“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Psalm 22 opens with the most austere words echoed by Jesus in both Matthew and Mark. As he hangs from the cross, the gospels tell us, Christ is, or feels, or presumes that God has forsaken him. In his last moments, Jesus is derelict; i.e., on the cross Christ (and God through Christ) experiences an utterly crushing and cosmic abandonment. These last words are a far-cry from those echoed by the obedient and faithful—even unto death—son of God portrayed by the Lukan Gospel. Here, Christ assured of God’s endearing promise and plan for him to reign over New Creation exits the scene with a final prayer of docility: “Father, into your hands I commit my Spirit.”
These contrasting parting words of Jesus have always struck me as confusing. Mainly because, if we take Christ to be the model of an ideal Christian life, it raises a question about how we are to understand our finitude and fleshy fragility. On the one hand, we have Jesus expressing openly his displeasure and pain and abandonment for all to hear in a way that even challenges God’s authority (e.g., how could an all-loving, all-powerful god abandon his son so cruelly?). On the other, Luke portrays a Jesus who might indeed feel forsaken, yet refuses to acknowledge that fear or experience of abandonment openly. Instead the Lukan Jesus puts on a strong face and denies his feelings of dereliction until the end. What are we to make of this?
Personally, I’ve always been partial to Christ’s cry of dereliction, the Markan and Matthean version of Christ’s last words. Mainly, I prefer it to the Lukan version of Jesus’s final moments because in it we see a God who candidly feels, and is, alienated from God’s self. God, through Christ, forsakes God’s self. In doing so, God feels the abysmal depths of existential loneliness that only humans can feel. Hence, ironically, in God’s abandonment of Jesus on the cross, God attains a capacity to empathize with humanity in a way God had yet to achieve. The consequence of this is that God changes. God becomes better at being God, because God now knows how terrible it can feel to be a fragile, lonely, and finite being.
In a way, thereby, this is good news. It is good and well because Christ is not the only person in history to ever feel completely alone and abandoned. God’s experience of death through Christ, binds us to God and God to creation more intimately. Through Christ’s death, God feels what each of us have felt while alive, and in the process of our death. After all, death, which we will all one day have to face—as we are reminded each Ash Wednesday—is undeniably a lonely and ugly experience. It is an experience too, I have always thought, that will seem unfair and frustrating; yet, it is inescapable.
The Psalmist of Chapter 22 is the originator of this lament of abandonment, however. Indeed, it was not Christ who first described the plight of divine abandonment so poetically; rather, it was those Israelites who gathered together to mourn communally. First and foremost, thereby, this lament is a prayer recited communally by Israel during a time of doubt or suffering. These origins reveal that our God and our community allows—or at least should allow—for a space where one or more can express suffering and doubt aloud without condemnation.
Throughout this prayer of suffering and doubt there are moments of hope (v.3; 9-10), however once the Psalmist reaches verse 19 we see an explicit petition to a presumably absent god. “O Lord, do not be far away!” the Psalmist writes, “Help, come quickly to my aid! Deliver my soul from the sword, my life from the power of the dog! Save me from the mouth of the lion!” Following this petition, the Psalm abruptly changes tone.
The remaining verses (21b-31) turn into a song of praise. It leaves one to wonder what caused such a drastic shift in the Psalmist’s mood or worldview? Did the absent God appear? Or did the space to utter their suffering, doubt, and feelings of abandonment change their psychological state? In other words, maybe the simple freedom to pronounce their doubt plainly with others reinvigorated their belief. Whatever might be the case it’s clear from these last versus that the Lord has become real and present to the Psalmist again; so much so, that the writer praises this recently absent God.
Considering my musings regarding Christ and the Psalmist’s community, I end with two questions. First, is there a space were parishioners can express doubt and suffering freely and safely in our churches? If not, Psalm 22 shows us that such a space can be exactly what suffering and doubting folks need. Second, what does it mean for us that God has felt utterly alone in Christ? I have no substantial thoughts to offer at this time, on this matter myself here; however, I am convinced the ripples of such an event are endless. Might it be helpful, for example, for pastors and leaders of the church to recall this loneliness often, so that we can love and empathize with others as radically as Christ does? Moreover, what might that remembering look like? As I said, the consequences and the questions that follow are potentially boundless.