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Why Have You Forsaken Me

by Brant Pitre August 07, 2020 0 Comments

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So with trial of Jesus and the scourging out of the way, now Matthew moves into the actual crucifixion of Christ and the death of Jesus. And because it is Passion Sunday, I at least would like to read the account of Jesus' death in Matthew. So let's read Matthew 27:32 and following, it says this:

As they went out, they came upon a man of Cyre'ne, Simon by name; this man they compelled to carry his cross. And when they came to a place called Gol'gotha (which means the place of a skull), they offered him wine to drink, mingled with gall; but when he tasted it, he would not drink it.

Pause there for a moment. Why was it called Golgotha, the place the skull. We don't actually know. We don't know for a fact, but some ancient Church Fathers said that it was because this was a place of execution. So when the Romans would execute people they would do one of two methods. If you were a non-citizen, like Jesus, you would be crucified; but if you were a Roman soldier or a Roman citizen, you would be decapitated. You would be beheaded like St. Paul. So some scholars and ancient Christian's suggest that this place is called Golgotha because they would leave the skulls of the beheaded victims, as well as in some cases even the the bones of some of the executed men who were crucified there. So it was a place of death. It was a place of execution. It was the place of the skull. Others have suggested that it is because there is a particular hill in Jerusalem that looks like a skull if you look at the shape of the skull. And you can go there to this day and you can see it. You have to stretch a little, but you can kind of see it. So that's another suggestion. In any case, it's a place associated with death. Oh, there is a third tradition as well. Some of the Church Father's said that it was the place of the burial of Adam. So that Adam and Eve had actually lived in Jerusalem. That in Jerusalem was where Eden used to be and that Adam was buried under the mountain of Golgotha. So sometimes, on depictions of icons of the crucifix you'll see a grave underneath the cross with a skull or sometimes you'll see Adam and Eve depicted as being beneath the crucifix. That's part of the tradition of connecting Golgotha with the death of Adam. So where the old Adam died and was buried, the new Adam is going to bring life through his death and his resurrection. Any one of those interpretations is out there as an ancient meaning for the place of the skull. In any case, Matthew continues in verse 35:

And when they had crucified him, they divided his garments among them by casting lots; then they sat down and kept watch over him there. And over his head they put the charge against him, which read, "This is Jesus the King of the Jews.” Then two robbers were crucified with him, one on the right and one on the left. And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads and saying, "You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross." So also the chief priests, with the scribes and elders, mocked him, saying, "He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him; for he said, `I am the Son of God.'" And the robbers who were crucified with him also reviled him in the same way.

Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour. And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, "Eli, Eli, la'ma sabach-tha'ni?" that is, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" And some of the bystanders hearing it said, "This man is calling Eli'jah." And one of them at once ran and took a sponge, filled it with vinegar, and put it on a reed, and gave it to him to drink. But the others said, "Wait, let us see whether Eli'jah will come to save him." And Jesus cried again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit.

At this moment in the Mass we always kneel and pause to honor the moment when Jesus died. Matthew now continues in verse 51, and this is only found in Matthew's Gospel:

And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom; and the earth shook, and the rocks were split; the tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many. When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe, and said, "Truly this was the Son of God!"

Let's stop there. What's going on now? We've seen that Jesus has fulfilled the Passover, he's the new Adam, he's the suffering servant, he's a new Joseph, he's the true son of the father. What's going on in this account of Jesus's death? Well I'd like to highlight one key element and that is the so-called cry of dereliction. In Matthew's Gospel here Jesus's final words on the cross are, "My God, my God why hast thou forsaken me?" or “why have you forsaken me.” Over the years of teaching the passion I've realized that this is a troubling passage for a lot of people because when they hear Jesus cry out, "My God, my God why have you forsaken me?" it can sound as if he is despairing in his final moments, as if he not only feels abandoned by God but thinks that God has turned his back on him, or abandoned him, or forgotten him. In fact some non-Catholic Christians, some Protestant Christians would actually say that that's what happened. They say that at the moment of Jesus's death the father turned his face away from Christ and turned his back on Christ because he could not look upon sin and Christ took the sins of the world upon him at that point. Well I think that's wrong. I don't think that's what is going on here. I don't think that Jesus either despaired or that God turned his back on him, and the reason I think both of those interpretations are wrong is because of the Jewish context of Jesus' words. See when Jesus says, "My God, my God why hast thou forsaken me?" he's not just crying out in the anguish of his crucifixion, although he is crying out in anguish, he's quoting the Old Testament. He's quoting Psalm 22, which is in fact the responsorial psalm for this passion Sunday. And if you go back to Psalm 22, what you will find out is something really fascinating. What you'll see is, although Psalm 22 begins in desolation and the experience of David feeling abandoned by God, the Psalm ends with the conversion of the nations. It ends with the conversion of the pagans. It ends with the conversion of all the families of the earth. So just for a quick second if you look at the Responsorial Psalm for today, the opening lines are:

