A Gathering Voices Post by Don McKim
When Holy Week comes, our hearts are full with the memories of the last days of Jesus. The events lead to the cross on Good Friday. Holy Week puts before us the suffering Jesus experienced, before and upon the cross.
Theologically, the cross is the symbol of our salvation: “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Through the death of Christ on the cross, our sin is forgiven and our relationship of love and trust in God is enacted. We are reconciled with God (2 Corinthians 5:16-21).
In addition to the physical suffering and agony of this cruel death, Jesus also experienced spiritual pangs. We are familiar with the seven last words from the cross, each expressing some aspect of Jesus’ experience as he clung to life until the end. Each year as we relive Holy Week in through Scripture readings or hear preaching on the last words of Jesus in Good Friday services, the deep sorrow—and deep love of Jesus comes home to us, again.
One of the agonizing words of Jesus from the cross is his “cry of dereliction.” Jesus uttered these words, quoting Psalm 22:1, words attributed to David. Jesus cried out at three o’clock: “‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’” (Mark 15:34; Matthew 27:46). Forsaken by God. No wonder this is a cry of dereliction. It is an expression of utter forsakenness, of neglect, abandonment. Surely at that hour, Jesus felt some form of separation from his Father, the likes of which we will not experience in our lives. We wonder at how this one who was “God with us” (Emmanuel) and who lived and breathed the love of God, could experience the depths of this sense of being forsaken.
Theologians have wrestled with the meaning of this cry of forsakenness; and have proposed differing explanations for what is happening here. Was this a genuine forsakenness by God? Did God turn away from the Son of God at the point of his greatest need? The questions throng. Like much else, this is a mystery. We can never know, fully, what was at work in this hour of despair. We accept this as part of the mystery of our faith. The work of salvation comes through the death of Jesus on the cross.
At times, we too have felt “forsaken” by God. We have had our own agonies. None have been as severe as what Jesus suffered. But we have felt an eclipse of God. It is the absence of the presence of God. Or, conversely, the presence of the absence of God. We pray with the Psalmist: “Do not forsake me, O Lord; O my God, do not be far from me” (Psalm 38:21).
One theologian who has discussed the experience of Jesus being “forsaken” was the Puritan Thomas Watson (c. 1620-1686). Watson wrote this theological explanation:
God may forsake his children in regard of vision, but not in regard of union. Thus it was with Jesus Christ, when he cried out, My God, my God. There was not a separation of the union between him and his Father, only a suspension of the vision. When the Moon doth intervene between us and the Sun, there follows an eclipse. Gods love, through the interposition of our sins, may be darkned and eclipsed, but still he is a Father. The Sun may be hid in a cloud, but it is not out of the Firmament. The promises in time of desertion may be as it were sequestred; we have not that comfort from them as formerly; but still the believers title holds good in law.
All theology is “second order” reflection—trying to give some explanation of what in most cases is inexplicable and in the realm of mystery. Watson’s explanation maintains the trinitarian relationship of Son with Father, even in the midst of the agony of the cross where the “vision” of the relationship was suspended. But “there was not a separation of the union” between Son and Father. That union is unbreakable. The images of the moon and the sun in eclipse are the illustrations.
Watson went on to indicate what this can mean for the Christian life, when we too suffer an “eclipse” in our sense of our union with God in Christ, by faith. He wrote, “The Lord may change his dispensation towards his children, but not his disposition. So that the believer may say, I am adopted, and let God do what he will with me, let him take the rod, or the staffe, ‘tis all one, he loves me.” The love of God holds us, no matter what happens in life.
None of us can possibly experience the kind of agony Jesus experienced on the cross—physically or spiritually. We can try to understand this as best we can. But we believe his suffering and death was “for us.” We see the fulfillment of the prophecy: “But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5). Through Jesus we are healed.
Jesus’ “forsakenness” is so we know we are never “forsaken” by God.