Perhaps the most curious words in the New Testament are the anguished cry of Jesus Christ hanging on the cross proclaiming, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” This single line reported by Ss. Matthew and Mark is intensified by Psalm 22’s following verses: “Why are you so far from my call for help, from my cries of anguish? My God, I call by day, but you do not answer; by night, but I have no relief.” Believers know that Jesus Christ is indeed the very Son of God, one in being with the Father. The notion of Christ being abandoned by God, separated from God, forgotten of God, seems theologically and practically impossible. How could Christ ever become so despairing, so despondent, so distressed, that these forlorn words would ever pass the Savior’s lips?
Jesus was indeed in desperate straits as much of this Psalm 22 had predicted. “I am a worm, not a man, scorned by men, despised by the people,” the psalmist cries out anticipating Jesus’ own passion. “All who see me mock me; they curl their lips and jeer; they shake their heads at me.” The sufferings of Jesus on Calvary are sadly listed: “All my bones are disjointed. My heart has become like wax, it melts away within me. My tongue cleaves to my palate. They have pierced my hands and my feet. I can count all my bones.” The insults to Jesus continue: “They stare at me and gloat; they divide my garments among them; for my clothing they cast lots.” The psalmist makes a final plea for clemency: “Deliver my soul from the sword, my life from the grip of the dog. Save me from the lion’s mouth, my poor life from the horns of wild bulls.”
These solemn words do not at all resolve the dilemma of how the Divine Son of God could ever become so bereft of Divine consolation that he would effectively despair of heavenly deliverance. The perplexed believer must not however too quickly dismiss the Father/Son relationship at the heart of the Trinity. The initial words of Psalm 22 are indeed bleak, and Jesus’ forlornness on Golgotha should truly be pondered and respected. Yet the concluding verses of this Psalm 22 clearly reveal deeper emotions within Jesus’ soul.
A heartened psalmist, prefiguring the deeply resourceful Jesus, proclaims, “I will proclaim your name to my brethren; in the assembly I will praise you.” The message of the psalmist and of Christ is hopeful, “For he has not spurned or disdained the misery of this poor wretch. He did not turn away from me, but heard me when I cried out. I will offer praise in the great assembly; my vows I will fulfill before those who fear him.” Christ’s deliverance will hearten the multitudes down the centuries, “The poor will eat their fill; those who seek the LORD will offer praise. All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the LORD; And I will live for the LORD; my descendants will serve you. The generation to come will be told of the Lord, that they may proclaim to a people yet unborn the deliverance you have brought.”
The sufferings, actually the death, of Christ must never be diminished. He did indeed undergo the torments of the damned. “Bruised, derided, cursed, defiled, she beheld her tender child, all with bloody scourges rent,” as the Stabat Mater tersely but vividly recalls. Yet Calvary is simply the Bible’s most evocative demonstration of the ancient wisdom: “Those who sow in tears shall reap in joy.” Suffering endured in faith is never fruitless. The patient endurance of suffering, a challenge not very much esteemed in the modern world, has long been a pillar of Christian belief. The bleakness of Good Friday led to the exuberance of Easter Sunday. The martyrdom of the first Christians ushered in an era of Christian missionary activity throughout Europe. The hidden monasticism of the Dark Ages burst into the preaching and teaching of the Middle Ages. The tragedy of the Reformation provoked the enduring renewal outlined by Trent. A Christian’s personal challenges can degenerate into tragedy if not enlightened by faith or they can impel a believer to embrace all the more deeply the hidden plan of God. Sacrifice, whether on the Cross or in a believer’s life, is difficult and irksome — to say the least. But faith in the abiding Providence of God, present through thick and thin, is always salvific, certainly redemptive and ultimately fruitful.