The Hidden God
The Church Year takes us on the journey toward the Cross in a series of stages.
Each stage is more spartan than the preceding. Previously I have mapped out the first stage of the journey, Pre-Lent. At that point we had simply turned toward Calvary, and while our “alleluias” disappeared the prevailing mood of the Divine Service was not too much changed. Lent proper commenced with Ash Wednesday: green gave way to purple, the Gloria dropped out, and our singing went silent. With this next Sunday (called “Judica”) we are moving into a new stage of the journey: Passiontide.
The first four weeks of Lent have their own focus.
While always walking alongside Jesus, have a focus on personal penitence and spiritual growth. In Passiontide, however, the suffering (or “passion”) of our Lord is front and center. In Scripture and ceremony and song, the shadow of the Cross looms large.
This Sunday’s Gospel is John 8.48-59, which recounts the heightening tension between Christ Jesus and the religious authorities. The exchange climaxes with Jesus making the startling claim, “Before Abraham was, I AM!” (8.58). His opponents see it for what it is—a not-so-subtle assertion of divinity—and pick up stones in order to visit swift and immutable justice on Him for blasphemy. The passage concludes with saying that Jesus “hid himself” in order to evade His enemies. It’s this hiding that will mark the remainder of our journey to Good Friday.
One pious tradition that reinforces this theme is that the crosses in the sanctuary are veiled after John 8 is read. It reinforces the “hiddenness” of God. “Truly, you are a God who hides himself,” the prophet Isaiah says of the Lord (Isaiah 45.15). Deus absconditus, Luther called Him—“the hidden God.” This is the over-arching theme of Passiontide: that God has disguised himself in weakness and shame. As in Lent the Gloria has given us the slip, so in Passiontide the Lord will cloak His glory in suffering. He absconds into the dark chasm of the Cross.
There is thus great comfort in Passiontide.
Oftentimes in our lives God, as we know Him and experience Him and live in relationship with Him, is Deus absconditus, the hidden God. We ask and get no answer. We seek and do not find. We knock and the door remains shut. Where’s God? Does He care? “Why, O LORD, do you stand far away? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” (Psalm 10.1).
But the message of this season is that God is most present when He seems most absent. Far from Him disappearing when we need Him most, He absconds from the heavenly heights in order to stand with us in our darkest depths. He hides himself in suffering—the last place we’d look for God Almighty—in order that by his death we might die, and find our lives “hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3.3). And finally, on the Last Day, God “will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death forever” (Isaiah 25.7-8).
For those of us who live this side of Easter, who know that the veil will be lifted and the tomb vacated, the final victory is no wise in doubt. The backward kingdom of God shall come on earth as it is in heaven. Such is our hope, and we journey toward it—but we are not there yet. Let us therefore look wonderingly this Passiontide on our hidden God, who reveals himself in the most unlikely of places.