God has asked his son to do the unthinkable: to offer himself up and submit to a death that he knew would take a long time and would be extremely agonizing. We have such a poignant image of Christ in Gethsemane, wrestling with his very human fear of pain, and begging his Father: Please, if it’s at all possible, don’t let this happen. And when it became clear that there would be no reprieve, Jesus accepted God’s will and did it.
He’s been betrayed, shamed, scourged, even forced to carry his own instrument of execution. The day is hot and the road is long. And then, at the end of it, there is only pain and death. George MacDonald shines a light on the reality of the situation: “I am recovering the claim,” he writes, “that Christ was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles, but on a cross between two thieves. At the town garbage heap. At a crossroad so cosmopolitan that they had to write his title in Latin and in Hebrew and in Greek. At the kind of place where cynics talk smut, and thieves curse, and soldiers gamble. Because that was where he died. And that was what he died about.”
It’s an ignominious end to a life lived entirely for others. And the pain must have been nearly unbearable. The dust. The heat. The thirst. The pain.
And—as we know from these last words—the sense of abandonment.
Jesus has done everything his Father asked of him. He has spoken truth to power. He has left the comfort and familiarity of his home in Nazareth and has traveled the countryside, meeting with as much resistance as he has with acceptance. He has slept on hard beds and on no beds at all. And finally, at the end of this journey, is that cross on the town garbage heap. He’s crucified, laughed at, made fun of. He is close to passing out. Despite doing everything that God has asked of him, he has received no sign from God. And he cries out to his Father: why have you forgotten me?
Most of us, it’s true, won’t be called to live out our faith by dying for it. Most of us won’t be executed for the sake of our religion. But who among us has not had that same cry on their lips, at one time or another? Who among us hasn’t looked around us and asked, “Where is God?”
Think about the times in your life when you felt most alone, the most in pain. Perhaps you have lost a spouse through death or divorce. Maybe despite your best efforts you have a child who has fallen aside through addiction or other grave problems. Perhaps you yourself suffer from a painful or debilitating disease. You have prayed: you have asked God for help. And yet the situation has continued. What are you to make of that? Was God listening? If he loves you, why hasn’t he answered your prayers?
Perhaps your concern is broader, a feeling of closeness with others who are suffering. Where was God when floods carried babies away? Where was God when war broke out and children were forced to live with rockets and mortars and enemy fire? Where was God when the plane crashed, the bridge collapsed, the flames consumed the houses?
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It is the endless cry of humanity.
There are people for whom this question is what we might call a deal-breaker: they lose their faith because they cannot cope with a God who allows pain and suffering. And then there are the rest of us, who know that God is still there, but find ourselves trapped in an endless loop of questions and who struggle with our faith. Jesus never questioned the reality of God; but he was dealing, very personally, with the biggest question of humanity: the problem of pain.
And no one can answer it. We can only accept that there is more to all of these questions than the little we understand of them. We can only stay on our paths, just as Jesus did, knowing that the unknowable is before us. Being able to say, “Not my will, but yours,” along with Jesus is the greatest gift we can give to God: a childlike faith that, whether we understand it or not, whether we want it or not, God desires for us to go through this situation. To take that step into a void knowing (even when we don’t see it, even when we don’t feel it) that God is there.
This one of the seven last words is the one with which we can identify the most. And perhaps that’s part of God’s intention. Through Jesus, God felt the terror of abandonment. Through Jesus, God felt the most profound misery that his children can feel. So he knows.
He knows your pain. He knows your loneliness. He knows your despair. And whether you feel it or not, he is with you. That’s the promise that goes beyond the pain: the warm, shining, beautiful vision of an eternity embraced by Love.
God is here.
by Jeannette de Beauvoir