, the crucified risen Christ who reveals the suffering love of God for all on His Cross.  A love that does not suffer is somehow less than love, and such love has nothing to do with the love of God that the Cross of Jesus reveals.

In practical terms, what is the implication of telling the story of the suffering, crucified, and risen Christ to the world? Christians are called to be people of memory and action. First, they must keep the memory of human suffering – the memory of the ongoing passion of humanity. Christians are summoned to live in solidarity with suffering people and to enable suppressed stories of suffering to be told, whether they be the stories of individuals in pain or stories of people who are victims of systematic oppression. Christians also remember another story – the story of Jesus’s life, death, and Resurrection. This story, remembered and lived out, speaks to us about the God who overcame the death of Jesus in the Resurrection and is on the move to overcome all evil and suffering. The story of Jesus assures us that entering into communion with suffering people and acting to bring life out of death is what God is doing for all people. Being attentive and hearing the stories of the afflicted and oppressed people, responding to their needs with compassion, care, and love, and actively working against the causes of suffering provide opportunities to participate in God’s mercy and become true icons of His presence in the world. As Christians, we see the presence of the suffering Christ in our suffering brethren.

Fr. Emmanuel Clapsis is a former professor of Systematic Theology at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology.

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