Morris Kestelman, Lama Sabachthani (Why have you forsaken me?), 1943, oil, Imperial War Museum, London
4, Matthew 27: 46; Mark 15: 34.
Reading: Mark 15: 33-35.
The words: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’
Reflection: (4) Abandonment
‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’
This fourth saying on the Cross, the fourth of the Seven Last Words, is traditionally called ‘The Word of Abandonment’ and is the only one of this afternoon’s sayings that appears in more than one Gospel.
This saying is given in Aramaic followed by a translation that in the original Gospel text is in Greek.
Of course, we all know too that this phrase is the opening line of Psalm 22.
It was common at the time the Gospels were being written for people to refer to psalms and to songs by quoting merely their first lines.
In the verses immediately following this saying, in both Gospels, the onlookers who hear the cry of Christ on the Cross misunderstand him. They think he is calling for help from Elijah.
It is difficult to understand in what sense Christ felt he was ‘forsaken’ by the Father, for Christ is innocent, he has done nothing to forfeit God’s love and favour, he is holy, harmless and obedient. God still loves him. How could he feel, in any sense, that God have forsaken and abandoned him?
This cry – the fourth of our Seven Last Words from the Cross this afternoon – expresses the depth and intensity of Christ’s suffering, his interior participation, perhaps even his self- understanding of his drama in the terms of Psalm 22.
Certainly, the cry expresses his feelings of desolation and abandonment with the first words of Psalm 22: ‘At three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”’ (Mark 15: 34; see Matthew 27: 46).
Saint Mark quotes the words in Aramaic. We may suppose that the cry appeared so characteristic that the witnesses who heard it, when it came later to recounting the drama on Calvary that first Good Friday, recalled Christ’s very own words in Aramaic.
You may remember from the movie, The Passion of the Christ, that this is the language that was spoken by Christ himself and by most of his contemporaries.
Christ in Gethsemane addresses the Father in Aramaic also
Perhaps, let us imagine, those words were passed on to Mark by the Apostle Peter, who would also have remembered Christ using the Aramaic word ‘Abba’ in the prayer of Gethsemane (see Mark 14:36).
It is significant, for a number of reasons, that in this cry Christ uses the opening words of Psalm 22.
We can imagine how he was used to praying using the Psalms and other Biblical texts. Think of how we do this ourselves to this day. The offices of Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer in the Book of Common Prayer are built around Scripture, and the Psalms in particular. Think of the quotations from the Psalms in the Versicles and Responses, for example. Think of how we name the Psalms we use as Canticles, not by their numbers but by their opening word in Latin: Venite, not Psalm 95; Jubilate, not Psalm 100; or Deus Misereatur rather than Psalm 67.
Those words from the Psalms, for many of us, have become embedded in the memory that shapes and structures our spirituality, our prayer life, and our personal piety.
So too those words and phrases remained with Christ from his childhood. So what would have best expressed his deepest need and anxieties before God in his last dying moments?
In a real way, they alluded to the condition of the one who would have taken upon himself all our iniquity (see Isaiah 53: 11).
On the Cross, it would have been natural, not just second nature, for Christ to draw on the psalmist’s question to God when he felt completely worn out in his suffering.
But the ‘Why’ he addresses to God expresses a pained bewilderment at that suffering which can find no merely human explanation. It is a mystery that the Father alone can unlock.
Yet Christ, in finding full solidarity with humanity, had to experience in himself abandonment by God. If we do not, at some stage feel abandoned by God, do we need salvation, no matter what we mean salvation?
And if Christ does not share that feeling, how could he possibly have become fully human, how could he possibly fully identify with my human condition?
Without this last feeling of abandonment and isolation, it would still appear to be an illusion: Christ identifies with my humanity, but does he take it in? Without taking on each and every aspect of our shared humanity, there is no incarnation.
And without losing, abandoning control, over how he dies, there is no natural conclusion, no end to that human life.
None of us has control over how we die, even if we think we have.
In that feeling of being abandoned, in that cry, in that ‘Why’ addressed to heaven, Christ expresses a new solidarity with us when we so often raise our eyes and words to heaven and express, complain, cry out in desperation and desolation.
Yet, in the ‘Why’ of Christ on the cross, there is no resentment leading to rebellion or desperation, no reproach to the Father. We hear only the cry of weakness, of solitude, of abandonment, an echo of our own cries of weakness, of solitude, of abandonment.
Christ’s humanity is reduced to a wasteland. He no longer feels the presence of God the Father. But he goes ahead with this tragic experience of complete desolation.
That silence of God weighs on the dying Jesus as the heaviest pain of all, so much so that his enemies interpret this silence as a sign of his reprobation: ‘He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, “I am God’s Son”.’ (Matthew 27: 43).
When it comes to feelings and affection, this sense of the absence of God, of being abandoned by God is the most acute spiritual pain for Christ, who has drawn his strength and joy from his union with the Father.
This pain renders all the other sufferings more intense.
This lack of interior consolation is Christ’s greatest agony.
If sin is separation from God, then at this moment he experiences our separation as his own.
But remember too that Psalm 22, which he perhaps continues to mutter and to recite to himself as his passion is prolonged, moves on to become a hymn of liberation and an announcement of God’s salvation of all:
From you comes my praise in the great congregation;
my vows I will pay before those who fear him.
The poor shall eat and be satisfied;
those who seek him shall praise the Lord.
May your hearts live for ever!
All the ends of the earth shall remember
and turn to the Lord;
and all the families of the nations
shall worship before him.
For dominion belongs to the Lord,
and he rules over the nations.
To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down;
before him shall bow all who go down to the dust,
and I shall live for him.
Posterity will serve him;
future generations will be told about the Lord,
and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn,
saying that he has done it.
(see Psalm 22: 27-31).
This experience of being abandoned is passing pain.
This experience gives way to personal liberation and to the universal hope of salvation.
Lord Jesus Christ,
you bore our sins in your body on the tree,
and knew the deep darkness of abadonment;
help us to know your presence when we feel forsaken,
and the wonderful truth that we who were far off
have been brought close by your redeeming blood,
for your mercy’s sake. Amen.
(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is priest-in-charge, the Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin Group of Parishes. This is the fourth of seven reflections on ‘the Seven Last Words’ on Good Friday, 19 April 2019, in Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick.