On Good Friday
afternoon, Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB, preached the Tre Ore Ceremony of the Seven Last Words of Christ in St. James Cathedral in Seattle, Washington. Below is the fourth reflection based on Matthew 27:45-46
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
From noon onward, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And about three o’clock Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” which means “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?.”
While most people focus on the Lord’s passion from noon to 3 pm on that fateful Friday, the evangelist Mark writes that Christ's time on the cross began three hours earlier, at 9 am, when he was nailed to the cross. Christ's first three hours on the cross were marked by the delusion of those present: passersby deriding him, and even those crucified with him insulting him.
The second three hours that Christ spent on the cross were characterized by silence and darkness and God’s seeming deafness to the pleas and cries of his Son. We learn in the Lord’s retreating and passing how vast a person he was among us. Our memories of what he was like before the “retreat” or “departure” become suffused with the profound weight of post-mortem insight. Perhaps, historically, Jesus died more as he does in Mark and Matthew than he does in Luke or John. Perhaps he cried out, “Eloi, eloi, lema sabachthani… My God, My God, why have you abandoned me?” rather than “Into your hands, I commend my spirit” or “It is finished.” Still, Christians cannot help seeing the story of his death in the context of who we believe him to be, of who we know him to be.
We should not be surprised that Jesus would seize upon Psalm 22 as an expression of what he was experiencing on the cross and why he was there. Psalm 22 is a lament unusual in structure and in intensity of feeling. The psalmist’s present distress is contrasted with God’s past mercy. The psalm is important in the New Testament. Its opening words occur on the lips of the crucified Jesus (Mk 15:34; Mt 27:46) and several other verses are quoted, or at least alluded to, in the accounts of Jesus’ passion (Mt 27:35, 43; Jn 19:24). Matthew’s and Mark’s Gospels do not hesitate to show Jesus in the utter agony of feeling forsaken as he faces a terrible death. In these Gospels also, Jesus began the journey of the passion with an anguished prayer, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want but what you want” (Mark 14:35-36; Matthew 26:39).
Jesus hung on the cross in the presence of mockers (Ps 22:7; Matt 27:39) who taunted him with the unlikelihood that God would deliver him (Ps 22:8; Matt 27:43; Luke 23:35) and others who cast lots for his garments (Ps 22:18), a fact noted by all of the Gospel writers. He was fully aware that this was the moment for which he had come. Insulted by various categories of people, surrounded by a darkness covering everything, at the very moment in which He is facing death, Jesus' cry shows that along with His burden of suffering and death he experiences the abandonment and seeming deafness of God. Jesus' cry to the Father from the cross was not immediately understood by those nearby. Some thought he was calling Elijah, asking him to prolong his life, but Jesus was quoting Psalm 22, which affirms God's presence amid his people. Jesus prays this psalm with the awareness of the Father's presence. Many ask how an omnipotent God could not intervene to spare his own Son?"
We must realize that Jesus' cry is not one for help but rather a prayer for his people and all peoples. By citing the opening verse of Psalm 22, Jesus was inviting all to understand his divine mission and his intense struggle as the God-man. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” Certain similarities and dissimilarities exist between David’s experience and Christ’s. Like David, and even more than David, Jesus understood what to be eternally forsaken of God meant. As the holy, sinless, Son of the Most High God, he must have felt that in an infinitely deeper way than sinful human beings can ever know.
The haunting, burning question remains: How is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob present in the midst of such terror, destruction and loss? Is the answer of suffering, tragedy and loss not wrapped up in that other mystery of God’s own suffering in the suffering of his Son? Whose innocence was violated. Who was also separated from his people. Who also proved to be no match for the brutality of the state. Who lifted up his hands, who stretched out his arms of love on the hard wood of the cross, that everyone might come within the reach of his loving, saving embrace?
Though the darkness enveloped people on that fateful afternoon, even in such moments of darkness God is present. In the Sacred Scriptures darkness is a sign of the presence and action of evil but it can also serve to express a mysterious divine action. And it would be out of this darkness that Christ would emerge to bring life through his act of love.
