Wednesday, March 11, 2015

"My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me?"

Jesus’ Seven Last Words, sayings offered from the cross, may serve as guidance for the spiritual life. You are invited to contemplate each saying during the seven Wednesdays of Lent and Holy Week.

A misrendering of Jesus’ quote from Psalm 22 unveils for me the deeper theological nature of this question. One list of Jesus’ last words renders this “My God, my God, have you forsaken me?” which is very different from asking why God has forsaken him. “Have you forsaken me?” might merely suggest doubt in God’s presence. To ask why implies an awareness of God’s absence and a desire for a rationale. The plaintive tone in the repetition “my God, my God” suggests existential, spiritual dread.

One traditional answer is that Jesus bore our sins on the cross. If that is so, one could imagine Jesus so disfigured by sin that he is unrecognizable or unwelcome even to God. This is such a simplistic plot that it could serve a dramatic episode on TV, like a parent who fails to recognize her or his child after a tragic accident or a drug addiction. But surely we think more of God than that! The women disciples gathered at the cross still recognized their rabbi and were the first to “welcome” him off that cross.

Rather, it suggests to me the necessity of God’s absence to experience God’s presence. There is much in the spiritual tradition to suggest a “dark night of the soul” for many we now regard as mystics. And biblically, the empty wildernesses of the ancient Hebrews and of Jesus’ temptations proved opportune for discerning their spirituality. In Jesus’ case, he discerned that his survival, his credibility, and his power could only come from God. These were the same lessons learned by his Hebrew ancestors.

Much of our lives are given over to things from which God seems absent, which makes our intentional prayer lives potentially rich with God’s presence. And the deeper our prayer lives, the more noticeable God’s presence in everyday, ordinary things, even our suffering.

But I would say also that, the deeper our prayer lives, the more noticeable God’s absence may be in religious, even spiritual things, including our prayer times, especially when facing trials and temptation.

The psalm Jesus quotes cannot be said to end happily, but it does end hopefully, and I’ve heard preachers suggest that’s why Jesus quotes it, expressing hope in past deliverance, and ultimately expecting, if not rescue, at least that the psalmist and Jesus may prove a witness to future generations.

That may very well be, but I think such a resolution detracts from the immediate and overwhelming terror and anguish in Jesus’ outcry.

For those who would like daily readings for this week of Lent, click here and scroll down to the end of “Bill Maher’s Fundamentalism.”

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  1. Many years ago at a choir retreat, a woman that I greatly admired shared that she prayed to be closer to God. But, she also said that she was afraid of that. She went on to explain that she knew that drawing closer to God would most likely be the result of her going through trials and becoming broken. I realized the truth in those words because that was what had happened to me.

    1. What a great insight! Thanks, Kelsey. I once prayed that I might draw closer to God, and found myself quickly adding, "but not through anything bad"! There's something to the notion that a mortal cannot see God and live--too awesome for our systems! Seeing God indirectly is a less dangerous way, like watching a solar eclipse reflected through a tiny pinprick of a shoebox.