The idea of God crying out in forsakenness, nailed to a cross like a criminal, is both deeply disturbing (hence the frequent denial of its “reality”) and a window onto Jesus’ new commandment: “I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.” (John 13:34). It is an event that has not only occupied theologians and mystics, but has also attracted non-believers and has been written about on this blog several times. Today, I’d like to look at how Hans Urs von Balthasar, St. John Paul II, Gianfranco Ravasi and Chiara Lubich understood it and what consequences they drew from it.
Von Balthasar, like Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium (“Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross is nothing else than the culmination of the way he lived his entire life.” §269), argues for a deep continuity between Jesus’ life and teaching and his abandonment on the cross:
“The inarticulate cry of the cross of Jesus is no denial of his articulate proclamation to his disciples and to the people... instead it is the final end of all those articulations... which he utters with the greatest force where nothing articulate can be said any longer.” (The Whole in the Fragment)To von Balthasar, Jesus’ forsakenness is not failure, but culmination, and this perspective can also be seen in St. John Paul II’s thought where he presents it as necessary for God’s “full solidarity” with humanity:
“[O]n Jesus’ lips the “why” addressed to God was also [... an expression of] pained bewilderment at that suffering which had no merely human explanation, but which was a mystery of which the Father alone possessed the key. Therefore, [...] the question contained a theological significance in regard to the sacrifice whereby Christ, in full solidarity with sinful humanity, had to experience in himself abandonment by God.”During that same General Audience in 1988, John Paul II also presents a synthesis of positions that argue for and against the “reality” of Jesus’ abandonment on the cross:
“If Jesus felt abandoned by the Father, he knew however that that was not really so. He himself said, “I and the Father are one” (Jn 10:30). Speaking of his future passion he said, “I am not alone, for the Father is with me” (Jn 16:32). Jesus had the clear vision of God and the certainty of his union with the Father dominant in his mind. But in the sphere bordering on the senses, and therefore more subject to the impressions, emotions and influences of the internal and external experiences of pain, Jesus’ human soul was reduced to a wasteland. He no longer felt the presence of the Father, but he underwent the tragic experience of the most complete desolation.While the above may at first look like a variant of the naive arguments for the unreality of Jesus’ abandonment by the Father, which revolve around the claim that Jesus knew he wasn’t “really” abandoned, John Paul II’s position is more nuanced. He both affirms Jesus’ knowledge of the Father’s presence and the fullness of Jesus experiencing the Father’s absence. Unlike the naive positions that present knowledge as a mitigating factor, John Paul II does not hesitate to describe Jesus’ soul as a “wasteland” and his experience as being one of “most complete desolation.” It is essentially a third-person, “objective” view that recognizes the continuing presence of the Father while Jesus fully experiences his absence on the cross. In many ways this is akin to a Christian, who sees their atheist friends’ sincerity, recognizing that their friends live in the absence of an experience of God, while they themselves see both their own and their friends’ lives unfolding in His presence. This is not to deny the “reality” of the atheist experience (qua experience) while at the same time situating it within one’s own understanding of reality. I believe such a parallel also underlines John Paul II’s claim that Jesus’ abandonment on the cross was necessary for the sake of “full solidarity” with all of humanity - both with those who believe in God and who do not.
Here one can sketch a summary of Jesus’ psychological situation in relationship to God. The external events seemed to manifest the absence of the Father who permitted the crucifixion of his Son, though having at his disposal “legions of angels” (cf. Mt 26:53), without intervening to prevent his condemnation to death and execution. In Gethsemane Simon Peter had drawn a sword in Jesus’ defense, but was immediately blocked by Jesus himself (cf. Jn 18:10 f.). In the praetorium Pilate had repeatedly tried wily maneuvers to save him (cf. Jn 18:31, 38 f.; 19:4-6, 12-15); but the Father was silent. That silence of God weighed on the dying Jesus as the heaviest pain of all [...].
In the sphere of feelings and affection this sense of the absence and abandonment by God was the most acute pain for the soul of Jesus who drew his strength and joy from union with the Father. This pain rendered all the other sufferings more intense. That lack of interior consolation was Jesus’ greatest agony.”
