“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
These are chilling words. A desperate cry of a man gripped by physical pain and spiritual turmoil. A cry of dereliction from a man slowly dying; betrayed by one friend, denied by another. The grieved cry of a man who dies a death in God-abandonment. And somehow, this humiliating and painful death on the outskirts of town is good news? How do we reconcile that with this haunting cry?
One of the trickiest things about this cry of dereliction is the “how” question. Is Jesus not part of the holy and undivided Trinity? Is Jesus not the eternal Son of the Godhead, three-in-one with the Father and Spirit? It might seem like a paradox, but we must keep in mind that whatever we say about this scene on the cross, the Trinity is acting together. What happens to Jesus happens to all three members of the Godhead - God the Father and the Holy Spirit are also crucified. So how then, or why then, does Jesus cry out to God and accuse God of forsaking him?
Throughout his life Jesus has never floated above the human experience, never turned away from the pain and stress of the human condition - Jesus stood with us, felt with us. He was born vulnerable; in need of his mother’s milk and his parents’ love. He was born into an oppressed people, and baptised with those desperate for change. He struggled against temptation, he faced grief, and he knew long and draining weariness. He felt the frustration of not been understood, the sting of betrayal, the abandonment of those he thought he could trust. And now, as we reach Golgotha, he has felt the pain of torture, the exhaustion of a body breaking under its own weight, and he is there because of the strong hand of oppression - of the unholy mix of militarism, imperialism, and religious fear. Jesus once again does not skirt the hard edges of what it means to be human. He faces what so many throughout history have faced - injustice, violence, humiliation, and death.
And at this moment we can better understand “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me”… In the Incarnation - and by that I mean, in the act of God taking on flesh - as is the case of Jesus - God stands in solidarity with the entirety of the human experience, God goes to the absolute depths of what we can and do face. And one of the things we face (especially in moments of atrocity, exclusion, and persecution) is the feeling of being abandoned by God. It is unsurprising that in this moment Jesus quotes a Psalm. Perhaps his own words are failing him; perhaps he doesn’t know what to say to God when feeling so alone. So instead he he reaches into that great repository of human feeling and experience, the hymnody of his religious life. The Psalms are filled with people who are crying out to God in the moment they most feel abandoned by God. And here is Jesus, dying a slow death on the cross, and in this moment he reaches those depths that so many of us have reached, the deep sorrow of the human heart feeling entirely isolated, and, in that feeling of utter-abandonment, he cries, “my God my God why have you forsaken me?”
This is no performance; these are the real feelings of a man gripped by grief and fear. And, surprisingly, this is where we find the good news. The crucifixion of Christ, including Jesus’ own cry of dereliction, show that the Incarnation goes the whole way down; down to the very depths of the human experience. Jesus lives and dies in solidarity with all who are in desolation and dereliction, all who are abandoned and alone, all who have felt the sting of betrayal, all who have wondered if God cares about them at all. Jesus is a victim alongside all the world’s victims. And that is good news because Jesus is also the eternal Son, Jesus is the one who conquers the powers of Sin and Death, and is still present with us today. And because of that we can proclaim this word of comfort with full confidence:
Whatever depths of solitude and sorrow you have felt, are feeling, or may feel - whatever pain and grief you encounter, whether it is inflicted from the outside or whether it wells up from within you, Jesus… God, has felt that too. Whatever dark corners of this world or your own mind that you find yourself you can also find Jesus - and in that there is comfort, for Jesus not only experienced that darkness but overcame it. We not only have a friend who felt the pain, we have a saviour who has conquered Sin and Death, making a way out of no way, so that the pain, anxiety, violence, and injustice of this world will not have the final say. Pain will end, Death will be undone, Sin will be vanquished, and we will have the resurrection and the life.
For that is the judgment of the cross - the Trinity acts together to combat Sin and Death, to rend judgment on all that deals in death, all that corrupts through sin, all that comes between us and a relationship with God, the flourishing of community and the life abundant. The Power of Sin is something with which we are both complicit participants, and victims. Sin and Death holds us in their grip, none of us are immune from acting for them and against our neighbour, or the stranger (and we can point to almost any news story to see the effects of that). But Jesus, who knew no sin, became sin - that is, Jesus went under the power of Sin and Death, bore their full nihilistic brunt, so that we might become the righteousness of God. So that we might be set free from the powers of Sin and Death, so that we might have the resurrection and the life.
Jesus is on the cross for us (so as victims we might be free) and in our place (taking on himself the natural end of our complicity). The Powers of Sin and Death are the enemies Christ battles and enacts God’s judgment against. This is what we are saved from, and we are saved for God’s good purposes. We are delivered (like Israel from slavery in Egypt) we are delivered from the empire of Sin and Death into the surprisingly good kingdom of God. And Jesus does this from the underside, not with hordes of angel armies, but with solidarity and sacrifice. Jesus’ death is the undoing of death, and it makes it possible that we might live an eternal and abundant life, the life that truly is life.
For this reason I am not ashamed of the Gospel - because in proclaiming the gospel we confess that God - who created heaven and earth with a word, did not stay in the heavens looking down at our struggles and suffering and say poor things. Rather God took on flesh, took on the whole of the human experience: the good, the bad, and the bewildering. In the Gospel we confess that Jesus, a man of sorrows, went to the cross - went to the depths of the human condition - faced all the horrors of history - so that we would know that the one we confess as Lord of heaven and earth knows just how hard a human life can be. I don’t think we can overstate this revolutionary message – God knows, first hand, how hard a human life can be, this is the first comfort. But more than this, in his death Jesus brought judgment on all that is wrong in the world, he made atonement for us and for all the times we have been complicit in the world’s brokenness and injustice. In his moment of anguished abandonment Jesus is victim and conqueror: defeating the powers of Sin and Death so we may be freed from their cruelty and might instead become a resurrection people.