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Scripture is replete with "difficult" verses — texts that are tricky to understand or that might even seem, at first blush, to undermine well-established doctrine. Saint Augustine, for example, believed this opacity is providential, that it's designed to draw us more intimately into the divine mysteries. But it can still be frustrating, even panic inducing, to encounter a hard saying in the word of God. That said, Christ's cry of anguish from the Cross, "My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?" recounted in the Gospel of Mark, is one of the most vexing scriptural verses of all. For a long time, I wondered how Christ, the God-man, who ever enjoyed the beatific vision while on earth (see Pope Pius XII, Mystici Corporis, §75), could be alienated from the Father. It turns out He wasn't.
To understand the verse in issue, it's important to understand the background and structure of the Gospel of Mark. Mark's gospel was likely authored in Rome shortly after the martyrdom of Peter the Apostle in A.D. 64. (Vincent Taylor, The Gospel According to St. Mark [London: Macmillan, 1966], 7). While, like the other three canonical gospels, the Gospel of Mark is materially and textually anonymous — perhaps a wink to the ultimately divine origin of the gospel — tradition going back to the end of the first century firmly ascribes authorship to Mark (Robert A. Guelich, Word Biblical Commentary: Mark 1–8:26, Vol. 34A [Texas: Word, 1989], xxv-xxvi).
Who was Mark? The answer to this question is given in a five-volume work by Papias, the bishop of Hieropolis in the early second century (ibid., xxvi). Mark, Papias records, was an interpreter and aide to Peter the Apostle. It is now known that Mark recorded the teachings and actions of Christ as preached by Peter himself. However, this is not to say that Mark drew exclusively upon Petrine narratives in his writing; to the contrary, it is widely held that Mark incorporated a broader Church tradition into the content of his gospel account (Taylor, The Gospel According to St. Mark, 131). Although Papias attached numerous value judgments to Mark's account, of particular import is his declaration that Mark wrote "accurately," "carefully," "completely," and "honestly" (Guelich, Word Biblical Commentary: Mark 1–8:26, xxvii).
There is a consensus that the Gospel of Mark bears a three-part structure and that the author uses this structure as a tool to develop the plot (R.T. France, The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text [Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 2002], 11). Each of the gospel's prongs is marked by a focus on events that occur in a specific geographic region (ibid.). A brief discussion of the prongs of the Gospel of Mark is in order here.
Mark debuts his gospel with a brief prologue, channeling the prophet Isaiah, and setting an appropriately somber atmosphere for the remarkable events that are to unfold in the coming chapters (ibid., 13). We are then immersed in the first prong of the gospel (1:14–8:21), which is notable for its setting in and around the region of Galilee. Here, we encounter the essential message of Christ, observe the formation of Christ's circle of followers, witness Christ's preaching and healing, marvel at the varying responses to Christ's message — from awe to antipathy — and receive a discourse on the Kingdom of God (ibid., 13–14).
We then shift into the second prong of the Gospel of Mark (8:22–10:52), Christ's journey to Jerusalem and the ensuing events (ibid.). Here, we see the Apostles begin to grapple with the true identity of Christ, receive instruction on how discipleship necessitates suffering in the "way of the Cross," and perform exorcisms and healings.
Finally, we arrive at the third prong of the Gospel of Mark (11:1–16:8), wherein Christ arrives in Jerusalem, where His public ministry realizes its majestic climax (ibid.). Here, Christ confronts the Jerusalem establishment, and the scene is set for His ignominious passion; He spends His last hours instructing His disciples and enjoying fellowship with them; He is arrested, tried and condemned, and is ultimately crucified, buried and raised from the dead. This third prong, set in Jerusalem and culminating in Christ's passion, represents the summit to which the entire story has been aspiring.
Substantively, the Gospel of Mark is dynamic and embraces several themes in its penumbra. These themes include the deliberate secrecy surrounding Christ's true divine identity (the "messianic secret"), the hidden arrival of the Kingdom of God and the destiny of the world in its "eschatological vindication" (Guelich, Word Biblical Commentary: Mark 1–8:26, xxxviii–xl). Additionally, the Gospel of Mark features various typologies, that is to say Christ's fulfillment of Old Testament prototypes (Hugh Anderson, The Gospel of Mark [London: Oliphants, 1976], 33).
Yet, the Gospel of Mark's weightiest theme (and indeed, its very nucleus) is, of course, the Paschal Mystery. At the heart of the Paschal Mystery lies "the paradox of the Messiah who enters into His glorious reign only through the self-abasement of the Cross" (Mary Healy and Peter S. Williamson, The Gospel of Mark [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008], 24). Indeed, the centrality of the passion of Christ to the Gospel of Mark reflects the cautionary intent of the author: to emphasize that attempts to understand Christ without recourse to His Passion, Death, and Resurrection will ultimately lead to error (Paul J. Achtemeier, Invitation to Mark: A Commentary on the Gospel of Mark, with Complete Text from the Jerusalem Bible [Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1978], 24). The fullness of Christ's identity remains inscrutable until God "lifts the veil" by raising Him from death to life (ibid.).
