An input at the gathering of bishops in the Focolare movement at Augsburg, 28 February 2024

“Jesus forsaken” is a challenging topic to proclaim. Challenging in two senses of the word. First, it is not expected by many to hear anything about God. Many have simply forgotten God and in this sense totally forsaken God, and if addressed with the word of God, they feel uneasy. And here lies the other sense of the word “challenging”. Many have namely forsaken especially the “forsaken Jesus”, even though they might hope something miraculous from a mighty God.

In a world of suffering, it is not easy for many to notice what God does and believe God is good. God doesn’t seem to do what the world needs. God should save the world, end all wars, feed the hungry, heal the sick, and prevent from catastrophes. The good and just God must correct all injustice, remove the wicked from power and lift the righteous to rule. But as God does not seem to do this, such a weak, evil, or ignorant God can be forsaken.

But it is in the suffering that God approaches humans. God comes to us as the forsaken Jesus, as Christ crucified. God has chosen to reveal himself through weakness and not through might. It is in the suffering of his Son that God has come to the help of humankind. This is something one would not expect from an almighty and good God.

St. Paul writes to the Corinthians: “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.” (1.Cor. 1:27-29)

For many, a crucified God is too weak to believe in, too silent to pray to, and too shameful to follow. One would expect something more powerful from a supreme sovereign because that is what the world values and what its earthly rulers want themselves to be. They would also want to use such a deity to achieve their own goals to be powerful and mighty in the world. But that is what the suffering God does not allow them. On the contrary, God puts them to shame and reduces them to nothing.

At an early stage in the Reformation initiated by the Augustinian monk Martin Luther, a theological debate was arranged in Heidelberg. At this Heidelberg disputation of April 1518, Luther put forward a “theology of the cross” as opposed to a “theology of glory.” According to Luther, the cross does not only mark the suffering of Jesus, but it also is the prefix attached to all acts by God. God can only be known through the cross because God hides under his contrary form, sub contraria specie. God’s will is not revealed in power and glory but in weakness and suffering. The cross is the principle for all true theology according to Luther. In thesis nr. 21 Luther writes:

“This is clear: He who does not know Christ does not know God hidden in suffering. Therefore he prefers works to suffering, glory to the cross, strength to weakness, wisdom to folly, and, in general, good to evil. These are the people whom the apostle calls »enemies of the cross of Christ« (Phil. 3:18), for they hate the cross and suffering and love works and the glory of works. Thus they call the good of the cross evil and the evil of a deed good. God can be found only in suffering and the cross, as has already been said.”

Luther developed his theology of the cross in a few writings during spring 1518. Only half a year later, in October 1518, he was interrogated by Cardinal Thomas Cajetan here in Augsburg (at the Fugger Palace which still stands on the Maximilianstrasse). Cajetan demanded Luther to renounce what he had written, which he did not do. On the third day of interrogations Luther realized his life was at stake here and he fled the city during night.

In times of trouble and anxiety, people tend to look for strong leaders who would take them through all insecurity. This expectation is extended also to God. We want to have a strong God, a hero who does what we consider the right thing to do. But Jesus is not a God of that kind. He is a forsaken and crucified God. This is the way God reveals his will. God hides himself in sufferings, as Luther put it in his Heidelberg disputation: Deus absconditus in passionibus.

In the Bishop’s house where I live in Tampere there is a chapel. The house was built two years before the WWII broke out, and its chapel was consecrated in 1938. During the war Finland was fighting on the same side as Germany, however, she was not part of the Axis powers but only fought against the Soviet Union as brothers in arms together with Germany, to get back the eastern part of the country Russia had taken in the Winter War and forced Finland to agree an unjust peace.

In May 1941, my predecessor Bishop Aleksi Lehtonen led a group of clergy from Finland on a study trip in Germany. After visits in Berlin and Wittenberg, he stayed a short while alone for recreation in the Bavarian Alps at Schloss Elmau. He told his hosts in the leadership of the Lutheran church about the brand-new Bishop’s house he had recently moved into and asked if he could buy here a fine crucifix to hang on the chapel wall. He was then granted a sum of money from Church international department in Berlin by Bishop Theodor Heckel. The money made it possible for him to by a beautiful handcrafted wooden crucifix, made in Oberammergau – which, as a matter of fact, is quite close to Schloss Elmau where the bishop was staying.

It was already then known to Bishop Lehtonen that the leadership of the German protestant church of those days was infiltrated by Nazis, the “Deutsche Christen”, although his contact person Bishop Heckel was not one of them. The church was forced to comply with the pagan ideology of racism, injustice and oppression that ruled the country. The Nazi regime of Germany tried to convince Finland to align with their political and military aims, and it wanted to use the church for this purpose. Notwithstanding that, the fine crucifix has ever since then been over the altar in the chapel of the bishop’s house in Tampere, and I see it every day.

Every time look I at the crucifix my predecessor got as a sign of unity in faith but also as a token of church politics, I see two messages. First, the forsaken Jesus is suffering for his world and for his church, too. Time after time he is forsaken as a suffering God and twisted into a means for human interest of power and might. His name is used to justify violence and sin although he must carry the burden of the sins of all humankind.

But at the same time, I am reminded that all dictators and tyrants have their time. They rise and fall, be they how violent and murderous as they will. From Herod to Hitler, all enemies of Christ and those that Christ loves, have fallen, been put to shame, and been made into nothing. Be they as powerful they think, they are weaker than the forsaken Jesus.

The tyrants always fall from their thrones, but the forsaken Jesus keeps ruling in the hearts of hundreds of millions of people, because He is voluntary to suffer. The cross is his throne. Since Jesus is God incarnate, he has assumed the humanity of all. He is also present everywhere, where people are suffering. Him being the Jesus forsaken, God has not forsaken us.