Seven Last Words: 4. My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Matthew 27:46 & Mark 15:34)

"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"
This is the only saying from the Cross recorded in two of the Gospels - Mark, apparently the earliest, and Matthew, which follows it closely. And it is the only saying from the Cross in either of those Gospels. It is a bleak, a desperate call - the mid-point and the low point of these seven sayings.

I have been speaking of Jesus as working from the cross, saving and re-creating our humanity by his seven words; this is of course a paradox, as the helpless Galilean’s life drains away. At this point however, having spoken of forgiveness, and of paradise, and of love, Jesus seems to fall away from his creative restorative work, and lets his brokenness speak out.

Jesus is of course quoting scripture; if we objected to the possibility that Jesus really experienced desolation, we could some might take reassurance from the fact that even dying he can summon up the presence of mind and strength of body – and theological education - to recite Psalm 22.

This, however, is not what I think we should hear first and foremost in this wrenching cry of despair. We do him and ourselves no favors to make Jesus a pious hypocrite in order to protect our assumptions about him. We should assume that he meant what he said; that he believed God had forsaken him, and that his call was made in despair.

This is the moment where the reality of the cross cuts the deepest, not just in terms of Jesus’ physical anguish and the sense of life falling away; these are the fate of us all. What cuts most deeply here is Jesus' realization that all the creativity of his ministry, all the hope of the kingdom, all the power of God to heal and save, all the love, is in this moment gone. It is not the Romans who are the problem at this moment, not the Chief Priests and the scribes, not the fallible disciples, not stray family members who needs accommodation arrangements; it is God. God is the problem.

There seems, then, little that is creative about this fourth word, even if he gives voice to moments of doubt that we must all feel. I beg however to differ; this is a moment of Creation. In fact this is this moment when the creative work begun with the incarnation and the word of an Angel, decades before, reaches its completion.

Today (March 25th, 2016) is what would have been the Feast of the Annunciation, were it not that our calendrical rule in the Western Church prevents such a concurrence, and moves Lady Day to the week after the Easter Octave. The Eastern Church has no such rule; a very busy liturgical schedule simply becomes ever more crowded.

This concurrence has happened a few times in recent years, but will not again during any of our lifetimes (unforeseen progress in medical science notwithstanding). I call it a “concurrence” rather than coincidence, deliberately. There were those in the ancient Church who dated the crucifixion to this day in the solar calendar. Although there was no clear historical basis for this, some also suggested that March 25, which could have been Passover the year of Jesus’ death, would have been a likely date all those years before for the incarnation itself. The years of Jesus’ life thus would have formed a whole, announced by an angel to his mother and given up to the Father on the same day, reflecting divine purpose in calendrical terms.

Another year this concurrence took place was 1608. John Donne famously wrote about it, pondering Mary’s place at both events:

She sees Him nothing twice at once, who’s all;
She sees a Cedar plant itself and fall,
Her Maker put to making, and the head
Of life at once not yet alive yet dead;
She sees at once the virgin mother stay
Reclused at home, public at Golgotha;
Sad and rejoiced she’s seen at once, and seen
At almost fifty and at scarce fifteen;
At once a Son is promised her, and gone;
Gabriel gives Christ to her, He her to John...

The concurrence is perhaps the clue to what could be seen most truly and starkly in Jesus’ cry of despair. The real humanity assumed in Mary was not just God dressing up to look like one of us, while retaining divinity as a protection against what humanity really entails. Real humanity could only be fulfilled in death.

Before he died, the Roman Emperor Vespasian is said by Suetonius to have joked “Oh dear, I think I am becoming a god” (Vesp. 23.4) Jesus however says in this awful cry “O God, I think I have become human.”

At this point, with his cry of despair, Jesus knows he is going to die, as we all will, and faces the horror of this honestly. And as much a mark of our humanity as the mere fact of mortality is the loss of hope; for if he can remain confident of his salvation, if death were merely to be a nap for Jesus, he would not really be one of us. If Jesus is to be saved, it must be by power of the God now hidden from him, not by anything that remains in him. And so too it is for us; at death, we trust not in some innate ability to drift on as immortal souls, but in the power of the one who on the third day might raise Jesus again.

What is created in this fourth word from the cross, the “let there be” of it, is the same word spoken by the Angel, or the end of a sentence begun to her decades before. On the face of it they are contradictory. Gabriel says to Mary “The Lord is with you.” Jesus says “My God my God why have you left me.” But the issue at least is the same. Is God with us or not?

Only if Jesus is truly human - only if he can experience mortality and abandonment - can we say God is with is. And only if God has forsaken Jesus - allowed him into the reality of sin and death which grips us all - can he be truly with us, and free us from them. This is the mystery of the incarnation, the Word not merely spoken, but the Word made flesh.


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