The same situation is illustrated beautifully in Psalm 42, where we read: “My tears have been my food / day and night, / while people say to me all day long, / ‘Where is your God?’” Being a pastor who often preaches to bigger crowds, I am also struck and humiliated by the following sentence, too: “These things I remember / as I pour out my soul: / how I used to go to the house of God / under the protection of the Mighty One / with shouts of joy and praise / among the festive throng.”
Today there are no shouts of joy and the songs of praise have fallen silent. Children, who have lost both parents in the pandemic, have tears for food. Crying relatives phone the hospitals, inquiring about the condition of their loved ones. Veteran doctors sob, as they take off their spacesuit-like protective gown after an endlessly long shift. To quench our spiritual thirst, we long for cool waters, like a deer panting by the stream.
Where is God in these times?
To find an answer, we can turn to Elie Wiesel, whose book Night describes a scene in a concentration camp. Three persons are publicly hanged. Two of them are grown-ups and die fast but the third body, that of the angelic-looking young Pipel, is too light, so the boy is in agony for half an hour. “Where is God now?”, someone asks the question. And the author hears a voice within him answering: “Where is He? Here He is – He is hanging here on the gallows…” In my interpretation, this sentence means that God does not watch human suffering from a distance. He is there, suffering with the human being. Even “the scholar of dreadful words, Isaiah the prophet” (cf. Fragment by Hungarian poet, Miklós Radnóti; translated by Thomas Ország-Land) has a hard time finding the right words as he describes the servant who “was despised and rejected by mankind / a man of suffering, and familiar with pain” (Isaiah 53:3) as an example of compassion. Christianity considers this suffering servant to be the prototype of Jesus. On Good Friday, the defeated handful accompanying Jesus to the cross could say with the prophet: “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him” – but then perhaps they went on like this: “Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, / he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities” (Isaiah 53:4-5).
The Place of the Skull lay outside Jerusalem, near the landfill of the city. It was like an offal hole, an animal pound, far from the residential quarters. The crucified Jesus had no place other than outside the walls. This also has its antecedent in the Hebrew Bible. The Torah says: “Take the blasphemer outside the camp – and the entire assembly is to stone him” (Leviticus 24:14). Golgotha was probably located outside the walls of the contemporary Jerusalem, at the junction of the Western and the Northern Walls. Yet, this is more than a topographical issue; the motivation is theological. Jesus of Nazareth was considered a blasphemer who had to be liquidated “outside the camp”.
The work of salvation was not carried out in the capital of the Empire but in a remote province. It is associated with a powerless son of a nation that was oppressed and occupied. And it took place outside the city at the garbage dump.
Something similar happened at Christmas, too. Although the evangelist placed the story in the larger context of the Roman Empire by mentioning Caesar Augustus, the Savior was born in the remote, practically no-name town of Bethlehem. Even the three wise men had a hard time finding it; no wonder they started their fumbling search in Herod’s palace in Jerusalem. Yet, Jesus was not to be found in the palace but in a shed. He was born into a stable because the doors of all the inns were slammed on Mary and Joseph. “Keep out!”, they might have heard. And Jesus lived his life with that in mind: it is better to keep out. In addition to that, Joseph had to rescue his family from the revenge of Herod and flee to Egypt, so Jesus experienced what it meant to be a refugee in his early childhood. Keep out – stay outside the walls, outside the borders, in the refugee camp. And when he became an adult, he said: “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20).
There is a Hungarian saying used when we want to sound threatening: “Just wait and see where God lives…”. Will we ever learn, will the pandemic finally teach us, where God lives? He lives among the outcasts, those who are forced to flee, in danger of being wiped out and marked with the sign of death. He is there on the periphery, at the gallows and on the garbage dump. In Bethlehem and on the Calvary. Never in the center of power.
There have been periods in the history when Jesus was rejected not only by the outsiders, the pagans, the godless but also by the church, by those who claim to speak on his behalf but misuse his name hideously, by those who have seen hatred, oppression, physical and mental suffering but fail to speak up against these practices. We must confess that at times the church itself has told Jesus: “There is no place for you here! Keep out!”
