“When God brings to life, he does so by killing;
when he justifies, he does so by accusing us;
when he brings us into heaven, he does so by leading us to hell.”
— Blessed Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will
The following is a personal reflection on Good Friday that I wrote five years ago. I’ve edited it a bit, but it’s still largely the thing I composed in 2011. By the time of my graduation from college, I was a bit of an existentialist (man…if that isn’t an embarrassing sentence, I don’t know what is); I was also a Lutheran, as I am now….so do the Algebra and solve for ‘x’ and you can sort of guess what sorts of Lutheran theologians I was into. (Here’s a hint: they’re the kind that constantly talk about how they’re “of the cross”, and, rather puzzlingly, demonstrate this by not being “of the Book of Concord.” Very raw and authentic.)
In any case, I didn’t edit out all of the existentialist rhetoric in my original piece because (A) I don’t wish to stand in judgment over “past selves” and scrub all evidence of the fact that my thinking was at one point different than it is now, and (B) even though I am not an existentialist, I certainly believe that the subjective experience of the objective verities of the Christian faith is existential, not merely rational, or emotional, or “spiritual”, or physical (cf. “Some thoughts on existentialism and reason in theology + Meditation XXXVIII by Gerhard”). To be human is to be not quite all that, and not quite not all that. Thus by employing the adjective “existential” I am referring to the mysterious texture of experience as it is undergone, the inscrutable wave of existence as it hits you. However, what I am reflecting upon here is not the “experience of life”, merely, but upon the experience of the life of faith and the “struggle of believing”, which I would say is the subjective half of the “mystery of faith.” In the face of the mysterium tremendum sense and language are blunt tools. Eliot said it (ironically) well: “Words strain, / Crack and sometimes break, under the burden, / Under the tension, slip, slide, perish, / Will not stay still” (The Four Quartets, “Burnt Norton”, V). (Not fair, Thomas. Your words never seem to strain, crack, ands sometimes break. Only mine do. Hmph!)
So you don’t rely on sense and language, or on any wielding of tools, any works, in such “existential moments.” At the same time, though, you literally can’t do nothing. Sense and language can’t be stilled. They’re not going away. To get a little Heideggerian, they’re always “sensing”, always “languaging”. They will latch onto something. So what do you do, since you can’t do nothing? You meditate on Our Lord’s Passion. You read and ponder the Scriptures, which are “pure Christ.” You chew the bitter herbs of the Psalms until you taste the Bread of Life. You “repair to holy preaching”; you “draw nigh and take the Body of the Lord”; for “it is the will neither of the Father nor of the Son that a man should not hear or should despise the preaching of His Word, and wait for the drawing of the Father without the Word and Sacraments” (FC SD XI.77, 76). There is nothing else for it.
Still, and all, it seems to me that we Lutherans, in our overweening disgust at the unbridled emotionalism and pseudo-mysticism of the “evangelical” sects, tend to overreact to the point where we forget or even deny that we not only can, but must, account for “experience” in the life of faith. It is as though any “acknowledgment of” experience is regarded as a “reliance upon” experience. This should not be. There is a right way and wrong way to talk about experience, and one of the wrong ways is not talking about it all, or suggesting that any and all reference to experience is of a piece with “enthusiasm” or “pietism.” To be clear, many references to experience do betray a propensity towards enthusiasm, pietism, and ego theology in general (q.v. the “I’m so simul” personal testimonies of the neo-antinomians). But not all do…
Shoot, I sure hope mine doesn’t…
Recollection of experience ought to strive to relate the subjective to the objective, the particular to the universal, and to do so as strongly as possible. I hope that I have succeeded in doing so in my attempt to speak rightly about the experience of the mystery of faith. What follows is a bit personal, but hopefully not a species of personalism. Calling it “a reflection upon an existential crisis” would not be entirely wrong.
“We call this Friday Good,” by T. David Demarest
Composed April 2011; revised April 2015, March 2016.
At least in my experience, which is limited, brief (if only because I am young), and no sure guide, all that one knows while in the dark night of the soul is that it feels like death. To put it bluntly, one who is suffering from the worst kind of acute depression (call it what you will), which is leavened in no small way with spiritual agony— such a one feels as though his days are numbered. He assesses the way he feels and concludes quite reasonably that there is no way that such a wretched, pervasive feeling could be endured indefinitely: it will either kill him, or drive him to suicide. This seems to him to be almost a matter of physics; indeed, for depression has a certain kind of gravity all its own.
Such a one feels as though he has been hurled into the depths of the sea with a millstone tied around his neck as punishment for his many sins, especially those by which his guilt has been multiplied, those sins of which Donne wrote that he had “won others to sin, and made my sin their door” (John Donne, A Hymn to God the Father, ll.7-8). Who could survive such a drowning? No one! Indeed, no one survives drowning: it isn’t properly a drowning until one has drowned.
“Some mere chastening, this!” one is tempted to cry out in despair and indignation. “I am dying! Why have you forsaken me, God? I thought you loved me.”
This thought, too, the devil will seize upon, for all of a sudden the possibility that God does not love you begins to make sense; it starts to evolve from a possibility to a likelihood, and then— ponderously, horrifyingly, inexorably— this likelihood begins to ossify into a fact. Indeed, this is an entirely sensible, utterly logical thought, because, after all, you are not worthy of His love! You might as well hasten the process, then.
The question then arises, is this Baptism, or is it drowning? Am I going to surface, or am I going to sink and go down to Sheol?
