Why have you forsaken me … ?

A reflection on words of anguish from the cross …

Matthew 27:45-47
From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “This man is calling for Elijah.”

These words that Jesus uttered are from the beginning of the lament in Psalm 22. They are followed by further despair:
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
and by night, but find no rest.

How strange, on the face of it: Jesus’ cry from the cross at the end of his life seemed to express such dejection – from one who showed close, intimate proximity to God throughout his ministry. Actually, in these words of abandonment there is a link between Judaism and Christianity. The image of divine suffering symbolised by the cross – which is at the heart of the Christian tradition – is paralleled by the Jewish insistence that God suffers as we suffer.

On the Cross, Jesus cried out to God using these ancient words of the Psalm: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ For us as Christians this expression of anguish and suffering is infused with hope, for here in these dying moments God was indeed present, sharing the pain of the son. The reality of the Cross is the reality of a suffering God, who bears the pain of the world.

Such an awareness of God’s presence in suffering is central to the Psalm that Jesus began to quote in his final moments. Though the Psalm begins with a cry of despair, it turns to God with confidence:
Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel.
In you our fathers trusted; they trusted, and you did deliver them.
To you they cried, and were saved; in you they trusted, and were not disappointed.
I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you:
You who fear the Lord, praise him!
All you sons of Jacob, glorify him, and stand in awe of him, all you sons of Israel!
For he has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; and he has not hidden his face from them, but has heard, when they cried to him.

And Jesus knew his scripture well.
This message of hope in the face of tragedy is fundamental to both the Jewish and Christian faith. God does not stand aloof from human suffering and pain. God is with us. God shares our grief, God is there to comfort us, God is there to sustain us. God does not abandon us, but shares our pain with mercy and compassion. In the final moments of his life, Jesus called out: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.’ But he was not forsaken, as we are not forsaken. God was there on the cross and God is with us in our times of misery – God’s suffering love can sustain us in the valley of the shadows. God is there.

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