When Paul wrote this letter, he had gone through a bad time, mentally. He had actually despaired of his life. Perhaps it was due to a persecution, perhaps an acute illness, perhaps both, he doesn’t say. He struggled internally with the possibility that his whole message, and the whole spirituality he had live and shared, was a fraud. He became afraid that it did not hold up against the unbending justice of a Too-Strong God. He started to ask himself if he was right about God - was his version of God true and real? He got into a strange state.
He came up with a strange word for this strange state. Paul had always talked about kenosis. It meant being hollowed out, emptied out, ‘nothing-ed’. But kenosis was not strong enough to describe how he felt now. In 2 Cor he said he was carrying in his body (psyche-soma), not just kenosis, but the nekrosis of Jesus. Nekrosis in Greek means the physical condition of a corpse – the already dead body of someone who has (recently) passed away. Sometimes nekrosis is used to indicate the increasingly corpse-like condition of someone who is very close to death.
Paul used nekrosis to describe a mental state. It signifies an irreversible condition in the psyche. The life of anyone still technically alive who is in this mental state is like the feeble beating of a dying insect’s wings…utterly impotent. Nekrosis according to Paul is the upshot of being all our life handed over to Thanatos (Death – but much more than physical death) (2 Cor 4, 11). Actually, it seems that the Greek of that sentence is better rendered as ‘all our life we have handed ourselves over…to Thanatos’. [It is a middle form, not a passive form, of the verb.]
There is certainly a greater emphasis in the word nekrosis than in the word kenosis. But there is something else too. Paul talks about bearing in his own body the nekrosis of Jesus. Is nekrosis different when it is ‘lived’ by someone who is alive? If nekrosis is lived, by a living person, there is something more in it than the radical demand of self-emptying.
That self-emptying does propose participation in the death state of the risen Jesus rather than pre-occupation with one’s own individual life or death. It does think in terms of the totality of that death state rather than on the priority of one’s own individuality. And in that, there is a gentling, so to say, of kenosis – nekrosis is an achieved, a calmer thing. There is no struggle in a recently dead body. Nekrosis might well be seen as the body’s final statement that its opponent, death or Thanatos, has gone away, that is, that there is an irremovable positivity in the end of it all. There is no such thing as eternal night, it is always dawning.
I think there is such a thing as kenosis of spirit or soul. It is a learnt and experienced gentleness (gentler than ordinary gentleness), and it verges on simplicity. It flows down from the spirit into the body and emotions and general affect. It changes the lived soma, both the individual soma and the body politic in which one engages.
I suggest that this gentler kenotic ‘bodyliness’ imparts something of itself to the ‘deceased’ body (corpse – which is like a corps receiving an ‘e’ mail from this gentle bodyliness). Perhaps that state of gentled kenotic spirit-in-gentled-kenotic-body is nekrosis lived and ‘borne’ (Paul – bearing in my body the nekrosis of Jesus).
Perhaps this is what we (and the bystanders in Jn) look upon as we contemplate the pierced through one. Perhaps it is one reason why artists are fascinated with the deposition from the cross. And the pieta….Perhaps too it is how we see Jesus in his resurrection, retaining stigmata – but retaining is not the fully correct word: the resurrectedness itself is rather the ‘so gentled’ corpse eternally so and self-manifesting to those gifted with Calvary-insight.
You could link this with the ‘chains’ idea from the stations of the cross…it is the gentleness that has dissolved the chains… You could link this ‘gentle nekrosis’ with the reflection on the ‘chained man’ this morning. In death, in the death state, the chains are no more. There is no struggling tautness in the body.
You could almost see it in some art works, especially Michelangelo’s Rondini…. It is his last marble sculpture, in the last weeks of his life (1564), he worked on it for a whole day just a week before he died. Perhaps he deliberately left it unfinished…It is the work of an old man, it is simplified, it is simple. There is much detail that could have been there, but is not. Mary stands elevated on a stone platform, and bends over the full length corpse of Jesus, supporting it with difficulty from behind. The two figures virtually melt into one. The living one bears the nekrosis of the one who is just dead.
I think Paul wants to tell us what a radical step he took when he gave up on the Strong and Heavy God and gave himself to the Real Redeeming Lover. I think he wants to tell us it didn’t happen in one instant. It took ages. His imagination kept coming back at him with fantasms of the Strong and Heavy God still coming after him.
My question on this Good Friday afternoon is: did Jesus himself go into nekrosis in his psychological passion? Did he get entangled in images … images of God? The cry he gave on the cross is given in Hebrew, Eli Eli lamma sabacthani? It is translated usually as My God, My God who have you abandoned me? I cannot find any textual or lexical instances of the Hebrew/Aramaic word sabac meaning abandoned.
