Thursday, 17 April 2014

My G-d, my G-d, why hast thou forsaken me - a reflection on the fourth word of Christ from the Cross


We are now midway through the Via Crucis, that most harrowing of journeys, the point at which the reason for beginning a difficult journey can feel so long forgotten, and at which the end is nowhere in sight. It is the moment when looking back can show us how far we’ve come, give us a clearer idea of where we are, and offer us the courage to go forward – in the words of Caryll Houselander:

Now from the Cross, before his eyes are darkened, he can look back down that road which is indeed an image of the road through life of all those who will come after him.

He has known pain, exhaustion, apparent failure, shame; but it has not only been tragedy. He has known too the blessed dependence of a man upon other men; he has been helped by them and accepted their help; he has realised the joy and the light that comes to other men through helping him, above all through helping him to carry his cross. He has known compassion from the women he met on the way, compassion and the heroism it inspires – the women who blessed him openly with loud voices and Veronica who dared the mockery of the crowd and the authority of the armed guard to come close to him and wipe the tears and filth from his face.

He has known all these things and more in his Incarnation, and now he comes to the final experience that brings him to full humanity: despair.

We’re not comfortable with the idea that our Lord should despair, or feel darker emotions, such as rage or doubt. Look at how we glide over the rawness of Gethsemane, the rage of the cleansing of the temple, the despair of this moment.

Why? Because to acknowledge that G-d incarnate must descend into the abyss means that we ourselves cannot avoid it, however much we hope that our faith will allow us a spiritual bypass; however we weave our religion – whether through ornate liturgy or relentless positivity and ‘goodness’ – to create a neat, safe world and pretend that the darkness has no claim on us by calling it 'sin', and ourselves, when we avoid it, 'good'.

But to claim that despair is a sin is to claim that Jesus sinned on the cross. To claim that rage is a sin is to claim that Jesus sinned in the temple. To claim that doubt is a sin is to claim that Jesus sinned in Gethsemane. To deny the darkness that is part of us is to dishonour Our Lord – because it is to say that His humanity was a lie.

But the truth is that when we deny the existence of our darkness, claiming we feel none of it, it is our humanity, our faith, that is the lie.

Because there is no truer moment than now – the moment Jesus hangs on the cross in utter agony, midway through his harrowing journey, crying out to the Father, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?’

The emptiness. The desolation. The inability to trust what is to come, to believe in what he has left behind, this descent into the abyss marks the final moments of his Incarnation in which he has lived the full experience of his people. He has laughed, he has grieved, he has been angry, he has loved, he has comforted, he has doubted…

…but only now does he despair, feeling abandoned by G-d, and in this moment, he has truly become fully human – truly felt as we have felt.

Because he despaired, falling all the way into the abyss, I was not alone that desolate night I put one leg over an 8th floor balcony railing, intending to swing the other over and fall into the car park below. You are not alone in your darkness. Because Christ felt as we felt, NONE of us are EVER alone.

He is with us in every joy, every sorrow, every ordinary moment. And because he experienced them, because he has walked the road, he shows us the way forward.

What does Jesus do in this moment of utter despair? He doesn’t attempt to be what he thinks G-d wants him to be; he doesn’t try to suppress his sense of abandonment; he doesn’t pretend to feel or be anything other than he is. He DOES stay in relationship - He speaks to His Father: “My G-d, my G-d, why hast thou forsaken me?” He brings his desolation to the Father, surrendering it, and in so doing, allows it to be transformed.

As Houselander noted, Christ’s road is the road for all of us who follow: when we allow ourselves to feel the darkness, giving it to G-d rather than trying to hide it behind our backs because we think it’s ‘bad’, when we admit we thirst and finally surrender, commending our spirit into G-d’s hands, new life will follow.

But that new life will not be like our old one; it will be something beyond our imagining, for acknowledging the darkness, risking the descent, allowing the surrender bring great gifts that change us at the deepest level. We may not know how, for that is part of the mystery, but we may get a glimpse in this exhortation to Christ often sung on Palm Sunday:

Bow thy meek head to mortal pain, then take, O G-d, thy power and reign.