John Paul II’s analysis does seem to me to be the key also to understanding why many theologians wrestle with with the contradiction of Jesus’ forsakenness on the cross. Even Cardinal Ravasi, who in one context affirms the reality of Jesus’ forsakenness (even calling it “salvific atheism”), in another context speaks both about His being our “brother also in the tragedy of the absence of God” and at the same time about it not being possible to “classify that cry as a sign of despair and almost of disbelief.”
Beyond considerations about the reality of Jesus’ forsakenness and its central role in God’s closeness to humanity, what is its practical impact though? What difference does it mean to me, as a Christian, that Jesus experienced such complete desolation? Here the insights of the Servant of God Chiara Lubich are key, since she recognized in Jesus’ forsakenness the key to uniting herself both to God and to every neighbor she encountered, to the point of declaring Jesus Forsaken to be her spouse.
In a talk from 1971,1 Lubich shares her insight into Jesus’ forsakenness being the pinnacle of his self-giving:
“He had given everything.Left in a state of complete self-noughting, “where nothing articulate can be said,” what choice did he have left?
First, a life lived beside Mary in hardship and obedience.
Then, three years of mission, revealing the Truth, giving witness to the Father, promising the Holy Spirit, and working all kinds of miracles of love.
Finally, three hours on the cross, from which he gave forgiveness to his executioners, opened paradise to the thief, gave his mother to us, and ultimately gave his body and blood, after having given them mystically in the Eucharist.
He had nothing left but his divinity.
His union with the Father, that sweet and ineffable union with the One who had made him so powerful on earth as the Son of God and so regal on the cross, that feeling of God’s presence had to disappear into the depths of his soul and no longer make itself felt, separating him somehow from the One with whom he had said to be one: “The Father and I are one” (Jn 10:30). In him love was annihilated, the light extinguished, wisdom silenced.”
“To formulate a question was the only way Jesus could then possibly express himself; that loud cry is the Word which is no longer word, which therefore, cannot be understood and explained as word. It is the indescribable reality which is so beyond what words that are uttered in the created world can express. It is the sub-word; that which is chosen by the Powers of Heaven to bear the Eternal ultra- word.”What was the point of such complete annihilation though? Here Lubich presents a deeply logical argument:
“So he made himself nothing to make us share in the All; a worm2 of the earth, to make us children of God.Most importantly though, Jesus Forsaken was not of academic interest to Lubich, who - with her companions and a growing number of sympathizers and followers - sought to put the Gospel into practice in everything she did, but a person with whom she developed a close relationship:
We were cut off from the Father. It was necessary that the Son, in whom all of us were represented, should experience separation from the Father. He had to experience being forsaken by God so that we might never be forsaken again.
He had taught that no one has greater love than one who lays down his life for his friends. He who was Life laid down his whole self. This was the culminating point, love’s most beautiful expression. He loved in God’s way! With a love as big as God!”
“He drew us to himself; we discovered him everywhere: in every physical moral or spiritual pain. They were shadows of his great suffering. [...] Then we saw him in every neighbor who was suffering. [...] Every personal suffering also appeared to us as a countenance of Jesus forsaken to be loved and wanted in order to be with him and like him, so that through the death of ourselves [...], he might give life to us and to many others.”In fact, Lubich understood that such a relationship with Jesus Forsaken, a becoming another Jesus Forsaken, is the way to profound relationships of unity:
“In his testament Jesus had said: “With me in them and you in me, may they be so perfected in unity” (Jn 17:23). If Jesus was in me, if Jesus was in the other, and if Jesus was in all, at that moment we were perfected in unity. [...] Jesus forsaken is the model for those who must build unity with others. I cannot enter into another spirit if I am rich of my own. To love others I must constantly make myself so poor in spirit that I possess nothing but love. Love is empty of itself. Jesus forsaken is the perfect model of one who is poor in spirit. He is so poor that he has not even God, so to speak. He does not feel God’s presence.”And finally, picking up on a theme so close to Pope Francis’ heart, Lubich points to the simultaneous closeness to humanity and God that Jesus’ forsakenness brings about, where He becomes the void that bridges the finite with the infinite:
“In his forsakenness Jesus seems to be nothing but a man, and so never had he been as close to us human beings as in that moment and never, therefore, had he loved so much. At the same time, never had he been so close to the Father; it is out of love for him that he dies in that way.”
1 Which was also my source for the quotes from von Balthasar’s “The Whole in the Fragment” above.
2 “But I am a worm, not a man, scorned by men, despised by the people.” (Psalms 22:7)