Essays, Featured, Theology

Holy Saturday: Christianity Is Not a Solution to the Problem of Suffering

Difficulties: First, images that make sense poetically have to be coordinated within a narrative flow; this is something I attempt to do for my poem when I comment on it below. Second, what exactly constitutes healing in the Christian sense is made impossibly complex in light of a Crucified Savior who keeps His wounds after the Resurrection.

Holy Saturday

Oh beat slow, heart of creation –
First light! First love! Revelation!
First flesh found in Incarnation,
Beat the blood to our salvation!

Find so within the vein of God
tireless tracks to faith untrod
‘til riven, wrecked, rent kavod
of unstrung sinews, strums overawed.

Clotted, untinctured, tear-sealed tomb,
thrice holy still unholy wound.
Once empty chamber – sin consume!
Once-pierced heart – rise, beat, assume!

Leave not me here, alone and free,
a bloodless heart that beats for thee!
Heart held in blood eternally –
find Heart yet held in Trinity!

These lyrics are about the longing for salvation. They are voiced by someone who has faith that the man from Galilee is not lost after his emptying death. It begins with an imperative—“Oh beat slow, heart of creation”—and ends with a plea—“Leave not me here, alone and free.” It begins with the imperative because it sees through the veil of fleshly desires to the beating heart of creation that lies beneath it. This tearing and wounding is the healing because it frees the person from the passing of material things to hope in God’s love. The imperative is not a command to God but a rallying of meaning and truth after chaos and darkness. It ends with a plea because the soul, now healed of the self, realizes that she possesses nothing of her own and delights in the role of joyful beggar before the divine king. The poem walks the path of the healing of the self to holy wounding.

I.

Oh beat slow, heart of creation –
First light! First love! Revelation!
First flesh found in Incarnation,
Beat the blood to our salvation!

The central image of the poem is Jesus Christ bringing his sacrificed heart into the triune heart of God. This triune heart creates and sustains the world, but the world has wounded itself in sin and brokenness. The heart of Christ must bring this sin back into contact with the heart of God. The heart of God beats slow because it is the eternal in time. It beats the blood of salvation into the recalcitrant time of sin in order to give it the life that it longs for, but does not possess.

In the Old Testament, blood is the sign and symbol of life (Lev 19:11, Deut 6:23). For Israel, the shedding of animal blood was necessary for the wounds of Israel to be healed. The cultic practices of sacrifice recognized that sin deformed the relationship with God and material creation and that the blood given in atonement for that deformation re-channeled life to fix that brokenness. However, the Old Testament itself witnesses to a type of ambiguity in the meaning of these practices. Not that they were insignificant. When the Temple stood in Jerusalem, it was the center of Jewish worship as the place where God dwelt within His holy house. However, there was a distinction between the cultic practices and the personal interior transformation that accompanied those practices. The prophet Joel warns to “rend your hearts, not your garments” (2:13), the Psalmist laments that “My sacrifice, O God, is a contrite spirit; a contrite, humbled heart, O God, you will not scorn” (51:19), and the prophet Hosea admonishes, “For it is loyalty that I desire, not sacrifice, and knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” (6:6). There was an insuperable division between the union of that sacrificial practice and the total transformation of heart that accompanied it. Sacrificial blood somehow navigated between that divide, even though it could not repair the breach.

The language of blood may seem mythical and barbaric, but the symbolism has enduring relevance. We sacrifice our “blood,” the stuff of human life, on all types of activity more and less worthy of admiration and value. We labor at work and on our homes, raise families, build friendships, worship, maintain communities, and educate each other. We pour human life on all those worthy things that make sense of the Patristic claim that God is the great “lover of humanity,” a simple and profoundly prayerful description. But we also spend our blood on violence, on anger and impatience, on the refusal to look at our sins and inherited pain. It is telling that the effect of the Original Sin on Cain and Abel was first a deformation of their sacrifices. Cain and Abel inherited the brokenness of what we spend human life on and, from the beginning, it broke the sacrificial order of creation.

