Proclaiming the Death of God

At the Holy Thursday liturgy, the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper, the second reading contains Paul’s account of the institution of the Eucharist (1 Cor. 11:23-26) which ends with a rather mysterious line: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup,
you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.”

Christians have been proclaiming the death of the Lord from the outset, which makes Nietzsche’s death of God motif toward the end of the 19th century slightly less original.

Nietzsche’s famous proclamation goes like this: “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him” (The Gay Science, Section 125). Nietzsche seems to be picking up on the idea that enlightened mankind had driven the final nail into God’s coffin — this idea (and an idea, after all, according to Nietzsche and those who came before him, is all God is) has been killed off. “God is dead, long live the Overman!” Without God in the picture, man can finally be free to create himself. As de Lubac says, “He must produce out of himself — out of nothingness — something with which to transcend humanity; let him trample his own head under foot and shoot forth beyond his shadow.” When God is killed off and forgotten, so too is humanity. Now, man, by his own impulse of power, takes God’s place and does not want to relinquish his new position. Kerler sums this up: “Even if it could be proved by mathematics that God exists, I do not want him to exist, because he would set limits to my greatness.”

Then we have Paul’s proclamation, that of a God who dies, and who freely chooses to do so (cf. Jn. 10:18) — an not some idea or ideal of God. The fullness of Christian realism stands behind Paul’s words. This God who comes so close, who is so humble, is indeed too much for man’s pride, which kills him off. Yet even here, the Christ on the cross, even in this place of man’s “cutting him off,” he speaks these words: “I thirst.” Our attempts to cut God off and isolate ourselves in our pride, even these are not capable of removing the God of love from our midst and isolating ourselves in our own Sheol. The willful death of God, his allowing himself to be cut off by the pride of man, marks his entry into the depths of man’s isolating pride. And, when the God who is Communion itself enters the realm of hell (i.e. the isolation of death), he breaks it from the inside — death is conquered by death. When Communion enters the realm of eternal isolation, it is hell no more (cf. Ps. 139:8).

The death of God proclaimed by Paul, and the generations upon generations of believers who proclaim the same each time the Mass is celebrated, is the proclamation of the sign of the depths of God’s love. In dying, he goes to the pit of our hell, to break it from the inside. This breaking from the inside is the healing we need — it is redemption. Far be it from Nietzsche’s proclamation of pride, Paul’s is a cry from the depths of one’s need, to a God who is not scandalized by sin, but one who is now present in the depths of the isolation that is sin’s wage.

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