Holy Week 2011 Daily Reflection on the Last Words of Christ
Mark 15: 33-34
33About noon the sky turned dark and stayed that way until around three o'clock.
34Then about that time Jesus shouted, "Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?" which means, "My God, my God, why have you deserted me?"
In His Last Words, Jesus talks to the Father twice. This Fourth Word is the first time that Jesus addresses God. The Fourth Word is quite a remarkable thing for Jesus to say: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” There is no familiarity of address, no gentle talking with a ‘Father’. Jesus instead just invokes ‘God’, a distant, cold term compared to ‘Father’. Jesus accuses God of desolation, of abandonment, of being forsaken. Using the opening words of Psalm 22, Jesus expresses the cry of his heart: why has God left him to suffer? The Fourth Word is remarkable because here Jesus, the God-man, accuses God of being absent when perhaps He needs God most.
Yet, I think that this Fourth Word reveals Jesus at both His most human and at His most divine. How can this paradox be true: that Jesus both accuses God of being absent to his human suffering and yet shows God to be most present? Perhaps we best reflect on the human and the divine element present in this Fourth Word.
First, how does this Fourth Word show Jesus at his most human? Well, what does it mean to be human at all? We all know that life, amidst all of its brokenness, can still be a joyful thing. We grow, we change, we laugh, we love, and we live. We all know too, however, that life, in its brokenness, can be a hard thing to bear. We struggle, we degenerate, we cry, we hate, and we see death. The shape of Jesus’ life shows that he shares both sides of the coin of human life with us. And now, on the Cross, he shares the same fate as all of us share: death. It’s not his first experience, of course, with death. The Gospels tell us that Jesus “wept” at the death of Lazarus. But now it’s Jesus’ own death, it’s brutal, it’s unjust, and it’s agony.
Jesus cries angrily to God what most of us want to say at some point in our life: “My God, why have you forsaken me?” God can seem absent and it can make us angry. Sometimes life drags us to the bottom of despair, whether because of how someone treats us, or because of something we regret, or because someone dies, or because we are running on empty.
The poet Sylvia Plath describes this despair in her poem entitled ‘Elm’. She writes:
I know the bottom, she says, I know it with my great tap root:
It is what you fear.
I am terrified by this dark thing
That sleeps in me;
All day long I feel its soft, feathery turnings, it malignity.
Plath’s vision of despair, of being at the bottom, is a nightmare, but one that maybe many of us share at some stage. Jesus surely felt something similar. It’s not that ‘God is dead’ as Nietzche famously quips, but that God is absent. Where there is no God, what hope or joy is there? For Jesus to angrily demand of God, then, ‘where are you?’ and ‘why have you left me’? is to see Him at His most human. Jesus demands of God what Psalm 22 wants to know:
Why are you so far away when I groan for help?
Every day I call to you, my God, but you do not answer.
Every night you hear my voice, but I find no relief.
In this Fourth Word, then, Jesus cries out for us as well as for Himself in His pain and agony, and we see Him as most human.
But the content of this Fourth Word does not end there. That would be quite tragic if it did. In this Fourth Word, we also see Jesus at His most divine. The most remarkable thing for me is that, since Jesus is God, this Fourth Word of Abandonment is said by God to God. It’s like we are listening in to a conversation that has run through eternity. In some way, in some manner, God knows and understands what it feels like to be abandoned. The Source of life, beauty, truth, goodness knows what it means for all that to feel meaningless and horrific. God knows what we experience when God seems absent.
That, for me, is the real gift of this Fourth Word. Even where God seems absent, God is present. God is present not to offer sympathy, a pat on the back and an ‘it will be alright’. God, through Jesus on the Cross, shows solidarity with our despair, our sense of abandonment. And God, in some sense, suffers with us. As Jesus elsewhere puts it, ‘there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends’ (John 15.13). Here, God lays down His life with His creation. As Martin Luther once said, “God forsaking God – who can understand it?” Yet, we can receive life from it.
This Fourth Word, then, telescopes together for us despair and hope, the human and the divine. It gives us permission to be angry with God, to feel abandoned. It also encourages us to cling to God through Jesus, sharer of our pain, bringer of our hope. For, in the midst of emptiness and pain, God resides with us and waits to be reborn, to be resurrected. As John Donne poetically implores Jesus, “Moist, with one drop of Thy blood, my dry soul.” (La Corona, ‘Crucifying’)
Restless with grief and fear,
the abandoned turn to you:
in every hour of trial,
good Lord, deliver us,
O God most holy, God most strong,
Whose wisdom is the cross of Christ.