In the Gospel of John when Jesus calls Satan “a murderer from the beginning” (8:44), he seems to be referring to the competition of blood between God and his adversaries. Each expenditure of human life, for better or worse, asks to whom we have spent our blood—for God? for self? And if the latter, that sacrifice becomes a wasting of productive and transformative capacities. It destroys. Sin takes human life, not only literally in violence and war, but in the diminishment of human flourishing. So many lost lives and lost fruitions of men and women due to addictions, abuse, neglect, war, lack of education, miseducation, indifference. We bleed human life from the wounds of sin and need divine blood to replenish and heal; to receive the new flesh for things that do not fade away in value.

That is also why it takes such patience for Christian healing and transformation to occur—there is so much lost ground to recover. We work out our salvation from the wounds of sin in long fear and slow trembling because gratitude comes in proportion to the depth of pain and the length of healing. If salvation was given in its fullness in an instant to a hardened sinner, they would only awaken to find themselves at the beginning of the path of eternal gratitude. At its core, perhaps healing is nothing but redeemed time. It is so cheap that a single apology can buy it and it is so valuable that one instant can make a whole life worth living.

This heart of creation beats slow because it is a foundation that heals itself into something new, that needs the wounding that it does not possess in order to be remade into the new Jerusalem of both Creator and creation. The slowness is to collect all the wounded. That is why we are wounded and bleed and sacrifice, in order to be healed. The Son, the Word who existed in the beginning with God, is the pattern of creation. And when this Word became incarnate, He found the first flesh of the Kingdom of God. The pattern of the world was made for this flesh but it had been deformed by idolatry, lies, and murder. So the Word brings the pattern back to Himself by being born of absolute purity, and this flesh both celebrates that pattern and tessellates it into something new. This flesh takes the goodness of the pattern and the sin that is the pattern’s own deformed invention and offers both back to the Father in the Spirit. The cult of Eucharistic thanksgiving and penitential confessions beats from those two chambers in the one sacrificed heart of that flesh.

This bleeding of the Christ is the healing. Through His blood that is shed, all of the loss of sin is bound into the sacrifice and yet it also is transformed into the fountain of new life. The blood that was poured out for our sins on the Cross is the blood of salvation that turns our wounded, dead flesh back into life. And at first taste, this blood is sweet as honey but turns bitter in the stomach. Its promise is the sweetness of all that we have ever hoped for – power, glory, satiety, eternal life. But it turns bitter when we try to digest that into sustenance for the lives of sin that we are enmeshed in. We cannot turn this blood into our idea of power, into the glory that everyone else must recognize, the satiety that needs no relation or vulnerability. This blood is a bitter medicine, but the only available to beat towards a new life.

II.

Find so within the vein of God
tireless tracks to faith untrod
‘til riven, wrecked, rent kavod
of unstrung sinews, strums overawed.

The Spirit runs before and prepares the way for the sacrificing heart of Christ. The heart of the Christ in God is given its human heart from a poor young Palestinian Virgin through the Spirit. She has nothing else to give. But with this poor Virgin’s heart Christ has the instrument to replace human hearts of stone. The gift of heart by the poor Virgin is so valuable to an unknowable God that he rushes down to reveal himself by it. Not only are new tracks of faith now shot through hearts of every nation, race, and peoples, but the single heart of Christ beats new veins of blood into the triune heart of God—unmixed, unconfused, undefiled. In the brokenness of creation, this heart is the first track toward a new faith in an ancient God. And this “let it be done” matures into her Son’s “let it be done according to your will.” This is the glory of God, His kavod, because for once a small part of His creation has freely and purely given something back.

The gentleness of this gift of fiat, then the silence of the thirty years of its maturation, and the self-effacement of the Word’s ministry are fruitions and transformations of the mystery of the kavod become human flesh. And yet despite the time beyond knowing that led to its making, the careful weaving of the plan of salvation is then unstrung sinew by sinew on the Cross. The power of creation from nothing, “the love that moves the sun and stars”, lets creation’s accusation against its Creator tear the Son apart. Humanity cried out an accusation from loneliness, pain, anger, and despair, and so He heard it by becoming it. This kavod, this glory, in its very unmaking by sin begins to remake the violence that rent it. It does not speak an answer but plays a note to a new song of healing on the broken flesh of the Son.

