As we gratefully approach a more familiar Holy Week, we remember last year, when we experienced the greatest days of our faith so differently – remotely, distanced, unable to be present together. Social, racial, and political turmoil displayed a world on edge and at times bitterly divided over these months. Our common life and routines were upended in multiple ways, and we have all suffered through adversity, loss, and uncertainty. Well then might these final words of Jesus recorded by St. Mark resonate with us: “My God, my God, why have You abandoned me?” The Passion story is the core of the earliest kerygma or public proclamation of the Gospel. It presents the heart of Christian faith: the Son of God suffered our human death, the consequence of humanity’s sin and rebellion against divine love, to redeem us and restore the hope of eternal life. We share in this hope because we are part of the Body of Christ through Baptism. The Passion narrative was carefully crafted and densely rich with layered meanings, connecting with salvation history and the fulfillment of vague foreshadowings throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. Of all the details of the Passion, the final words of Jesus from the Cross naturally focus our attention, as they must have done for those at Golgotha. In John, Jesus serenely declares: “It is finished” – Consummatum est – the work of redemption is complete with His sacrifice. Luke likewise presents a suffering yet confident Jesus, quoting Psalm 31 in giving over His life to the Father:“Into your hands I commend my spirit.” Mark’s Gospel, which we hear this year (along with Matthew), records Jesus quoting a different Psalm, beginning with one of the most chilling passages of all of Scripture: “Eloi, eloi, lema sabachthani?” – “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” Psalm 22, of which this is the first verse, contains verses stunningly prophetic of the Passion: “All who see me mock me: ‘He relied on the LORD—let him deliver him; if he loves him,’ … they have pierced my hands and my feet … they divide my garments among them; … for my clothing they cast lots.” Skeptics may say the Passion narrative simply borrowed the Psalm’s details to contrive a dramatic story. Yet we may also see God’s fidelity to divine promises. With the guidance of the Spirit, the Gospel writers reread the Scriptures in light of what they experienced with Jesus, and found a thread running through texts they had never traced before. Psalm 22 ends with hints of the Resurrection: “All who sleep in the earth will bow low before God … And I will live for the LORD …The generation to come will be told, that they may proclaim to a people yet unborn the deliverance you have brought.” Some hold that in quoting the first verse, as sometimes done by rabbis, Jesus alludes to the entire Psalm with its reference to resurrection and redemption. The hearers would fill in the rest.
That may be true. I find another explanation also compelling. In those words, Jesus reveals how utterly He has united Himself with all the sin, rejection, and alienation from God in all of history. What began in the Agony of the Garden, embracing the suffering caused by sin of all time, is complete with this cry. If hell is rightly understood as the despair caused by the total absence of God’s joy and love, then Jesus here begins that descent into hell proclaimed in the Apostle’s Creed. This consoles me. No matter what has happened or is yet to occur in all the long ages of history, there is nothing that was not embraced and redeemed by Jesus on the Cross. No matter how wretched, alone, or devastated we might feel, none of it escapes the Passion of the Lord. These words reassure us that just when we might feel farthest from hope in God, we are closest to this saving mystery. St. Paul expresses the same idea in Romans 8:38-39:
“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God.” We cannot fully probe the depth of this cry from the Cross. But we can find refuge in what it proclaims: Jesus suffered this abandonment on Good Friday, so that we will never need to. In a deeply divided and suffering world, know that nothing can separate us from the love of God that comes to us in Christ Jesus, our Lord.