This is what Dostoevsky wrote about in The Brothers Karamazov, in the story about the Grand Inquisitor. The scene was set in medieval Spain, where Jesus appeared again but the representative of the Holy Inquisition was determined to burn him on the stake. The old cardinal snapped at Jesus: “You have no right to change the system. You have handed the work on to us. So, why have you come back?” And then he goes on to explain why Jesus has no place in the church of the Middle Ages: “You said you would make man free. Yet, what we expect is complete obedience. (…) Your return has shaken people’s faith in what we have done in your name. (…) We cannot let you go among them again. You cannot demolish the church we have constructed.” Finally, he went to the door, opened it and told Jesus: “'Go, and come no more... come not at all, never, never!' And he let Him out into the dark alleys of the town.”
See, Jesus is being shown the door again. His place is outside the walls. In one of the Epistles of the New Testament we read: “Jesus suffered outside the city gate”. However, this situation that was created with the intent to humiliate,can be considered an opportunity and a life goal by disciples: “Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore” (Hebrews 13:12). After such a lengthy theological explication, we must raise the question: What is the place of the church today? It is a logical consequence of the question: “where is God?”, and the answer can only be: the place of the church is where Jesus is. “No servant is greater than his master”; if the master is mocked so will be the disciples. If Jesus is poor, the church cannot be rich. If Jesus is willing to surrender power, his followers cannot live entrenched, either. If Jesus goes down the path of the cross, the church cannot be glorious.
As Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian killed by the National Socialists, wrote: “What is the proper place of the church? This cannot be stated concretely. It is the place of the present Christ in the world. It is God’s own will that chooses his place; (…) therefore it can never be a place assumed by a human being. It must be qualified through God’s gracious presence. God must reveal himself to it. (…) [The church] must be conscious to the fact that it can never make a historical place God’s place. Neither the state church nor the citizens can claim this place. (…) Where God talks to His congregation, the congregation becomes the very center of all human places, albeit that sometimes seems fully nonessential under human conditions. (…) No one knows where this center is. Where one is on the periphery, there is the critical center of the world (like Galilee in the Roman Empire or Wittenberg). But God makes this place visible.”
Concentration camps and prisons are on the periphery indeed – there and then those places still became central. Confessional Christians had to go “outside the camp” in the footsteps of Jesus. This is what the faithful disciples have done at all ages: Gábor Sztehlo, the Lutheran pastor who saved many Jewish and non-Jewish kids, Jane Heining, who sacrificed her life for those trusted into her care, or János Esterházy, imprisoned for promoting the cause of minorities in inter-war Czechoslovakia. And this is what diaconal services, aid organizations, Csaba Böjte or Gábor Iványi continue to do today, helping the weak, the orphans, the refugees, the homeless or those living in utmost poverty.
One day prior to his election, Pope Francis held a sermon about the Bible verse: “Jesus is standing at the door and knocking”. The usual interpretation of this sentence is that Jesus is asking to be allowed to enter and it can only be done from the inside. Yet, Cardinal Bergoglio said: “Today, Jesus is knocking at the door of the church, wanting to go out.
As I see it, Easter is also about the Jesus who does not want to remain secluded in the church. Not even in Jerusalem, and the least within the walls. He knows and believes that it is better to keep out. This is why the Risen Christ sends this message to his disciples: “I will go ahead of you into Galilee.”
The story that began in a stable and continued on a garbage dump outside the walls, was fulfilled in a graveyard. This sends a strong message these days when we grieve the terrible losses caused by the pandemic, because it was in the cemetery that the women preparing for the funeral rites and the defeated, desperate flock of the disciples met the risen Lord. And they experienced the miracle, the essence of Easter faith: life wins over death.
After this encounter the followers of the resurrected Jesus were no longer centered upon themselves. Jesus does not want a church that is turned in upon itself. There are rich connotations to the Latin phrase expressing this idea: ecclesia incurvata in se. The church is where Christ is. And where is Christ? Mostly on the sidelines. Marginalized. Among the sick and the suffering, in the valley of death. That is where his church should be, too; not on the bright side.
The resurrected Jesus left the graveyard and went out to the world, to “the Galilee of pagans”.
Will his church follow him to the periphery to attend to the vulnerable?