The abomination of pain – l’abomination de la souffrance

Good Friday, 2022 

The Rev’d Dr. Deborah Meister

Early in Lent, I went on retreat to my favorite monastery, a spiritual home I have visited for more than twenty years. In their stark white chapel, there are two immense crucifixes. Above the altar, there hangs an icon cross, about seven feet tall. In the center, the resurrected Christ reigns from the Cross, serene and wise, arms gently extended. Around and behind him, in smaller scenes, unfold the stories of his life — the stories of our lives — all the thousand ways we meet him, knowingly and unaware. Jesus is in each of these stories, as he is in each of our lives, but the difference in scale and perspective also makes it clear that he is not subsumed in any of them. Instead, he contains them in himself, hovers above them and around them and beyond them.  On the side wall, near the far corner, hangs the other crucifix: dark wood, nearly black, nearly life-sized, with an emaciated Christ writhing in pain.  Taken together, the two crosses demonstrate the way that the existence of pain — absolute pain — confronts all our stories: the ones we tell ourselves about who we are, who God is, how our world is put together. They unsettle our complacency, reveal our explanations as radically incomplete. Good Friday is about that gap: about what happens when we are unable to make sense of the world in which we live.


Au début du Carême, j’ai fait une retraite dans mon monastère préféré, une maison spirituelle que je fréquente depuis plus de vingt ans. Dans leur chapelle d’un blanc austère, il y a deux crucifix immenses. Au-dessus de l’autel, est suspendue une croix-icône d’environ deux mètres de hauteur. Au centre, le Christ ressuscité règne sur la croix, serein et sage, ses bras doucement étendus. Autour de lui et derrière lui, dans des scènes plus petites, se déroulent les histoires de sa vie – les histoires de nos vies – les mille façons dont nous le rencontrons, conscients ou non. Jésus est présent dans chacune de ces histoires, comme il l’est dans chacune de nos vies, mais la différence d’échelle et de perspective montre aussi clairement qu’il n’est pas contenu dans aucune d’entre elles. Au contraire, il les contient en lui, il plane au-dessus d’elles, autour d’elles et au-delà.  Sur le mur latéral, près de l’angle le plus éloigné, est accroché l’autre crucifix : en bois sombre, presque noir, presque de taille réelle, avec un Christ décharné se tordant de douleur.  Prises ensemble, les deux croix montrent comment l’existence de la souffrance – la souffrance absolue – confronte toutes nos histoires : celles que nous nous racontons sur qui nous sommes, qui est Dieu, comment notre monde est fait. Elles ébranlent notre complaisance, révèlent que nos explications sont radicalement incomplètes. Le Vendredi saint porte sur cet écart : sur ce qui se passe lorsque nous sommes incapables de donner un sens au monde dans lequel nous vivons.


Pain — severe pain — unmakes humanity. That’s what torture (like Crucifixion) is about: breaking people — breaking them until they lose their moral compass, all sense of who they are supposed to be, and become what the torturer want them to be, tools in a story not their own. It is about reducing people to objects, things to be used and discarded. It works as a tool of control because stories are powerful. To see that, all we need to do is look at Ukraine, where two wars are unfolding. The first is a war of blood and bombs and shattered flesh. The second is a war of words: who will be allowed to write the story of what is unfolding there? Are the Ukrainian people victims or Nazis, the Russians invaders or liberators? Were the civilians whose bodies litter the streets killed by their own people, as a false flag operation, or by Russia, as a form of terrorism?  Whoever controls the story controls the people. Whoever controls the story writes the future.


Celui qui contrôle l’histoire contrôle le peuple. Celui qui contrôle l’histoire écrit l’avenir. Le pouvoir veut que les gens racontent des histoires qui correspondent aux siennes. Mais ses histoires sont toujours incomplètes. La pauvreté, la douleur, la dégradation : le pouvoir les raye de lhistoire. Il fait prétende que la souffrance ne vaut rien.


Power wants people to tell stories which match its own. But its stories are always incomplete. Poverty, pain, degradation: these do not reflect well on those who wield power. And so it writes them out of the story, cancels them, ignores them, seeks to replace their truth with lies.

 And, of course, not all pain comes from power. There is the pain of disease, of loss, of loneliness, of disorientation — pain with which we are all too familiar after these last two years. The earthly powers who seek our allegiance all seek to distract us from it, to make us believe that pain can be avoided, if we do the right thing, buy the right product; or that suffering is the necessary path to glory; or that it does not matter.

