My God, my God, Why Have You Forsaken Me?" - A Reflection on the Passion of Christ
During the Great Fast, as we look forward to Great and Holy Week, we begin to turn our attention to Our Lord’s Passion.
When thinking about the Passion, our focus is frequently on its physical characteristics: the nails, the spear, the crown of thorns, the scourging, and the fatigue of carrying the Cross.
Without downplaying the intensity and significance of the physical suffering of Christ, we cannot overlook the mental, emotional and spiritual aspects of the Passion. Human beings consist of body, mind and soul. Christ took on all of our nature, except sin, in order to grant us salvation. As Christ had a human mind and soul, and just as we suffer in those parts of our being, His suffering extended to them as well. He was betrayed by one of his own followers. He was mocked. He was utterly abandoned by his closest friends. I would like to explore this last one tonight, by looking at two details from the Gospel of Mark.
In Mark’s account of the Passion, there are a few unique particulars that are not found in the other Gospels. As Mark describes what follows the Last Supper, in the Garden, as Jesus is being arrested by a crowd sent from the high priest, the evangelist mentions the following:
And they [the disciples] all forsook him, and fled. And a young man followed him, with nothing but a linen cloth about his body; and they [the crowd] seized him, but he left the linen cloth and ran away naked. (Mark 14:50-52)
In this enigmatic detail, some Church Fathers have tried to identify one of the disciples: usually James, John or even the evangelist Mark himself. Some people in modern times have tried to find some sort of hidden meaning to this curious passage. Rather than conjuring up something far-fetched, it should bring our minds back to the start of the Gospel, back to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus called His disciples to leave their boats, their nets, their families; ultimately, they left everything in order to follow Him. Now, at the end—or, really, the pinnacle—of His ministry, Jesus’ disciples run away and this young man leaves everything (including his clothing!) in order to flee from Jesus, to get as far from Jesus as fast as he could.
When Jesus began His movement to the Cross, He did so completely abandoned by His disciples.
The last three hours of Jesus’ earthly life are summed up by Mark in five brief verses:
And when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour. And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, "E'lo-i, E'lo-i, la'ma sabach-tha'ni?" which means, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" And some of the bystanders hearing it said, "Behold, he is calling Eli'jah." And one ran and, filling a sponge full of vinegar, put it on a reed and gave it to him to drink, saying, "Wait, let us see whether Eli'jah will come to take him down." And Jesus uttered a loud cry, and breathed his last. (Mark 15:33-37)
As Jesus hung on the cross—abandoned by His followers, abandoned even by the light in the sky as He was bathed in darkness—He cried out in Aramaic, His mother tongue. He quoted the first line of Psalm 22: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
The topic of Psalm 22 is a righteous man who suffers unjustly. In the Old Testament, we read about such righteous men, like Job, who was severely tested and suffered. Job’s wife, seeing all Job was going through, once said to him, “Curse God and die.” (Job 2:9)
People can endure a lot when they are supported by a community, when family and friends cheer them on. But what about when they are alone and abandoned? When the world just wants to see them die? When God seems far away? What’s the point? Why continue? Throw in the towel! Just give up! Curse God and die!
Yet, with this cry, Jesus was not giving up.
This cry of forsakenness of the God-man is truly a mystery, and even a little unsettling to us. Saint Ambrose, the 4th century bishop of Milan in Italy, had this to say about it: “As human, therefore, He [Jesus] speaks on the cross bearing with Him our terrors. For amid dangers it is a very human response to think ourselves abandoned.” Just as we react in such situations, just as we feel God is distant from us in the face of certain hardships, Jesus Christ experienced the same. Nevertheless, this was not a cry of defeat. Like Job, He didn’t curse God. With words from the Psalms, He called upon God and reached out to Him. He surrendered Himself to His Father’s will, and died.
At the end of Psalm 22, the righteous man is delivered and vindicated. At the moment Jesus died, when to the world it would appear that Jesus was a defeated failure, Mark reports that the Temple’s curtain was torn in two—a sure sign of God’s displeasure, that God was abandoning the Jerusalem Temple, not His Son. The soldier standing by the Cross recognized, at that moment, that Jesus was the Son of God. After three days in the tomb, He was raised, victorious over death, darkness, and evil. God proved His Son right.
In light of these two abandonments—Jesus abandoned by all His companions and Jesus crying out as He experienced the distance that all mankind feels towards God—we should look at ourselves, and how we relate to God and our fellow human beings:
- Do we abandon Christ in the way we live and act?
- Do we abandon others when they need us most?
- Do we (individually and as community) support our family members, friends, fellow parishioners, anyone, when they are forsaken, lonely, or rejected? Do we help them, or do we just want to see them go away?
- When—and I say when—we feel that God is distant, how do we react? Do we blame Him and curse Him, or do we cry out to Him with our whole heart?
If you know someone going through a trial or difficult time, don’t run away like the disciples—stay and be a support. If you have run away, go back and help. If you are now struggling, reach out to God and to others. If God seems distant and non-responsive, don’t despair—reach out even more.
We can take away this lesson from Our Lord’s Passion: even if all seems hopeless, even if all is covered in darkness, everyone has abandoned you and even God seems too far away to notice, be righteous, be faithful to God to the end, and in that there is vindication, redemption and salvation.
This is easier said than done. It is not without pain. But we can be assured that Jesus Christ has run this course ahead of us and meets us at the end.
- Seminarian & Subdeacon David Mastroberte