The Depths of Redemption

In our previous reflection, we considered the disciples’ return to Emmaus and the whole problem of God’s burial, which is synonymous with “apparent failure.”

One can get a little taste of their disappointment in the line “we were hoping he would be the one to redeem Israel” (Lk. 24:21). However, this is not only a display of disappointment,  but also of human desire. The human being is shot-through with desire. Man always wants more, and when he gets it, he wants more of something else. In this way, every person’s story is the same – the human heart is as similar as it is unique. To be human is to desire infinitely, and the blatantly unfathomable, the greatest scandal in the face of the human person is death. It is no wonder that we fight death. We rebel against it. We distract ourselves as a means of protection. Even those who choose death for themselves, if maintaining a psychological equilibrium of some sort, choose it because some other apparent death has befallen them, some destruction of the “I” that shatters or disorients desire.

All the more so in our journey to Emmaus. If ever there was a man who could solve my problems, who could make Rome go away, who could restore the house of Israel, it was this man. Yet this man simply carried his torture-device and gave himself over to death – willingly. These events do not fit into a preconceived box or a tidy category. God is not supposed to act this way.

This is the scandal of the cross. A God who dies willingly. A God whose desires lead him into the tomb, that from the hell that is separation from God, man might be brought into communion with the living God. We will turn again to Cardinal Ratzinger:

The death of God in Jesus Christ is at the same time the expression of his radical solidarity with us. The most obscure mystery of the faith is at the same time the clearest sign of a hope without end. And what is more: only through the failure of Holy Friday, only through the silence of death of Holy Saturday, were the disciples able to be led to an understanding of all that Jesus truly was and all that his message truly meant. God had to die for them so that he could truly live in them. The image they had formed of God, within which they had tried to hold him down, had to be destroyed so that through the rubble of the ruined house they might see the sky, him himself who remains, always, the infinitely greater. We need the silence of God to experience again the abyss of his greatness and the chasm of our nothingness which would grow wider and wider without him. 

Is this not true for us as well? The image of God formed in our minds, the caricature we expect God to conform to, precisely this needs to be destroyed. Then we begin to see the greatness of the seemingly tragic sacrifice.

Into that which definitely stands against all that man is, namely, death, Christ enters. And, He does so victoriously. Christ’s greatness does not lie in his charm, his diplomatic savvy, his military power, or a verbose eloquence. No, it lies in this – his unity with the Father in the Holy Spirit. And, it is precisely this love which goes into the profundity of death and effectively breaks it. If ever Israel would be redeemed definitively, she must be redeemed from death too:

What is death really and what really happens when we descend into the profundity of death? We must be mindful of the fact that death is no longer the same as it was before Christ endured it, before he accepted and penetrated it, just as life, being human, is no longer the same as it was before human nature, in Christ, was able to come in contact with – and it truly did – God’s own being. Before, death was just death, separation from the land of the living and, albeit at differing degrees of profundity, something like “hell”, the nocturnal side of living, impenetrable darkness. But now death is also life and when we pass over the glacial solitude of the threshold of death, we always meet once more with him who is life, whose desire is to become the companion of our ultimate solitude and who, in the mortal solitude of his anguish on the Mount of Olives and of his cry on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”, became a partaker of our solitudes. (Ratzinger

In many ways, the problem of desire with the men on the Road to Emmaus, is the same for all of us. Not that we desire too much, but too little. Israel, blinded by sin, could not see that to be redeemed meant redemption to the core. Anything less would not be redemption; it could not be. To redeem Israel, then, means more than restoration of certain political powers. For Christ, it means an entry into that ultimate divide, the eternal solitude, as a Presence who is Love. Roghman_Roelant_(Roulant)-ZZZ-Landscape_(Christ_on_the_Road_to_Emmaus)

We need the same redemption today, yet we prefer darkness to light and blindness to sight
Lord, we pray that during this Easter season, you would let the Truth of your saving Presence, the same Truth that hung on a cross and was laid in a tomb, would enter into the tombs of our life and shatter our meager preconceptions and airy desires. Grant us new life, we pray.

A God Who Was Buried

Since taking Easter seriously (and personally), I have found the same to be true: Holy Saturday is the most difficult day of the year. Jesus is in the tomb, and we wait for light. Waiting is hard. Waiting is hard, and perhaps not just because there is time between me and the end of my Lenten observances, or the start of the Easter Vigil, but because there is an absence in time. He who was present, He who broke through all the superficiality, He who called me out of darkness is in complete darkness himself.

Jesus died.

The agonizing tension of this fact, coupled with the angst of a seemingly hopeless wait makes remaining in front of the mystery nearly impossible. This is why we don’t know what to do with ourselves on Holy Saturday, busying ourselves, distracting ourselves, wasting time, etc. Remaining in front of the tomb is too difficult.

I often think about the men on the road to Emmaus (see Luke 24:13-25) who apparently experienced the same thing. They couldn’t handle the death of Christ and I imagine they had thrown in the towel. This Jesus was not who he said he was. A redeemer of Israel, hardly. A savior who could not save himself. A king who allowed himself to be mocked. Imagine the incredible sense of confusion at these events, tinged with a profound disappointment. Years dedicated to a project that now lie buried, dead in a dark cave. So, they depart. The reality of Jesus’ death, which effectively destroyed their hopes, was too much. They could not remain in front of this reality.

They leave Mary, and the faithful remnant and return to their old way of life in Emmaus.

But, just before departing, they catch wind of something astounding – a resurrection from the dead. Yet even this is not enough to overcome their disappointment, their hardness of heart (think about it, if you heard that someone rose from the dead a few blocks away, would you not muster up enough curiosity to at least scope it out for 10 minutes?) – they are committed to returning to their old way of life.

