In the manner of his death, Jesus embodied the dark path of descent that is the central metaphor of Christian faith.
Matthew portrays the journey of loneliness and loss that Jesus endured on the cross in the most stark terms.
From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ (Matthew 27:45,46)
Jesus experienced absolute abandonment. To his senses, all was lost. He stepped into the abyss of darkness and loss. He went to that place where
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by others;
a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him of no account.(Isaiah 53:2b,3)
This is the place of transformation. As Jesus chose to hold himself in that sense of abandonment, the universe began to shift. He moved through the darkness and emerged in the light. Death could not hold Jesus, not because he beat it back with his illusory identity project, but because he held himself in its grip.
According to Carol Lee Flinders in her book, Enduring Grace Living Portraits of Seven Women Mystics, the great Christian mystic Therese of Lisieux experienced this path of descent at the centre of her spiritual journey.
Before her profession, her “wedding” with Christ, she had written to Pauline, “Before our departure my Bridegroom asked me to what land I wished to travel and which path I preferred to take.”
“The mountain of love,” she replied, but he could choose the way.
And our Lord took me by the hand and made me enter a subterranean way where it is neither cold nor warm, where the sun does not shine and where rain and wind may not enter; a tunnel where I see nothing but a half veiled glow from the downcast eyes in the face of my spouse . . . I gladly consent to spend my entire life in this underground darkness to which he has led me; my only wish is that my gloom will bring light to sinners.
(Flinders , Carol Lee. Enduring Grace Living Portraits of Seven Women Mystics. SanFrancisco: Harper, 1993. p. 217)
The way up “the mountain of love” lies along the “subterranean way where it is neither cold nor warm, where the sun does not shine and where rain and wind may not enter.” But, all along the way it is possible to see “a half veiled glow from the downcast eyes in the face of my spouse.” The challenge is to keep from becoming insensitive to this “half veiled glow.”
When I resent the dark “subterranean way” and demand the bright lights of sensory gratification, I grow numb to the subtle presence of love. When I refuse to embrace the reality of loneliness, I lose touch with the accompanying faithfulness of that love that flows in the stream of my tears.