Wednesday, April 8, #4: Matthew 27:46 & Mark 15:34: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

Written by Brian Johnson, Pastor of Haymarket Church

“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’” – Galatians 3:13, quoting Deuteronomy 21:23

“Christianity is the only major religion to have as its central focus the suffering and degradation of its God. The crucifixion is so familiar to us, and so moving, that it is hard to realize how unusual it is as an image of God.” – Narrator of the PBS Television series The Christians (1981), as quoted by Fleming Rutledge in The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ

The cross is not a proper place for a God.  Two thousand years of crosses in our churches may have blinded us to this truth, but people at the time of Jesus knew it clearly.  Crucifixion was a death that was reserved for slaves, for criminals, for the lowest levels of Roman society.  Moreover, crucifixion wasn’t primarily about death – even though death was the inevitable end result – it was, first and foremost, about humiliation.  Rome wanted everyone to know that this was what happened to all who dared oppose it – they would be left out in the elements to die in agony, struggling for breath, exposed for all the world to see, as birds and wild animals picked at their flesh, as crowds mocked them, as their last shred of dignity was taken from them.  It was shameful.  Religious texts, including the book of Deuteronomy, seemed to indicate that victims of crucifixion were cursed.  To be on the cross was to be as low as one could possibly be.  It was certainly not a place where you’d expect something holy to happen.

And, so, when Jesus shouts out “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46 & Mark 15:34) his words are understandable. He is suffering a horrendous death.  He is suffering from mockery and degradation.  All the work, teaching, healing, he has done over the course of his life seems to have come to naught – and he hangs here alone, abandoned, afraid.

And, yet, these words from Jesus often trouble us Christians – Jesus is the one who we celebrate each Christmas as “God with us.” To use churchy sounding language, Jesus is the incarnate second person of the Trinity, eternally begotten of the Father, very God of very God, the Word made Flesh. As one of my teachers once put it, Jesus is God’s song played with a human melody.  Or, as I put it when I teach a confirmation class, he’s 100% God (and also 100% human). And, we rightly understand the crucifixion as standing at the center of our faith. So, if Jesus is God, what can it possibly mean that he feels forsaken by God on the cross?  If the cross is the center of Christianity, what does it mean that Jesus seems to feel as if God isn’t with him in this moment?

Among many other things, it means that God, in Jesus, has gone to the furthest extremity, the deepest reaches of pain and suffering, in order to save us. As Paul says in Galatians, Jesus has borne the curse for us.  He has taken the worst of human sin, violence, and hatred onto himself. There is no depth of despair to which we can sink that he cannot understand, because he too has experienced it.  This includes the experience – the very common human experience – of feeling as if God is absent, as if God has abandoned us, as if we are on our own, all alone.  God has felt that way too.  God knows how it feels to feel like God is absent as we sit in our suffering and pain.

And, if you ask me, that’s part of the hope we find in this story.  When people wonder about how God can allow the violence and suffering that exists in this world, I don’t generally have a very good answer for why/how God allows it.  But I can say with confidence that God has joined us in it.  God hasn’t left us alone – God has walked through this world, in its joy and its pain – and, so, we know that whatever we feel, we have a God who can sympathize.  Even when we feel like God has abandoned us, even that feeling is something that God, too, has felt.  It is a deep mystery.  It is something that I can’t fully understand.  But it is also Good News.  The story that we tell this week – the story of the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus – is a story full of pathos and power.  It is a story that speaks of salvation for us and for the whole world.  And it is the story of a God who has walked the roads that we walk – even the darkest ones – and who offers to lead us through to the other side.

God has been abandoned for our sake.  Therefore, we are never alone – whatever roads we walk, God goes ahead of us, God walks them with us.

If you’ve missed any of our previous daily readings, you can find them all archived here. We hope these readings are helping you encounter God this season!