March 29, 2013

Reflection / John F. Fink

‘Why have you forsaken me?’

John F. Fink“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt 27:46, Mk 15:34).

Christians will recognize that cry as the fourth of the seven “words” Jesus spoke while hanging on the cross after his crucifixion. But did Jesus really think that God had forsaken him? How could God abandon God?

This cry of Christ was misunderstood even by the bystanders at the crucifixion. Jesus called out in Aramaic, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani? (Mark’s version; Matthew has the name for God in Hebrew, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?). Bystanders thought he was calling on the prophet Elijah for help.

Jesus was not calling upon Elijah. Nor did he think that God had forsaken him. He was praying.

While Jesus was being crucified, he had spoken his first “word”: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34). He asked his father to forgive those who were nailing him to the cross, even justifying their actions.

His second “word” was to the penitent criminal who was hanging on a cross near him. When he admonished the other criminal for asking Jesus to save himself and them, and asked Jesus to remember him when he came into his kingdom, Jesus replied, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Lk 23:43).

Then, seeing his mother and his Apostle John standing by the cross, Jesus entrusted his mother to John, saying, “Woman, behold, your son,” and to John, “Behold, your mother” (Jn 19:26-27).

Having taken care of those matters, Jesus knew that it was time to turn his mind to his approaching death. It was time for prayer, and that meant the psalms. In this case, it was Psalm 22 in particular. It’s the psalm that begins, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

If this had been Jesus calling to his Father in abandonment, he would have called out, “Father, why have you forsaken me?” He always called God Abba (Father) when he prayed, as he did when he asked God to forgive those who were crucifying him. He did so again with his final word, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Lk 23:46).

In his book Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wrote: “Jesus is praying the great psalm of suffering Israel, and so he is taking upon himself all the tribulation, not just of Israel, but of all those in this world who suffer from God’s concealment. He brings the world’s anguished cry at God’s absence before the heart of God himself. He identifies himself with suffering Israel, with all who suffer under ‘God’s darkness.’ He takes their cry, their anguish, all their helplessness upon himself—and in so doing he transforms it” (p. 214).

Psalm 22 begins with that lament of extreme anguish, but it ends with assurance of God’s triumphal reign: “All the ends of the Earth will worship and turn to the Lord; all the families of nations will bow down before you, for kingship belongs to the Lord, the ruler over the nations” (Ps 22:28-29).

The middle of Psalm 22, though, sounds like the description of the Passion that Jesus was undergoing. There is, for example, the old translation that said, “They have pierced my hands and my feet; I can count all my bones.” However, the latest translation is, “So wasted are my hands and feet that I can count all my bones” (Ps 22:17-18).

That is followed by “They divide my garments among them; for my clothing they cast lots” (Ps 22:19). All four Gospels tell us that the soldiers cast lots for Jesus’ clothing, but only John’s Gospel says that they divided Jesus’ clothing into four shares, one for each of the soldiers. Then they cast lots for Jesus’ tunic because it was seamless, woven in one piece from the top down.

John says that this was done in order that the passage of Scripture might be fulfilled, and he quotes Psalm 22:19. John wrote about this so precisely because it was known that the Jewish high priest’s garment was woven from a single thread, and he was alluding to Jesus’ high priestly ministry, accomplished on the cross.

(John F. Fink is editor emeritus of The Criterion.)

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