Among the many letters Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote when he was in prison was a poem that was later versified into a hymn. Since I first came across the poem and hymn I have spent some time each Eastertide pondering it.
Three small verses that, even if I meditate on them for the rest of my life I will never fully comprehend, but which draw me deeper and deeper in Christ’s living and dying and rising. This reflection does not deal with the verses in order but rather reflects where my meditation took me over the three days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Day.
Here’s the first verse:
People go to God in God’s need,
find God poor, reviled, with neither shelter nor bread,
see God entangled in sin weakness and death.
Christians stand by God in God’s suffering.
When Jesus dies, suffering and death enter into the life of God. Jesus’ death is a brutal one –state-sanctioned torture. The suffering is lonely – Jesus is abandoned by friends and forsaken by God. He is utterly alone. Jesus enters an abyss where there is no comfort and where God is not present. He descends into hell. God suffers. The suffering of the cross reveals the essence of God’s being. God is willing to suffer, to enter into the depths of human alienation.
One of the implications of Jesus’ suffering and death is that there is nowhere that God cannot be present. Suffering, destruction and death cannot separate God from the world God loves. Sin, evil and death have been confronted and overcome in the cross and so cannot keep God from loving and saving the world.
In the midst of the horrors that confront our world and in the suffering in our lives, God is already present, suffering with us. This has been very important to me as I have sought to make sense of the death of my partner by suicide. If God suffers with us and for us then, no matter how painful my grief, God will not turn from me. No matter how I might feel alone and abandoned God does not turn from me. No matter how deep my partner’s suffering, no matter how unfathomable to me his death, God will not turn from him.
People go to God in their need,
for help, happiness and bread they plead
for deliverance from sickness, guilt and death.
Thus do they all Christians and unbelievers.
Acknowledging God’s suffering love does not mean that we simply accept suffering in our own lives or in the world. In Christian thought, some suggest that because Jesus suffers on the cross Christians should accept suffering, distress and death in a tranquil fashion with devotional resignation.
Rather, post-resurrection, Christ’s suffering and God’s vindication of this path gives hope that we can follow the way of the cross as Christian disciples serving in places of suffering, transforming them and witnessing to God’s loving liberating presence.
We do not just accept injustice. Jesus’ suffering is transforming injustice by challenging all its causes for the sake of the oppressed and downtrodden.
God comes to all human beings in need, sates them body and soul with His bread, dies the death of the cross for Christians and pagans, and forgives them both.
Reflecting on the suffering of Jesus on the cross and Jesus’ ongoing suffering in the world and for the world does not diminish the joy of the resurrection. The resurrection is a creative act of the Spirit of God that overcomes sin and death. The raising up of Christ renews the world with forgiveness and newness of life. The resurrection call us from our hopelessness, sin, suffering, doubt and despair to be bearers of the hope of the resurrection in the world.
As well as Bonhoeffer’s poem in Meditations of the Cross, I also drew on The wounded heart of God: The Asian concept of Han and the Christian Doctrine of Sin by Andrew Sung Park and God the Revealed: Christology by Michael Welker for this reflection.