"My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?" (St. Matt. 27: 46.)
THE three sayings of our Lord that have now been considered were spoken at intervals in the earlier moments of the Saviour's Agony. Those which follow must have been uttered almost consecutively at its very close. There would thus be a long period of silence, as far as any recorded word of our Lord is concerned, between these earlier and later utterances, and as we compare these sayings themselves we notice a marked difference in the character and purpose of the two groups into which they fall.
In the earlier words we see our Lord actively ministering to others. His own sufferings are kept in the background while He intercedes for His murderers, pardons the penitent thief, consoles His Blessed Mother and St. John. These sayings show us the Tree of Life in the fruitage of its actual graces, the medicine of those leaves which are "for the healing of the nations" (Rev. xxii. 2). But in the later words, beginning with this upon which we are now to meditate, our Lord speaks of Himself. His last special offices for others are over. His Blessed Mother, it has been thought, had now been taken by St. John away from the scene of the Passion. Our Lord, as far as we are told, gives no further word of recognition to those about the Cross, but as He retires into the depths of His Passion He invites the world to the contemplation of His suffering. In His remaining words He speaks of the sorrow of His Soul, the suffering of His Body, the consummation of His work, the surrender of His Spirit. Here we are viewing the Cross on its passive side while its Divine Victim appeals to us in words like to those in which the prophet Jeremiah foretold the Passion. "Is it nothing to you, all ye that pass by? Behold and see if there be any sorrow like unto My sorrow which is done unto Me, wherewith the Lord hath afflicted Me in His fierce anger" (Lam. i. 12).
And so, if we keep to the analogy which we have chosen as a guide to our thoughts to-day, we have in our considerations thus far been lingering in the outer courts of the Temple of our Lord's sacred Humanity.
But, as in the temple of the Jews, a veil separated the outer court from the Holy Place into which the Priest alone could enter, so here our Lord retires within the secret solitude of His Soul, and as He passes within the veil of His unknown sufferings leaves us as it were standing without, and unable to follow Him. So Zacharias the Priest went within the veil at the time of the offering of the incense, and the people stood without, waiting for his return. Or as when one we love is borne away from us in the vessel that is to carry him across the seas: the last handclasp is over, the last words are exchanged as the vessel slowly moves from its dock, our eyes are strained to catch one more sight of the loved face as the ship now glides into the stream, and then it passes on its way, and leaves us with only the treasures of our memory.
Here, then, in this strange cry, "My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?" our Lord is shrouded as it were from our sight, by a darkness like that which ere this Word was spoken, had come up over all the land, as if nature herself would remind us of the veil of mystery beyond which we may not venture to pass.
It is enough for us to know that our Lord goes behind this veil for us, as our great High Priest to carry to completion the work of His Atonement. He is the great Minister of the Sanctuary who at the beginning of His Office has been looking toward the people, but now turns His Face toward the Altar of His Sacrifice, and lifts up His Hands in silence to God. Thus it is in the Celebration of those Holy Mysteries which perpetuate the memorial of this Sacrifice. We listen first to those portions of the Liturgy which are addressed to the people for their instruction and preparation, and then the Priest begins the solemn Action itself in which is mystically shown forth the Lord's Death, for the pleading of His Sacrifice, and which accomplished, He again lifts up His voice in an ascription of praise to God. So, in the midst of the supernatural darkness enveloping the Cross, our Lord has long been suffering in silence, accomplishing in the agony of His Soul His all-atoning Sacrifice. Then, as the Sacrifice is finished, He utters this cry to God, and of what has taken place we learn what little we can understand only when all is over.
What then may we, without presumption, seek to gather from this word?
First, let it be said, that these words are not to be taken in a strictly literal sense. In the truest sense it was impossible for God to forsake Him who is ever the Son of God, as the Father -is ever the Father. In that perfect union whereby in the mystery of the Holy Trinity the Father and the Son are, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, One Essence, there could not, of course, be a moment's breach. Nor could our Lord's Manhood be separated from His Godhead for the twinkling of an eye. Men in their false systems of religious thought have imported into the doctrine of the Atonement a sort of antagonism between the Divine Persons of the Holy Trinity, as if on one hand our Lord did not share the Father's righteous indignation against sin, and would be less strict than the Father to exact the full penalty due to man's transgression; and as if, on the other hand the Eternal Father who in His infinite love for mankind freely gave His only Begotten Son, could not share that tenderness for man which made it the joy of the Son to seek and to save that which is lost. It were a strange way to approach the doctrine of the Atonement, the At-one-ment, to begin by imagining discord in the councils of the Godhead Itself, as if there were disagreement between the Persons of the Blessed Trinity on the subject of man's fall.
Certainly these words do not mean that our Lord was deprived of that which belongs to Him by Mature as the Son of God. They do not mean that either as God or as man He forfeited for an instant His Father's love. When men have gone so far as to say not only that our Lord was literally God-forsaken, but that He was the only human being who ever was God-forsaken, we see the need of holding fast the well-known definitions of Faith which protect the Catholic Doctrine of God.
