“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
This opening line of the 22nd psalm is one of the most plaintive cries in Scripture, or indeed, in all of literature.
It is a cry of agony, despair, and abandonment.
It is the cry of Jesus as he hangs dying on the cross.
Jesus, who at age 12 astonished the religious scholars by his knowledge of scripture, must have known many psalms by heart, including the very next one, the 23rd.
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me.” Those words which are so familiar to us must surely have been known to Jesus.
But the cry that comes from his lips this day, the words that flow from his heart are not words of comfort, but of despair; not assurances of God’s presence, but an agonizing lament of God’s absence.
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Oddly enough, it comforts me that this is the psalm that comes to Jesus as he hangs on the cross.
I take comfort in knowing that in his darkest hour Jesus is not glibly sure of God’s presence, but wonders if God has abandoned him.
It reassures me to know that at the hour of his death, on the verge of the magnificent moment of the resurrection, Jesus is at his most vulnerable and human.
“My God, my God, why have you forsake me?”
I wonder how many millions of times throughout history, in countless places of death and despair, illness and loneliness, poverty and desperation, these words have been cried out.
They have a special poignancy now in the midst of this great pandemic, when we are forced to be apart from one another, when people in hospitals and nursing homes are not allowed to have family with them in their darkest hours, when so many are alone and afraid.
Where are you, God? Why are you letting this happen? Why have you abandoned us?
These are questions that Nobel laureate Elie Weisel often heard and asked himself during his time at Auschwitz concentration camp. In his book Night, Weisel recounts one of his darkest days in that dark period in human history.
“One day when we came back from work, we saw three gallows rearing up in the assembly place. SS all around us, machine guns trained, the traditional ceremony. Three victims in chains.”
Although this macabre scene had become almost commonplace in the hellish environment of the camp, this day was different. One of those to be hung was a young boy, described by Weisel as a “sad-eyed angel.”
“The SS seemed more preoccupied, more disturbed than usual,” Weisel noted. “To hang a young boy in front of thousands of spectators was no light manner.
“The head of the camp read the verdict. All eyes were on the child. He was lividly pale, almost calm, biting his lips. The gallows threw its shadow over him.
“The three victims mounted together onto the chairs, The three necks were placed at the same moment within the nooses.”
“Where is God? Where is he?” someone behind Weisel cried.
The two adults died almost immediately, but the child, with his light body, did not. For more than half an hour he stayed there, struggling in agony between life and death.
The child was still alive when the SS soldiers forced Weisel and the other prisoners to march past the gallows and look each victim in the face.
Behind Weisel, he heard the same man asking, “Where is God now?”
Weisel writes, “I heard a voice within me answer him: ‘Where is God now? Here he is – he is hanging here on these gallows.’”
And that is where God is today as another young Jewish man hangs on another instrument of death – God is there hanging on the cross with him, suffering with him.
That cross from which Jesus hangs is at the center of our faith. The instrument of death will, we know, be transformed into a symbol of eternal life.
But we must remember that there are two sides to that symbol.
Before we get to the joy of the resurrection, we must know a fully human life, a life that includes suffering, despair, and death.
Before we can fully appreciate grace, we must know the devastating consequences of sin.
Before we can fully appreciate God’s presence, we must know the despair of abandonment.
The same cross that symbolizes the ultimate victory over evil and death, that leads to light and life, is grounded in the darkest moments of the human condition.
We know, of course, that God did not abandon Jesus on the cross, that God was present in the midst of betrayal, suffering, and death. If death and despair were the only realities present at Calvary, we would not be gathered here today.
But because the one who came to save us, to lead us into life and light, experienced these depths of the human condition, because his cry from the cross was, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” we know that at our darkest moments Christ understands and stays with us.
What Jesus offers us is not immunity from pain and suffering, but his companionship in all our dark nights.
Theologian Paul Tillich puts it this way: “It is the greatness and heart of the Christian message that God, as manifest in the Christ on the cross, totally participates in the dying of a child, in the condemnation of a criminal, in the disintegration of a mind, in starvation and famine, and even in the human rejection of Himself.
“There is no human condition into which the divine presence does not penetrate. This is what the Cross, the most extreme of all human conditions, tells us.”