09 Apr The Negation of Negation and Denial of Denial
Today and tomorrow, Christians remember Jesus’ final meal with his disciples, his betrayal, arrest, trial, torture and crucifixion. Like anything human, abuses and distortions of this story and its relevance for us abound. I do not wish to focus on addressing abuses and distortions. I am interested in what meaning these events might continue to have for us, what “good news” continues to be found here.
One gift of Jesus’ passion story is its invitation to us to look at the reality of suffering, injustice, death. Why might looking at these challenging realities be good news for us? Very simply, trying to avoid reality never turns out to be an effective long-term strategy. In the short term, it may seem to be wise, but eventually, reality has a way of catching up with us.
Our current tastes are weighted heavily in favor of what we consider to be positive. We equate rosy and up-beat with the good, and see an interest in the darker aspects of human reality as a sign of moral defection. If there is any value in thinking about the negative, it is for the purpose of figuring out how to overcome it. It’s value is in providing the impetus for an occasion for human heroism and virtue. See how quickly we move internally to a positive re-framing of any negative.
In Christian circles, it is common to witness big crowds on Palm Sunday and Easter. These fit our preference for celebration and affirmation. Less people show up on Maundy or Holy Thursday and Good Friday. It’s harder for us to fit the details of these two days into our frame of the positive. In previous eras of history where sin was seen as a serious reality to be dealt with, Christ’s passion attracted more attention and devotion because it provided a narrative for overcoming sin–Jesus’ death for our sake. In our era, where sin carries little psychic weight, we simply don’t feel the need to focus on the cross as a way of healing our fault. All of this focus on Jesus’s suffering and death simply doesn’t have much meaning for many of us.
This year, Holy Week falls in a time when many people are feeling anxious and troubled. The flow of our lives has been interrupted and there is talk that for the next eighteen months or so, things will not return to normal. The longer that this interruption goes on, the more unsettled people will become. We simply are not used to suffering. This is not true, of course, for many, but it has been for vast numbers of Americans. In the months ahead, many of us may be forced into circumstances that will change our deepest assumptions about ourselves and the world.
The reason that Jesus’ passion may be good news for us is that it proclaims that suffering, injustice and death are not necessarily signs of God’s disfavor or absence; rather, that the heart of God has been revealed in these and may be revealed in our own experience of these. The passion story of Jesus draws us to look at human suffering with eyes of wonder and to see in humanity something more than merely human. Is God revealed in these things that we would rather not look at or think about? Is something unnameably precious found in us as we are stripped of all the external supports to our identity? When we have the courage to look at religious art which depicts these final events of Jesus’ life or to listen to the story in words or in music, there is the sense that we are being led to a deeper experience of the mystery of God’s love.
In my experience, there is a shock of recognition, at the time of suffering or death, that much of what has occupied our energies and attention is not worth very much. Self-image, the pursuit of success in the eyes of the culture, things, really are empty illusions. What matters is really very simple–life, relationships, love, the earth, faith, a meaningful contribution to the whole of life.
Jesus’ suffering and death reveal to us how common it is for human beings to miss the point of why we are here, how blind we are to things that matter. What the passion story tells us is that, when God shows up among us, we fail to see and even actively resist. We put God’s incarnation to death.
Is this what we are beginning to learn in this time of economic shut-down and social isolation? Have we been pursuing the wrong things and missing the gifts that were always here before us? Are we learning how to restructure our lives in ways that put us back in touch with what is real and significant? Are we being humbled and reminded of limits?
The great medieval mystic, Meister Eckhart, spoke of God as the negation of negation and the denial of denial. God is revealed to us in the cross which exposes the falseness and futility of our usual routes to happiness. God’s revelation shocks us, because it claims that our commitment to the positive and avoidance of the negative is, in reality, a negation of true life. God’s expression of vulnerable, suffering love serves to reveal to us the true path to life, and, if we take the path, will negate the negation of our illusory path. The revelation of God’s love in the cross shows that our path of self-love and self-serving positivity is in fact a denial of life. The costly love of God is a denial of our denial and commitment to fantasy.
Of course, it is not easy to look at the cross and the final events of Jesus’ life. They point us to truths about ourselves that we would rather not see and to changes that we would rather not contemplate. But there is good news here. It’s good news because it tells us the truth about ourselves, and, with the shock of recognition, there is the possibility that we might see and begin to take the path which will lead us to life.