Last Words | Abandonment
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” – Matthew 27.46
Some of our most profound and probing questions are the questions we ask in the dark. I’ll never forget one that was asked of me.
It was about 2am. It was the summer between my junior and senior years of college, and I was working as a counselor at a summer camp called Camp Barnabas – a Christian camp in the foothills of the Ozarks for children with disabilities. Camp Barnabas – named for the encourager himself – was expertly designed to give children who had experienced so much challenge in their lives the chance to have a full camp experience: canoeing, ropes course, rappelling, horseback riding. At Camp Barnabas they could do it all.
It was Challenge Week at Camp Barnabas – meaning all our campers were wheelchair users – and among them was JR – a 16 yr old who was something of a camp legend – admired for his humor, his enthusiasm, his determination, and his overall charm. I was thrilled that he was in my cabin that week.
Above all else, JR was admired widely throughout Camp for his deep faith, and the trust he communicated that God was in control of his life – that despite his challenges, God was with him always. He would share this story of faith each year on the last night of camp, telling his fellow campers and all of us counselors how when he was 8 yrs old he and his mom went out for groceries, and how the other driver had been drinking, and how even though they had survived he had never again been able to use his legs. But despite all of that, he said, he knew God had a plan for him. And as JR spoke, all of us were moved and encouraged.
Later that night and into the next morning – after the evening activity and s’mores and songs – everything finally began to settle down. The sounds of the hills lulled us all to sleep. And it was about 2am when I walked around the cabin for a bed check. And in the dark cabin I was startled to have a hand grab my arm. I leaned down as JR pulled himself up, and he said to me – and it was only a whisper – “Alan, why do you think God let this happen to me?”
I realized then that even the strongest and most revered among us are bound to whisper that question – or at times even shout it out into the sky. And notice that when the question comes from Jesus on the cross it’s right after darkness had come over the whole land. “My God, why have you forsaken me?” he cries. Even Jesus had questions in the dark.
This fourth saying from Jesus on the cross is as bleak and mysterious as any in the whole of Scripture. It comes amidst suffering so terrible that even the heavens draw a veil over the scene. In our language, a word that most closely conveys such a depth of agony is the word “excruciating.” It comes from the Latin ex crucis, which means “from the cross.” The word derives from this very moment. Has there ever been a moment any more excruciating? It’s especially so in Matthew’s account.
The Bible contains four accounts of Jesus’ death. They agree on the essential elements. But this story is so much more than the details and sequence of events – too wide and compelling for any single telling – so in each there are different emphases, different actions, different words. With all four versions available to us, we’re reminded that there is more than one way to understand what happened on the cross. And in Matthew’s understanding – largely identical to Mark – Jesus is a broken man. He’s so injured in every way that he needs help carrying his cross. So broken that this is his only word from the cross – whatever air left in his lungs shouting this question against the darkened sky. It’s hard to think of anyone who has ever seemed more alone.
Of course, such loneliness is nothing new for Jesus. Peter Storey points out in his wonderful book, Listening at Golgotha, that solitariness marked the course of Jesus’ life and ministry. From the time he was a child he acted in ways that set him apart. Then as an adult, he came to know enduring loneliness from the very start with the wilderness temptation – isolation so profound that only angels could minister to him. Throughout his ministry, he felt the isolation of having his message consistently misunderstood, even by those who knew him best. All the time on the way to Jerusalem, they never grasped what he warned them about: that they were going to lose him to the sin of this world. It’s no wonder, then, that this man of so many isolated sorrows finds that all those he has drawn to himself ultimately peel away from him – first his marginal followers, then his betrayer, and then even those whom he trusted to pray with him the night before his death. Amidst the olive trees of Gethsemane, with darkness overhead, “He said to his disciples, ‘sit here while I go over there and pray…” and as they fall asleep, Matthew describes that he went “a little farther.” It’s where he has always gone, “farther ahead” than any of us have been able to go, so he knows what it is to be alone. And he knows it most profoundly on the cross, feeling separated even from God.
This sense of abandonment is a theme throughout the Hebrew Scriptures that Jesus knew. We see it with the Israelites, who escape from their Egyptian masters to spend forty years wandering in the desert often feeling abandoned by God. We hear the theme in the Psalms, “Why do you stand far off from me, O Lord?” the 10th Psalm asks. “Why do you hide your face in my times of trouble?” The phrase hester panim, the ‘hiding of the face,’ occurs more than thirty times in the Hebrew Bible in reference to God. Jesus is not the first to know this. If Jesus was fully human, as we profess, then surely he knew the full depth of human suffering – including the questions we ask in the dark. The feelings of God-forsakenness. You can’t be about the work of God and not at some time wonder about God’s absence. He’s not the first to know it.
But no one has ever known it like him. Jesus is agonizing not just over his feelings of separation, but over the sin of all the world. He is entering a hell of separation from God – all this world’s brokenness, darkness, fear and shame – all of it breaking apart his oneness with God. All who have ever felt the separation from God that this world can bring are represented in this cry from Jesus. This is what Paul means when he writes to the Corinthians, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us…” None of us has ever known the degree of closeness with God that Jesus knew, so none of us can know fully just what this loneliness must have felt like.
