Christ did not cast himself from the pinnacle of the temple. He did not leap into the abyss; he did not tempt God. But he did descend into the abyss of death, into the night of abandonment, and into the desolation of the defenseless. He ventured this leap as an act of God’s love for men. And so he knew that, ultimately, when he leaped he could only fall into the kindly hands of the Father.
This brings to light the real meaning of Psalm 91, which has to do with the right to the ultimate and unlimited trust of which the Psalm speaks: if you follow the will of God, you know that in spite of all the terrible things that happen to you, you will never lose a final refuge. You know that the foundation of the world is love, so that even when no human being can or will help you, you may go on, trusting in the One who loves you. Yet this trust, which we cultivate on the authority of Scripture and at the invitation of the Risen Lord, is something quite different from the reckless defiance of God that would make God our servant.
Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth Vol.1, p. 38
Reflection – It’s been quite a while since I’ve had anything from Pope Benedict on the blog. Psalm 91 is quite the psalm, if you’re not familiar with it – it is the one quoted by the devil to Jesus in the temptations in the desert: ‘He will command his angels to watch over you, lest you dash your foot against a stone.’
There is quite a bit more along those lines: ‘You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrows that fly by day, nor the plague that prowls in the darkness, nor the scourge that lays waste at noon.’ It is one of the great Scriptural prayers of utter and complete trust in God, a total and unreserved act of faith in the providential care of God.
And yet, as the Pope points out here, this faith and trust are not borne out by a world in which bad things never happen to good people, but only to ‘bad’ people. Jesus plunged into the abyss of death, and in this knew the love and care of his Father in heaven. So often we human beings grapple painfully with that – we try to be good people and live in a way pleasing to God, and then when something terrible happens to us our to someone we love, our faith is shaken. Isn’t God supposed to be taking care of us?
Wasn’t God supposed to take care of his Beloved Son? For a Christian, there should be no challenge to faith even if the worst thing we can think of happens. Even if we are indeed caught in the ‘abyss of death, the night of abandonment, the desolation of the defenseless’, and our emotions are all where they of course must be in that position, we know God is with us, Jesus has gone before us, Love has not and will not fail us.
I’m thinking here of all the Christians who are facing exile or death right now in Egypt and Syria and a handful of other countries. I realize well that it is one thing to write about trusting God and plunging into this or that abyss when, in fact, I am sitting in a chair in Canada on a most beautiful fall day, surrounded by a family who love me, living in a society that is fundamentally prosperous and at peace.
Quite another to entrust one’s life to God when at any moment men with guns might burst in and kill you and your family. And yet these people—our brothers and sisters in Christ—are indeed doing just that, it seems, or at least being called to do that. It is good for us who live in the relatively sheltered world of North America to be aware of these situations, certainly to pray for them, but also to be clear ourselves about what trust and faith is, and just what kind of road God asks us to walk in this world.
In North America, we labor greatly under the shadow of ‘prosperity Gospel Christianity’, which shows up in many forms. Essentially, the idea that if you give your life to God good things should happen to you, and if you turn away from God bad things will happen to you. And so of course the people who have bad stuff happen to them must, on some level, be lousy rotten sinners who got it coming to them, and the people who prosper must deserve it.
We all know this is silly, especially when we’re the poor saps who have the bad things happen to us, and our neighbors across the street who are so horrible have good things happen, but it is a silliness that has put down deep roots into our culture, for long historical reasons that are unnecessary to explore.