Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Double Agony in Man ...

Occasionally a student who I am supervising for one course or another (through Maryvale Institute) asks a question which it seems worth sharing on this blog. I've had a go at answering - if any reader wants to qualify or improve on my response just leave a comment!

The Question:

Dear Fr Peter,
I was reading an Alpha booklet about Jesus and came
across the following. 'The NT makes it clear that there was something
worse for Jesus than the physical and emotional pain; this was the
spiritual anguish of being separated from God as he carried all our
If you have a moment could you enlighten me about this. Did
Jesus have to be parted from God to carry our sins on the cross? I am

My reply:

The first thing I'd say is that one has to have a little caution with Alpha Course materials, from a Catholic viewpoint. They are fairly solid protestant-evangelical materials, and mainly very sound, but do approach things differently than a Catholic would.

To look at this assertion I take as my starting point the Church's teaching about the person of Christ. The relevant sections of the Catechism on this question are 603, 612, 624, 627. Have a look at them and the passages around them. You will see a concern to emphasise
(1) the reality of Christ's death, (2) the unity of human and divine in
Christ. Jesus is true God and true Man, complete in both his humanity and his divinity.
This teaching is derived not only from a reading of scripture but
also from centuries of reflection and indeed debate in the Church.

So, Jesus' suffering on the cross could not be any less than that of any other human being. He had to fully share our suffering. Soul and Body are one in every human, so in his humanity this suffering must be both physical and spiritual: he knows the anguish not only of physical pain, but also the sense of abandonment: "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" he says. This belief is very important on the basis of the principle from the early Church fathers that 'what he did not assume he cannot redeem', so Jesus in his humanity must suffer spiritually in order to redeem us both in body and soul. Cardinal Newman, I think, alludes to this 'double suffering' in the hymn Praise to the Holiest in the Height in the verse which includes the words 'the double agony for man in man should undergo' (this verse is often omitted from modern hymn books).

Now while I think the quotation from the Alpha materials is referring to this orthodox belief, its expression seems rather unorthodox. We cannot talk of Jesus being 'separated' or 'parted' from God if we have an orthodox Christology. If by that we mean that Jesus experienced in his humanity the fullness of spiritual suffering and the reality of death, then perhaps ... but we are in danger of implying that in some way the incarnation became 'unstitched' for a couple of days, which would be quite unorthodox - the point is rather that God in Christ reconciled the world to himself by embracing death - not running away at the last minute.

Actually, I don't think the writer (Nicky Gumbel?) is suggesting that the incarnation briefly 'comes apart', but rather he is assuming that Jesus is somehow able to become separated from God (because he is not the same as God?). The quotation seems to make a distinction between Jesus and God that we often hear in young children's prayers. Jesus was (presumably) united to God - like every good Christian - and then he is separated from him in order to save us. This kind of language is - hopefully unintentionally - quite Arian - it suggests that Jesus is some kind of 'demi-God', who is 'united' to God, but who becomes separated from God in order to 'carry our sins'. This is not at all orthodox Christian belief, neither Catholic nor Protestant.

[I might also add that I am not quite comfortable with the distinction which also seems to be drawn between 'emotional pain' and 'spiritual anguish' - it suggests something like a dualism in the understanding of the human person: just what precisely is the difference between the two?]

I hope this sheds some light on the matter.

God bless,

Fr Peter


Ann said...

Hi. That is an odd thing for the alpha materials to say. It has made me wonder about the difference in the life of the Trinity during the historical period of the Incarnation. Maybe that is what is being referred to. Some might say there was no difference. Others might say that there has to be some difference or Jesus earthly life loses significance. Hmm.

Fr Peter said...

Ann - thanks for your comment.
In the classic understanding, there can be no change in God - by definition - God is the One who is unchanging, omniscient, omnipotent, 'immortal invisible' because change implies decay, as the hymn Abide with me eloquently puts it "change and decay in all around I see: O Thou who changest not, abide in me".
However, to this we must add that in the incarnation-passion-resurrection God embraces change, death in order to restore it - 'that which he has not assumed he cannot redeem', as the Fathers put it.
But I don't think we should take this to mean that the 'life of the Trinity' is somehow different during Jesus earthly life time: that would be to make the Trinity like a household in which the elder son has gone away to study! The Trinity is rather more sophisticated than that!