Did God forsake Jesus on the cross?

When Mother Teresa’s private journals were published after her death, the surprising revelation was that she spoke of long periods where the sense of the absence of God was more real to her than God’s presence.

In Mark’s version of the passion narrative Jesus utters a single saying from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The cry echoes the feelings of the Psalmist (Ps. 22:1). It’s a question, not a declaration and it reflects the sense of God’s absence that overtook Jesus in his humiliating death.

Did God actually depart? Was Jesus really forsaken by God? Was this in reality the eclipse of God?

In subtle ways throughout the passion story Mark’s Gospel proclaims Jesus to be God’s agent of redemption. Before the high priest, Jesus is asked, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” (14:61). Jesus responded, “I am” (14:62). Jesus also affirmed Pilate’s question, “Are you the King of the Jews?” (15:2), which, obviously, Pilate did not believe. The soldiers mocked Jesus as “King,” dressing him in the color of royalty and placing a crown of thorns on his head (15:16-18). The inscription on the cross read, “The King of the Jews” (15:26). As he hung on the cross, passersby, along with the priests and scribes, mocked him as “Messiah and “King of Israel” (15:29-32). 

Herein is the irony and paradox. The final confession made by the Roman centurion that Jesus was God's Son (15:39) affirms that in Mark's view God was indeed present in this horrific event, acting in Jesus to redeem. Though Jesus is somewhat passive, bearing all the hate and animosity of the religious and political powers, God is active, reaching out to the world in and through Jesus’ death. God is active in the passivity of Jesus, absorbing the hate and animosity.

I believe that what Jesus experienced, God experienced. I do not believe in a distant, removed Almighty—an “Unmoved Mover.” I believe in a God who is deeply moved and engaged in the life of the creation. God, I believe, is not almighty in the use of power, but in the expression (though often hidden) of his magnanimous, wasteful love.

In his novel, “Jayber Crow,” Wendell Berry observes that Christ did not descend from the cross except into the grave—that is, he didn’t overcome his killers by violent power. If he had, says Berry, then everyone would be coerced to believe in him, and “from that moment the possibility that we might be bound to him and he to us and us to one another by love forever would be ended.”

Berry observes that God is present “only in the ordinary miracle of the existence of God’s creatures,” in “the poor, the hungry, the hurt, the wordless creatures . . . this groaning and travailing beautiful world.”

Berry cuts against the grain of our privatized, dualistic way of seeing life, reflecting a more universal and inclusive worldview. He writes, “We are all involved in all and any good, and in all and any evil. For any sin, we all suffer. That is why our suffering is endless. It is why God grieves and Christ’s wounds are still bleeding.”

Berry declares poetically what I believe the cross represents and symbolizes. God participates with us in our suffering. God is not “out there,” but in us and with us, sharing our pain and loss. In the ever present bleeding wounds of the living Christ we find a brother, comrade, and friend.

Theologian Jurgen Moltmann says, “Good Friday is the most comprehensive and most profound expression of Christ’s fellowship with every human being.” He stands in union and solidarity with every suffering soul. 

Christ descended into our “hell” and suffered it, in order to empty it of its malevolent power. Our failures and defeats, our feelings of abandonment and rejection, do not separate us from God, but draw us into communion and cooperation with God who shares in the suffering of this beautiful, yet groaning and travailing world.

God did not abandon Jesus, nor does God abandon us on whatever “cross” we may be stretched out upon. In our suffering, God suffers and is for us and with us, regardless of what we may feel or not feel.

Brother David Steindl-Rast has made the point that the affirmation that Jesus was not actually abandoned by God when he cried out in agony on the cross speaks above all about God. It presupposes a view of God that says God is concerned with justice and does set things right, though not necessarily on the level of history. 

The faithfulness of Jesus is highlighted in Jesus’ cry. While Jesus felt forsaken on the cross, he did not forsake God. “My God, my God” is a cry of faith. It is an affirmation of his persistence that the God of justice and peace, judgment and grace, the God who inspires visions of a world healed and made right, is, indeed, his God.

If we believe that God “gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless” (Isa. 40:29), then we, too, can overcome when the pain and darkness surround us and God is conspicuous by God’s absence. As with Jesus, the challenge before us is to keep trusting.

We have the benefit of knowing that the dawn of Easter morning follows the dark night of Good Friday


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