The answer, is, I think, “yes,” on all counts: it is Baptism, it is drowning, you are going to surface, but you are going to sink first. You are going to go down to Sheol, which is also called Hell. But you are not going to stay, for all the while you have been in the strong grip of the God-Man: you have been taking passage in the very wounds of Christ. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. But He rose; so also will you rise. It is metalepsis: you did rise with Him, you are rising, you will rise— all of these statements are equally true.
Because when God brings to life, He does so by killing; when He justifies, He does so by accusing us; when He brings us into heaven, He does so by leading us to hell. Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death?
And lest we forget, we are in His death right now. Not because it’s Good Friday, no, though this day is the fittingest occasion on which to consider this truth. Your participation in His death ends with your death. And you are dying, right now. Each moment brings you closer to the day of your own death. Whether that will come in ten minutes or ten years, you cannot know. But the Scriptures say that it is given to man once to die. This you do know.
But you also know that now, in the infinitely divisible moment of right now, before Our Father you stand holy and righteous on account of the finished work of Jesus Christ, your life hidden with Him in the Triune God. You know this, even though such knowledge is too wonderful for you, as the Psalmist says. It is “high”— that is, heavenly. But you are not heavenly. You are earthly, a creature of flesh and blood, springing from the loins of the Man of Earth, your father Adam. You naturally find the proposition that you are regarded as just and righteous by God right now as so absurd that it cannot be believed. Your mortal mind cannot assent to it, let alone rest trustingly in the reality of which it tells. You cannot by your own reason or strength believe.
And yet, somehow, you do believe. You have the mind of Christ. You have His mind because His Spirit, the Holy Spirit, has called you by the Gospel and enlightened you with His gifts. The Spirit, Whom Christ handed over in death, sealed upon the Church with fire on the day of Pentecost, is in you through Baptism. And He strengthens His grip on you— body, soul, and spirit— through the flesh of Christ in the Holy Supper. By His power you do believe this. And by believing— indeed, inside belief, you realize that it is not a this but a Him that you believe. By believing Jesus Christ you have life in His Name.
His Name. He spoke this Name in the Garden of Gethsemane when the soldiers came to arrest Him— יהוה; “Yahweh!” He said, taking upon His lips the most holy Tetragrammaton: “I AM!”— and “they drew back and fell to the ground” (John 18:6). So, too, will the demons draw back and fall to the ground, unable to harm you, when you call upon the Name of the Lord, the Name into which you were baptized, Father, Son, and + Holy Spirit. For this is the Triune Name of God— God, Who made heaven and earth; God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Mark this well: you were baptized into Jesus’s death so that through faith in Him, your Propitiator, your Elder Brother, your Lord, you might rise from your own death and share in the incorruptible life of God.
You do not believe Him like a man believes that the planet Mars exists or that Marco Polo travelled to China. You believe Him as a child believes that his father loves him, as a wife knows that her husband loves her: He demonstrates His love, and so you believe. “God loved the world in this way: He sent His only-begotten Son, so that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but have life unto the ages of ages.” (John 3:16) There is no other way that you could believe, and God knows this. So while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
In ourselves we are not like God, He who loves unlovable incurvatus in se creatures with a love beyond all telling. The object of our love is Love Himself, and even then this only because He first loved us. He first loved us, but not in a “once-and-done” manner— not at all: like the love of a father, or the love of a husband, the love of God is not attested to us only once, but on an ongoing basis, for we would doubt, forget, and disbelieve were it not so. Yes, it is true that Christ made Himself the Atoning Sacrifice for sins only once, and was raised from the dead only once. But the fruit of the Tree of the cross is ever-bearing; the life of the Vine of the cross is ever-flowing to its branches; the Word is ever-spoken from the mouth of the Father and the Spirit ever-spirated. And we know this, because the true Body and Blood of the God-Man are ever-given to fearful, forgetful beggars, every time the Divine Service of the Church is celebrated.
The Prussian historian Leopold von Ranke memorably said that “each moment is at an equal distance from eternity.” This is most poetically true. The moment in which your heart rends at the memory of your own evil thoughts, words, and deeds. The hour of death, the day of judgment— all such times are equidistant from eternity. They are all, in fact, unbridgeably distant from eternity, from heaven, from God. And yet they have been bridged, by the full stature of the God-Man, pierced feet to thorn-crowned head, upon the cross extended, uniting earth and heaven. Christ died for every unclean aeon and every miserable moment, for all the times when men would be sinners, and for all the sinners in all the times that would ever be until History is rolled up like a scroll, even if that were to happen ten thousand, or even ten million, years from now.
So believe Him when He says, “I have called you by name; you are Mine.”
Believe Him when He says, “Your sins are forgiven.”
Believe Him when He says, “This is My body, this is My blood; take and eat; take and drink.”
Believe Him when He says, “Today you will be with Me in Paradise.”
Believe Him when He says, “It is finished.”
Believe Him when He says, “Surely I am coming soon.”
That is why this Friday is good.
East Coker, IV, from “The Four Quartets,” by T. S. Eliot
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.
Our only health is the disease
If we obey the dying nurse
Whose constant care is not to please
But to remind us of our, and Adam’s curse,
And that, to be restored, our sickness must grow worse.
The whole earth is our hospital
Endowed by the ruined millionaire,
Wherein, if we do well, we shall
Die of the absolute paternal care
That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere.
The chill ascends from feet to knees,
The fever sings in mental wires.
If to be warmed, then I must freeze
And quake in frigid purgatorial fires
Of which the flame is roses, and the smoke is briars.
The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood-
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.