Although we are in the season of Eastertide, a joyous, celebratory time that stretches out towards Pentecost on May 20, I want to return for a few moments to Good Friday. In particular, to Jesus’ “cry of dereliction,” “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Scripture records seven “words” of Jesus from the cross. No one Gospel contains them all. Mark records only this cry of dereliction, noting that Jesus spoke it in Aramaic, and then translating it for his readers. Matthew follows Mark: just this one “last word of Jesus.” Luke does not include the cry of dereliction, but remembers “Father, forgive them; they don’t know what they’re doing,” Jesus’ promise to the penitent thief (“Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise”), and finally, “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit.” John gives us, “Woman, behold thy son,” “I thirst,” and “It is finished.” Christian tradition has arranged these seven in sequential order, beginning with “Father, forgive them” and ending with “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”
The cry of dereliction stands fourth, at the exact center of the seven. Of all the words, it is likely the most familiar, even to people who aren’t Christians. There is a universality to this cry: everyone can connect, at some level, in some way, with the sense of forsakenness.
Feeling forsaken is a common human experience. Forsaken: abandoned, rejected, “cut from the team,” dismissed, eliminated; humiliated, shamed, friendless; no recourse, no redress, no one to stand with you or for you; alone, isolated, depressed, defeated. Perhaps we have witnessed the cry of the refugees fleeing for their lives: “Why does the world not see us, not notice us, not care what happens to us?” Maybe we have sat with a loved one as, despite all prayers, the last fires of life dim, flicker and go out altogether. Maybe we remember a time, or are now in a time, where our soul is heavily weighted down by awful things which we cannot put into words, and there is no one interested in taking the time to help us bring those words to voice. Perhaps we even remember Jesus, forsaken by his friends in Gethsemane, forsaken by his friends as he was arrested, tried, condemned, executed. Jesus is neither the first nor the last of us who, facing death in one of its many guises, cries, “God, why have you forsaken me?”
Of the seven, this word sounds and feels so unlike Jesus. The other six have a familiar music to them: forgiveness to crucifiers and a thief, compassionate care for his mother; the full humanity of thirst, the triumphal cry “It is finished!” and the releasing of himself into Father’s hands. But in the middle, that terrible, terrifying cry, addressed to “my God” who has “forsaken me.”
What Jesus is doing through this word is praying, praying his life, praying his experience of forsakenness, praying even his death. There is no positive thinking here, no whistling past the graveyard; Jesus is praying himself into the graveyard. And he is praying Scripture, praying his Bible. A Psalm, a David poem-prayer. Here, on the cross, praying his life and his oncoming death, Psalm 22.
Pious Jews would not merely read or “recite” the psalms, they would sing them, chant them. Imagine a crucified man, a son of David, struggling for every breath, his mouth and throat a dry desert, croaking, as best he could, one of the songs of Zion.
Jesus prays in a way that fully unites him with every single person who has experienced a God-forsaken time or place. In his incarnation he becomes one of us, one with us and for us, and in this prayer of dereliction, he becomes one of us, one with us, in the deepest pit there could ever be: even God has abandoned me.
But Jesus is praying; that means he is also identifying himself with, uniting himself to, God. He sees himself to be forsaken by God, but nevertheless is praying that forsakenness to God.
The Gospel accounts give us Jesus praying the opening words of this psalm, but we need to understand that this means that Jesus is praying the whole psalm. His cry, “I thirst” comes from the exact center of Psalm 22 (see verses 15-16). And I think he prays that psalm all the way to its end: “Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord. They will proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn—for he has done it.”
Another way to say “He has done it” is “It is finished!” Three of Jesus’ “last words” seem to be drawn out of the prayer we know as Psalm 22.
The cry of dereliction is a real cry of dereliction: Jesus is not pretending; his experience of abandonment and forsakenness is fully, deeply and completely real. He does not know that everything is going to turn out right; he trusts that it will, but is surrounded by compelling and overwhelming evidence to the contrary. We need to know that God in Christ knows exactly what it feels like to experience the dereliction of forsakenness, that Jesus has been tested in every way, just as we all are (Hebrews 4:15). Jesus’ cry means that there is no human experience with which God is not intimately acquainted.
Forsakenness is a kind of death, or to put it the other way round, death is the ultimate form of forsakenness. But God does not give the last word to death or to forsakenness. God, who speaks the first word also gets the last word, and that is a word of life: God raised Jesus from the dead.
And raised from the dead, Jesus promises what God has always promised, a promise kept through the resurrection: “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you” (Deuteronomy 31:6; Hebrews 13:5).
Or, as Jesus restated and reaffirmed it: “I am with you always!” (Matthew 28:20). Emmanuel is with us still, not as an idea or a doctrine or a ghostly “presence,” but as the risen, ruling King who is making all things new, even what feels to all the world like God-forsakenness.