Saturday, 23 April 2011

Good Friday: The Cry of Dereliction

Part 2 (Part 1 here)
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, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And some of the bystanders hearing it said, “Behold, he is calling Elijah.” And someone ran and filled a sponge with sour wine, 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. And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:33-39)
The so-called ‘cry of dereliction’ from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me”, is well-known and has long evoked comment from believer and unbeliever alike. Why should Jesus feel forsaken? Was this a crisis of faith? Did he finally think it was all a big mistake?
Some point to the cry of dereliction as marking the end of Jesus’ ministry in failure. This was certainly the view of those in the crowd that day who jeered him. His tortured cry of “Eloi”, the Aramaic for “My God”, fell on their ears as “Elijah”, the name of the prophet who was supposed to be the forerunner of the Messiah and whom they presumed Jesus was calling on for rescue.
But the key to our understanding of the cry of dereliction is to realize that it is actually the opening line of Psalm 22, which continues in the same vein:
Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest. (Psalm 22:1b-2)
How appropriate, we might think, for one who is losing faith. And yet the voice of the Psalmist is not that of the unbeliever, but of the true believer, who is perplexed precisely because God has in the past shown himself to be the Deliverer of his people:
Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. In you our fathers trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them. To you they cried and were rescued; in you they trusted and were not put to shame. (Psalm 22:3-5)
And thus it is that, well before its end, the words of the Psalm turn to declarations of deliverance, praise and certainty. But it is precisely because this is the voice of the true believer that both the perplexity of the Psalmist and the cry from the cross are so important.
The human instinct is to want faith to be straightforward. The unbeliever says, “There is no deliverance, therefore there is no God.” This is what we might call the ‘theology of denial’. But there is another theology which is just as dangerous and just as wrong. This is the theology which says, “There is a God, and therefore there must be deliverance.” This has been called ‘the theology of glory’. It does not deny that God exists, but it denies that he is to be found in places like the cross, at the point of abandonment.
But both these theologies—the theology which says that because God does not deliver he cannot exist, and the theology which says that because God does exist he must deliver—are based on speculation. They are ‘armchair theologies’, just as we have so many ‘armchair generals’ in every war. They are theologies worked out not in the realm of reality but in the realm of theorising, based not on seeing what God is like, but on deciding what God should be like, and then judging life, and God, accordingly.
A truly Christian theology, however, sees God revealed in Christ. This theology is with the little party at the Last Supper, where Philip says to Jesus, “Lord, show us the Father,” and Jesus replies, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”
Of course, those words are also comforting to the armchair theologian who looks at Jesus healing the sick or raising the dead. It is easy to see the Father there, if we have already decided that the Father is the one who always delivers when he is called upon. But the cross confronts that illusion by saying, “Look, here is also the Father. He who sees this Christ, the Christ on the cross, has also seen the Father.” Yet crucifixion is an unpalatable sight, from which human instinct turns away. Trying to look at this to see God is like trying to look at the sun. We must force ourselves into the confrontation.
This is why the ‘Christian message’ is so often presented as if it were chiefly about the resurrection. We can cope with Easter Day because it is easy to see God in the resurrected Jesus. The resurrection does not dazzle us! On the contrary, we will happily gaze on that sight. But the ‘armchair theologian’ is dazzled by the cross and looks away. Ironically, the ‘theologian of glory’, who is blinded by the light of the cross, regards the cross itself as the period of darkness when God is entirely absent.
Yet there is this astonishing contrast between the cross and the resurrection: the cross takes place in full view, the resurrection itself is witnessed by no-one. The disciples are lying low, the women are keeping the Sabbath, the guards run from the angel who rolls away the stone, and even the gospels themselves give us no detailed description of what happened. All the women find is an empty tomb, all the disciples see is empty grave clothes and the guards are bribed into telling a face-saving lie.
Of course his followers soon meet with the risen Christ. Mary Magdalene meets him in the garden. Two other disciples meet him on the road to Emmaus. Others meet him that same night in the upper room where they are staying. But by then it is too late—he is already resurrected! The resurrection is something God keeps to himself. And therefore if we are to see the Father, we will not see him in the act of Jesus’ resurrection.
The scandal of this is perfectly brought out by the most authentic ending to Mark’s gospel, which simply stops with the reaction of the women to the angelic messenger sitting where the body of Jesus had lain:
And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. (Mark 16:8)
Clearly this was too much—or rather too little—for later compilers of the biblical texts, who felt compelled to add their own, albeit well-intentioned, ‘improvements’ to show that Jesus was indeed alive and well. Yet if we trust the oldest manuscripts, God’s preference is that the resurrection should be a private matter, between himself and his Son.
But the cross is entirely public, there for all the world to see. By contrast with their treatment of the resurrection, the gospels give us several pages on Jesus’ arrest, his trial, the crucifixion itself, his death and his burial. Thus the word of revelation forces us back to the crucifixion. And the reason is surely simple—it is here, at the cross, where to human perception God seems most absent, that God is actually doing his supreme work. Here, if only we will look with the eye of faith, God is most fully to be seen. The cry of dereliction, which speaks outwardly of abandonment, is in fact the moment of reconciliation between God and the world. Here, at this moment of all moments, “God was reconciling the world to himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19). As also the crucified Jesus said, “Whoever has seen me, has seen the Father.”
This, then, is the climax of what the Son has come to do. This is the outworking of what the Father wishes him to do. And so we must keep looking here to see what God is really like.
See, from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down:
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?
Isaac Watts

From: "The Eternal Cross: Reflections on the Sufferings of Christ"

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