As human beings, death is dark and scary and real. Even though we believe and trust in God, death can cause anxiety and anguish. Jesus does not bring us deliverance from death but deliverancethrough death. We do not suffer death alone. We live in a culture which, in many ways, is death-denying; it is afraid to take a clear look at the fact and the meaning of mortality. The cry of the psalmist is a profoundly human cry. And Jesus has made the psalmist’s cry his own and in so doing, our own cry.
Jesus suffered and died because of his fidelity to God’s will in his life. Jesus’ preaching was good news for the poor; he ate with publicans and sinners. Many, including both political and religious leaders, found this offensive and threatening. If we show fidelity to the teaching and example of Jesus, we can face similar reactions. We may not face actual death. But we can face opposition and mockery in lesser, more subtle ways that are still painful. The psalmist’s words were certainly fulfilled in the life of Jesus: “All who see me mock at me; they shake their heads” (Psalm 22:7). And they find echo and fulfillment in all those who choose to follow Jesus.
Both Matthew and Mark show us the human Jesus who entered fully into our human condition. There is no sentimental piety in their Passion accounts of Jesus’ death. The point is not that we can enter into Jesus’ cry but that Jesus has entered into ours. God is near even though it may seem like he does not hear people's prayers or has abandoned his flock.
While Psalm 22 ends with hope and praise, those are not the words on Jesus’ lips. While there are no certain references in the New Testament to the second part of Psalm 22 (the hymn of praise), we do see in the Gospels that Jesus was vindicated. His resurrection from the dead is God’s stamp of approval on his life. Through Jesus’ crucifixion, the meaning of death has been radically changed from the inside. Instead of representing the ultimate separation, it is now the path to greater union.
Listen to the second part of Psalm 22:
I will tell of your name to my brothers;
in the midst of the congregation I will praise you:
You who fear the Lord, praise him!
All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him,
and stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!
For he has not despised or abhorred
the affliction of the afflicted,
and he has not hidden his face from him,
but has heard, when he cried to him.
From you comes my praise in the great congregation;
my vows I will perform before those who fear him.
The afflicted shall eat and be satisfied;
those who seek him shall praise the Lord!
May your hearts live forever!
All the ends of the earth shall remember
and turn to the Lord,
and all the families of the nations
shall worship before you.
For kingship belongs to the Lord,
and he rules over the nations.
All the prosperous of the earth eat and worship;
before him shall bow all who go down to the dust,
even the one who could not keep himself alive.
Posterity shall serve him;
it shall be told of the Lord to the coming generation;
they shall come and proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn,
that he has done it.
At the end of Psalm 22, as in the Gospels, the circle of praise should go out to embrace the whole world. It is a vision of inclusiveness that breaks down all the barriers that we, as humans, are too eager to set up. The death of Christ points us forward to the day when God’s kingdom will be all in all. Faced with difficult and painful situations, when God seems to not hear us, we must not be afraid to give him all of the weight we carry in our heart, we should not be afraid to cry out to him about our suffering. Do we understand this? Can you imagine Jesus’ feelings of isolation? Have you felt abandoned in suffering or have you abandoned your loved ones in their pain and suffering? Do you ever make the psalmist’s and Jesus’ words your own: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"
Shortly after his election to the See or Peter in 2005, Pope Benedict XVI spoke words that have remained with me every since. He reminded us of the message of hope that God is, and always has been, at work in human history, and that ultimately the power of love and good will overcome evil, just as eternal life conquers death. He said: “History is not in the hands of dark forces, of chance, or of merely human choices. The Lord, supreme arbiter of historical events, rises above the discharge of evil energies, the vehement onslaught of Satan, the emergence of plagues and wickedness. He knowingly guides history to the dawn of the new heaven and the new earth..." (Pope Benedict XVI General Audience of May 11, 2005).
Jesus takes upon Himself not only the suffering of His people, but also that of all men and women oppressed by evil. He takes all this to the heart of God in the certainty that His cry will be heard in the resurrection. His is a suffering in communion with us and for us; it derives from love and carries within itself redemption and the victory of love for humanity.