Jesus spoke the language of his time and place, and so in his Passion he used the Jewish scriptures, especially the psalms, to speak of his suffering. In Mark’s gospel his only words on the cross are from Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” It’s a cry of lament, one of the longest psalms in the psalter. The psalm is a window into Jesus’ thoughts and feelings as he suffered and died.
In the psalm we hear the voice of someone suffering so much that they feel abandoned by God. Life and hope seem gone, the blessings of God taken away, but still they hold on. The psalm ends with a cry of faith: “God did not turn away from me, but heard me when I cried out.”
The psalm is a vivid description of real, acute pain Jesus endured:
“Like water my life drains away;
all my bones are disjointed.
My heart has become like wax,
it melts away within me.
As dry as a potsherd is my throat;
my tongue cleaves to my palate;
you lay me in the dust of death.”
There’s no relief in his suffering, no comfort from the abuse of his enemies:
“ I am a worm, not a man, scorned by men,
despised by the people.
All who see me mock me;
they curl their lips and jeer;
they shake their heads at me:
“He relied on the LORD—let him deliver him;
if he loves him, let him rescue him.”
The love he knew all his life, from childhood and his mother’s womb, the respect he had from his years of his ministry, the warmth of God’s presence seem gone. Where is God, the psalm complains “ who drew me forth from my mother’s womb and made me safe from my mother’s breast?”
“They have pierced my hands and my feet
I can count all my bones.
They stare at me and gloat;
they divide my garments among them;
for my clothing they cast lots.”
It’s evident that the gospel writers later used this psalm to frame the story of the Passion of Jesus.
Paul the Apostle says in his Letter to the Philippians, that Jesus ” who was in the form of God, emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, and coming in human likeness and found human in appearance, he humbled himself becoming obedient to death, even to death on a cross.”
Jesus became human, Paul says, even taking on the humanity of a slave dying on a cross. Far from being immune to suffering or the human experience of death, Jesus took on the darkest form of human experience: he became a slave on a cross.
Psalm 22 gives no answer for the suffering it describes. It says only that God does not abandon his creatures when suffering occurs, even suffering of the worst kind.
God does not abandon Jesus on the Cross, Paul tells the Philippians. He “ greatly exalted him
and bestowed on him the name
that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that
Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.”
In other words, God raised Jesus from the dead and glorified him. Again, there is no answer for suffering, but we have a promise in Jesus of resurrection. It’s the resurrection even of a slave on the cross. In Jesus’ death we’re assured that God is present to those who seem most abandoned. God’s love enters the most desperate circumstances and most unpromising situations.
“God so loved the world that he sent his only Son,” John’s gospel says.
Nothing in creation or humanity is abandoned by God, the creator. We know this because God sent his Son into the world, not to condemn it, but to save it and give it life.
We look at Jesus on the Cross, not just to take stock of his sufferings or mourn them; but to draw hope for ourselves and our world from them. This is a blessed mystery. We bend our knee before it and confess with our tongue, that Jesus Christ is our Lord and Savior.