Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34: My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?
The fourth Word from the Cross is the only one recorded in two Gospels. Like the first and the last, it is addressed to God, and dramatically so. ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?’ This intense cry of abandonment has often been found troubling. Does it mean that, in the depth of his suffering Jesus thought he had been abandoned? If so, doesn't this imply that at the climax of his mission, he himself lost faith in God? Many persecuted Christians have felt this sense of abandonment, but could Christ himself have done so? And if he did, what are we to make of it? Does it show that, ultimately, even the most profound trust in God is mistaken?
It is helpful to remember that in this agonized cry, Jesus is using the opening words of Psalm 22. Perhaps because of his failing strength, the most he can do is repeat the first verse. Yet we can nevertheless have confidence that he was thoroughly familiar with the whole psalm. It is a psalm that the Prayer Book uses on several occasions because it resonates so closely and powerfully with the Passion narrative: “My strength drains away like water and all my bones are racked . . . my mouth is as dry as a potsherd and my tongue sticks to my gums . . . a band of ruffians rings me round and they have bound me hand and foot . . . they share out my clothes among them and cast lots for my garments”. Small wonder then that Jesus turns to this psalm in his agony as a way of drawing strength from the Jewish scriptures in which he was immersed. Verses 3 and 4 expressly affirm the attitude of faithful Jews: “In you our fathers put their trust; they trusted, and you rescued them. To you they cried and were delivered; in you they trusted and were not discomfited”.
Of course, as the opening verse that Jesus repeats makes plain, the psalmist himself despairs that the help God has given to others in times past will come to him. “My God, by day I cry to you, but there is no answer; in the night I cry with no respite”. As we read through it, though, the tone changes until the psalmist arrives at the point where he is able to say “You that fear the Lord, praise him, hold him in honour . . . revere him . . . for he has not scorned him who is downtrodden, nor shrunk in loathing from his plight, nor hidden his face from him”. A tormented cry of despair is the Psalmist’s first word, but not his last. It is in his agony that he comes to see more clearly that God “has listened to his cry for help”.
The closing verses of Psalm 22 then strike out in a new and remarkable direction.
How can those who sleep in the earth do him homage,
how can those who go down to the grave do obeisance?
. . .
The coming generation will be told of the Lord;
They will make known his righteous deeds, declaring to a people yet unborn:
The Lord has acted.
These, then, are the words that conclude the Psalm that provides the dying Jesus with his fourth Word from the Cross. Given the context of the Crucifixion, they are especially salient. In a short time Jesus will breathe his last, he will be taken down from the Cross, and laid in a tomb. He will, in the words of the Psalm, “go down to the grave” and “sleep in the earth”. How then will “the coming generation”, and even more “a people yet unborn”, be told that “the Lord has acted”? The answer is that the one who went down to the grave will rise from it. It is not on the cross, but in Christ’s glorious Resurrection that the Lord will be seen to have acted. And this action, by declaring a decisive victory over both sin and mortality, will reverberate on and on for countless generations ‘yet unborn’.
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