The Jewish artist, Barnett Newman, has a series of abstract paintings entitled The Stations of the Cross: Lema Sabacthani. The powerful paintings are large with black and white lines painted on raw canvas. They evoke a hint of Jewish prayer shawls in their overall effect.
In an article about the paintings, Valerie Hellstein writes,
For Newman, The Stations were not merely about Jesus’ agony but attested to the human condition. In his catalog statement, Newman wrote, “Lema Sabachtani—why? Why did you forsake me? Why forsake me? To what purpose? Why? This is the Passion. This outcry of Jesus. Not the terrible walk up the Via Dolorosa, but the question that has no answer.” In this moment, it is not just Jesus’ agony one faces with the Stations of the Cross, but as Newman explained, “each man’s agony: the agony that is single, constant, unrelenting, willed—world without end.”
This year during Lent, I decided to meditate on the Stations of the Cross. For the first few weeks, I did a lot of reading and meditating and writing, not really sure where I was going with this. Then it came to me that I was wrestling with a question asked by Pádraig Ó Tuama. Ó Tuama is a poet, theologian, and mediator working in Northern Ireland. I heard him speak last month on a live feed from the Trinity Institute in New York. He talked about working for reconciliation between Catholics and Protestants and included his own experience of challenging assumptions about who is included or excluded in God’s embrace. His use of story-telling in the work of reconciliation comes out of his own deep question – “Is there a story that can hold me?”
That is what I am asking in this study of the Passion of Jesus as expressed through the Stations. Can this story hold us? And how? There are certainly other questions we could ask of the story. Is it true? What does it all mean? Why did Jesus have to die? What is the best theological understanding of the atonement? But using Ó Tuama’s question we ask how we let our lives be enfolded in the passion narrative. How does the story create a context within which we can live our lives in this broken world? How can we live inside of the story even on days when faith is hard won or not won at all?
One of the impulses to move towards this way of looking at the Stations came from researching more about the Stabat Mater Dolorosa and coming across the ways that this hymn has been used by various composers to address tragedies of all sorts. There is not an attempt to make a direct correlation between the words of the hymn about the grief of Mary and the loss of one’s own children or the suffering of victims of war and natural disasters. Rather, through the hymn, a voice is given to those who are grieving. If we can stay inside of the story, the story gives us a voice when we might not have a voice otherwise.
This story does not answer our darkest hours with platitudes or with philosophical answers to the questions of theodicy-how a good and omnipotent God can allow suffering. It holds our questions in the presence of a suffering servant. I am not sure how or why it helps but it at least allows for the possibility that there is a cry for justice in the world that can be heard and that can be consoled. It does not take the burden off of human beings to address the terrible pains in the world and it does not fully answer the accusations of randomness and chaos but it allows us respite from those questions – a place to land, a deep resonance within the universe that says that when we cry out, out cries are heard and our pain is carried.
I don’t know how God answers the righteous anger of someone like Stephen Fry who addresses a God that he does not believe exists: “How dare you allow this kind of suffering and then ask to be praised?” Mr. Fry is right to ask such a question. The only thing that I can answer is that the God against whom Mr. Fry rails strikes me as two dimensional and does not resemble the deeper mystery of a suffering God. I once again ask of the passion story, can it hold us, can it make a way for us? Can the heavens grieve when we grieve? Can the cosmos moan as we moan? Can the universe cry out in protest at injustice? Is there an answer that can hold us even if we cannot comprehend the details of the answer? I don’t think that I can live in world in which there is not at least the possibility of an answer to Barnett Newman’s statement of God-forsakenness, so I choose to pour myself further into the mystery rather than moving outside of the story.
Paradoxically, if there is an answer to God-forsakenness, it has to be found in God’s willingness to join us there without argument or easy answers. In Death on a Friday Afternoon, Richard Neuhaus urges us to linger at Good Friday and enter into this darkness. He makes the claim that ultimately this story of death and resurrection holds everyone and everything.
Everything that is and ever was and ever will be, the macro and the micro, the galaxies beyond number and the microbes beyond notice – everything is mysteriously entangled with what happened, with what happens, in these days. This is the axis mundi, the center on which the cosmos turns. In the derelict who cries from the cross is, or so Christians say, the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. The life of all on this day died. Stay awhile with that dying.
Every human life, conceived from eternity and destined to eternity, here finds its story truly told.