Why art thou so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but thou dost not answer;
and by night, but find no rest.

So it's true. It begins with David feeling forsaken by God. If you walk through the whole Psalm--and I would really encourage you to read it in its entirety--you'll see that David goes on to say things which can't possibly apply to him. He says things like this:

they have pierced my hands and feet -- I can count all my bones --
they stare and gloat over me;
they divide my garments among them, and for my raiment they cast lots.

Well when did David have his hands and feet pierced? Well he never did! But Christ does. He's fulfilling Psalm 22 by means of the crucifixion by having his hands pierced, by having his feet pierced. In other words, Jesus on the cross is a new David, but he's going far beyond the sufferings that David ever experienced. What David is describing symbolically and metaphorically, Jesus is experiencing literally by being nailed to the cross and put to death. As you walk through the psalm, what's so fascinating about psalm 22 that Jesus is quoting on the cross is actually says in verse 24:

For he has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted;
and he has not hid his face from him, but has heard, when he cried to him.

So by invoking this psalm, Jesus is quoting a Scripture which says that the cry of the one who is apparently forsaken by God is actually heard by God the Father, that the Father doesn't turn his back on the one who is afflicted, and instead hears his prayer and answers the prayer, and so when you get to the end of the Psalm it ends in this way:

All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD;
and all the families of the nations
shall worship before him.

For dominion belongs to the LORD...

In other words, all the families of the earth will convert when God answers the prayer of the afflicted one. Well go back to the Gospel of Matthew and what do you find? When Jesus cries out, "My God, my God why have you forsaken me?" at the very foot of the cross the pagan Centurion, the Roman soldier, stands there, sees Jesus, hears the cry, and doesn't say “truly this man despaired of God,” but “truly this man was the son of God.” And right there at the foot of the cross the conversion of the nations begins. The conversion of the Gentiles begins. So Jesus not only quotes the Psalm, he fulfills it in the beginning of the conversion of the nations with the words of the centurion. Very powerful, very significant. And so, what the Church tells us about this quotation here, about this cry of Jesus is this. The Catechism says:

All the troubles, for all time, of humanity enslaved by sin and death, all the petitions and intercessions of salvation history, are summed up in this cry of the incarnate Word. Here the Father accepts them, and, beyond all hope, answers them by raising his Son. (CCC 2606)

In other words, what the Catechism is saying is, far from despairing when Jesus cries out "my God, my God, why you forsaken me," what Jesus is actually doing is speaking on behalf of all of humanity. Don't get me wrong, he is crying out in anguish. He feels the pain of the cross, but he's using the inspired words of Scripture to cry out to God on behalf of humanity, who feels abandoned by God in their suffering, who feels abandoned by God in their sin, who feels abandoned by God in the darkness of this valley of tears, such that every prayer that was ever uttered from the beginning of time until the end of time, all the suffering of all of humanity, is caught up into the words of Jesus, "my God, my God, why have you forsaken me," which is spoken as a prayer to the Father. And the Father answers that prayer by raising Jesus from dead. So if you've ever felt abandoned by God.

If you've ever felt forsaken by God. If you've ever felt like God has forsaken you, always remember that Jesus knows what that's like. He experiences that in his human nature on the cross, but he also cries out to God with Psalm 22, which is the Psalm that tells us God doesn't abandon his righteous ones and that he will answer their prayer and bring about the salvation of the world. That's what happens when the new David speaks the cry of dereliction while hanging on the cross.

Brant Pitre
Brant Pitre


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