Malankara World

Faith, Works, and Grace: Addresses on the Seven Words from the Cross

by Arthur Chandler, Bishop of Bloemfontein, London, 1920


"My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?" (St. Matt, xxvii. 46).

Fourth Word brings us to the heart of the mystery of the Passion of our Saviour. The strange mysteriousness of the utterance stamped it with peculiar force on the minds and memories of men. Of the Seven Words it is the only one mentioned by SS. Matthew and Mark. SS. Luke and John each gives us three Words, but the tradition embodied in the first two Gospels concentrates itself on this, and gives it to us as the one utterance of peculiar and profound significance spoken from the Cross.

We think of our Lord's life as one of absolute conformity to the Father's will. "I came not to do My own will, but the will of Him that sent Me." "My meat is to do the will of Him that sent Me." "My Father worketh hitherto, and I work." "Whatsoever I speak, even as the Father saith unto Me, so I speak." "He that hath seen Me hath seen the Father." "I and My Father are one." If, then, there was this absolute unity of nature and purpose between Him and the Father, if He had done the Father's will with unfaltering loyalty to the end, surely now at the end the comfort of the Father's love would wrap Him round and infuse peace and serenity into His human soul. We can understand the word "Father, into Thy hands I commend My spirit," as a fit close to that life of spotless obedience, but "My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?"--how came this to be uttered by the sinless Son?

Such thoughts would perhaps be natural if we think of our Lord as a good man who had lived a good life and might look forward to a peaceful death; but then directly we use such words, we see how inadequate they are to His Person and His Work. If we say that the Seventh Word from the Cross is natural and appropriate, but the Fourth Word strange and repugnant, we might go farther and ask why that Seventh Word in which the Son commends Himself to the Father's hands came to be spoken from the Cross. Surely the death on the Cross, whatever words were spoken there, is not what we should regard as the natural and appropriate close to a sinless life. If the Word which speaks of abandonment by the Father is strange and anomalous, no less strange and anomalous is the Cross from which the last Word was spoken. Conversely, I think we can see that, if it was right and natural and appropriate that Christ should die upon the Cross, that death itself would have been incomplete in its power and significance if this Fourth Word had not been uttered, if that abandonment by the Father of which it speaks had not been suffered and experienced. The Cross itself is the deep, central mystery in which all the Seven Words find their meaning and context. The Cross is the comprehensive fact, and the Words emphasize certain aspects of that fact.

Intercession was one aspect of the Cross, Absolution was another, Love was a third; and now we have a fourth in the supreme self-sacrifice and self-abandonment in which He proclaims Himself forsaken by the Father. And notice that it is self-sacrifice and self-abandonment. If He is for a moment forsaken by the Father, it is because He wills to be thus forsaken. Just as in Gethsemane He could summon the legions of angels who at a word would have rescued Him from His enemies, so now He deliberately forgoes the comfort of the sense of the Father's presence. Why does He do it? Simply because He hangs on the Cross as the Sin-bearer Who takes our sins upon Himself by enduring the awful consequences which sin brings upon the sinner. And one of the worst of those consequences is separation from God. Adam's sin drove him out from God's presence; and all sin ever since has been a cloud which hides God from us. That is perhaps the most awful thing about sin. We have done wrong wilfully, and at once we cannot pray; prayer becomes unreal, impossible, a form of words barren of meaning. The avenues of approach to God are cut off; we have become strangers and aliens to the covenant. Sometimes people try to brazen it out and say there is no God to approach, as though the sense of God's presence was a childish fancy which they have outgrown; though the childish thing is really not the belief in God's presence but the wilful rebellion which has concealed that presence from us. If, then, Christ is to endure the bitter results of human sin, He must endure that bitterest result of all, alienation from God, with all the anguish which that brings. And this anguish of desolation was far greater for Him than it could ever be for us. I said just now that Christ was able to make a perfect satisfaction for sin because He felt a hatred for sin which we, who are so familiar with it, can never feel. Christ loved the Father with unswerving loyalty and hated absolutely all rebellion against the Father's will. He felt, therefore, as sinners can never feel, the horror of that isolation from the Father's love which our rebellion has brought upon us. Without that experience of desolation He could not have been the Sin-bearer, for the worst thing that sin brings with it would not have been felt by Him. But if He feels it at all--this sense of desolation--it must mean infinitely more to Him with the exquisite sensitiveness and refinement of His sinless soul than it can ever mean to us dull, callous, hardened sinners.

