The Absence of God: Reflections on Matthew 27:45-50

“From noon until three in the afternoon darkness came over all the land. About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ (which means ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’). When some of those standing there heard this, they said, ‘He’s calling Elijah.’ Immediately one of them ran and got a sponge. He filled it with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink. The rest said, ‘Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to save him.’ And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit.” – Matthew 27:45-50

This passage has come to mean quite a lot to me the more I have grown as a disciple. I love it because in it we find raw and passionate emotion. In his hour of desperation we find Jesus addressing God in a way that is honest and real, even if his words weren’t “theologically correct.” The text does not actually tell us that God forsook Jesus. It simply communicates, given his cry on the cross, that Jesus perceived God to be absent. As the nails were driven through his hands and his vision became increasingly blurred from the blood running off of his brow, in a moment of excruciating pain and suffering, Jesus experienced the absence of God.

This is an experience that is familiar to me. Sometimes it seems that God is absent. Sometimes it seems that he doesn’t hear or see me. There are times when my perception and experience seem to indicate that he is distant and uninvolved. Perhaps you could relate. I would argue that our experience of God forsakenness is most definitely perceived, however, the experience, much like Jesus’, is still very real.

It is my contention that Jesus’ own experience of the absence of God legitimates our own experience. If Jesus is our model when it comes to living life as a fully human being then we ought to expect at least some degree of the experience of God-forsakenness. Let me be clear. I do not think that the experience of the absence of God should remain a constant in the life of the believer. Our experience of the cross, that is, our experience of God’s absence is always followed by the resurrection—the experience of God’s miraculous inbreaking. The order is important, though. Easter follows Good Friday. The resurrection follows the cross. Jesus’ vindication in his new life came after his experience of God’s absence. Our celebration of Sunday is cheapened when we don’t acknowledge the darkness of Friday.

What Jesus’ prayer on the cross teaches us is that it’s okay to be honest and real with God when we are experiencing his absence. Jesus, when praying this prayer, is actually quoting Psalm 22 and, in doing so, participating in Israel’s long held tradition of directing their pain towards God in the form of lament. If the Psalms teach us anything it is that God can handle our tough questions. God is okay with our raw emotion. It’s okay to cry if things aren’t going well.

Lamenting is an acknowledgment of the fact that the world is not as it should be. In a world ravaged with war, hunger, poverty, isolation, loneliness and depression, the church dares to cry out to the Creator of all in the belief that he listens.

I commend to you the following song because I think it is true to the tradition of Israel’s lament and takes seriously the absence of God that Jesus experienced on the cross and that we experience from time to time. It’s a song that is honest and raw and doesn’t shy away from the difficult questions of life.

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