Holy Thursday is often called ‘Maundy Thursday’ from the Latin word ‘mandatum.’
Thought most Christians mark the day by recalling the Passover meal Christ celebrated with his disciples, ‘Maundy’ instead recalls John’s scene of Christ washing his friends’ feet and then giving them the ‘mandate’ to wash one another’s feet as a sign of love.
Consequently, Maundy Thursday is a day when Christians give a lot of lip service to the word ‘love.’ However Christians often exhibit little awareness of how impossible love is- especially when we speak of God’s love for us.
The late Dominican philosopher Herbert McCabe wrote much on the impossibility of God’s love. Taking Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity with the seriousness it deserves, McCabe works out a response that mines the riches of the ancient Christian tradition.
I’m marking this Holy Week by again reading through some of McCabe’s relevant work:
“From one point of view, the cross is the sacrament of the sin of the world- it is the ultimate sin that was made inevitable by the kind of world we have made.
From another point of view, it is the sacrament of our forgiveness, because it is the ultimate sign of God’s love for us.
Love requires a relationship of equals.
To love is to give to another not possessions or any such good thing. It is to give yourself to another, but this other must share equality with you (or, as in the case of parents and children, the potential for equality) or it is not really love you share…
You will, I know, recognize immediately that this presents a problem about God.
God is evidently incapable of loving us simply because there cannot be this relationship of equality between God and his creatures.
In one very important sense then the Father can only love the Son because only in the Son does he find an equal to love.
The Father can be kind and considerate to his creatures as such, he can shower gifts and blessings upon them, but in so far as they are simply his creatures he cannot give himself, abandon himself to them in love.
That is why any unitarian theory, or any Arian theory that diminishes the divinity of Christ, leaves us as our only image of God that of the supreme boss.
It leaves us, in the end, with a kind of master/slave relationship between God and his creatures. In a sense, it leaves us with an infantile God who has not grown up enough to have learnt to lose himself in love. Such a god may be a kind and indulgent boss, but he remains a master of slaves- even if they are well-treated slaves.
This is exactly the idea behind the rejection of Christianity made (rightly) by Nietzsche.
If, however, with traditional Christianity, we take the Trinity seriously, we too have to join Nietzsche in rejecting the idea.
For the Christian tradition, the deepest truth about people is that they are loved.
But that is only possible because we have been taken up into the love that God has for his Son.
It is into this eternal exchange of love between Jesus and the Father that we are taken up, this exchange of love we call the ‘Holy Spirit.’
God loves us because we are in Christ and share in his Spirit. We have been taken up to share in the life of love between equals, which is the Godhead.
Nietzsche was absolutely right. God could not love creatures; he still can’t love creatures as such, it would make no sense.
But Nietzsche omitted to notice that we are no longer just creatures: by being taken up into Christ- whom the Father can and does love- we are raised to share in divinity, we live by the Holy Spirit.
To trace the line of the argument again:
- God the Creator cannot love creatures as such. To think he could is not to take love seriously. It is like speaking of someone loving his cat- except even more so.
- But God, as the Gospels continually affirm, loves Jesus. Therefore Jesus must share equality with God. There cannot be two individual Gods any more than one individual God.
- Jesus came forth from the Father as it is said in the New Testament: ‘the Father is greater than I.’ He is sent from the Father both in his mission in history and in the eternal procession that that mission reflects.
- We can say this only because we have been taken up into the mystery itself, taken up into the Holy Spirit, the eternal love between the Father and the Son.
Or have we?
If we have not, we have no right to say any of this, no right to say that God is love.”