The Beautiful Abyss
[I]f you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you. – Friedrich Nietzsche
There is a concept from the ancient Greeks the Christian churches continue to use. It is anamnesis, which can be too facilely translated as “remembering”. Anamnesis is more than just the mental or verbal recall of words or events from the past. It is an active participation in those acts in the past by those in the present. The archetype of anamnesis in the life of the church is the Eucharist.
The flip-side of anamnesis is prolepsis. This is not just a thinking about some thing that might happen in “the future”. In a very real sense it is here and now enacting an event that is happening in God’s future. Again, the paradigmatic proleptic event in the life of the church is the Eucharist.
On Good Friday, we have an instance where both anamnesis and prolepsis occur. As we stand at the look upon an image of Jesus hanging on the cross, we are not just thinking about an event in the past. We are, in God’s reality, there, our eyes fixed upon the broken and bleeding body before us.
What do we see? In faith, we see not just a tortured human being. We see and hear and smell the abandonment and emptiness that should be our lot. This is part of the ritual of the Lord’s Supper, enacted in a more stark, naked way. When we look upon the dead Jesus, we are looking at the emptiness that should be our lot, the judgment that should sit upon us.
We are also seeing ourselves before the Throne of God, the judgment laid upon us yet taken up in what the author of Revelation says is “the Lamb who was slain”. The judgment of God is the grace of God, enacted on the cross for us. Through no act of ours, not acceptance, not good and right living, not moral uprightness, not the pursuit of justice, we stand before the Divine Judge “without one plea”, as the hymn says. Yet, we need no plea because the cost is paid, the victory won, and our place at the table set for us.
Nietzsche’s abyss is the emptiness of existence, an emptiness that can swallow us if we have no reed upon which to lean, nothing to grasp and keep us from tumbling in to the nothingness that will swallow us whole. When we on Good Friday gaze upon the broken, tortured corpse of Jesus of Nazareth, “King Of The Jews”, we are also looking in to an abyss. This is an abyss far worse than the hollowness of human life here and now without salvation, without hope, with only the monsters we contemplate ready to claim us as their own. This abyss is the Godlessness of Divine abandonment, the judgment of a just God upon human sin, yet redeemed for us by this same God who takes that abandonment, death, and judgment up in the Divine life and makes it Holy. We should weep, to be sure, for the price paid for our sin and evil. Yet, we should also rejoice because this abyss, for all its eternal emptiness, is filled with the Light of the World, a beautiful abyss that transforms our lives and grants us hope.