One of the fascinating passages in the New Testament is from what the Gospels record as nearly the last words of Jesus of Nazareth spoken from the cross:
‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’
Now, obviously Jesus is, according to what I think is probably the most widely recognized interpretation, actually quoting the beginning of a well known psalm; psalm 22. In a sense, Jesus is turning everyone’s attention to that psalm, and so it may be worth while for me to quote that psalm here as well:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
and by night, but find no rest.
Yet you are holy,
enthroned on the praises of Israel.
In you our ancestors trusted;
they trusted, and you delivered them.
To you they cried, and were saved;
in you they trusted, and were not put to shame.
But I am a worm, and not human;
scorned by others, and despised by the people.
All who see me mock at me;
they make mouths at me, they shake their heads;
‘Commit your cause to the Lord; let him deliver—
let him rescue the one in whom he delights!’
Yet it was you who took me from the womb;
you kept me safe on my mother’s breast.
On you I was cast from my birth,
and since my mother bore me you have been my God.
Do not be far from me,
for trouble is near
and there is no one to help.
Many bulls encircle me,
strong bulls of Bashan surround me;
they open wide their mouths at me,
like a ravening and roaring lion.
I am poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint;
my heart is like wax;
it is melted within my breast;
my mouth is dried up like a potsherd,
and my tongue sticks to my jaws;
you lay me in the dust of death.
For dogs are all around me;
a company of evildoers encircles me.
My hands and feet have shrivelled;
I can count all my bones.
They stare and gloat over me;
they divide my clothes among themselves,
and for my clothing they cast lots.
But you, O Lord, do not be far away!
O my help, come quickly to my aid!
Deliver my soul from the sword,
my life from the power of the dog!
Save me from the mouth of the lion!
From the horns of the wild oxen you have rescued me.
I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters;
in the midst of the congregation I will praise you:
You who fear the Lord, praise him!
All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him;
stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!
For he did not despise or abhor
the affliction of the afflicted;
he did not hide his face from me,
but heard when I cried to him.
From you comes my praise in the great congregation;
my vows I will pay before those who fear him.
The poor shall eat and be satisfied;
those who seek him shall praise the Lord.
May your hearts live for ever!
All the ends of the earth shall remember
and turn to the Lord;
and all the families of the nations
shall worship before him.
For dominion belongs to the Lord,
and he rules over the nations.
To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down;
before him shall bow all who go down to the dust,
and I shall live for him.
Posterity will serve him;
future generations will be told about the Lord,
and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn,
saying that he has done it.
Now there is quite a lot to say by way of exegesis here which I must simply skip over for the sake of brevity, but I will mention a few things. First, the note about how “they divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots” is interpreted to be a prophetic utterance which is fulfilled at the Cross, when the roman soldiers did just that (Mark 15:24). In a strong sense, this whole psalm is being proposed by this crucified Rabbi as prophetic ultimately of messianic suffering. Jesus, in other words, is identifying himself as the victim whose first-person voice resounds in this psalm (at least through most of it, though the tone can be interpreted to change to second-person onlookers in the last section, which is equally interesting). I note particularly the ending of the psalm “he has done it” bears striking similarity to John 19:30, though it isn’t clear that John intends to cite the psalm, since a different word exists in the Septuagint from the one John uses, and I’m not sure about how the Targum would incline one to translate into Greek at this verse. However, the psalm is also classically understood to express deep sorrow and a sense of forlornness on the part of the one reciting it, and here is where the interesting question is raised. Since the voice of the psalm is a man who feels completely abandoned by God, it seems impossible for Christ to genuinely suggest that he himself is the true first-person voice of this psalm; the scandalous question is: did Christ qua man feel abandoned by God? Perhaps a better way of asking it would be did Christ qua man feel a sense of the dark night of the soul? I think the answer is simple and provocative: yes. Christ was able, therefore, to recite these opening lines from this well known and oft recited Psalm as a genuine expression of being in the position of the person singing it (and in a truer sense than its original author was, since it was intended as prophetic).
Therefore, on the Cross, Christ qua man feels a real sense of darkness and the wrath of God, which is the separation from him or the blindness to him. In one sense we can imagine, as was proposed by Peter Kreeft, a favorite philosopher of mine, that for one moment Satan had succeeded in making even God an atheist – at least for one moment. This is interesting to reflect on, since at times even the saints can feel this dark night of the soul, and are thus united in an intimate way to Christ on the Cross at this moment in just as real a way as St. Francis was united with the Stigmata.
What tempers this insight and makes clear how it relates to orthodox Trinitarian theology, is first with reference to the next thing Christ says, which is:
Father, into your hands I commit my spirit
So Christ was clearly still more than aware of the Father’s presence. Christ was not, as some Gnostics believed, abandoned by ‘Christos’ (a divinity of God) at the cross, nor was he abandoned by God, but rather simply felt forlorn in such a way that he experienced darkness come over him and the beatific vision enjoyed insofar as he enjoyed it in his human capacity was no longer present to him qua man. Notice I am being very attentive to the distinction of idioms between Christ qua God and Christ qua man. It is absurd to think that Christ qua God ceased to be aware of God, but it is not absurd that Christ qua man ceased to ‘see God face to face’ in the strong mystical sense, and instead suffered the dark night of the soul. If so, then Christ, in this moment, identifies with all those who feel abandoned by God, alone and forgotten.