During the Holy Triduum, the three days that make up the tail end of Holy Week, when the church remembers Christ’s death and burial, many liturgical traditions reflect the absence of Christ on the earth by stripping the altar, removing ornaments, icons, and images from the sanctuary. The worship space is left bare, its symbolic meanings receded. A ghostly cloth transforms the altar into the tomb of the world as the faithful imagine beauty lying dead beneath it. In a time in which the Western church desperately seeks to appear relevant to the broader culture, this ritual act of minimalism is striking. With each cross covered and ornament removed, the sanctuary is exposed, and its artifacts are stripped of their power as they sit in anticipation of Easter morn.
The figure of the cross is somewhat visible underneath the veil, just enough to allow us to project our own interpretations upon it. One might wonder if the fable of the cross is just an allegory for living unto death in love of neighbor. Perhaps it is the anchor of a cosmic myth that is recited in a new way by every generation. Perhaps we each see our own story there beneath the shroud. And with each perhaps, we drift farther from the story that is bound and proclaimed through these artifacts. The Eucharist is locked away until the resurrection, but this resurrection feels late in coming, so we instead eat and drink what is unconsecrated, for tomorrow we die with no hope of the eternal. Weary from resurrection-waiting, we begin to sell and disperse the objects used in worship much like the dead man’s garments. Sooner or later, the building itself is sold to the religion of nothing that uses the once consecrated halls for the worship of the new gods of pragmatism and profit and beer.
David Kelsey notes this beautifully and tragically in his description of those who express this distortion of eschatological waiting:
Such practices are exemplary of a wide variety of nontheocentric passively hopeful practices—occupations, recreations, relaxations—that express a vague attitude of expectancy toward their proximate contexts. They are hopeful in their expectancy, however vague and deferred, that something will come along radically to transform their proximate contexts. They are passive in that, rather than aiming to change their proximate contexts, they are ways of waiting in the meanwhile until what is expected actually happens. They are the practices that make up the common life of a consumerist culture of entertainment . . . they are done, not to exemplify and celebrate eschatological flourishing, but to reassure ourselves while waiting in suspended animation that we really exist.1
This rather bleak description is not too far afield from the religiosity of many modern experiments that in their nihilism have evolved into distortions we can simply call post-. It is a cultural melancholy that we are told (ad nauseam) is called postmodernity, and it is easy to spot. Unlike neo-anything, postmodernity gets its name from being not something else. In contrasting this no-thing to the gospel of Jesus Christ, Robert Jenson describes postmodernity as being the natural outcome of the modern project, which “was defined by the attempt to live in a universal story without a universal story teller.”2
The storytellerless act of progress dissolved into the postmodern condition at the turn of the century with the onset of World War I and the terminated experiment of Marxism. Out of these colossal disappointments came hopelessness and a lack of faith in the possibility of progress. As Jenson says, “The mere negation of faith in progress is sheer lack of hope; and hopelessness is the very definition of postmodernism.”3 Jenson argues that this has left Western society with plenty of what Friedrich Nietzsche, being the major prophet of nihilism and, thus, postmodernity, called the “last man” but an absence of Nietzche’s “superman” who was to bring a culture of decadence and splendor. Perhaps it is fitting, then, that the advent of postmodernity has brought with it half-fulfilled prophecies and an identity of what it is not rather than what is.
The battle cry of this cultural iconoclasm is freedom, with the United States and France being perhaps the two most skilled liberators. We have set ourselves free of the single storyteller and the unified narrative, which leaves us with only language games and personal brands that require grooming through Instagram. Our hymnals have blank pages, and our prayer book awaits the superman, who must write the great hymns and teach us to pray, but like the dead man remembered in the early part of the Triduum, the superman is late in coming. Thus, we take up the mantle of authors of our own story, assuming all the while that the only story to be written is our own and that, with enough gumption, perhaps we might find ourselves as the superman.