 On Good Friday, Christ shows that it matters supremely. It matters enough for God’s Son to place himself in the balance. It matters enough that God took on flesh and blood and was willing to be killed in order to heal our broken lives.


Le Vendredi saint, le Christ montre que la souffrance compte énormément. Cela compte suffisamment pour que le Fils de Dieu se mette dans la balance. Il est suffisamment important que Dieu ait pris chair et sang et ait accepté d’être tué afin de guérir nos vies brisées.


The German theologian Johann Baptist Metz writes that, near the end of the Second World War, he and his classmates were pulled out of school and forced into the army as sixteen-year-old boys. One night, he was sent with a message to headquarters. He wandered all night through ruined towns, but when he came back to his company of schoolboys with the reply, he found that they were all dead. That moment shattered for him the identity he had grown up with, led him to ask what would happen if that kind of pain were able to be held by the Church, as it is held — always and eternally — by Christ. He writes that the Church is the guardian of “an unrequited and dangerous memory in this world”[1]; the memory that suffering cannot be ignored or written out or be reduced to a tool. The memory that God has entered into our suffering and taken it upon himself, once and forever. Not to make it all be OK, but to reveal it as supremely obscene. In Christ, God reveals “the liberating power of an unconditional love.” (Metz)


Johannes Baptist Metz écrit que l’Église est la gardienne d’une “mémoire   dangereuse dans ce monde” ; la mémoire que la souffrance ne peut pas être ignorée, éffacée ou réduite à un outil. Le souvenir que Dieu est entré dans notre souffrance et l’a prise sur lui, une fois et pour toujours. Non pas pour rendre notre souffrance acceptable, mais pour la révéler comme suprêmement obscène. Dans le Christ, Dieu révèle “le pouvoir libérateur d’un amour inconditionnel”.

Nos histoires ne le montrent pas toujours clairement. Au Moyen Âge, l’Église prêchait que Dieu, profondément en colère contre le péché humain, avait envoyé son Fils mourir d’une mort cruelle en sacrifice pour nos péchés. De nombreux fidèles croient en cela, mais je pense que c’est une théologie dangereuse. Elle transforme notre créateur aimant en un tyran colérique et laisse intacte l’idée que la souffrance peut être un outil, plutôt qu’une abomination. Après tout, si Dieu peut tuer un homme innocent (le seul homme innocent) pour atteindre ses objectifs, la logique voudrait que nous puissions en faire autant.


The stories we tell do not always show this clearly. There is no one way to speak about our redemption, but in the Middle Ages, the church coalesced around an explanation called “sacrificial atonement.” To many faithful people, it is a compelling way to understand what God was doing, but I find it wrong-headed and profoundly dangerous. It suggests that God set up the universe with certain laws, and that, when we humans broke them, God became angry and condemned us to death. In order to appease the anger of God, a sacrifice was required, but no animal or human being could take on that role because we had all participated in sin. So God sent his Son, his sinless son, to be the pure offering for our sin, asking him to lay down his life in order to make the balance just. God saves us from eternal death through the sacrifice of an innocent man — a real salvation, but at what cost? At the cost of making God into an angry tyrant, of assimilating our loving Creator to the corrupt ways of earthly power.  This theology leaves intact the idea that suffering can be a tool, rather than an abomination. After all, if it is all right, somehow, for God to kill an innocent man (the only innocent man), in order to achieve his aims, then, logic might say, it is all right for an earthly ruler to do so as well. It opens the door for all kinds of scapegoating, to seeing one another as the problem, to destroying one another as the solution. Nor is religion exempt from this temptation: it was Caiaphas, the High Priest, who said that it was expedient that one man die for the people.


Mais dans les premières années de l’église, Dieu n’était pas vu comme un tyran en colère, mais comme un guérisseur. Dieu a vu que ses enfants souffraient, et, comme un parent aimant, il ne pouvait pas le supporter. C’est ainsi que Dieu a revêtu la chair et le sang pour guérir l’humanité, renouvelant notre humanité brisée par un contact intime avec l’humanité parfaite contenue dans sa propre chair. Dans cette explication, c’est l’amour de Dieu, pas son colère, qui l’envoie se tenir avec nous dans notre mort afin que nous puissions nous tenir avec lui dans sa vie. La Croix devient non pas le prix à payer pour apaiser la colère divine, mais le signe de notre propre brisure, et de l’amour infini de Dieu qui ne permettra pas que la souffrance ait le dernier mot. Dans la Croix, Dieu nous montre qu’il y a “un avenir pour les désespérés, les brisés et les opprimés” (Metz).


