"my God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me?"

Author: Pope John Paul II

In his General Audience on Wednesday, 30 November 1988, the Holy Father reflected on Jesus' cry of desolation from the Cross, observing that “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.” 

According to the Synoptics, Jesus on the cross cried out aloud twice (cf. Mt 27:46, 50; Mk 15: 34, 37); but only Luke tells us what he said when he cried out the second time (cf. 23:46). The first cry expresses the depth and intensity of Jesus' suffering, his interior participation, his spirit of oblation, and perhaps also his prophetic-messianic understanding of his drama in the terms of a biblical psalm. Certainly the first cry manifests Jesus' feelings of desolation and abandonment with the first words of Psalm 2: "And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, 'Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?' which means, 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?'" (Mk 15:34; cf. Mt 27:46).

Mark quotes the words in Aramaic. One may suppose that the cry appeared so characteristic that the witnesses who heard it, when later recounting the drama of Calvary, deemed it opportune to repeat the very words of Jesus in Aramaic. It was the language spoken by him and by the majority of his contemporary Israelites. They could have been relayed to Mark by Peter, as happened in the case of the word "Abba" (cf. Mk 14:36) in the prayer of Gethsemane.

The fact that Jesus, in his first cry, used the initial words of Psalm 22 is significant for various reasons. Jesus was accustomed to pray following the sacred texts of his people. There must have remained in his mind many of those words and phrases which particularly impressed him, because they expressed better man's need and anguish before God. In a certain way they alluded to the condition of the one who would have taken upon himself all our iniquity (cf. Is 53:11).

Therefore on Calvary it came natural to Jesus to make use of the psalmist's question to God when he felt completely worn out by suffering. But on Jesus' lips the "why" addressed to God was also more effective in expressing a 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, though arising from the memory of the Psalm read or recited in the synagogue, 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. Under the influence of this tremendous interior experience, the dying Jesus found the energy to utter that cry!

In that experience, in that cry, in that "why" addressed to heaven, Jesus also established a new manner of solidarity with us who are so often moved to raise our eyes and words to heaven to express our complaint and even desperation.

In hearing Jesus crying out his "why," we learn indeed that those who suffer can utter this same cry, but with those same dispositions of filial trust and abandonment of which Jesus is the teacher and model. In the "why" of Jesus there is no feeling or resentment leading to rebellion or desperation. There is no semblance of a reproach to the Father, but the expression of the experience of weakness, of solitude, of abandonment to himself, made by Jesus in our place. Jesus thus became the first of the "smitten and afflicted," the first of the abandoned, the first of the desamparados (as the Spanish call them). At the same time, however, he tells us that the benign eye of Providence watches over all these poor children of Eve.

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.

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, so much so that his enemies interpreted that silence as a sign of his reprobation: "He trusted in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him; for he said, 'I am the Son of God'" (Mt 27:43).

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.

However, Jesus knew that by this ultimate phase of his sacrifice, reaching the intimate core of his being, he completed the work of reparation which was the purpose of his sacrifice for the expiation of sins. If sin is separation from God, Jesus had to experience in the crisis of his union with the Father a suffering proportionate to that separation.

On the other hand in quoting the beginning of Psalm 22, which he perhaps continued to recite mentally during the passion, Jesus did not forget the conclusion which becomes a hymn of liberation and an announcement of salvation granted to all by God. The experience of abandonment is therefore a passing pain which gives way to personal liberation and universal salvation. In Jesus' afflicted soul this perspective certainly nourished hope, all the more so since he had always presented his death as a passage to the resurrection as his true glorification. From this thought his soul took strength and joy in the knowledge that at the very height of the drama of the cross, the hour of victory was at hand.

A little later, however, perhaps under the influence of Psalm 22, which again came to the surface in his memory, Jesus uttered the words, "I thirst" (Jn 19:28).

It is easy to understand that these words of Jesus refer to physical thirst, to the great agony which is part of the pain of crucifixion, as the experts in these matters tells us. One may also add that in manifesting his thirst Jesus gave proof of humility, by expressing an elementary need, as anyone would have done. Also in this Jesus expressed his solidarity with all those, living or dying, healthy or sick, great or small, who are in need and ask at least for a cup of water (cf. Mt 10:42). For us it is good to think that any help given to one who is dying, is given to Jesus crucified!

However, we cannot ignore the evangelist's remark that Jesus uttered the words, "I thirst," "to fulfill the Scripture" (Jn 19:28). These words of Jesus have another dimension beyond the physico-psychological. Once again the reference is to Psalm 22: "My throat is dried up like baked clay, my tongue cleaves to my jaws; to the dust of death you have brought me down" (v. 16). Also in Psalm 69:22 we read: "In my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink."

The Psalmist's words treat of physical thirst, but on the lips of Jesus they enter into the messianic perspective of the suffering of the cross. In his thirst the dying Christ sought a drink quite different from water or vinegar, as when he asked the Samaritan woman at the well of Sychar: "Give me to drink" (Jn 4:7). Physical thirst on that occasion was the symbol and the path to another thirst, that of the conversion of the Samaritan woman. On the cross, Jesus thirsted for a new humanity which should arise from his sacrifice in fulfillment of the Scriptures. For this reason the evangelist links Jesus' "cry of thirst" to the Scriptures. The thirst of the cross, on the lips of the dying Christ, is the ultimate expression of that desire of baptism to be received and of fire to be kindled on the earth, which had been manifested by him during his life. "I came to cast fire upon the earth and would that it were already kindled! I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how I am constrained until it is accomplished!" (Lk 12:49-50). Now that desire is about to be fulfilled. With those words Jesus confirmed the ardent love with which he desired to receive that supreme "baptism" to open to all of us the fountain of water which really quenches the thirst and saves (cf. Jn 4:13-14).