Culturally, we see this postmodern stream diluting the waters of Western thought within every field, beginning, as these things do, with the arts and finally proceeding to the only two institutions giving it any fight, the family and religion. To that end, as divorce rates rise and nonmarried partnerships become more common, many see the premodern institution of marriage as crumbling. And the decline of religion within the West has been cataloged to the extent that many assume its demise is just a generation or two away.
Thus, spurred on by evangelistic zeal and a desire to stay relevant, many within the church have branded themselves with that unique product of American nihilism—consumerism—and sought to sell the church through self-help experiments, rock concerts posing as worship gatherings, and a gospel of societal betterment through liberal ideals. This, I argue, is simply a holdover of modernist optimism that has been repackaged to bring in the youths. Although we might praise these efforts for their well-meaning attempts to fulfill the Great Commission, I believe they are wrong to don the dress of postmodern relevancy. Instead, the church must adorn herself with godforsakenness, the tomb of a sinner, an aesthetics of nothing.
The fifth line of the Apostles’ Creed reminds us that Christ “descended to the dead.” This phrase speaks unabashedly to the true godforsakenness of dead storytellers, broken promises, and abrupt endings. Holy Saturday is depicted as a time of solemnity and fasting, as the church remembers that a dead man does not eat. This tenet of the church does not speak simply of a dead man but of an experience of godforsakenness that is the natural outcome of a cry of dereliction. This descent into the place of the dead might culminate with the harrowing of hell, but in order to get there, the dead man must be accursed, stricken, and brutalized, leaving nothing in appearance that would attract consumer sensibilities (see Deut. 21:23 and Isa. 53:5).
In what will undoubtedly be mandatory reading for future seminary students, Fleming Rutledge’s work The Crucifixion highlights the accursed nature of Christ’s death: “The important thing for our discussion here is Paul’s announcement (kerygma) that God, in the person of his sinless Son, put himself voluntarily and deliberately into the condition of greatest accursedness—on our behalf and in our place.”4 Here, Rutledge notes that Jesus chose godforsakenness rather than equality with God (Phil. 2:6–8). The curse falls upon Jesus as he experiences the forsakenness of God that is utter hopelessness, one of our definitions of postmodernism. He dies the death of a slave, executed in a way that was meant to eliminate all memory and humanity of the crucified.
As the Holy Triduum continues past Good Friday—the irony of this name must not be lost—Holy Saturday manifests the disillusionment of Jesus’s disciples and catalogs Jesus’s own experience of hell, godforsakenness, nothing. If, following the early Christian theologians, we believe that evil is simply the absence of God, who is the very manner of goodness, then we can assume that hell is utterly godforsaken, a flattened reality devoid of the true and the good and the beautiful and the God that even gave us a sense that these things might have existed in the first place.5 Hans Urs von Balthasar notes rightly that in our contemporary period, “‘Hell’ will be regarded increasingly as the condition of the self-inclosed ‘I.’”6 This depiction of a psychological and personal hell is the no-thing of postmodern liberation, the very place that, if Christ had not been raised, we would go to meet him instead of in the eucharistic feast. Yet, it is where he traveled. Holy Saturday is an aesthetics of nothing that in its not saying anything echoes the chorus of worship to a very dead man. This aesthetics of nothing is the very experience of a narrativeless world that finds solace in the disciples’ disappointment of their dead Messiah and the West’s shattered dreams of progress.