Can we not relate? This God who is supposed to love us, who supposedly cares for our every need, who promises us every good and perfect gift, who speaks and takes flesh, seemingly takes his leave. He is silent. Gone. Absent. Buried. Even in terms of the devilish epoch we find ourselves in, shrouded in seemingly fruitless prayer, what to make of it? Cardinal Ratzinger takes up this same reflection:

On Good Friday we still had the crucified man to look at. Holy Saturday is empty, the heavy stone of the new tomb is covering the dead man, it’s all over, the faith seems to have been definitively unmasked as fantasy. No God saved this Jesus who posed as his Son. There is no further need for concern: the wary who were somewhat hesitant, who wondered if things could have been different, were right after all. Holy Saturday: the day God was buried; is not this the day we are living now, and formidably so?

Would we not be better off returning to a former way of life and pretending like this “mistake” never happened at all?

Ratzinger’s Holy Saturday Meditations

In 1969, Joseph Ratzinger delivered a number of meditations for Holy Saturday. They are as profound as one might expect. Here is the first of the meditations. A link to the other two is below:

It is with increasing insistence that God is said to be dead today. The first time it was said, in Jean Paul, it was just a nightmarish dream: Jesus who is dead proclaims to the dead from the rooftops of the world that when he journeyed to the beyond he found nothing, no heaven, no merciful God, just infinite nothingness, the silence of the gaping void. It is still a horrible dream which is pushed to one side, wailing away in the waking hours, as a dream does, although the anguish it inflicts can never be cancelled for it was always lying in wait, sinister, in the depths of the soul. 

A century later, in Nietzsche, it becomes a mortal seriousness which is expressed in a cry, shrill with terror: “God is dead! God will stay dead! And we have killed him!”. Fifty years later, it is discussed with academic detachment and preparations are made for a “theology after the death of God”, eyes search for ways to go on and men encourage each other to start preparing to take God’s place. The terrible mystery of Holy Saturday, its abyss of silence, has thus acquired a crushing reality in these days of ours. For, this is Holy Saturday: the day of God’s concealment, the day of that unprecedented paradox we express in the Creed with the words: “Descended into hell”, descended into the mystery of death. On Good Friday we still had the crucified man to look at. Holy Saturday is empty, the heavy stone of the new tomb is covering the dead man, it’s all over, the faith seems to have been definitively unmasked as fantasy. No God saved this Jesus who posed as his Son. There is no further need for concern: the wary who were somewhat hesitant, who wondered if things could have been different, were right after all. Holy Saturday: the day God was buried; is not this the day we are living now, and formidably so? Did not our century mark the start of one long Holy Saturday, the day God was absent, when even the hearts of the disciples were plunged into an icy chasm that grows wider and wider, and thus, filled with shame and anguish, they set out to go home, dark-spirited and annihilated in their desperation they head for Emmaus, without realizing that he whom they believed to be dead is in their midst? God is dead and we killed him: are we really aware that this phrase is taken almost literally from Christian tradition and that often in our viae crucis we have made something similar resound without realizing the tremendous gravity of what we said? We killed him, by enclosing him in the stale shell of routine thinking, by exiling him in a form of pity with no content of reality, lost in the gyre of devotional phrases, or of archaeological treasuries; we killed him through the ambiguity of our lives which also laid a veil of darkness over him: in fact, what else would have been able to make God more problematical in this world than the problematical nature of the faith and of the love of his faithful? 

The divine darkness of this day, of this century which is increasingly becoming one long Holy Saturday, is speaking to our conscience. It is one of our concerns. But in spite of it all, it holds something of comfort for us. The death of God in Jesus Christ is at the same time the expression of his radical solidarity with us. The most obscure mystery of the faith is at the same time the clearest sign of a hope without end. And what is more: only through the failure of Holy Friday, only through the silence of death of Holy Saturday, were the disciples able to be led to an understanding of all that Jesus truly was and all that his message truly meant. God had to die for them so that he could truly live in them. The image they had formed of God, within which they had tried to hold him down, had to be destroyed so that through the rubble of the ruined house they might see the sky, him himself who remains, always, the infinitely greater. We need the silence of God to experience again the abyss of his greatness and the chasm of our nothingness which would grow wider and wider without him. 


There is a Gospel scene which in an extraordinary way anticipates the silence of Holy Saturday and which again, therefore, seems to be a profile of the moment in history we are living now. Christ is asleep on a boat which, buffeted by a storm, is about to sink. Theprophet Elijah had once made fun of the priests of Baal who were futilely invoking their god to send down fire on their sacrifice. He urged them to cry out louder in case their god was asleep. But is it true that God does not sleep? Does not the prophet’s scorn also fall upon the heads of the faithful of the God of Israel who are sailing with him in a boat about to sink? God sleeps while his very own are about to drown – is not this the experience of our lives? Don’t the Church, the faith, resemble a small boat about to sink, struggling futilely against the waves and the wind, and all the time God is absent? The disciples cry out in dire desperation and they shake the Lord to wake him but he is surprised at this and rebukes them for their small faith. But are things any different for us? When the storm DT2002passes we will realize just how much this small faith of ours was charged with stupidity. And yet, O Lord, we cannot help shaking you, God, you who persist in keeping your silence, in sleeping, and we cannot help crying to you: Wake up, can’t you see we are sinking? Stir yourself, don’t let the darkness of Holy Saturday last for ever, let a ray of Easter fall, even on these times of ours, accompany us when we set out in our desperation towards Emmaus so that our hearts may be enflamed by the warmth of your nearness. You who, hidden, charted the paths of Israel only to become a man in the end with men – don’t leave us in the dark, don’t let your word be lost in these days of great squandering of words. Lord, grant us your help, because without you we will sink. Amen.

You can find the other two meditations on the 30 Days website. Enjoy!