As to the meaning, then, of these words, it will help us if we remember that our Lord is quoting them exactly as they stand at the beginning of the Twenty-second Psalm. Not only are the Psalms like the rest of the Holy Scriptures, His own Word, but by His use of them both in the regular course of the Jewish Services, and in His own solitary communings with God, they are interwoven into every scene of His earthly life. While undoubtedly the whole Psalter was thus constantly on His lips, it is evident that there are many expressions in the Psalms which would be inappropriate in the mouth of our Lord, if He spoke of Himself apart from His relation to us. In what sense, for example, could He use the Penitential Psalms? How could He say, "Behold I was shapen in wickedness, and in sin hath my mother conceived me"? (Psalm li. 5).
The answer is, that our Lord made Himself one with us, in order to do penance for our sins; and moreover He was by a Sacramental union so to incorporate us into Himself, that we should be made one with Him. Thus, taking upon Him the burden of our sin, He speaks as our Mouthpiece. In the words just quoted, He who is Himself sinless, takes upon Him the confession of our defilement from our very birth. So it is in all the expressions of deep penitence of which the Psalms are full, and which are of course inapplicable to our Lord's sinless Humanity. And it is the same here. In this cry, "My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?" our Lord is precenting, as it were, for His whole Church this Twenty-second Psalm. He, the sinless, has identified Himself with the sinful. "He hath made Him to be sin for us who knew no sin" (II. Cor. v. 21). He whose Humanity was bathed constantly in the radiance of the Godhead from which it could not be separated, speaks in behalf of us whom He has made His brethren, and to whom the words of Isaiah apply, "Tour iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid His face from you that He will not hear" (Isaiah lix. 2).
Ah, no! It is precisely because He is ever One with God, because He never could, in a literal sense, be forsaken of God, that He was able to make perfect this Atonement for us. While, then, we may not penetrate the mystery of this Word, or fathom the suffering which lies beneath it, we know that one chief part of our Lord's work was to do penance for our sin. Now the first part of penance is to take the measure of sin, to see it in its true light, to lay it bare in all its shameful outrage upon the Father's love. No one of us, no mere man could possibly make this estimate of sin; partly because one effect of our being conceived in sin and shapen in iniquity is to render us blind to the very nature of the malady, and further, because we do not know, and never can fully know, what that love is against which we have sinned. There has been but one Human Heart that could feel the full enormity of man's sin, and adequately suffer for it, and that is the Heart which, while it bore upon the Cross the conscious weight of the sins of the whole world, was not forsaken by the Father, but was pressed close to His Bosom that as it was enfolded in the Father's love, it might measure the ingratitude of the sin by which that love is rejected.
Yes, we must indeed stand without the veil. For who of all flesh may accompany Him as He enters into His own Heart, as He fathoms the depths of His own Soul, and with full knowledge of all the sins which needed, or should need, His Atonement, bears their weight in a Soul which from the moment of its creation was united to the Godhead. "I have trodden the wine-press Alone, and of the people there was none with Me" (Isaiah lxiii. 3).
And yet our sins were there, yours and mine; the sins which eyes have seen, the sins which no eye but God's has witnessed; the sins of thought, the sins of word, the sins of deed, the sins of omission, the sins for which we make such poor and inadequate repentance, all were there. And while He made for them such full and perfect satisfaction, He felt the shame, and the humiliation, and the sorrow which is their due, and which, alas! in our blindness and insensibility we cannot feel.
One part of Repentance is Confession. But Confession implies more than the bare enumeration of our sins, however truthful and exact this may be. It should he accompanied by a keen sense of shame for the guilt incurred, and by a loving sorrow for having offended God. As a matter of fact, a good Confession usually both quickens our perception of the evil of sin, and increases that genuine sorrow which flows from the love of God. Yet confessions may be made formally and mechanically, with little either of love or of sorrow. There is an anxiety sometimes to spare one's self that sense of shame and that confusion of face which sin has so justly deserved, and which it is the very purpose of Confession to intensify, and there may be the temptation to glide rapidly over matters that call for the deepest penitence, perhaps even putting a better face on their statement than is quite consistent with truth. But even when there is no intentional fault or omission, how poor at best must be our confessions of sin! How little we realize the love that has been outraged, or the cost at which our pardon was bought with the precious Blood of the Son of God! Now it is to supply this lack on our part, that our Lord suffers here an intolerable sense of shame, as He feels the weight of our sins as if they were His own. He is making our general Confession for us, forgetting nothing, leaving out nothing, slurring over nothing; but fully, and with all the circumstances that aggravated the sin, taking the shame upon Himself.
As we listen then to that heart-breaking cry, "My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?" let us think of Him as having made with broken and penitent heart for each one of us the full confession of our sins, so many of which we have forgotten or never knew; and since we who were once afar off are now, by the Blood of His Covenant, made nigh to God, pray we that He will never forsake us, or suffer us to be separated from Him.
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