The telos of this aesthetic is descent. The descent of Christ to the dead becomes a kind of solidarity of God with all who have died. The location of this no-thing country is described within the Old Testament as Sheol. Balthasar notes, “The Old Testament descriptions [of Sheol] are so existential in their tenor that the accent falls much more on the condition of the dead than on the place where they find themselves.”7 Following Old Testament descriptions of Sheol, Balthasar notes many conditions of this state that would leave Jenson pointing to the postmodern condition:
To existence in death there belongs darkness (Job 10:21ff, 17:13; Psalm 88:7 and 13; 143:3; and even eternal darkness: Psalm 49:20), dust (Job 17:16, Psalm 30:10; 30:10; 146:4; Isaiah 26:19; Daniel 12:2), silence (Psalm 94:17; 115:17). From Sheol one does not return (Job 7:9; 10:21; 14:12). No activity goes on there (Qoheleth 9:10), there is no joy (Sirach 14:11–17), no knowledge of what happens on earth (Job 14:21ff; 21:21; Qoheleth 9:5; Isaiah 63:16). There is no more praise of God (Psalm 6:6; 30:10; 115:17; Sirach 17:27; Isaiah 38:18). Deprived of all strength and all vitality (Isaiah 14:10), the dead are called refa’im, the powerless ones. They are as if they were not (Psalm 39:14; Sirach 17:28). They dwell in the country of forgetfulness (Psalm 88:13).8
Balthasar’s exegetical depiction of the country of forgetfulness is apt, particularly in the context of Jenson’s description of postmodernity as hopelessness. Yet this is where Christ traveled. Crucified and godforsaken, Christ continued the lonely journey to the dead and to the land of hopelessness. This dead man leaves us with an aesthetics of nothing, for even the life breathed into the nostrils of humans and the Spirit conceiving power that overwhelmed Mary are, for this time, absent from the cadaver that lay in the tomb. If, indeed, the church wants to meet the demands of relevancy, we must plunge into the depths of Holy Saturday, for it is here that we find the crucified God in all God’s hopelessness and godforsakenness being the truly post-. We must open our doors to disappointment and dread, remembering that this no-story is part of our story.
Of course, the story of the crucified Messiah must be understood as the historical Christ of the church. Without this, the no-story of a man crucified would have been just another story of a failed political revolution with an eschatological flair. That wouldn’t have been anything new for the time of Jesus. And without the grounding theology of the church, the indictment of divine child abuse would stick, but luckily we are not tritheists. Instead, the journey of the godforsaken one to the hopelessly godforsaken is also the journey of the Trinity: “Only as the acting of the triune God does the scandal of the Cross become tolerable to the believer, and even become that one unique scandal in which the believer can glory.”9 This journey to the country of hopelessness in all the triumph of a crucified Messiah is not a front for the surprise ending in which Jesus is raised from the dead without a mark on him (Jn. 20:27). This is not to believe with the gnostics that God left the body of the man Jesus on the cross in a cosmic bait and switch.10 This is the triumph of God over hopelessness and godforsakenness by taking the experience of the cross into God’s very being and laying claim to hell, hopelessness, and the postmodern condition. It is here within the God that is triune that the aesthetics of nothing exist and are graciously offered into the communion of the Father and the Son through the liberating love of the Spirit, which frees God into God’s future. It is in this post-, this no-story, that we are opened into God’s story, a story that includes the very hopelessness that has become synonymous with postmodernity. Yet it is a hopelessness experienced within the triune life that allows for the all-powerful, uncoercive love of God to sit patiently and comfortably within the stripped sanctuary and the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. It is here within the godforsakenness of Holy Saturday that the postmodern world finds its story, and this is a story of solidarity between a world defined by hopelessness and the God who has traversed the depths of hopelessness and has risen with that experience, the aesthetics of nothing, as a part of God’s very being and offered us a story that is triune in nature and loving till the end.
- Kelsey, Eccentric Existence: A Theological Anthropology (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 1:578.
- Jenson, “How the World Lost Its Story,” First Things, March 1, 2010 [October 1993], https://www.firstthings.com/article/2010/03/how-the-world-lost-its-story.
- Jenson, “How the World Lost Its Story.”
- Rutledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ(Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015), 100.
- See, for example, Athanasius, On the Incarnation, and Augustine, Confessions.
- Balthasar, Mysterium Paschale: The Mystery of Easter (Edinburgh, UK: T&T Clark, 1990), 77.
- Balthasar, Mysterium Paschale, 162–3. For more on God’s solidarity with those who have died, see 160.
- Balthasar, Mysterium Paschale, 161–2.
- Balthasar, Mysterium Paschale, 136.
- See, for example, “The Second Discourse of Great Seth,” in The Nag Hammadi Scriptures: The International Edition, ed. Marvin Meyer (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2007), 473–86.