By Fr. Jacob Smith
The text for today comes from Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34, where Jesus from the cross cries out “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” With this statement Matthew and Mark are highlighting that Jesus has drank the dregs of despair on the cross, and so the church chose the word abandonment to associate with this phrase. This is rock bottom. It is the Far Rockaways the day after Superstorm Sandy.
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
In a day and age when much of the church would prefer to talk about, glory, strength, our purpose, prosperity – you name it! – anything but the reality of the cross, it is good, especially in Lent, to be reminded that the wisdom of God, the strength of God, our hope in God, can be found in a word like “abandonment.”
One of the best writers to deal with this theme of abandonment from a Christian perspective was the 20th century Japanese novelist, Shusaku Endo. His book Silence, which is amazing Lenten Devotional Material, tells the story of the Jesuit Priest Sebastian Rodrigues arduous journey halfway around the world to Japan in the 1630, during the one of the worst periods of Christian persecution, to track down a rumor that his beloved mentor Father Chistovaao Ferrerra has abandoned the faith.
Rodrigues, is eventually smuggled into Japan and at first the novel is all glory. He writes back a series of letters brimming with confidence and self-assurance describing to his superiors how he is bravely and secretly saying the Mass and reciting prayers in Japanese with the people.
Well, there comes a point in the book when all the glory shifts, and Rodriguez along with the reader are brought into the sheer terror of feeling abandoned by God. Rodirgues is betrayed by a drunken Christian named Kichijiro to the shogunai authorities. There is a scene where the shogun is pressuring this man to tell him where the priests are hiding. Rodriguez of course is praying for this man’s life, and despite the prayers, he is killed for keeping silent. Rodriguez then thinks surely some sort of miracle will occur and there is nothing, just silence; and in this moment Rodriguez begins to ponder he may have been abandoned by God.
Who here hasn’t felt abandoned at least once in their life?
Who here hasn’t felt abandoned at least once in their life? In the midst of family trauma, the lack of employment or firing, a sickness, and felt like saying my God, my God why have you forsaken me. All of the cries, all of the prayers, just seem to float up into outer space, because not a single prayer seems to be answered or heard. It can be a terrifying and traumatic experience and has caused many people to leave the faith all together.
There is this amazing cartoon by religious commentator David Hayward and it has a man praying and in the caption it says, “Oh Lord please hear me. Answer me in my deepest distress. I need to hear your voice.” And then there is a caption from above but it is empty.
This is my first point: From time to time there are moments in life – and for some of us that can be most of life – where God seems to be absolutely silent. There are moments when it seems like God isn’t listening or answering prayers and in the midst of the long haul of life it can seem like we have been forsaken, we have been abandoned by God.
It is interesting that the last thing Matthew records Jesus saying from the cross is: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” There is nothing triumphant about this cry. It is not “God is Love” or “Love on another” or “Ah-ha I am actually winning!” For his entire earthly life on one level was defined by abandonment: from his people, to the crowds, to his own disciples, but the Father was always with Jesus from time to time breaking open the heavens and saying, “This is my son with whom I am well pleased, LISTEN TO HIM.”
But from the cross there is no word of encouragement, no descending dove, just silence. And so in this moment as pain wrecks his very soul, he asks the question of God, the same question you and I have asked from time to time, why have you forsaken me? This is the ultimate of questions Jesus poses from the cross.
Have you ever noticed that who, what, when, how tend to have a definite answer at the end? However the “why” questions can go on forever. Being around a lot of little kids lately has only made this all the more a reality for me. I remember two Christmases ago I was talking to some little kids about the manger scene at St. George’s church.
And this little girl asked me, “why Jesus was born in a manger?” To which I said, “because there was no room for them at the inn?” To which some other kid said, “well, why didn’t they just go to the next town?” To which I said, “well, because the messiah had to be born in Bethlehem of Judea?” To which they asked me again, “why?” To which I responded (and now realizing) that all of a sudden I was laying out some pretty heavy duty theological concepts about the incarnation on some three year olds and I never saw those kids or their parents again.
“’Why’ is the Magna Carta of counselors.”
I once heard it said, “’Why’ is the Magna Carta of counselors.” Sometimes the deepest of conversations involve the pursuit of this question why and all its various trails. But this is my second point: In the midst of real pain, real loss, real sickness, even real questions there is nothing wrong with asking the Question why? And sometimes there is answer to it, hindsight is 20/20 in these situations, and the answers lead to real freedom. But sometimes like those kids the why just takes us deeper, it brings up more questions, and we haven’t got a clue to the answer, maybe there isn’t answer, and so therefore Jesus’ why in the midst of the dark night of our souls can become strangely liberating as well. Jesus’ why means that even the wisest of men and women cannot always know why some things happen.
My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? For many at face value, it seems as if Jesus has lost his faith. This God whom throughout Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus has referred to intimately as father, is now calling out to simply God.
Most people think that faith is nothing more than an acceptable form of superstition. Uh, I checked my brain at the door, I just have faith. But this is not the case with Jesus, in his abandonment, he is teaching us what faith is actually all about as Christians.
Roman historians of the day have recorded that one of the most gruesome parts of the cross is what the condemned would scream, usually it was curses and blasphemy. If Jesus had simply said, “Why has God abandoned me?” Believing that Jesus had given up on God would be plausible and David Hayward’s cartoon would be right. But when Jesus asks God about God’s abandonment, in this moment Jesus is teaching us the meaning of faith better than any other story in the entire Gospel. As John Calvin so astutely put it, “with the words my God, my God, Jesus by faith took hold of God with both hands of his heart.”
This is my third point: Real faith is not a blind act of superstition. Real faith is a gift given to us by God to call on God even when experience says God is not there. For on the cross this dark and finite word of abandonment, that we experience, God actually proclaims that we are not forsaken, for Christ has taken on our abandonment, our questions, our feelings of God’s betrayal, our most agonizing experience, in order that by faith we will believe in and cling to the God Jesus could not feel and was surely tempted to disbelieve, and know that ultimately because of his resurrection Immanuel, God is with us and that he will never leave you or forsake.
Join Fr. Jacob Smith next Friday for the fifth of the Last Seven Words of Christ: Distress.