“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46).
Jesus’ words from the cross bring us to the summit of Palm Sunday. We began our liturgy with Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and we will end with the celebration of the Eucharist. In the course of the day we sing God’s praises, and receive the new life that Jesus won for us by sharing in Holy Communion. We eat and drink the powerful signs of his triumph over death, of his new resurrection life.
But first comes the commemoration of his death. The Gospels differ in their account of Jesus’ words and actions, though they are agreed on the substance of the story. Jesus was executed through the cooperation of the religious authorities with the Roman occupation forces. He was a disruptive force, a challenge to both authorities. Many people with varied motives conspired to put him to death. All four Gospels agree on the framework of the story.
In our gospel today, Jesus takes up the opening words of Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” (Matt. 27:46), as his cry from the cross. The words of the psalm remind us of the long tradition of lament among the People of God. The history of ancient Israel is a story of oppression and deprivation, of slavery and going into exile. The experience of abandonment by God and of the cry of complaint is at the heart of the People’s lament. Over and over again in the psalms the People of God vocalize their despair, crying out to God for relief.
When Jesus on the cross borrows these words, he sums up in himself the People’s sense of abandonment and dereliction. In a sense, he’s bringing to its culmination God’s relationship with his People. It’s a moment of transition; an extreme moment, as Jesus is about to breathe his last. The Passion Gospel pulls no punches, not only about the reality of Jesus’ agonized death by torture, but about his own sense of abandonment and despair.
We all wonder, in the midst of the terrible and tragic things that take place in the world, where exactly God is. Where is God in the concentration camps; in the mass executions; in the lonely and forgotten deaths of so many over the course of years? We look around for the signs of God’s presence and we wonder at what seems like his absence. Where was God on Monday in Nashville? Once again we hear the cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” (Matt. 27:46).
In Jesus’ words from the cross we find an answer, the answering voice of God. When we look for God in the midst of our own despair and loss, we see Jesus on the cross. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have everlasting life” (Jo. 3:16). Jesus is with us, come what may, experiencing the worst that we can experience, even the terrible sense of abandonment by God. In Jesus, God’s own life is joined to our human life, experiencing in him what would otherwise be incomprehensible: God present in us and with us, no matter what the circumstance.
Even more, Jesus’ death on the cross is for us the means of life. He takes upon himself all deprivation, all abandonment, all sin, all death; and turns it into new life. As St. Paul says, “in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor. 5:19). The cry of dereliction and extinction points the way to resurrection.
Our liturgy today brings these truths to light. It does not invalidate our searching questions about God’s presence: indeed, it puts them on Jesus’ own lips. Jesus is truly human, and we are united to him at all times, especially at times like these. The mystery of our union with him is brought to its consummation in our liturgy today, as we share his life within us through his Body and Blood, given for us so that we may be one with him. May we follow in his footsteps in the way of the cross, and come to the glory of his resurrection.