“My God why have you forsaken me?” – Jesus
It’s almost Easter! And, it is not unusual for me to be asked, “How do you understand what was happening when Jesus cried out on the cross, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’”
I dared to offer one level of response in Part 1 (here). Again, the Early Church Fathers saw multiple layers of finding wisdom in the same verses of Scripture. So, in addition to possibly being a message of hope, was Jesus’ cry an authentic expression of feeling estranged from his Father? Along with this question is the classic question Christian theologians have debated since the crucifixion — “Why did Jesus have to die?”
“Assuming” Our Alienation from Union with Father:
The Early Church Fathers confronted many opposing theological speculations about the Incarnation and Atonement. Sorting through them was a major task of the church for many years — and it continues even today. In a core sense, the apostle Paul set a context for the debate by identifying Jesus as the “Second Adam” and his death and resurrection as a apocalyptic event ushering in a “New Creation” where everything changed. Unfortunately he does not spell out his logic for that process and calls it a mystery that all creation had been groaning to experience.
Gregory of Nazianzus, an Early Church Father, formulated a position that became a core theological assumption about the Incarnation and Atonement:
“For that which he (Christ) has not assumed he has not healed; but that which is united to his Godhead is also saved.”
[That is, the unassumed by Christ is unhealed.]
His logic was that if some aspect of our human experience was not taken on (assume) as his personal experience in the incarnation, then that part of our humanity was unhealed/unredeemed and the complete reconciliation of humanity was incomplete. Following that logic suggests why Jesus experienced a fully-human death since he “assumed” our fate attributed to the actions of the First Adam
As a Easter liturgy proclaims:
Dying, Christ destroyed our death.
Rising, Christ restored our life.
And the Apostle Paul quotes an ancient liturgy:
‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.
Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (I Cor 15:54b-57)
But what about the cry from the cross? Was it an authentic experience of feeling alienated from the Father?
Jesus Assumed Humanity’s False-Self Story:
Father Thomas Keating offers an insightful way of responding to this question that I find both fascinating and compelling that reflects Gregory’s “the unassumed is unhealed” principle and contemporary psychological language.
First Keating’s view reflects Gregory’s principle:
Jesus took upon himself the human condition more and more concretely as his life progressed. In the Garden of Gethsemani, he took upon himself the sin of the world with all of its consequences. He experienced every level of loneliness, guilt and anguish that you or I or any human being has ever felt.… He felt himself being asked by his Father to identify with this misery in all its immensity and horror.…
Then, Keating suggests Jesus “assumes” humanity’s “false-self” experience:
He notes that Jesus’ story never includes a moment when he was not in intimate union (communion) with his Father. As a child, he exhibited wisdom that stunned Temple scholars and reminded his parents that he had to “be about my Father’s business.” At both his baptism and on a mountain, he heard “This is my beloved Son….” He also affirmed that everything he said and did was at the Father’s direction. Unlike the rest of us, Jesus did not experience having a ‘false-self’ that is alien to our ‘true-self’ that reflects the image of God created in us.
However, following Gregory’s theology, if Jesus did not experience our living in a ‘false-self’ – alienated from our ‘true-self,’ that part of our human experience would not be assumed and remain unhealed. Keating suggests that on the cross Jesus voluntarily took upon himself our experience of having a a “false-self,” — an alienated “separate-self;” a broken sense of union with his Father — an experience we mistake as normal.
The clear realization that he was being asked by the Father to thrust himself as far from him as anyone has ever experienced, caused him unimaginable agony. By absorbing the separate-self sense into his innermost being, Jesus became sin. As Paul writes, ‘He who knew not sin was made sin for our salvation.’… he cried out, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ With these words, he revealed the fact that the act of taking upon himself the entire weight of human sinfulness had cost him the loss of his personal union with the Father.
But Jesus’ experience of assuming our ‘false-self’ alienation was not the end but the means of healing our wounded hearts:
It is the final stage of Jesus’ spiritual journey.… his resurrection, catapulted him into a state of being beyond the personal union with the Father which had been his whole life until then.… His sacrifice opened up for the whole human family the possibility of sharing in his experience of personal union with the Father
Why do we accept our ‘false-self’ experience as normal and not cry out in anguish as Jesus did? Perhaps it just seems so normal and the vulnerability required to find and live out of our ‘true-self’ seems too frightening. It is only when we have a crisis that exposes our ‘false-self’ as inadequate to handle that we are prepared to cry out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” That crisis is the ‘necessary failing’ we need to begin the contemplative path to experience the union we actually have with Father, Son and Spirit.
Paradoxical Turn of the Voice of God:
In the Genesis Garden story, God calls out “Adam, where are you?” and he was hiding — having been alienated by falling for the temptation to “be equal with God”. In the Crucifixion story it is God in the form of Jesus as the Second Adam, who “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, … he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even to death on a cross.” (Phil. 2:6b, 8) taking on humanities alienation from God and giving us voice from the depths of our wounded hearts, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
God’s Response to God’s Cry From the Cross:
The response came somewhere between Friday and Resurrection Sunday. Paul sums up the response of the Father to Jesus’ cry from the depth of our alienation:
But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. Eph. 2:4-10
The Early Fathers and Desert Fathers and Mothers were cartographers of the soul. They charted the soul’s journey to experience the union with the Trinity. They explored, modeled and left maps for us that we ignore to our own diminished spiritual experience.
Don’t waste a good crisis. Find the spiritual director who can help you chart your soul’s course to the union Jesus promised:
“n that day you will know that I am in My Father, and you in Me, and I in you.”— John 16:23
Quotes are from Thomas Keating, The Mystery of Christ, 60,61,62.