But there are parts of it we know intimately. For we ask questions of our own. We have been to the point where we offered prayers and tears, loneliness and distress to God, only to feel like we were whispering in the dark. Many of us are here in this place, not only because we have known God – have heard God’s voice telling us we are beloved, or sensed God’s presence holding our life – we are not here only because we know God’s presence. We are also hear, many of us, because we have known God’s absence. When a relationship was lost, or dreams collapsed. When a career shifted unexpectedly or an opportunity fell through. When you were betrayed by a friend. Or maybe with the death of a loved one who was, in fact, a part of you. Maybe an accident that changed things in ways for which you never could have prepared, and you can not but whisper in the dark, “My God, why?” It’s dark in here – darker than we wish it were – and it’s so hard to find you, God, amidst such darkness.
Which is why we look for the light so desperately and so rapidly in our lives, just as we do sometimes with this passage and this scene.
Jesus’ cry is the first line of the 22nd Psalm – a lament of a suffering righteous person who calls out for divine justice, which the Psalm goes on to promise and celebrate. This leads some to suggest that Jesus’ cry is meant as an allusion to the fullness of the Psalm. We want to move past this moment rapidly, and so many of us just want to finish the Psalm. We want to get to the summary of salvation history that eventually widens out to include us.
But this is not a scene of salvation. Not for Jesus. No whisper of beloved. No angels descending to save. All is dark. And the only words spoken signal the brokenness and suffering of our world and the sin by which the son of God died. Death prevailing. Fear carrying the day. Rome winning, just like they always do. Promises breaking. Hopes dying. Tombs prepared and stones standing by. Sunday isn’t coming. It’s Friday.
One minister has said that she knows people who come to church on Good Friday and who don’t come back on Easter. Good Friday is a better match for their souls. It isn’t that they don’t care about what happens on Easter. They just don’t believe that God is saving all the good news until then.
For them – for all of us – it’s so important that we remember that for Jesus, it’s Friday. The agony is real. Not a time for answers. Only questions. No light. All is dark. And it’s at that time that the people of God decide what they really believe. And what they are prepared to do.
Some years ago, in a Christian Century article reflecting on the hard questions and suffering of this life, Barbara Brown Taylor reflected on a trip to an art museum, where she dropped in the gift shop. Waiting in line to purchase a box of Van Gogh note cards, she happened to notice a clear glass bowl full of smooth silver pebbles on the counter by the cash register. Each pebble was about as big as her thumb, with one word etched on the surface. On top one said “hope” and another said “love.”
Taylor had a recently widowed friend who could use some pebbles like that, so she dug around to see what other words she might find. “Tears” said the next pebble. “Loss” said the next. Well her friend already had enough of those, so she put them back and kept fishing. She found a couple of “gratitude” pebbles, along with a few more hopes and loves, but only by looking hard. Over and over, she brought up whole handfuls of tears and loss, which outnumbered the other pebbles by at least 20 to one. Everyone had enough of those, apparently.
On the counter she laid “hope” and “love” and “gratitude,” as well as one “forgiveness” she found in the bottom of the bowl, which told her what the bestseller had been. Then she looked back at all the pebble she had pushed aside. All the ‘tears’ and ‘loss’ left in the bowl. And she thought maybe that was part of the problem – no one wanted to own them – so she chose one of each and added them to her collection.
She almost felt cruel giving them to her friend, but she softened when she saw them. She may not have wanted them, but she knew they were hers, and seeing them in her hand with all the others told her story better than the edited version ever could. See “tears” belonged next to “love,” and “hope” took on more luster when nestled against “loss.” Holding all of the pebbles together in one hand turned out to be exactly what she needed. (1)
Holding them together – the way they are held together by a cross where love and suffering, hope and questions are all found.
You know, as I think back on that 2am exchange with JR, it was actually a cross that initiated it all. He couldn’t stop thinking about the night before – the closing night of camp, and especially the annual ritual of a “Cross Walk.” It was a longtime camp tradition, where a cross is passed from cabin to cabin, and each cabin gathers around it, puts their hands on the cross, and prays. We prayed remembering Jesus and the extent of his love. But we also prayed remembering all those whose names were represented by small brass plaques attached to the cross – all former campers who had passed away, some from their medical challenges. JR could not get the image of that cross out of his mind.
I don’t know what I said as I pulled up a chair next to his bed – I’m sure I’ve forgotten on purpose, inadequate as it must have been. Inadequate as it always is. I could have gone on and on with my rationalization of suffering and the problem of evil and the enduring love of God through it all. But really JR just wondered if and when his name would be on that cross.
If I could go back, I think I would want him to know above all else that he’s not the only one who has touched the cross and found an agonizing question welling up within him. In fact, Jesus did that before any of us. He shouted his own question into the middle of his own darkness. And that darkness persisted for days while Jesus went farther on without us, to where we could not go. It persisted while Jesus took on the weight of all our sin, and felt the absence of God like none of us have ever felt.
That darkness even persisted to the first day of the week, when the women rose early. They couldn’t sleep. So they got up – it was somewhere right around 2 am, I’d bet. And they went to the tomb. They were just going to prepare the body, understand. They were just going to make sure all was safe and sealed. Along with the spices they had gathered together, they surely carried their own grievous questions, maybe even whispering them as they walked.
The gospel of John, which relates this part of the story, is very specific about the time of day: “It was still dark” John’s gospel says.
For darkness is a time for questions. But it’s a time for resurrection, too.
1. “Faith Matters: Spectacular Failure” in Christian Century (February 22, 2005).