Reflections on the Cry of Abandonment

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Of all the last sayings of Jesus, the cry of abandonment—“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”—is the most difficult. It is a cry of agony and suffering. It is a cry of despair and hopelessness. And, if we are honest with ourselves, it is the cry of atheism. Jesus does not ask God, “Have you abandoned me?” Instead, he asks, “Why have you abandoned me?” This is the cry of one who feels stranded, disowned, left (quite literally) high and dry.

Some have tried to lessen the weight of these words by noting that Jesus is quoting the opening line of Psalm 22. Because this psalm ends with a statement of confidence in God, perhaps Jesus actually means to imply his confidence in God the Father. If that is indeed the case, one must wonder why Jesus does not quote from a more confident psalm, like the opening line of Psalm 21, “In your strength the king rejoices, O LORD,” or the opening of Psalm 23, “The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.” But Jesus chooses Psalm 22 to express his suffering on the cross. (It is worth noting that the cry of abandonment is the only word Jesus speaks from the cross in Matthew and Mark, and it only appears in those two gospels.)

So what is the importance of this cry? How is it possible for Jesus to enter into the depths of God-forsakenness when he is God incarnate?

The mystery of the cross is the mystery of reconciliation between a loving God and a God-forsaken world. In Genesis, God commands the first humans to not eat of the tree of knowledge, saying, “for in the day that you eat of it you shall die” (Gen. 2:17). But when they do eat of this tree, they continue to live. They don’t die, at least not biologically. Instead, they are exiled from the garden and sent out into a world bereft of God’s presence. This is true death, spiritual death. It is death in God-forsakenness. And it is into this God-forsaken world that Jesus came to live and die in order that we might have life—true life, eternal life. So we read in Romans 5 that “sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin . . . Therefore, just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one’s man act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all” (Rom. 5:12, 18).

But there is still more to be said. The spiritual death that entered through Adam is what some have called the “second death.” The first death is biological, but the second death is spiritual. In the first death, we descend into the earth. In the second death, we descend into hell. The God-forsaken world of death into which Jesus came as our savior is a world falling over the edge into the abyss of hell. And on the cross, when Jesus cried out to God, we come to understand that Jesus has not only defeated the first death, but the second death as well. The death of Christ is the death of death. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians, “as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ” (1 Cor. 15:22). Unlike us, who descend into hell and are helpless to escape, Jesus Christ went to the fullest depths of hell in order to rescue us, in order to liberate us from our bondage to sin and death. This is what we confess when we say, along with the creed of the church, “He descended into hell.” In the cry of God abandonment, Jesus confirmed that he died in the place of the greatest sinner in order to rescue even this one from hell’s grasp. In his death in God-forsakenness—as one abandoned by God—he accomplished our freedom from God-forsakenness, our adoption as the children of God.

As we know all too well, however, in the absence of God’s presence, hell makes its presence felt all too often in this world. But the power of the cross extends even here. In his death in God-forsakenness, Jesus died in solidarity with those who felt forsaken in the death camps at Auschwitz, in the killing fields of Cambodia, in the lynchings here in the United States. On the cross, Jesus went to the very depths of forsakenness. He descended into the abyss. He experienced the darkness of damnation, the horrors of hell.

But precisely here the mystery of the cross is demonstrated most vividly, in that Jesus not only died in the place of the ones tortured and murdered; he also died in the place of the torturers and murderers. Jesus demonstrated the extent of God’s love in that he died the death—the second death—of all sinners. “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). His death is the death of all death. His descent into hell is the destruction of hell. In the cross of Christ, in his death in God-abandonment, “the power of Hell is already broken (down), the locked door of the grave is already burst open” (von Balthasar).

In closing, I wish to read a few short sections from an ancient Eastern Orthodox liturgy, which I think captures Christ’s death in God-forsakenness perfectly.
A destructive band of God-forsaken,
wicked murderers of God, …
dragged You away as an evil-doer –
the Creator of all, whom we magnify.

Like a pack of dogs they surrounded You, O King,
smiting You on the cheek with their hands.
They questioned You and bore false witness against You,
yet by enduring all things, You have saved all. ...

HE WHO HOLDS THE EARTH
IN THE HOLLOW OF HIS HAND
HAS BEEN PUT TO DEATH AND HELD FAST BY THE EARTH,
TO SAVE THE DEAD FROM HELL'S GRASPING HAND. ...

THOUGH YOU ARE BURIED
IN A GRAVE, O CHRIST,
THOUGH YOU WENT DOWN TO HELL, O SAVIOR,
YOU HAVE STRIPPED HELL NAKED, EMPTYING ITS GRAVES. ...

WILLINGLY, O SAVIOR,
YOU DESCENDED TO HELL.
THERE YOU RESTORED THE DEAD TO NEW LIFE,
AND LED THEM BACK TO THE FATHER'S HOUSE.
Amen.

Comments

Halden said…
That's good David. I spent last night reading Balthasar's Theo-Drama V, which speaks to this whole issue wonderfully.

This is my fourth year of leading a Holy Saturday serivce, and it continues to become a time of greater and greater richness.
Aric Clark said…
Very nice post, David. You captured the descent into hell perfectly. This is one of the most troubling and profound moments in the gospels. Without it, though, it isn't the gospel at all. Unless the gates of hell have been knocked down and the dead liberated...
My friend, Dr. David Emmanuel Goatley, did his dissertation on the interpretation of Jesus' cry of abandonment in African-American Christianity, especially in the slave narratives and spirituals. It was published by Orbis as Were You There?.
D.W. Congdon said…
Aric: No more Miner??
kim fabricius said…
Hi David,

Good, creative exegesis, following the lead of the likes of Calvin and von Balthasar. Big political implications too, explored briefly by Stanley Hauerwas in his excellent Cross-Shattered Christ: Meditations on the Seven Last Words (2005): "Our idea of God, our assumptions that God must possess the sovereign power to make every thing turn out all right for us ... is revealed by Jesus' cry of abandonment to be the idolatry it is...how frighteneing we find a God who refuses to save us by violence."
Aric Clark said…
re: not using the handle "the Miner"

I kept running into people wondering why I wasn't using my real name and one or two folks who even seemed offended like I was putting on airs or trying to retain my anonymity. As though having my name in the URL of my blog would be a really good tactic for staying anonymous. Anyway, I just decided it was best to lose the nickname - though a few of my friends still call me this in person.
Shane said…
"Our idea of God, our assumptions that God must possess the sovereign power to make every thing turn out all right for us ... is revealed by Jesus' cry of abandonment to be the idolatry it is...how frighteneing we find a God who refuses to save us by violence."

I'm pretty sure that somewhere in the Bible it says that God does have the power to make everything work out good for us and that God does sometimes use violence to achieve his ends. Horses up to their bridles in the blood of the unrighteous, and so forth. Personally, that's what I find terrifying, but perhaps that just tells you more about the state of my soul than you wanted to know.

sw
Aric, I understand. That's why I dropped the joking pseudonymn, "Michael the Leveller" about 6 months after I started blogging. I wasn't really trying to remain anonymous and I decided that I was offended by all those who chose to spew out hate and venom while safely anonymous. So, I figured I'd try to lead by example.
Guess what? I was immediately charged by critics that I had abandoned attempts to be fair and "level," which wasn't the point of my handle anyway!