This is the reality of Christian healing: the Crucified One. His song cannot be heard apart from the listening of faith and it cannot be attuned to without the transformation of each human instrument. When the note is first heard, it sounds dissonant with the rhythm of life. When we try to fix the disharmony by changing to the call of Christ’s song from the Cross, the faculties of the person rebel against the new ordering. The will sees how quickly and wildly it goes out of tune, the memory stumbles with unpracticed movements, and the understanding cannot discern the rhythm of the melody. We begin to hate this small note that seems to demand so much reordering, that demands the harmony of the whole of being.

But that is what healing is. In its strictest sense, the healing of the self leads to a wounding by God. It recognizes that all human attempts at alleviation cannot solve the deeper wound of God. That sacrifice of the good of material creation through the Son is what reveals the Spirit’s gift of hope. The gift of hope, which is the gift of healing, is not the solution to a suffering but the willingness to remain vulnerable and open to the pain and sufferings of others. This gift of hope transforms us into the wounds of Christ. By accepting our own wounds, we are transformed into the wounds of the Crucified which absorb the sin of the world. And suffering runs across these unstrung sinews to strum creation’s awe in power made perfect in weakness. Hope is not a passive deferral to some undetermined future but an active embracing of relation, suffering, and labor in order to serve and love others.

III.

Clotted, untinctured, tear-sealed tomb,
thrice holy still unholy wound.
Once empty chamber – sin consume!
Once-pierced heart – rise, beat, assume!

Saint John of the Cross writes that, of the soul seeking perfect union with God, “it still lives in hope, in which one cannot fail to feel emptiness.” When the healing process has begun, when our lives begin to move more harmoniously in prayer and service, the wounds of the sinful flesh are clotted. The appeal of sin, its savory and decadent quality, starts to turn to ash in the mouth, to feel like the nauseating thing that it is. Our sinful flesh enters into a tomb and begins to heal by clotting the pleasure of sin, by turning to the diet of the untinctured and undiluted Body of Christ, in all its deceptive simplicity and lack of leaven. The flesh of sin is sealed into the tomb by tears of repentance and we become blessed by mourning. The hope of a new life feels the emptiness of the diet and learns to live on this wanting more.

The wounding of our sin is healed and made holy by the gift of the Trinity, by entering into that life of self-giving love, but we give the gift of our woundedness back to God by accepting that total healing does not happen in this life. We remain wounded and open to woundedness so that other people can begin to find their healing in and through us. This does not need to be in dramatic gestures and extravagant displays of catharsis, but by simple gestures of not giving into the rattling anxiety, fear, and pettiness of the day to day. The turning aside from gossip, the biting of the tongue, the considerate word, the generous act, and, most difficult of all, the moment of patience—all these begin to consume sin and digest it into something new.

The once empty chamber is both the burial chamber of the dead body of Christ and the chamber of his heart. This dry chamber held the dead body of the Lord, offered in atonement, but this singular presence, this once emptiness, marked that chamber as the mouth of salvation, consuming the sins of the world. Once the sin of the world killed the Son of God, once that Savior’s body lay in that chamber, once all sin went against its very nature to work in concert to hold that body bound to death, and once and for all that body consumed it. It ate the rotting flesh of the sin of the world and transformed it into the beating flesh of a heart that overcomes. That once-empty chamber is now the chamber of his heart that beats our human blood into new tracks of faith. Now that chamber once was empty, now that heart once beat back death, now that sin once was consumed for all.

Rarely do we meet sin in the unmasked deformity of its face. It is far more effective for it to work as water on the stone of our resistance; an anti-baptism that does not cleanse once but slowly initiates us into ignorant omission and compromise. But after those thirty years of silent resistance to temptation and slow maturing into his ministry, sin marshaled its resources for a final assault. That single charge heralded its coming by naming him for what he is (“What have you to do with us, O Holy One of God?”) and reached its triumphant crescendo in the lance once thrust into the dead heart of God. The injustice of that attack, the desecration of the union of the heart of creation with the heart of the poor Virgin, ushered in God’s justice and mercy.

The human heart dead to sin and alive in love now rallies with the heart of Christ as it remains suspended between heaven and earth, between every present and the final future fulfillment. That heart of Christ is still rising, still beating, still assuming with each act of faith, hope, and love. Sin was given its perfect moment of attack and struck true, drove home the mortal wound, only to find itself exhausted and defeated in the overturned victory. Healing is best described in the words of the beloved disciple John: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear because fear has to do with punishment, and so one who fears is not yet perfect in love” (1 John 4:18). When there is perfect healing in love then all sickness and woundedness will no longer feel like the punishment of deprivation, like punishing, because it participates in the overturning victory of the once pierced heart. There is nothing left to fear. In the healing where everything is finally seen as gift, then nothing can be taken but only given back in love.

