The Abandonment of God

“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

Matthias Gruenewald, Isenheim Altarpiece, 1512-1516
Matthias Gruenewald, Isenheim Altarpiece, 1512-1516 (photo: Register Files)

Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani.

It is the most consequentially enigmatic statement in all of Scripture. Of course, this is the Aramaic of the last words Christ uttered on the cross.

My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?

In his wonderful book Death on a Friday Afternoon, Father Richard John Neuhaus describes this final stage of Christ’s passion as the “strangest strangeness…the wild glory of abandonment.”

How can the Father’s abandonment of the Son be glory? The bigger question however is how the boundlessly loving Father can deny His own Son? This is the enigma. But it is also of glorious consequence, of central importance as we journey through Holy Week.

Let us explore the seldom appreciated significance of our Lord’s great lament of abandonment. The tale starts long before creation, back in eternity past.

The fundamental nature, foundation and fount of all reality is absolute, beautiful and impenetrable intimacy. This is divine and eternal communion is the character and quality of the Trinity, thus the very core of the universe. 

We are told the Son has dwelt in the very bosom of the Father from eternity. We hear of it in Jesus recalling to the Father the glory and love that they’ve shared before the world existed.

The Son left the unique and divine locality of this intimacy and became man, dwelling among us. At his baptism, the Holy Spirit descended upon the Son, the Father at that moment speaking of his great pleasure and delight in him.

Before the Son goes to the Cross, he spends the night alone in intimacy with the Father, his source of comfort. In His time, the Son suffers great anxiety, evidenced in this curious verse:

And being in agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.

Luke, the physician, is the only Gospel writer to speak of this odd development. It is a physiological phenomenon known as hematidrosis, documented by Aristotle, DaVinci and in today’s medical literature. It is where blood is released along with sweat through the pores of the skin due to extreme anxiety.

Can God experience anxiety? Jesus the God-man did. But why?

Because He would soon die a horrible death?  Perhaps. But the disciples and members of the early Church died demonically evil deaths and they showed no such anxiety.

Was it because He would carry the sins of the world upon himself? This gets closer to it. But He was well aware of this part of His salvific work as well, knowing it was necessary for the purchase of His precious Bride. This didn’t make it easy, but it was needed.

Perhaps it has to do with the consequences of carrying that sin. Did he know that as he hung on that cross with the rebellion of the world upon him, His own beloved Father would seem, from a human standpoint, to turn his face from him?

This explanation gets us closer to the very nature of Christ himself. From eternity, the Son had dwelt in the tender bosom of his Father. That was his primary essence. Now, all that changed. The Father has forsaken the Son. Fr. Neuhaus draws this picture for us:

Like a derelict boat cast up on the shore, like a dog carcass lying by the roadside, here is something no longer of any account; it is forsaken, abandoned, thrown aside. Roadkill.

And it is here that God cries out to God, the first time Jesus refers to His Father impersonally as God, not Father:

My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?

Yes, Jesus is quoting Psalm 22:1, but he does because that verse is being fulfilled now in grueling actuality. To be sure, the Son did not cease being God, or even the Father’s son. The integrity of the Trinity remained unbroken. But in some incomprehensible mystery, their eternal intimacy had been broken. It brought such emotional trauma to the Son that it drew blood before any whip was snapped, any spike driven or sword thrust.

The mystery of this separation is far too deep and confounding for the brightest theologian to understand. The existential dilemma that the Father and Son were separated for a time is no more problematic than that God Himself died. In The Romance of Orthodoxy, Chesterton explains this upside-downness of Christianity. If the atheists were to explore the religions of the world, “they will find only one divinity who ever uttered their isolation, only one religion in which God seemed for an instant to be an atheist.”

The gravity of the God’s incarnation in Christ was toward the lowest, basest part of existence, even abandonment by He who loved him most. St. John of the Cross tells us that at this moment, the Son “was certainly annihilated in his soul, without any consolation or relief, since the Father had left him that way…” He adds:

This is the most extreme abandonment, sensitively, that he had suffered in his life. And by it he accomplished the most marvelous work of his whole life, surpassing all the works and deeds and miracles that he had ever performed on earth or in heaven.

Like any caring parent looking upon their child who’s unimaginably mangled beyond recognition as the result of a horrible accident, the Father was compelled to turn his face and look away. In this abandonment, we find the depths of our salvation because our sin is so devastating.

Father Neuhaus puts it as crisply as it is truthful and hopeful:

God is present in the forsaken so that nobody – nobody ever, nobody anywhere at any time under circumstance – is forsaken.

The incontestable curse of Good Friday is swallowed up in the indescribable hope of Easter Sunday.