I write the words of this current reflection during Holy Week, the days that lead up to Easter. Holy Week ends on what has been traditionally called Good Friday, the day on which we reflect on Jesus’ crucifixion. While we refer to it as Good Friday with the intention of focusing on Jesus’ death as sacrificial for us, when we read the narratives of Jesus’ last hours, we can find nothing really that good about that Friday. In fact, it is a very dark story of Jesus at his most vulnerable period.
Portrayed on stage, in film, and in church dramas, the passion story of Christ is fraught with human agony and pain that is unequal to any story we read from the Scriptures. And yet, despite the grotesque nature of the story, it is the focus of the Gospels and indeed the entirety of the New Testament. But what are we to make of this story?
This is certainly a difficult question to answer for many reasons. For one thing, the narratives of the Gospels tell the story in such vivid detail that we would be hard pressed to sum up the story in a few simple words. For another, details differ from Gospel to Gospel even though they agree at many points and all four tell essentially the same narrative.
But one thing is certain about the story. The early Christians felt the need to tell this story, with all the details, no matter what it might have said about Jesus, their King and Messiah.
While we often look back on the crucifixion with a bit of sentimentality, probably because we are influenced by the introspective idea that “Jesus died for me”, the earliest Christians must have been out of their minds to portray their Messiah as a vulnerable human who hung on a vile Roman cross. Yet, this is exactly the story they told, without sanitizing it.
This straightforward telling of the story by these earliest Christians is epitomized very poignantly in Matthew and Mark through the only statement Jesus speaks from the cross in these two Gospels. It is a prayer of protest in which Jesus recites Psalm 22:1 and calls out in honest anger, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”
This is a cry of naked vulnerability through which the crucified one expresses a deep resentment at the one who once called him the Beloved Son and the one in which he had placed his complete faith. The intimacy that once characterized this relationship was replaced by estrangement and abandonment, and the vulnerability that Jesus experienced in his life was at its most extreme in his death.
We cannot deny the fact that on the cross Jesus felt abandoned by God. This was real human emotion responding not only to the pain of death, but more tragically to the feeling of abandonment by the one in whom Jesus had placed his full trust and obedience. Yet, Jesus’ cry is much more than a personal cry to God for his own feelings of desertion. It is a cry he voices for vulnerable humans who also feel abandoned by God.
We often wrongly assume that the Gospels were written primarily to record the history of Jesus, so that future generations would have a biography of sorts about this famous Jewish Rabbi. But a more important reason that these narratives about Jesus were written was so that Jesus’ story could become the story through which the vulnerable would find hope.
Thus, Jesus’ cry from the cross is the cry he expresses on behalf of those who suffer under the weight of a world system that produces injustice, oppression, and violence that marginalizes the most vulnerable. It is a cry for those who, like him, have been forsaken.
Yet, even as his cry expresses abandonment, it also holds forth continued hope. For one thing, Jesus continues to call out to God for he knows that it is only God who can help him.
Moreover, in quoting the first part of the Psalm, Jesus may also be using a rabbinical technique through which the one who quotes the beginning of the Psalm also invokes the entirety of the Psalm. Though Psalm 22 begins with a cry of abandonment, it ends in hope and victory.
But perhaps more important for our understanding of why the Gospel writers included this inauspicious statement voiced by the one who was crucified is the fact that they are telling a story that does not end at crucifixion. The Jesus on the cross, though experiencing vulnerability, death, and abandonment by God, will be raised by God. The narrative of death and despair will transform into a story of life and hope.