Mystical Word  |  Weekly Reflection
Mystical Word is a weekly reflection on the Sunday Gospel reading by L.J. Milone, Director of Faith Formation, Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle

We become the God we worship

God is not one of the gods of myth and legend. We become the God we worship.

Zeus, Lord of the ancient Greek gods, is the worst god one could worship.  Known to cheat on his wife often, while being the god of morality, Zeus never let a woman stop him from sexual pleasure.  He once took the form of a bull and raped a woman named Europa.  Another time, he became so furious with Prometheus for giving humanity fire that he punished by him having a bird peck out his liver for all eternity.  He was a nasty god.  Intriguingly, “Zeus” is a Greek word and it came into the Latin language, a language sacred to our Catholic Church, as the word “Deus.”

Our lifestyle and self-image have a strong connection to our image of God.  Often, different societies down through the ages have used a specific image of God to support the existing social order.  Royalty in Europe used to cite a doctrine called “the divine right of kings,” which said no one could oppose a monarch because he derived authority directly from God.  A twisted and evil image of God lies behind the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the September 11 attacks.  On a more everyday level, politicians use God to legitimize their policies and platforms.  This is one of the biggest problems with our conventional American society: the manipulation of God.  This problem needs addressing because we become the God we worship.  The question before each one of us, then, concerns the God we worship.  Whom do I worship?  How do I view God?

Liberation theologian Segundo Galilea writes, “What kind of God do we have?  What kind of God do we adore and follow?  Is our God the authentic God of Christianity, the God of the Bible, the God who is the Father of Jesus Christ, or is he, rather, the God whom we have consciously or unconsciously manipulated in order to accommodate him to our interests, ideology or culture?”  He says the powerful, those upholding conventional society and whose wealth derives from this society, “substitute a God drawn from [their] imagination, according to the measure of [their] own cravings.”  They do not worship God but an idol.  They manipulate God to their own purposes and the detriment of the poor.  Jon Sobrino, another liberation theologian, writes, “Jesus sees the de facto evil use of power rooted in the will to power—specifically in the power that tries to manipulate God.  Insofar as human beings do not let God be God, they themselves cease to be human.  And when these nonhumans hold power, they use it against the kingdom.”

At the root of all injustice is a spiritual problem: whom do we worship?  Is it God or a culturally authorized image of God?  A conventional god gives religious sanction to a conventional society with its exclusive focus on the market.  Such a society propagates myths like redemptive violence, uninhibited greed, and patriarchal white privilege.  Our worship matters.  The dangerous memory of Jesus Crucified shows us a different way of worship and reveals a God wholly different from the one presented by normal American culture.  This God is downright scary to this culture.  If we worship this God, the God revealed in the passion and death of Jesus, then we become dangerous.  That God does not abide injustice, greed, patriarchal white privilege, or violence.  That God is revealed through the cross, which the ego, conventional society, and even conventional religion resist with all their might.

In the account of his passion and death, Jesus is reduced to nothing through suffering, humiliation, insults, and divine abandonment.  Theologian Johann Baptist Metz says, “In the poverty of his passion, he had no consolation, no companion angels, no guiding star, no Abba in heaven.”  Here lies the heart of the dangerous memory of the Gospel.  Jesus’ death on cross reveals the divine nothingness.  As he is about to die, Jesus cries out, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?...My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mk. 15:34)  This cry and its resulting death shockingly reveal God as the godless nothingness.  Pause for a moment and sit with this: the cross unveils the godless nothingness.  The crucified is dangerous, a threat to all our images of God as much as our false gods and sacred myths.  Through this Gospel reduction to nothingness, our gods die. The Godless God is revealed.  The God of Jesus is not one of the gods validating our ego needs.  God is not one of the myths supporting our bourgeois culture.  God does not sanction war, greed, racism, sexism, or the sinful neglect of one’s neighbor.  Yet, society can use God to lend powerful religious support to these very sins.  Hence, the cross shows us God as the godless nothingness because God is not a god, that is, a thing we can manipulate to serve our own selfish interests.  By knowing and even rejoicing in the godless nothingness, we can let our egos go.  As the ego is let go through the reduction to nothingness, the various gods in need of appeasement – the gods of violence, greed, racism, and sexism – disappear, too.