But in the first years of the church, God was seen not as an angry tyrant or an unpityingly just judge, but as a healer. God looked upon this earth and saw that his children were in pain, and, like a loving parent, God could not bear that his children should suffer. And so God put on flesh and blood to heal humankind, renewing our broken humanity through intimate contact with the perfect humanity held in his own flesh. In his body, Christ builds a way back to heaven, healing our sin, salving our wounds, opening the way of repentance and grace to us all. In this explanation, it is Christ’s incarnation, not his death, which is the primary act of salvation; it is God’s love, not his anger, which sends him to stand with us in our death so that we can stand with him in his life. The Cross becomes not the price which must be paid to appease divine wrath but the sign of our own brokenness, and of how God’s infinite love will not allow it to have the final word. In the Cross, God shows us that there is “a future for the hopeless, the shattered and oppressed.” (Metz) And God compels us to work for that future and no other, to serve the unfolding future God has brought about.

That was a lot of theology, but the stories we tell one another matter. What we can imagine God doing to the innocent, we can imagine doing to one another. What we can imagine God doing for the suffering, we need do for one another. The idea that God came to live and die in order to give a future to exactly those people who are denied one by the powers of this world is a dangerous and powerful idea. It is dangerous because it troubles every earthly system of dominion. It is powerful because it charges us — the church — to confront every form of degradation with the simple truth that God did not want this and will not tolerate it.


L’idée que Dieu est venu vivre et mourir pour donner un avenir à ceux-là mêmes qui en sont privés par les puissances de ce monde est une idée dangereuse et puissante. Elle est dangereuse parce qu’elle dérange tous les systèmes terrestres de domination. Elle est puissante parce qu’elle nous charge – nous, l’Eglise – de confronter toute forme de dégradation avec la simple vérité que Dieu n’a pas voulu cela et ne le tolérera pas.


That includes, of course, the degradation of those who degrade others. It is impossible to harm one another deliberately without doing our souls grave injury. God’s future is a future for all, not only for those who have been broken. But neither does it leave them out.

 In the last two years, we have had many debates about how to heal and whom to prioritize: the sickest, or those with the best chance of recovery? The unvaccinated, or those who need other forms of live-giving care? Amid all this debate, if you went to an emergency room, you saw a simple truth: the doctors and nurses did not ask patients about their income, their country of origin, their sexual orientation, their line of work. They did not look for a reason to exclude patients. They just healed them. They healed everyone.

Even so, Christ heals everyone.  His incarnation heals our broken humanity; his death reveals the obscenity of suffering; his resurrection opens the path to a future for all. And if this is unsettling, it is meant to be: it is meant to unsettle us enough that we will unsettle this world. The dangerous memory of Christ challenges each of us to do our part, to refuse to tolerate what was intolerable to God. In the Cross of Christ, we see the beauty and pity of an unbreakable love, a love which is there for each of us and for all humankind. We may not be able to understand the suffering around us, but God does. We may not be able to heal it all, but God has redeemed it. In the mercy of Christ, we see God’s future — and our own.


Au cours des deux dernières années, nous avons eu de nombreux débats sur la manière de soigner et sur les personnes à qui accorder la priorité. Au milieu de tous ces débats, si vous vous êtes rendu aux urgences, vous avez pu constater une vérité simple : les médecins et les infirmières ne cherchaient pas de raison d’exclure les patients. Ils les ont simplement soignés. Ils guérissaient tout le monde. 

De même, le Christ guérit tout le monde.  Son incarnation guérit notre humanité brisée ; sa mort révèle l’obscénité de la souffrance ; sa résurrection ouvre la voie à un avenir pour tous. Et si cela est déstabilisant, c’est censé l’être : c’est censé nous déstabiliser suffisamment pour que nous déstabilisions ce monde. Le souvenir dangereux du Christ met chacun de nous au défi de faire sa part, de refuser de tolérer ce qui était intolérable pour Dieu. Dans la Croix du Christ, nous voyons la beauté et la pitié d’un amour incassable, un amour qui est là pour chacun de nous et pour toute l’humanité. Nous ne sommes peut-être pas capables de comprendre la souffrance qui nous entoure, mais Dieu le fait. Nous ne sommes peut-être pas en mesure de la guérir, mais Dieu l’a rachetée. Dans la miséricorde du Christ, nous voyons l’avenir de Dieu – et le nôtre.

[1] Faith in History and Society, V.1.b.

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