Carlos Wilton, April 6, 2012; Good Friday, Year B; Psalm 22:1-19; Philippians 2:5-13; Mark 15:25-39
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
– Psalm 22:1
“He could have called ten thousand angels
To destroy the world and set Him free…”
Could Jesus have called ten thousand angels to spring him from Roman custody, as the song we’ve just heard suggests? I’ll tell you, if he had, it would have been the biggest, flashiest jailbreak in history. The Hollywood special-effects wizards would have an absolute field day trying to engineer that one. You know, super-hero action movies have been big recently. Just try to imagine the trailer for that one: “You thought The Fantastic Four was thrilling. You couldn’t imagine a bigger match-up than the super-hero dream-team, The Avengers. Now, get ready for The Crucifixion. It’s the ultimate grudge match! Watch ten thousand screaming angelic warriors free the Son of God and wipe the Roman Empire off the map. (Parental discretion is advised.)”
Yes, we can imagine Jesus calling down ten thousand angels, but that’s the sinful side of us at work: the side of us that’s quick to imagine violence as the solution to any problem, that loves vengeance better than mercy. Yes, speaking purely in the abstract – and thinking of Jesus as he was before he came to earth, and as he as today, reigning over all in glory – Jesus could have called ten thousand angels. Yet, in the concrete – on that particular moment in history, as he hung there, bleeding and dying upon the cross, that is not something he could have done.
The reason we can discover in our Epistle lesson, from Philippians, as Paul explains how Jesus:
“emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death- even death on a cross.” [2:7-8]
Don’t miss that word, “emptied.” In the Greek, it’s kenosis. It means that whatever majesty, whatever authority, whatever power Jesus had as the Son of God, second person of the Trinity, co-eternal with the Father and the Son, he had relinquished. After “emptying himself, taking the form of a slave,” Jesus could no longer have summoned ten thousand angels. In becoming human, he had chosen not to. In the Garden of Gethsemane, as he wrestled with the decision he had made, he could only turn to God in prayer, just like any of us. He could only ask God to “take this cup away from me.” He didn’t say, “What do you think, God, hasn’t this show gone on long enough – is it time for me to overturn this cup now?” because overturning that cup was something he could not do. Our Lord, Jesus Christ, had shed his divine character and power, so as to become human!
That means that, in his earthly life, Jesus suffered and struggled, feared and doubted, bled and died – like any of us. The scriptures teach that he was unlike us in one respect – that he did not sin, and therefore went to the cross blameless – but in every other way he was human. And that is why he was led to cry out from the cross in agony, quoting the words of Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Do you think he didn’t really mean that? Do you think it was just a line in a play, spoken for our benefit? Do you think he knew all along that it would come out OK in the end, that this death – that was even then wrapping its cold, bony fingers around his neck and starting to squeeze – was not really death, as we know it from the experience of others (and will one day know it ourselves)?
No, when Jesus cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” I take him at face value. I believe he means what he’s saying. I believe he truly feels Godforsaken.
That’s a colorful word, “Godforsaken.” It hardly even sounds like an English word. It’s more like one of those intricate, compound German words: schadenfreude or weltanschauung, or even the lowly pepper-cookie, the pfeffernusse. The German language has that capability of combining shorter words together in a long string. I’m glad that, in this instance, the English allows us to do so, because no other word captures the sense of abandonment and desolation, the fear and anxiety, the doubt and despair, that’s caught up in that word, “Godforsaken.”
Sometimes we speak of “a Godforsaken place.” That expression is reserved for the driest of deserts, the most isolated of islands, the most barren of landscapes. The geography of the human heart it describes is equally desolate. That’s what our Lord was feeling, there on the cross. The pain he felt in his body was only the half of it. The sense of abandonment that tore at his heart was just as agonizing, maybe even more so.
It’s a wonder to us this was even the case. The fact of Christ crucified, as Paul says, is “a stumbling block” to the Jews and “foolishess” to the Greeks – in other words, it makes no sense. It makes no sense to us that one such as Jesus would empty himself and become a slave – no, lower than a slave – and allow himself, the Son of God, to become Godforsaken.
Christian essayist G.K. Chesterton captures the sheer absurdity of it as he observes:
“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.” [Orthodoxy (Moody, 2009), p. 20.]
We don’t like to think – no, not even imagine – that “God was forsaken of God.” God’s supposed to stay in heaven, and all is supposed to remain right with the world. The crucifixion was the one time in the history of the universe when that did not happen, when the fundamental balance of creation was thrown off, when chaos seemed briefly to reign, when the interrelationship of the three persons of the Trinity was severed, when darkness descended in mid-afternoon and the very earth beneath our feet rocked and reeled.
I have to confess, I still don’t understand why it happened. Yes, there are many theories of the atonement, of why and how Jesus had to suffer and die so sins might be forgiven. None of them, at the end of the day, answers every question. I also don’t understand how it happened. My mind is just too small to take in the mystery of the Incarnation, the complexity of the inner workings of the Trinity, the marvel of divine Grace.
Yet, though I don’t understand why or how the crucifixion happened, I can say I’m awfully glad it did happen. I’m glad because, when I look on from afar, from the perspective of twenty centuries, at the spectacle of “God forsaken of God,” as Chesterton says, I know that because of what Christ has done, I will never be Godforsaken in quite the same way. Through every trial and tribulation, through every pain or struggle divine Providence may in the future place in my path, I will always be able to look to the cross of Jesus – the empty cross of Jesus, my friends! – and know that I am not alone, that there is one in the heavenly places praying for me who knows what it means to be human.
If you’ve ever wondered what it is that’s good about “Good Friday,” this is it. I would never be so bold as to ask one such as Jesus to go to the cross for me – I do not deserve it – but he has done so, anyway, of his own accord. For that, I am grateful beyond all words.
Copyright © 2012 by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.