This disappearance of the gods happens as we are brought into oneness with God.  St. John of the Cross, sixteenth century mystic and doctor of the church calls the complete reduction to nothingness Jesus experienced on the cross, “the most marvelous work of his whole life…he brought about the reconciliation and union of the human race with God through grace.”  St. John writes that Jesus did this “at the moment in which he was most annihilated in all things: in his reputation before people…in his human nature, by dying; and in spiritual help and consolation from his Father, for he was forsaken by his Father at that time, annihilated and reduced to nothing, so as to…bring people to union with God.”  He recognizes how the followers of Jesus must suffer what he suffered.  The disciples of Jesus must also be reduced to nothing.  St. John continues, “When they are reduced to nothing, the highest degree of humility, the spiritual union between their souls and God will be an accomplished fact…The journey, then, does not consist in consolations, delights, and spiritual feelings, but in the living death of the cross, sensory and spiritual, exterior and interior.”

Jesus’s passion teaches us to surrender to God in the events and experiences that come our way. It is not what we do but what we allow to be done to us that transforms us, in the words of Richard Rohr.  I am not advocating a kind of Catholic fatalism, though.  We consent to God in what is done to us and we do what God wants.  That is the essence of the surrender Jesus lives enabling God to reduce him to nothing so as to reveal the divine mercy and the godless nothingness at the heart of all things.

Our focus as disciples of Jesus must be letting ourselves be reduced to nothing throughout the day by centering on nothing but God.  This fundamental turning away of our attention from self to God is what Jesus practiced during his passion and death.  He referred everything to God.  In the Gospel of Luke, as he is about to die, Jesus prays, “Into your hands, Father, I commend my spirit.”  He surrenders without restriction.  He keeps his heart centered on God.  Meister Eckhart says, “If you truly have God and only God, nothing will disturb you.  Why?  Because you are totally focused upon God and only God.  Therefore, everything is nothing but God to you.”  This is our path.  This is how we keep the dangerous memory of Jesus crucified alive.  In doing so we discover the secret of our identity.

The Gospel of Mark is about identity.  The identity of Jesus is its focus, and this identity unveils the true nature of humanity and of God.  Our language about God reveals more about our own wishes, desires, needs, and fears than it does about God.  We become the god we worship.  God-identity and self-identity go together; our language reveals our idolatry.  We identify with body, behavior, thoughts, feelings, possessions, ethnicity, nationality, religion, and pretty much anything else under the sun. These ideas assume identity is only finite.  The Gospel of Mark, instead, shows us we are none of these things but that we are one with God.  It shows us, in the words of Meister Eckhart, that “all our being consists in nothing but becoming nothing.”  Our reality lies in waking up to our oneness with the godless nothingness. 

We wake up to being one with the godless nothingness as we self-empty as Jesus did on the cross (Phil 2:7).  We empty ourselves truly when faced with situations not of our choosing.  It is not what we do but what we allow to be done to us.  We must accept being nothing.  This requires trials, disappointments, suffering, and weakness.  Holiness is not an ego trip, a game the ego plays to achieve something.  Without thinking of himself, Jesus submitted to his death on the cross.  This is our path, too.  Whatever helps us to let go of self, to take ego off center stage, has the power to jolt us out of conventional mores and into the truth of who we are.

Godless nothingness and identity tie together.  God is neither an ideology, nor a law, nor a morality, nor a religion.  God transcends everything we think God is, even being itself.  God is not a cosmic being opposed to me, over me, or distant from me.  God is unimaginable, because God transcends our minds.  God is non-spatial and non-temporal.  Thus, God is nothing.  Yet, God is all.  God is my deepest me, so one with me that no molecule or atom exists without God constantly loving it into being.  In the words of James Finley, we must learn “to seek nothing in everything and everything in nothing.”  Then, we keep the dangerous memory of Christ Crucified alive.  Then, we follow Jesus crucified by living his dangerous program of reduction to nothingness.  Finally, we then become conduits of God’s mercy revealed on the cross.  This mercy pours through us into the world.  We only have to get out of the way.