Eloi, Eloi, Lama Sabacthani: My God, my God why hast thou forsaken me? (St Matt. xxvii. 46)
We come on this Good Friday to the fourth series of words uttered by Christ from the Cross. They are to be sure the most difficult words that Jesus- or perhaps anyone, has ever uttered. They strike us as wrong, precisely because they seem so dangerously close to despair. And yet they are not the cry of despair, but of alienation, dereliction, and abandonment. These words reveal the deepest spiritual pain that Christ as Man can feel. You will notice that Christ is not speaking into the void of nothingness. Rather He turns to the one and only source of reality, God the Father, in a cry of painful helplessness. This is the summary of the long, dark night of the soul. The soul can turn to nothing for comfort other than God himself. And though God is perceived as distant and unmoving, Christ does cry My God, My God.
God’s distance and silence are indeed part of the process of salvation. Here is the sense of utter dependence upon God when He does not respond. O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou [wilt].(St. Matthew 26. 39), He prayed in his agony in the garden. But God must accomplish His will in Jesus. And so Jesus endures what for all other men is unendurable. The light shineth in the darkness and the darkness overcame it not. (St. John 1. 5) The light flickers, trembles, quivers and quakes and yet does not yield to despair. The light flickers and trembles because the loving Christ has taken into his heart the experience of every man, woman, and child who has ever felt forsaken, abandoned, and rendered powerless. In the heart of Jesus, mankind’s last and final temptation to surrender to the void, to choose the meaninglessness of nothingness is taken on. Jesus experiences humanity’s predicament to the full. He endures a final temptation to sin against the Holy Ghost. And yet he does not yield. He is tempest tossed, nearly overwhelmed, and yet He sings the song of the Psalmist:
My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? why art thou so far from helping me, and from the words of my roaring? O my God, I cry in the day time, but thou hearest not; and in the night season, and am not silent…I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint: my heart is like wax; it is melted in the midst of my bowels. My strength is dried up like a potsherd; and my tongue cleaveth to my jaws; and thou hast brought me into the dust of death…They pierced my hands and my feet. I may tell all my bones…
Jesus confesses the pain and agony of being forsaken as He resists the evil one and cleaves to His Father. Romano Guardini sums up what is at work here beautifully. He writes:
God followed man…into the no man’s land which sin had ripped open. God not only glanced down at him and summoned him lovingly to return; He personally entered into that vacuous dark to fetch him, as St. John powerfully expresses it in his opening Gospel. Thus in the midst of human history stood one was both human and God. Pure as God, but bowed with responsibility as man. He drank the dregs of that responsibility- down to the bottom of the chalice. Mere man cannot do this. Man is so much smaller than his sin against God, that he can neither contain it nor cope with it. He can commit it, but he is incapable of fully realizing what he has done. He cannot measure his act; cannot receive it into his life and suffer it through to the end… It confuses him, leaves him desperate but helpless. God alone can ‘handle’ sin. Only he sees through it, weighs it, judges it with a judgment that condemns the sin but loves the sinner… Through the Incarnation a being came into existence who though human in form, realized God’s own attitude toward sin. In the heart and spirit and body of a man, God straightened his accounts with sin. The process was contained in the life and death of Jesus Christ.
Christ is alone now. He has forgiven His enemies. He has welcomed a new friend into the journey of death, which includes His mother and her new son. Now he is alone.The more perfect the Life, the more severe is the sense of its loss. But Jesus wills to be cut down in order that he may grow up. His desire has been to be nothing less than the will of God made flesh. This demands death not only to sin, suffering, and pain but also to any being other than God. He cannot help man fully unless he endures man’s death to himself completely. So Jesus must surrender the good flesh that He has used to express God’s will to all other men. The climax of separation from His old self, as perfect as it was, compels the cry, My God, My God why hast thou forsaken me? (St. Matthew xxvii. 46) The sheer pain and agony of any division between His soul and His flesh is almost unbearable. He has loved his neighbor, as himself. He has loved the self that was nothing but a pure gift from God. But His flesh was nothing if it did not endure the collision between bearing God’s love and man’s sin at once. In holding to the one, He would now completely conquer the other. Had he clung to his flesh, he would have gone down in history as the world’s greatest fool. Man and his sin, which Jesus holds in His forgiving heart, must die.
Jesus Christ stands at the door of Hell. Hell is the punishment for those who despair of God’s goodness. Those who despair do not cry out, My God, My God. With Matthew Arnold, they lament the loss of retreating faith, the disappearance, they say, of God.
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
But those who learn to be exiled, banished, emptied, alone, and dead to all else can and will sing out against the poet’s muse, My God, My God why hast thou forsaken me because Jesus has faced the horror and endured the pain. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God. (St. Matthew v. 3)
The earth and all of creation can offer Him nothing now. Out of the nothingness, that He has in a way become, He must turn again to the light that makes new life. The created universe is dark and at a standstill because as yet it awaits God’s response to the omnipresent agony, the total and complete experience of darkness by primal Man himself. Man is nothing but what God will make Him again.
For He hath not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted;
neither hath He hid his face from Him;
but when He cried unto Him, He heard.