We have just heard the Passion according to Mark. It is the bleakest of the four accounts. Jesus dies surrounded by jeering, he dies in the dark, he dies with a sponge of vinegar thrust in his mouth, he dies with a great shout and his only words on the Cross are a quotation from Ps 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
We can’t soften this. It is stark. Unlike us, Jesus never said anything untrue or anything he didn’t mean. He’d have known that Psalm from boyhood and it came to him now. It came when he was in extremis; it came “out of the depths”, de profundis. It voiced what he was humanly experiencing on the Cross. It expressed his mind, his consciousness, everything he was feeling, everything inside him. The Father was everything to him and the Father wasn’t there. And this sense of abandonment wasn’t a pretend, wasn’t a play. It’s not easy to talk about this, to find the right words. Jesus wasn’t mentally ill when he said this, he wasn’t suffering from dementia but his words can include those experiences; they include every kind of human abandonment, every loneliness, all the emptiness of human life. They include it and go beyond it, to places we cannot imagine. And this is where gratitude might occur to us. He has entered this terrible domain. And in that domain, he is still the Son of his Father. He still prays, “My God, my God.” How often, in human extremities, prayer doesn’t occur; perhaps it’s not known about, perhaps rejected, perhaps it’s physically or psychologically impossible. But Christ has been to this place and in it “cried out”, or to take the Greek literally, shouted, roared, thundered, howled “with a great voice”: “My God, my God”. And that cry to the Father, that prayer is loud enough, so to speak, to fill this vast empty realm of abandonment and make up for our inability. When we’re beside people in these places, perhaps this is the prayer to pray.
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” “Eloi, eloi”.
And some of the crowd think he’s calling on Elijah
And how does the prayer go on? “Why have you abandoned, deserted, forsaken, left me?” There’s a small, but very telling detail here. St Mark quotes the Aramaic of Psalm 22, the language Jesus spoke, and then gives the Greek. St Matthew does the same. But their two translations are not quite the same. St Matthew has, “why?” Mark something different and virtually no translation captures it. In Mark, Jesus’ question isn’t, “Why have you abandoned me”? but “to what have you abandoned me?” Not “why”, not what is this all about, what is the reason for my suffering, not what we might take as a theological or philosophical question. But “to what”? To what end? Where is this leading? This is different. It opens a tiny window of hope. However derelict Jesus was, this is not a cry of despair. He is still speaking to his Father. “To what have you forsaken me?” Where is this going? Usually in the Psalms, the abandonment is into the hands of enemies. And so it is here. And in the context of crucifixion, that means imminent death. And if it is “to death” he’s abandoned, it’s to dust and nothingness. Is this where this is going? Or, my God, my God, is it somewhere else, somewhere beyond?
This is where the Gospels help each other. St Luke does not have Jesus quote Ps 22, but Ps 31: “Father, into your hands, I commend my spirit”. And it’s Jesus who adds “Father”. Is this St Luke’s way of answering Jesus’ question? “Into what are you are abandoning me?” asks Jesus in Mark. “Into your hands”, the Father’s hands, answers Jesus in Luke.
“My God, my God, to what are you abandoning me?”
On the Cross, despite everything, Jesus prays. He calls on his Father. He reveals his anguish and his anguish, the greatest conceivable, is the Father’s abandoning him. Our anguishes, though, reveal our joys. Jesus’ anguish points to his joy. His anguish is abandonment and his joy being-with. Being with the One he loves, and the One who loves him, being with us and knowing our love of him. When Jesus cries out like this, it is his Sonship speaking, his brotherhood to us as well. In the Gospel of Mark these are literally Jesus’ last words. This really is Jesus’ last word. And it shows, in extremis, de profundis, that he is, above all, the Son of a Father and the first-born of a family (cf. Rom 8:28). The mockers standing there think he is calling on Elijah, but of all unlikely people a Roman soldier, “seeing how he died”, gets it: “truly, this man was son of God”. It’s the stuttering, seminal beginning of the faith of the brothers and sisters to come.
“My God, my God, to what have you abandoned me?”
“And the veil of the Temple was torn in two from top to bottom”.
The Father, who never forsakes (cf. Heb 13:5), begins his answer. The Father is no longer confined to a holy place, the other side of a curtain, with us outside. Mark’s Gospel begins with a tearing of the heavens when Jesus is baptised. The heavens are torn to let the Spirit fall on him and a voice proclaim him Son of God. Now there is another tearing. Now the sanctuary is open. Now a whole new space opens up for us, a new being-with Now we are sons and daughters. “My God, my God, into what have you abandoned me?” “Into my hands, my Son; to your resurrection, my Son; to these, my Son, your sisters, your brothers.” The Father’s answer.
(St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 28 March 2021)