But for Jesus of Nazareth, his experience of the crucifixion was like no other. Yes, the pain of the nails piercing his hands and feet, the rough wood pushing itself into the tears of his flagellated back, the crushing weight of his own body keeping his lungs from expanding…these experiences would have been shared by those crucified on his left and on his right. But Jesus experienced this inglorious death on another level…at a deeper and more primal level than simply dying a traitor’s death. For in the crucifixion, Jesus of Nazareth, the God-man, experienced what can only be described as the most profound and senses-shattering existential crisis in history. For the one who once declared to his disciples, “I and the Father are one” now with nearly breathless lungs screams aloud from a place of total abandonment and isolation, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The one who heard the tender voice of the Father say, “This is my son, the beloved” now hears only the suffocating sound of silence. The one whose sole purpose in life was to usher in the Kingdom of God, now experiences the doors to that kingdom shut tightly in his face.
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? This was not exclaimed on the stone pavement where he was brutalized and flogged. This was not exclaimed on that torturous walk towards the place of his death. This was exclaimed as he hung from a traitor’s tree, when at the deepest part of who he was, Jesus lost all sense of connection to that which made his life significant. Had he dared to whisper at that moment, from the cross, with a broken voice, “I and the Father are one”, it’s as if he would have been a liar. How torturous, more so than even the beatings by the Romans. How absolutely horrifying it must have been for Jesus, vulnerable and naked upon that cross, to come to the identity-shattering realization that there was now a gulf between he and his Father. But, that is what the horrors and sufferings all human beings endure do to a person…they destabilize us, make us lose all sense of reality…make us lose all sense of who we are.
In her book Christ and Horrors, the theologian Marilyn McCord Adams summarizes the experience of horror and suffering in this way: “Horror, both committed and suffered, are evils that give [a compelling] reason to doubt whether the participant’s life could have positive meaning on the whole.” Sure, it might be a fairly technical definition, but it cuts to the core of what it means to suffer in ways that break us. Not only do we lose a sense of who we are, we risk losing the sense that our life has meaning…that our lives are not just symphonies marked by movements from pain to pain, from one soul-crushing horror to another. And this reality, this understanding of the ability of horror and suffering to destroy the meaning of our lives…this is what is at the core of Jesus’ cry of dereliction. Jesus of Nazareth was the one whose face was always turned toward the God of Israel, who sought nothing more than to please his Father, who sought nothing more than to fulfill the law, to reconcile wayward humans with a loving Father. And to then experience isolation and separation from the Father he loved so dearly…a separation that was the complete anti-thesis to his life’s purpose…this cry came from a deep place of no longer knowing who he was in relationship to the purpose that defined him throughout his entire life. In this moment, for all intents and purposes, Jesus was lost.
But, following classical Christian theology, confessing that in Jesus, the fullness of God was pleased to dwell…confessing that Jesus of Nazareth incarnated the second person of the Trinity…this cry from a dying man means so much more than just a loss of purpose…it means so much more than just the experience of one man’s feeling of abandonment. For in this moment, the God of all creation, the God who called creation out of nothing, the God who exists as a communion of love between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit…this God experienced the depth of abandonment and isolation felt acutely by Jesus of Nazareth. God, once seen as the Unmoved Mover, was now moved into a place of existential pain and separation. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” is not just the cry of one man, it is a cry that echoed and reverberated within the Godhead itself.
And this is a truth I never fully grasped until I grappled with the thoughts of G.K. Chesterton, who said this: “That a good man may have his back to the wall is no more than we knew already, but that God could have His back to the wall is a boast for all insurgents forever. Christianity is the only religion on earth that has felt that omnipotence made God incomplete. Christianity alone felt that God, to be wholly God, must have been a rebel as well as a king. Alone of all creeds, Christianity has added courage to the virtues of the Creator. For the only courage worth calling courage must necessarily mean that the soul passes a breaking point -- and does not break. In this indeed I approach a matter more dark and awful than it is easy to discuss; and I apologize in advance if any of my phrases fall wrong or seem irreverent touching a matter which the greatest saints and thinkers have justly feared to approach. But in the terrific tale of the Passion there is a distinct emotional suggestion that the author of all things (in some unthinkable way) went not only through agony, but through doubt. It is written, "Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God." No; but the Lord thy God may tempt Himself; and it seems as if this was what happened in Gethsemane. In a garden Satan tempted man: and in a garden God tempted God. He passed in some superhuman manner through our human horror of pessimism. When the world shook and the sun was wiped out of heaven, it was not at the crucifixion, but at the cry from the cross: the cry which confessed that God was forsaken of God. And now let the revolutionists choose a creed from all the creeds and a god from all the gods of the world, carefully weighing all the gods of inevitable recurrence and of unalterable power. They will not find another god who has himself been in revolt. Nay (the matter grows too difficult for human speech), but let the atheists themselves choose a god. 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.”
God seemed for an instant to be an atheist. It’s a startling claim, a troubling one even. But this is a troubling event, and a troubling cry pushed out between the parched lips of Jesus. It shows the extraordinary disconnect between Jesus of Nazareth and the God of Israel, and on a more profound level, the absolute existential crisis now thrust into the very heart of God. This is God being separated from God, the relationship of love and connection within the Trinity becoming fractured, made manifest in the brokenness of Jesus’ cry. And this cry is not just heard by those observing. It’s felt by all of creation. As Matthew tells the story, these are indeed Jesus’ last words. There is no last minute recognition that he was accomplishing some grand work. “It is finished” is nowhere to be found in this Gospel. Instead, after he offers his cry of dereliction, he cried out again with a loud voice and breathed his last. The sky went black, the veil of the temple was torn, and the earth shook. Creation itself felt the crushing weight of the horror inflicted upon God, and on this most sacred of days, I hope we too feel that crushing weight.