The Forsaken Son
Posted by Mark Smith, 6 Apr 2020
The last section of our Lent posts through Holy Week continue with reflections on the words of Jesus spoken from the cross.
For the director of music. To the tune of “The Doe of the Morning.” A psalm of David.
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from my cries of anguish?
My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
by night, but I find no rest.
Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One;
you are the one Israel praises.
In you our ancestors put their trust;
they trusted and you delivered them.
To you they cried out and were saved;
in you they trusted and were not put to shame.
But I am a worm and not a man,
scorned by everyone, despised by the people.
All who see me mock me;
they hurl insults, shaking their heads.
“He trusts in the LORD,” they say,
“let the LORD rescue him.
Let him deliver him,
since he delights in him.”
What was the greatest agony that Jesus endured for us?
Two rebels were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, ‘You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!’ In the same way the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders mocked him. ‘He saved others,’ they said, ‘but he can’t save himself! He’s the king of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, ‘“I am the Son of God.”’ In the same way the rebels who were crucified with him also heaped insults on him.
From noon until three in the afternoon darkness came over all the land. About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ (which means ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’). Matthew 27:38-46
Ingmar Bergman’s 1963 movie, Winter Light, is the unrelentingly bleak story of a pastor ministering to a small rural congregation, whilst undergoing an existential crisis. Full of Swedish gloom, and regarded as dreary, turgid, and meandering by critics, Winter Light is one of my favourite films. Towards the end, there’s a conversation between Tomas, the pastor, and Algot, his handicapped sexton, who’s puzzled by Christ’s Passion.
‘Wouldn’t you agree’, says Algot, ‘that the focus on his suffering is all wrong? This emphasis on physical pain. It may sound presumptuous of me, but in my own humble way, I think I’ve suffered as much physical pain as Jesus. I feel he was tormented far worse on a different level. Christ’s disciples had run away, they’d all abandoned him. He was left all alone. And when Jesus was nailed to the cross, and hung there in torment, he cried out, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ He thought that his heavenly Father had abandoned him. Surely that must have been the greatest hardship of all? God’s silence.’
The cry of desolation
Our familiarity with the Gospel stories of Jesus’s death can blunt the shock of his words from the cross. And never more so than in that cry of utter desolation, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ It comes, in Matthew’s narrative, as a kind of culmination of agony — amid the mockery of the chief priests, the teachers of the law, and the elders, amid the insults hurled at Jesus by those crucified with him. It comes, too, amid a darkness that covers all the land. Matthew, like Mark, records Jesus’s words in their original Aramaic, and then translates them for his readers — for those eyewitnesses present at the crucifixion, this moment must have seared itself onto their memories.
And how could it not? For the cross of Jesus Christ unsettles all our expectations and neat certainties. Here God crucifies human wisdom, the intellectual arrogance that seeks to dictate to God how he should act in our world. Here God chooses the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God has sent his Son to proclaim the ‘good news’ — and what a curious kind of ‘good news’ it is. We behold our God, and he is dying on a cross. The promised king reigns from a throne of wood and nails, and the glory of the eternal Son shines in dazzling darkness. In the crucified Christ, God’s victory is revealed in defeat, his presence in absence, his power in weakness, his love in wrath, his blessings through curse, his life through death.
The pain of hell
What is Jesus enduring, as he speaks these words of dereliction? He is enduring hell. Forget the medieval paintings — those kitsch subterranean lairs awash with red, full of pitchforks and spit roasts. If you want to know what hell looks like, look at Jesus on the cross. The sky is black, because God is present in judgement. His just wrath is being poured out, the full price for sin is being paid, the full punishment for sin is being borne. And that price is being paid, that punishment is being borne, not by us, but by God himself, in his own flesh. Jesus is not some random man, the unwilling plaything of an abusive Father; but nor does the crucifixion involve some sort of rupture in the life of the eternal Trinity. Rather, on the cross, the truly divine Son is forsaken as true man.
Algot was right — Jesus didn’t cry out because of the physical suffering, horrific though it was — the torn flesh, and the loss of blood, and the gradual, agonising process of suffocation. Jesus cried out because he was undergoing something far worse — the unimaginable horror of separation from God, of God turning from him completely. On the cross, Jesus experienced hell for us — he took our place, he died our death, he was abandoned so that we might never be. That’s why, as Jesus dies, Matthew records that the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. Because of Jesus’s sin-bearing death, the barrier which separated a holy God from sinful man has been broken down once and for all. In Christ, true forgiveness can now be known, and a new life with God can be begun.
The abandonment of the cross is no surprise to Jesus, no unexpected accident of history. Jesus speaks of prophecy fulfilled. His words are those of the Psalmist, from the opening verse of Psalm 22: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ The cry of desolation is nonetheless still a cry of faith in God, which recognises, even in the depths of darkness and despair, that ‘in you our ancestors put their trust, they trusted and you delivered them’ (Psalm 22:4). Even here, Jesus teaches us how to pray. When we struggle to know what to say to God, when there appears no consolation in our circumstances or relief amid our afflictions, we can turn to Scripture, and let its words shape ours. And we can pray to the one now risen and exalted, who has been through death and hell for us, whose perfect love casts out our fears.
Questions for Reflection
1. How does this passage help you to avoid minimising the seriousness of your sin?
2. How does this passage help you to marvel at the depths of Jesus’s love for you?
3. How can you make use of this word from the cross to pray for, or encourage, someone you know who is currently suffering?
Ever-holy and ever-loving God,
you made your Son, who had no sin, to be sin for us,
and to endure forsakenness, that we might never be forsaken:
mercifully grant to us such confidence in the cross of our Lord,
that we may know the peace of sins forgiven,
and the joy of life with you forever,
through the same Jesus Christ our Saviour,
Mark Smith is the Dean and Director of Studies in Theology at Clare College, Cambridge.
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