Inherent in Christ's habituated abasement in His earthly ministry as set forth in the Gospel of Mark is the prominent sub-theme of abandonment (William Reuben Farmer, ed., The International Bible Commentary: A Catholic and Ecumenical Commentary for the Twenty-first Century [Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1998], 1365). Instantiations of rejection and abandonment saturate the second gospel from beginning to end. Namely, Christ encounters resistance and ill will from Jewish religious leaders (2:6–7; 3:6, 22), disbelief and rejection in His hometown (3:21, 31–35) and by His neighbors (6:1), fickleness and hostility from crowds encountered in ministry (14:43; 15:6–15), and most poignantly, abandonment, denial, and even betrayal at the hands of the disciples themselves (14:10–11; 43–46; 50; and 66–72). Of course, the sense of abandonment reaches its zenith during Christ's passion, especially when Christ cries out in desolation from the Cross.
Turning back now to the text that is the subject of this essay, under the crushing yoke of the paschal mystery, at the very moment of His death, Christ utters a cry that consummately encapsulates His acute pangs of abandonment. Christ asks, in the immortal words of the Psalmist of Psalm 22:1, why even God has abandoned him: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"
Before progressing any further in the present analysis, it is fitting to reproduce Psalm 22 in relevant part, as oftentimes in Scripture, an incipit of a passage is invoked in order to borrow overall meaning from the passage, to imbue a speaker's words with a succinct richness and depth (see Matthew S. Rindge, "Reconfiguring the Akedah and Recasting God: Lament and Divine Abandonment in Mark," Journal of Biblical Literature 131, no. 4 : 757–758; 760). At the very least, reading the fuller passage from which Christ is quoting will help to contextualize His cry. Psalm 22 is as follows:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest. Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. In you our fathers trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them. To you they cried and were rescued; in you they trusted and were not put to shame. But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by mankind and despised by the people. All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me; they wag their heads; "He trusts in the Lord; let him deliver him; let him rescue him, for he delights in him!" Yet you are he who took me from the womb; you made me trust you at my mother's breasts. On you was I cast from my birth, and from my mother's womb you have been my God. Be not far from me, for trouble is near, and there is none to help. Many bulls encompass 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 strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death. For dogs encompass me; a company of evildoers encircles me; they have pierced my hands and feet — I can count all my bones — they stare and gloat over me; they divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots. But you, O Lord, do not be far off! O you my help, come quickly to my aid! Deliver my soul from the sword, my precious life from the power of the dog! Save me from the mouth of the lion! You have rescued me from the horns of the wild oxen! I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you: You who fear the Lord, praise him! All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him, and stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel! For he has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted, and he has not hidden his face from him, but has heard, when he cried to him. From you comes my praise in the great congregation; my vows I will perform before those who fear him. The afflicted shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the Lord! May your hearts live forever! All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations shall worship before you.
Before beginning our analysis of the substance of Christ's cry of desolation from the Cross, it is fitting to first analyze its preface: "And at the ninth hour, Jesus cried with a loud voice." First, it is evident that Mark makes a concerted effort to give his audience the exact time bracketing Christ's cry of desolation and death. The time given by Mark for Christ's exclamation of "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" and immediate death thereafter, is the "ninth hour," which is 3 o'clock in modern parlance (Healy and Williamson, The Gospel of Mark, 320). It is not insignificant that the 3 o'clock hour had a special sacrificial significance to the Jewish people of the Old Testament. Indeed, 3 o'clock is the hour in which pleasing sacrifice was made by Elijah to God on Mount Carmel "in defiance of the prophets of Baal" in 1 Kings 18:36 (ibid.). Moreover, 3 o'clock is well-known as the hour when the paschal lambs were slaughtered in the Temple in preparation for the Passover feast.
As noted supra, the Gospel of Mark devotes significant resources to the prototypes of the Old Testament and their eventual fruition in Christ. By pinpointing 3 o'clock as the time of Christ's death on the Cross, Mark is drawing the theological conclusion that Christ is the fulfillment of the Old Testament prototype of the unblemished, sacrificial lamb — the paschal lamb. This typology is one that the Church, from Her very infancy, has recognized and propounded.
Next, we turn to Mark's description of the manner of Christ's cry of desolation. It is of significance that the author describes the cry of Christ as being "with a loud voice." This fact serves three purposes. First, it demonstrates that Christ did not simply fade into death, but instead died in full possession of His potency and faculties (France, The Gospel of Mark, 652). Second, it underscores the acuteness of the abandonment that Christ felt at that time (ibid.). Third, it shows that Christ was tormented during His final confrontation with evil, as the only occasion in the Gospel of Mark when an utterance is described as a "loud cry" is when it comes from the lips of a body in combat with demons (Healy and Williamson, The Gospel of Mark, 320; see Mark 1:26; 5:7). It is thus fitting that the God-man, Who is at the climax of His campaign against evil, but Who is feeling abandonment most vividly, allows His passion to crescendo with a loud cry. This loud cry punches the omnipresent Markan motif of abandonment.
