Dear Rev. Know it all,
I was watching PBS the other night and I saw a frightful program about the dust bowl era. Apparently the mounds of dust towered over houses. Untold numbers of people died and were displaced. I asked the maid why didn’t they just go to their summer homes in the Hamptons for the duration, and the maid told me that there are people who do not have a house in the Hamptons. In fact, Consuelo told me there are people who are actually poor. I was shocked! Consuelo told me that in her native Guatapeyor, there are people who envy those who have a cardboard box to live in. I considered the situation. Where was God in the dust bowl? For that matter, where is God in the midst of war and poverty? Where was God in the Holocaust ? Where was God in the great Influenza Epidemic? Where was God in the Black Death? For that matter where has a good and loving God been through all the sorry catalogue of human history? I am a member of the high church Progressive Episcocalvilutheran Non-denominational parish of St. Jane’s. I find it has a theology that reflects my own beliefs. I went to the church to contemplate the question. I sat in my padded pew alone and in silence and looked for a long time at the lovely stained glass window of the beneficent Good Shepherd smiling down with its lovely pale and rosy glow. I got no answer. Diddly. Bupkus. Nada, as my dear maid Consuelo might say. Can you help me?
Contessa Amanda Du Monet
Your problem here is that you walked into the wrong building. Had you walked into a Catholic Church, at least a traditional one, you would have seen a Crucifix, not a cross, a crucifix and on it would have hung the bruised and bloody image of a Jew who died 2,000 years ago.
I have heard something dreadful about the beautiful calendar with the picture of the Good Shepherd with the fluffy little lamb slung tenderly over his shoulders that so many of us have on our refrigerators held in place with little teapot refrigerator magnets. If we knew the truth about it, we wouldn’t have it on the refrigerator. We wouldn’t have it in the house. And we certainly wouldn’t let the children see it.
It seems that sheep are not the smartest animals. They tend to wander off where wolves can get them. They run away a lot because they see what appears to be better grass over there. The shepherd has a rod and staff that give the sheep comfort (Psalm 23), and cold comfort it is. The staff has a crook at the top which is useful in snaring the sheep around the neck and dragging it back into the proper pasture. The rod is for bopping the sheep on the noggin to stop them in their tracks and knock some sense into them. The shepherd doesn’t do this because he hates them. On the contrary he loves them. A traditional shepherd knows his sheep by name. They are almost like pets.
There are some sheep who are consistent runaways. There comes a time when the shepherd, in order to keep the sheep out harm's way, must do something drastic, so the shepherd breaks the sheep’s leg, and the sheep will not run away again. In fact that sheep stays pretty close to its master for the rest of its life. That’s why you see the shepherd with the cute fuzzy little lamb slung over his shoulder in the calendar picture. The lamb has a broken leg.
Back to your original question. “Where has a good and loving God been through all the sorry catalogue of human history?” I tell you where He’s been. He’s been hanging on that cross! “Au contraire!” I can hear you say. “We are a modern, yet Bible-believing congregation here at St. Jane’s Progressive Episcocalvilutheran church. We are told that Jesus rose from the dead, maybe even physically (We aren’t required to believe that, though we may if we want to. We aren’t required to actually believe anything.) He rose from the dead and ascended into heaven where He sits at the right hand of the Father (or Mother, if you prefer, or any combination of the two). He is no longer on the cross. He died once and for all. He no longer suffers, and neither should we!”
We Catholic cave dwellers who with our ten children per family are still living in the past and inhabiting cardboard boxes in Guatapeyor, and we have an odd belief. We believe that when Jesus said “Behold, I am with you until the end of the earth,” He meant it. You asked where is God in human history, not where is God in eternity. In eternity, He lives to make intercession for us, in time He remains the timeless sacrifice of the cross to which He invites us at every single Mass offered in every true church in the world. Haven’t you noticed that when He rose from the dead He carried the cross with him? He had the mark of the nails in His hands and the mark of lance through His side. His resurrection didn’t leave the cross behind.
The crucifixion wasn’t unique. Untold thousands were crucified by the Romans among others. The cross was the very symbol of destitution in the ancient world. It was reserved for slaves and criminals. The victim of crucifixion was absolutely destitute. He was stripped even of his clothes and hung naked and ashamed suspended between heaven and earth as a sign that heaven and earth had rejected him. There he writhed in pain sometimes for days struggling to breathe until finally he could breathe no longer.
What was so special about one particular crucifixion on a hill outside of Jerusalem 2,000 years ago? Jesus, the Jew who died 2,000 years ago on that cross was God, the Son of God, the second person of that One Relationship which is God, the Holy Trinity. He is the Tikkun Olam, the Broken Vessel restored. He is the visible image of the invisible God. In other words, if you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus of Nazareth, not a general, not a clergyman, not a rich man but a poor carpenter betrayed by His friends abandoned by His own, murdered by an unjust and oppressive regime. That’s who we believe God is. He did not have a House in the Hamptons. The Bible says He had no place to lay His head, not even a cardboard box in Guatapeyor. What we believe is that God looked down on the mess we had made of human history and did not sit sulking on the heavenly throne, but jumped down from His lofty palace and landed squarely on a cross.
Couldn’t He have just waved His omnipotent hand and gotten everyone off their own personal crosses? Couldn’t He, who saved others, have saved Himself and the two thieves crucified with Him? I suppose He could have, if love was only pleasure and truth were more convenient. God came to earth not to be Santa Claus, but to be God, God who is love. Love, not luxury, is the purpose of existence.
The coming festivities of Christmas give ample proof that many of us prefer Santa Claus to Christ. Sorry about that, but I wish the truth were otherwise. He shared our sorrows to teach us how to love. That list of miseries you mentioned, the Black death, the Influenza Epidemic the wars and sadly even the Nazi Holocaust, are soon forgotten. Jesus said that, “A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world.” (John 16:21) If what Jesus said is true, then this brief, and often painful, moment of time in which we are given the chance to love even at the cost of our own lives, will soon be forgotten except for the love that we gave and that we received. The sorrow will fall away and love will be revealed in all its golden splendor. Every mother who ever wept over a child will see love that sorrow hid. Every father who has searched for a son gone astray, every spouse who has mourned, every child who has grieved, will see only the beauty of love. God seems to allow darkness only to let the light shine more brightly. No tear will be wasted. No love unrequited. So, there is your answer. Where was God? He was there all the time, inviting us to love and to be loved, because God is Love.
That’s what we believe here in the Catholic Church, but you’re welcome to go to St. Jane’s Progressive Episcocalvilutheran Non-denominational Church. It’s a free county. At least so far.
The Rev. Know-it-all
PS If you want to invite us Catholics and our noisy children to your house in the Hamptons we’d be glad to visit. And say "Hi" to Consuelo for me. I used to be in a prayer group with her. Boy, can that woman cook! Have you had her enchiladas en mole?