Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The cry of dereliction

What is going on at the scene of the cross, when Jesus cries out, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? (Mark 15:34). Can it really be that the Son of God is genuinely abandoned by his Father, so that the trinitarian relations are ruptured? This is what many contemporary theologians affirm, such as Jürgen Moltmann in The Crucified God. I think this position is hopeless, however, a metaphysical impossibility. What would it mean for the Father and the Son to be at odds with each other except now there are two gods? Or worse, now there is no God at all, since social trinitarians such as Moltmann understand the unity of God to consist in the relations of love and faithfulness between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

It seems to me obvious that Jesus is citing from Ps 22, which opens up with those very words. But it is equally well known that Ps 22, though it begins on a note of desparation, ends with hopeful assurance of God's faithfulness:

From the horns of the wild oxen you have rescued me.
I will tell of your name to my brothers and sistesrs;
  in the midst of the congregation I will praise you:
You who fear the LORD, praise him!
  All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him;
  stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!
For he did not despise or abhor
  the affliction of the afflicted;
he did not hide his face from me,
  but heard when I cried to him (vv. 20-24).

The common explanation of the cry of dereliction I heard growing up was this: Jesus took upon himself the sins of the world, and since God the Father is too holy to look upon sin, therefore he turned his countenance away from Jesus. But v. 24 of Ps 22 explicitly contradicts this explanation: he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him. So much for that!

I think that Jesus is citing the psalm when he quotes its opening line during his crucifixion. And I think it is critically important that he does so, because he clearly would have known that the ending of the psalm is not the same as its beginning:

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,
  and he rules over the nations (vv. 27-8).

Jesus knew and announced ahead of time that he would be resurrected from the dead. That doesn't mean that his sufferings weren't real, but it does mean that he wasn't utterly hopeless and overcome by despair at the moment of death. Jesus hear cites the psalm to do two things: first, to show his identification with the desperate and abandoned state of humanity in general; second, to call our attention to the inevitability of his resurrection, after which this apparent defeat will become obviously merely apparent.

In this way, then, I maintain that Jesus was not totally overcome by despair in his sufferings. Why is that so important? Because it means that we are not totally overcome in our sufferings, either. All throughout the New Testament, it is clear that Christians will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven only by suffering persecutions and trials. But we cannot think that such suffering constitutes abandonment by God, as if God is only with us if we are doing well. Rather, God is with us precisely in our sufferings, just as the divine nature of Christ did not separate from the human at the moment of his crucifixion. Knowing that God is always with us, our suffering becomes a participation in Christ's suffering: this life is the cross, but after the cross follows resurrection. And as Athanasius said, with this hope in mind, we can trample upon death as on something dead, because death is dead to us.

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