4th Word From the Cross: ‘My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me?’
People with Priests, Priests without People
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And when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour. And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, “E′lo-i, E′lo-i, la′ma sabach-tha′ni?” which means, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” And some of the bystanders hearing it said, “Behold, he is calling Elijah.” And one ran and, filling a sponge full of vinegar, put it on a reed and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.” And Jesus uttered a loud cry, and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. (Mark 15:33-38)
Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever.
The Fourth Word of the Cross never loses it power to shock us, to sadden us, even to scandalize us. Is it possible that Jesus has been forsaken by the Father? Can God forsake God, can Light forsake Light, can True God forsake True God, can the One who is begotten, not made, be forsaken by the Father who is the maker of all things, visible and invisible?
We must not quickly pass by this shock, this sadness, this scandal. Jesus as the Son of God is never forsaken by his Father, but the Father sent the Son to save the world. How did he do this? St. Paul tells us: For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (II Corinthians 5:21)
The disfigured Jesus on the Cross is what sin looks like. Isaiah prophesies about what happens to Jesus when he goes to the Cross, bearing our sins:
He had no form or comeliness that we should look at him,
and no beauty that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by men;
a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
he was bruised for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that made us whole,
and with his stripes we are healed. (Isaiah 53:2-5)
The physical wounds of the Passion are the exterior signs of the interior wages of sin. Sin estranges us from God. Sin makes us distant from God. The sinner cognizant of all this can cry out, My God, why have you forsaken me? It feels like that, but God has not forsaken us, we have forsaken him.
This Holy Week we might feel forsaken, left alone as those closest to us now must keep their distance. We might even feel forsaken by our pastors, as our priests are not available to us in the usual way. Priests too might feel forsaken by their people, offering the Holy Mass in empty churches. That none of this is desired does not mean that it is not painful. People without priests, priests without people.
The church’s newest saint, Cardinal John Henry Newman, made that point with a joke. He was once asked what he thought about the laity. Saint John Henry replied: “The Church would look foolish without them.” We are looking foolish now, but no one is laughing. It is a sadness that we are experiencing this distance from each other, a sort of reverse sacrament, illustrating what sin does in the world. We might live these days then as a sort of unwelcome and mild foretaste of what hell will be like, separated from God and distant from each other.
At the same time, we can also draw positive spiritual fruit from this time of involuntary “forsaken-ness.” It can remind us of those times and places in the Church where it is quite common to go without the Holy Mass and the sacraments for weeks, or months or years. This is not about the long ago past. Just a few months ago the Church held a special synod in Rome to discuss access to the sacraments in the remote areas of the Amazon. Cardinal Robert Sarah, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship in Rome, celebrated just last year the 50th anniversary of his priestly ordination. He remembers in his own priesthood, when he was a young priest, walking for days between villages to celebrate the Holy Mass for people who had not seen a priests for months on end. The same is true today in many remote parts of the world.
Then there are those places where persecution makes it difficult or impossible for Catholics to attend the Holy Mass — China, North Korea, Saudi Arabia. We can thus live this time in spiritual solidarity with Christians of every time and place who have been deprived of the liturgy for months or years at a time.
Another spiritual fruit of this time is for priests to realize how precious in their ministry is the full participation of the faithful, and for the faithful to realize the how precious is the gift of the priesthood. People without priests realize how necessary the priest is, and priests without people realize how foolish their work appears.
Saint John Paul II kept the custom of writing a letter to all the priests of the world for Holy Thursday. He began on his first Holy Thursday as pope in 1979 and kept at it faithfully every year until his death in 2005. In a few weeks we shall mark the 100th anniversary of the great saint’s birth, a good invitation to return again to his vast and rich teachings. In that first Holy Thursday letter to priests in 1979, there is a passage very suitable for us today:
Dear Brothers: you who have borne “the burden of the day and the heat” (Matthew 20:12), who have put your hand to the plough and do not turn back (cf. Luke 9:62), and perhaps even more those of you who are doubtful of the meaning of your vocation or of the value of your service: think of the places where people anxiously await a Priest, and where for many years; feeling the lack of such a Priest, they do not cease to hope for his presence.
And sometimes it happens that they meet in an abandoned shrine, and place on the altar a stole which they still keep, and recite all the prayers of the Eucharistic liturgy; and then, at the moment that corresponds to the transubstantiation a deep silence comes down upon them, a silence sometimes broken by a sob… so ardently do they desire to hear the words that only the lips of a priest can efficaciously utter.
So much do they desire Eucharistic Communion, in which they can share only through the ministry of a priest, just as they also so eagerly wait to hear the divine words of pardon: Ego te absolvo a peccatis tuis! So deeply do they feel the absence of a priest among them!... Such places are not lacking in the world. So if one of you doubts the meaning of his priesthood, if he thinks it is “socially” fruitless or useless, reflect on this!
[St. John Paul II, Holy Thursday Letter to Priests 1979, April 8, 1979, no. 10]
This Holy Week many people have felt that deep silence, perhaps even broken by a sob — both people at home without their priests, and priests in the church without their people. We feel forsaken now. Let us remember that feeling, that we might resolve never again to permit sin to distance ourselves from God, and from each other.
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
In your house I shall celebrate the Passover
We adore Thee, O Christ, and we praise Thee, because by Thy holy cross Thou hast redeemed the world.