Finally, we must consider the substance of Christ's cry of desolation from the Cross, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" A great deal of scholarship has been devoted to this matter, and various conclusions have been reached about the meaning and theological implications of Christ's words. A brief overview of the points of agreement and contention between different schools of thought is appropriate here.
It has been nearly ubiquitously accepted from the nascent days of the Church that Christ, in Mark 15:34, is quoting directly from the opening line of Psalm 22 (Michael Jinkins and Stephen Breck Reid, "God's Forsakenness: The Cry of Dereliction as an Utterance Within the Trinity," Horizons in Biblical Theology 19, no. 1 [June 01, 1997]: 34). Additionally, it is widely held that Christ's manner of addressing the Father, still referring to Him in intimate covenantal diction as "My God" during such arduous tribulation and in the midst of the Father's seeming absence is testament to Christ's "perfect human attitude of trust in God" and fidelity to the end (Healy and Williamson, The Gospel of Mark, 320). But beyond this, to what end and with what meaning Christ made His profound inquiry has been mired in considerable controversy.
While a plenary list of the various schools of thought on the meaning of Christ's cry of desolation on the Cross is beyond the scope of this commentary, it's worth surveying the most common positions. One popular camp, which attempts to couch itself in the Patristic tradition that "that which [Christ] has not assumed He has not healed," asserts that Christ was truly and literally Godforsaken on the Cross, to drink to the dregs the cup of mankind's own postlapsarian Godforsakenness, in a substitutionary role (See Jinkins and Reid, "God's Forsakenness," 44, 48). This position seems to be prevalent in Protestant circles.
However, such an understanding appears theologically and traditionally untenable. It has been pointed out that the notion that Jesus, as a substitute for mankind, was abandoned or forsaken by the Father "is inconsistent with the love of God and the oneness of purpose with the Father manifest in the atoning ministry of Jesus" (Taylor, The Gospel According to St. Mark, 594). Beyond this, such an interpretation clashes with the ancient Christian doctrine that Christ, as man, "had the beatific vision from the beginning" (Paul J. Glenn, A Tour of the Summa [Rockford, IL: TAN, 1978] 322). Of course, the beatific vision consists of the "possession" of God by the beholder, and as such, it is mutually exclusive with true Godforsakenness (ibid., 102). Hence, this position is not compelling.
Another notion that is similarly admirably grounded, but ultimately lackluster upon due reflection, is that Christ's cry of desolation on the Cross was simply meant to channel the whole of Psalm 22, up to its resolution, by invoking its incipit (Taylor, The Gospel According to St. Mark, 594). Of course, as shown above, since Psalm 22 ends on the overtly felicitous note of God's triumph over the psalmist's considerable afflictions, if Christ's intent were to invoke the psalm in its entirety, then the most pronounced inherent Christological difficulties of the verse would simply vanish. This circumvention in some respects appears preferable to the current zugzwang.
However, it has been noted that such an interpretation is little less than the sheer torture of the words employed by Christ on Good Friday as well as the themes running through the Gospel of Mark (Healy and Williamson, The Gospel of Mark, 320–321). While, of course, Psalm 22 ultimately is describing Christ's passion and God's glorious triumph over death and iniquity, to say that Christ (hanging tortured upon the Cross) is simply looking ahead to victory when He cries out, minimizes His true humanity and mitigates the scandal of the crucifixion (ibid.). As discussed, the theme of abandonment is utterly pervasive in the Gospel of Mark. For Mark to methodically increase his focus on the theme of Christ's alienation and abandonment, to the climax of the crucifixion, and then to shy away from Christ's most profound sense of abandonment is beyond anticlimactic — it is oxymoronic.
A far more logical and satisfying understanding of Christ's cry of desolation is one that almost splits the difference between those unpalatable positions already discussed. The most Markan interpretation is that Christ's cry verbalized an interior desolation in which He "felt the horror of sin so deeply that for a time the closeness of His communion with the Father was obscured" but not destroyed (Taylor, The Gospel According to St. Mark, 594). This interior feeling of desolation was created by Christ's free choice to imbibe the cup of Divine wrath on behalf of mankind and to reverse the curses of our sin, which He took upon Himself — but not by the withdrawal of the Father (Healy and Williamson, The Gospel of Mark, 320–321). Lending strong support to this position is the fact that the historical meaning of "forsaken" as translated from Greek in the context of Mark 15:34 is not "to leave alone," but is instead "to leave helpless" (Ezra P. Gould, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to St. Mark. [Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark Ltd., 1983], 294). Hence, Christ's cry, properly understood, is a lamentation of the withholding of divine assistance (ibid.).
The foregoing interpretation threads the needle between extremes. It avoids the untenable conclusion that Christ was utterly forsaken by the Father, and at the same time, it upholds the imperative that Christ truly took man's curses upon Himself, feeling the weight of God's distance (not absence) on the Cross, not just detachedly contemplating victory in the resurrection. In his cry, Christ verily acknowledges that God Himself "seems to have gone" (Anderson, The Gospel of Mark, 346–347, emphasis supplied). However, we can take solace in the fact that "there never was an utterance that reveals more amazingly the distance between feeling and fact" (Taylor, The Gospel According to St. Mark, 594).
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