I have found a hint that it may be better translated as entangled. If you are dying on a cross, will your imagination be quiet and let you die in a tranquil trust in a gently supportive God, or will it play up even more than Paul’s imagination did, and tangle you up between Heavy and Gentle Gods – so that you only break the knot completely in the instant of real death?
There are indeed times, but only times, thank God, when it is the turn of violence to demand to have its voice heard in the psyche. Not too far into the unconscious, there is a caveman, a hunter, a predator. When someone has gone beyond, way beyond all the peace that non-judgmentalism can confer, it can happen that he or she becomes the microphone or loudspeaker of ancestors and avatars, and their still untamed voice is heard again, aloud, angry, violent. Is it just possible for some few to go down into the past of the whole human race, and find that the beasts and demons – the psychic beasts and demons – are using them to scream again at everyone? Does the Violent One, in one uncrowded hour, claim again a denied voice and a right of reply and take the stage and assume command and lay down the law (even if that law be Torah itself)?
Is that the cutting edge of schizophrenia? Or is it the first and last step of the Passover? Or is it both?
And what is there, once that step is taken? Paul, I think, knew that even resurrection would be too lame and limp a term for that… Is the living of nekrosis alive, almost a description of what resurrection really is? Is there a gentleness in it that is impossible in any other condition?
In Ephesians Paul thinks more of the invasion into one’s psychic space of another head than one’s own (anakephalaiosasthai)?
Jesus crucified, be with us as we step from our world into….yours….
Each of us, sometime or other, is placed before suffering, betrayal, sickness, death, and at that moment we need to believe that despite everything we are loved and in that love it all adds up
There is a novel, in English, from a Japanese author, entitled, The Remains of the Day. It sums up the mood of Good Friday evening. We are in the remains of this day.
C.S. Lewis has a beautiful book, A Grief Observed. He wrote it after his wife’s tragic death. He had a mad, midnight moment, and wrote it. It puts words on his loss. In fact, that loss had knocked him silly, and at the same time brought him to his senses. Sometimes, he said, only torture brings us to the truth…and to self-discovery. It shakes us out of mere verbal thinking and notional belief. This book was the source of the play, and movie, Shadowlands… Part of every sorrow is its shadow, its reflection. You keep on thinking about it
Perhaps Good Friday evening invites us to observe our own grief at the death of Jesus, and to live for a moment in the shadowland of the cross.
There are questions, but no answers. Did God want Jesus to suffer? Does God want anyone to suffer? Does God want us to suffer? Or, does God want Jesus, all of us, us in particular, to get out of our misery and so grow up? Is it only through suffering that we find each other, that we find love, that we find other people? Is suffering God’s experiment with humans, to see if they can be bigger than human?
To live in the nursery of la-la—land isn’t to live…To imagine a God who is always so kind that nothing bad will ever happen to us, isn’t to encounter the real God…We do need to move out from the safe little circle of yes men and yes women and yes Gods…There is a need to dance on the edge of the cliff – on one toe - for the sheer thrill of possibly being more than you ever were…
Courage isn’t just one of the virtues. It is the form of every virtue and its testing point.
I am talking about suffering, but I am really thinking about death. When someone close to us has died, we don’t want people to tell us about the consolations of religion, even about the consolations of Easter. I suspect that people who do that haven’t been there at the cutting edge, and so don’t understand.
There is such a thing as death. There is such a thing as grief. Grief is so like fear. There is such a thing as courage. It is so like love.
I wonder sometimes about the dead. I wonder about Jesus after he has died. Do they, did he, also feel the pain of separation from us? As we do from them?
Camus wrote a book he called La peste. In a certain town (or is it a village?) for long months that seemed endless, the people were victims of an epidemic, a pestilence, and were put in quarantine. This took away from them any capacity for love and friendship. Love and friendship demand at least some future – but the people in this place had no future, they had only immediate moments to live, and then to die. They had only a series of instants – short or long, dependent on your attitude.
Israel came alive only when it saw a future (in common) in the promises, and only then could it love.
The long journey of Israel actually ends in an empty tomb. It is there that hope is born, that future is created, and that love can be real.
It is not just Israel. At the empty tomb, there is a collective future for humanity, as we, like Jesus, enter into the Kingdom in and through the grave.
There is always a hiatus, a lack of continuity, a space of faith, in an empty tomb. It is the gap between Good Friday afternoon and Saturday night. Good Friday spells the end of all our projects. They end in disaster and failure. But on Saturday night, when dreams are dead, there is the new birth of hope.