“My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”
The cry of Jesus in the depths of His agony is one that has echoed throughout history in the hearts and mouths of people who suffer – and those who witness this suffering. In our world, so much death, sorrow, and tragedy seem to weigh us down – so much so that we begin to even doubt if God exists, and if He does, if He even cares. I could hear that cry in the voices of the hundreds who gathered and watch as Norte Dame cathedral burned in Paris. If this house of God could go up in flames like that, what about me, what about my faith, what about my life?
For many Christians and Catholics, the darkness of that smoke filled evening seems to punctuate the world’s total rejection of God’s love for us. That darkness is the depth of pain and sorrow that we can feel today, as we seek true meaning and feel lost, as we look for sense in the uncertainty of these days and still feel fear for our future. That darkness is ours, but it is not new.
The cry of Jesus from the Cross seems to be one of defeat – the prayer of a man who feels completely forsaken by God – as if nothing he has done has been noticed by God, or that God simply does not care. Hearing it from the mouth of Jesus is mysterious, since – if anyone would – He should have known God’s care and love for Him more than anyone else alive. In this moment, Jesus too knows the darkness of our human frailty, and He has embraced it completely.
Pope St. John Paul II wrote about this very scene as he addressed the uncertainty of our times at the beginning of the new millennium:
In reality, the anguished "why" addressed to the Father in the opening words of the Twenty-second Psalm expresses all the realism of unspeakable pain; but it is also illumined by the meaning of that entire prayer, in which the Psalmist brings together suffering and trust, in a moving blend of emotions. In fact the Psalm continues: "In you our fathers put their trust; they trusted and you set them free ... Do not leave me alone in my distress, come close, there is none else to help" (Ps 22:5,12). Jesus' cry on the Cross, dear Brothers and Sisters, is not the cry of anguish of a man without hope, but the prayer of the Son who offers his life to the Father in love, for the salvation of all. At the very moment when he identifies with our sin, "abandoned" by the Father, he "abandons" himself into the hands of the Father. His eyes remain fixed on the Father. Precisely because of the knowledge and experience of the Father which he alone has, even at this moment of darkness he sees clearly the gravity of sin and suffers because of it. He alone, who sees the Father and rejoices fully in him, can understand completely what it means to resist the Father's love by sin. More than an experience of physical pain, his Passion is an agonizing suffering of the soul. Theological tradition has not failed to ask how Jesus could possibly experience at one and the same time his profound unity with the Father, by its very nature a source of joy and happiness, and an agony that goes all the way to his final cry of abandonment. The simultaneous presence of these two seemingly irreconcilable aspects is rooted in the fathomless depths of the [mystery of the Incarnation] (Novo millennio ineunte, 25-26).
Therefore, Jesus on the Cross – even Jesus who died and was laid in the tomb – is an icon of God’s incredible power and love for us, and at the same time an icon of our human trust in the God who created us for life. No darkness can overcome the power of the light of God’s love; no clouds of smoke can obscure the bright light of Christ’s redeeming sacrifice and love for us; no despair can outstrip the hope in eternal life that has been placed in us who have been conformed to Christ by our baptism into His death and resurrection.
This is the hope – this is the faith that allows us to enter into that darkness with Jesus. It is the hope that allows us to trust in the midst of tribulation. It is the faith that empowers young people to watch a beloved world treasure like the cathedral of Norte Dame burn and still stand and sing hymns together. It is what allows us all to rebuild the shattered pieces of our lives when we are devastated by loss, sorrow, suffering, or fear.
It is Jesus who teaches us how to abandon ourselves to God’s love, and how to be captured by that love that brings us out of our darkness.