Recently I happened to have a conversation with a young woman who, to the best of my knowledge, has no regular church affiliation. She knew me well enough to realize what I do for a living and that I do not fit well into the traditional conservative evangelical model of ministry (we were together working on a local community theater project). Somehow the conversation turned to the topic of our Resurrection service set for this March 31 when this young woman explained to me that she has a hard time buying into the resurrection story due to the brutality of a God who would allow the Son to die abandoned on the cross. She knew enough to remember the Matthew-Mark version of Jesus' last words, "My God, why have you forsaken me?" and this apparent abandonment made her uncomfortable.
Pastorally speaking, I shared with her how this phrase is a reference to Psalm 22- a psalm of David that ultimately speak more of faith in God's Presence than the fear of abandonment. Since the Psalms were not numbered in Jesus' time as they were now they were often referenced by using the beginning line of each Psalm. New Testament scholars point out that this reference might be more of an expression of faith than it is a feeling of abandonment. But I don't buy that either. I think it was a direct reference to Psalm 22- but it was not a celebration of victory near as much it was a commiseration with David in the midst of a very bad day.
For me, and understand that I am speaking only personally here, I see Jesus as feeling abandoned by God on that cross. It only brings to fruition the dilemma of the crucifixion after all of Jesus' disciples had fled, one had betrayed him, and he was left to die on a cross. In that moment as he slowly and painfully died from carbon dioxide poisoning, I find it highly probably that Jesus felt totally and utterly abandoned by everyone- God included. Many physicians have commented that ultimately we all die isolated from the ones we love.
But I am not troubled by this thought. I have the personal experience of too many people I have known and loved who have taken their own life. I have sat in my office while a man I have loved called me a reprobate and demonic because we disagreed over how to interpret a passage of Scripture. I have felt alone. I have been so wounded in caring for God's people, sometimes as they die on the inside and others on the outside, that I have felt as if there is no one or nothing that understands what I experience in my life's calling. Not even God.
I have no idea how Jesus felt on that cross. But I know how I have felt carrying the cross I have chosen to bear. I know how I have been affected by the spear of hate and mistrust that has pierced my side and my heart.
So you see, a forsaken Jesus appeals to me.
Why? Because even in that feeling, God was present. I remember Elie Wiesel being forced to watch as a small child slowly asphyxiated at the end of a rope and his fellow Jews called out looking for God's Presence in that moment. How much later in life he came to believe that God was present with that child at the end of that rope, gasping for a breath which would not come. I remember that even though Jesus felt abandoned by God, the story does not end there. There is more to that temporary feeling of isolation. There is the third day.
Even though there are people who will betray, abandon, and assault us, this is not the end. I find hope that just because we are not aware of God's Presence with us that means God is not present. My ability to perceive God's Presence does not limit that Presence (thankfully). And there is always more. Another day. Hope.
I also point out that if by leaving the Son to die on the cross seems brutal and hard to us- It happened because God knew it to be the best way to provide for our salvation. And if this is the best way God could accomplish this feat, imagine the less perfect, flawed models that were rejected in the design...