IV.

Leave not me here, alone and free,
a bloodless heart that beats for thee!
Heart held in blood eternally –
find Heart yet held in Trinity!

When the soul has walked the way through the purgation of healing, of a healing that remains wounded, it feels as if it walks alone into the heart of Christ. It is not alone, it is accompanied by the heart of creation in Christ, but it possesses no faculties to find its way into this union. Its only measure is the teaching and tradition of the Church and the saints God has given her to light the way.

There is a fear in the loneliness of this freedom for it now knows what it could mean to lose God. It was given the grace of a backward glance to see how much sin, pain, and suffering it left behind. The soul has been freed from sin to make its own lonely choice. It summons all the resources of this power of freedom in hopes of becoming the slave of Christ. It proves its freedom by turning back and entering into that woundedness so as to never be separated from the Crucified.

The soul is now alone in its vulnerability to the world and to the hurt of others. The slavery of Christ demands the readiness of absolute service and love to God and other. Even the softest groans echo and reverberate in the Heart of love. The blood of human flesh that provided the illusion of stability and meaning has been drained; the soul too has become part of the sacrifice of Christ. The heart beats more strongly than ever for love of the Crucified, but each pulse lives on that blood given for our healing.

The heart of the Crucified One was drained of blood on the Cross, both by the Passion that preceded it and the lance that pierced it to empty what remained. And the sight of this pitiful, empty, pure heart of the Son before the Father urges every causality of divine justice. This heart has been emptied, robbed of its blood by sin, and so the Father gives the life of the Trinity itself to raise this heart. This pierced heart is held by the Son as the life of the Trinity flows through it into the sacraments. The Son holds this heart in the pull of the Trinitarian love for the sake of the love of creation; waiting for the last of the sheep to return and the new creation to begin.

The soul must ask, continue to ask, not to be left behind from the play of Trinitarian love because the world in which it lives is its wound, because the world is not God. All the goodness of the created world is groaning in labor pains even until now, awaiting adoption and the redemption of the body. It is not the redemption from the body, a redemption from this history written in the blood of sin, it is a redemption for this history transformed and renewed. We hope for what we do not see, and we wait in endurance. And healing does not involve an answer to suffering in this life, for we see too narrowly to be able to understand the scope of the redemption. We were not there when God laid the foundations of the earth. So we ask to be free to not try to answer this question for ourselves. We ask to have the strength to hold ourselves open to the answer.

We believe in the Heart that was crucified as the answer, and in return are given the freedom from bearing the question ourselves. And that joy is the freedom of God’s overcoming of sin, not our own striving through works righteousness or the assurance of salvation. Healing is the chance to be free from our own expectation of achievement and salvation, from the sense of abject failure that creeps into the corners of life during moments of too still silence. It is the freedom to give Christ our hearts of stone and to receive living hearts; to be given a peace not as the world gives peace, a peace beyond all understanding.

Oh beat slow, heart of creation –
First light! First love! Revelation!
First flesh found in Incarnation,
Beat the blood to our salvation!

Find so within the vein of God
tireless tracks to faith untrod
‘til riven, wrecked, rent kavod
of unstrung sinews, strums overawed.

Clotted, untinctured, tear-sealed tomb,
thrice holy still unholy wound.
Once empty chamber – sin consume!
Once-pierced heart – rise, beat, assume!

Leave not me here, alone and free,
a bloodless heart that beats for thee!
Heart held in blood eternally –
find Heart yet held in Trinity!

SEE ALSO:

Good Friday: Creation Always Exists in Darkness

Editorial Note: During the month of March, Church Life will be considering the many ways in which the sacrifice of the cross shapes all aspects of the theological imagination (click here for the other pieces in this series).

Featured Image:Beginning of the epitaphios procession at Great Saturday Mattins, 9 April 1988, Author: RassaphoreGeorge; Source: Wikimedia, CC0 1.0.

Michael Altenburger

Michael Altenburger is a Ph.D. candidate in Systematic Theology at the University of Notre Dame.