Here, then, we see the perfect act of reparation being performed, when He Who is our representative bears all the consequences of our sin, and feels those consequences with the intensity which their badness demands, but which we sinners could never feel. "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."

Now, in contemplating this Fourth Word, it is mainly as our Redeemer that we think of Christ; we think of Him, that is, as doing something for us that we could never have done for ourselves, making that supreme act of self-sacrifice and self-abandonment and self-isolation from the Father's presence, which makes Him at once the Sin-bearer and the Saviour, our Brother and our Redeemer. But is there here an example that we poor sinners can imitate? Surely we can see traces of such an imitation in St. Paul when, in the fervour of his patriotic love for his people, he exclaims, "I could wish that myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh." He, too, would isolate himself from the love of God if he might thereby help to save his brethren. So, too, there is an anticipation of it in the case of Moses when he prays that God will blot his name out of the book of life and have mercy on the guilty Israelites. We also, on a lower level, are to follow that example by trying to be more disinterested and unselfish in our love of others and in the service which we render to them. It is terribly difficult to get rid of self and subtle forms of self-seeking in these things. When we are really taking trouble and putting ourselves out to help other people, are we really doing it for their sake or for the sake of ourselves? A poor woman in the East End of London objected once to being visited by a lady Church-worker, and expressed her objection by saying, "I don't want her to come round saving her soul on me." Are we really keen on the good of those for whom we work, or anxious mainly to save our souls by means of what we do for them? Can we approach to St. Paul's feeling when he wished that he might be accursed from Christ for his brethren's sake? Can we set before ourselves the supreme example of Christ, Who forbore the consolation of the Father's love in His utmost need that He might save to the uttermost His brethren upon earth? We must try in our poor way to follow that example by pushing self steadily into the background, and being specially faithful in the doing of bits of work that don't interest us, that don't minister to our pride or vanity or self-love in any form whatever. We clergy, for instance, have to try to be disinterested by leading people to Christ and not to ourselves, by being faithful ministers of the Good Shepherd, instead of thieves and robbers. As, then, we fix our eyes on the example of Christ's absolute self-sacrifice we can gradually become purer in our motives, gradually purge our service from the self-seeking which poisons so much of it.

But we shall get most help in this way through the indwelling life of Christ crucified with which we feed our souls in Holy Communion. There the example is transformed into a power. The example which was almost too high and holy to be contemplated becomes a power working in the centre of our own being, working to subdue unworthy motives and make love perfect through self-sacrifice. Every aspect and quality of Christ's Passion can be reproduced in us through our faithful reception of the Body broken and the Blood poured out upon the Cross. We have seen how, as we feed our souls upon Christ's Passion, we may be strengthened to pray, to forgive, to love, and now we can learn how the supreme dereliction and self-abandonment of our Saviour can be reproduced, in faithful communicants, in the form of a growing power of self-sacrifice. I want you to see what a tremendous force we are handling when we make our Communion, a force which is nothing less than the life of Almighty God, a force which when properly adjusted and directed can produce the entire sanctification of the recipient. There is nothing too high and holy for the communicant to attain by the life of Christ crucified working in his soul. "I can do all things," says St. Paul, "through Christ who strengthened me." But, once more, it must be Christ crucified Whom we receive, because it is only Christ crucified, Christ the Sin-bearer, with Whom we sinners can have any contact at all. And to receive Christ crucified properly in His Sacrament we must come as penitents, as sinners who are at any rate trying to be sorry for their sins, and who can therefore receive all the boundless benefits of His Passion, all the inexhaustible energy of His crucified life. So, if we want to become unselfish, to gain for ourselves something of the power of self-sacrifice, let us be very careful in our self-examination, and see whether we truly and earnestly repent us of our sins, of which selfishness has been the essence; then the power of Christ's Passion, with all its utter forgetfulness and abandonment of self, will sweep into our penitent souls, and we shall make gradual progress, advancing in our love of Him and of our neighbour, and thinking less about ourselves.

Let us pray that the love of our neighbour, about which we were thinking just now, may grow into a self-sacrificing love, after the example of Christ, Who forbore all spiritual consolation for Himself that He might seek and save those who had exiled themselves from God; let us pray for unselfishness as a grace given to us by the indwelling, self-sacrificing Love of Christ in our Communions; and let us resolve to exercise this unselfishness by special faithfulness in duties that do not attract us.

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See Also:

Passion Week Supplement in Malankara World

Sermons and Commentaries for the Palm Sunday

Sermons for Good Friday

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