An hour passes. The sun is now covered by clouds, and it suddenly has become very cold. Jesus is undergoing immense suffering. His wounds are becoming infected. A swarm of horrible flies, blue and yellow, whirl around his body. They sit on his face and he cannot brush them away. He breaths in the upper regions of his chest but cannot exhale. His forehead is covered with sweat. His eyes are prominent and rolling. His face is turning purple.
Suddenly, in the midst of the silence and suffering, Jesus raises his head towards Heaven. He speaks out in a loud voice, louder than could have been expected from someone so near death: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”
It seems as though God has indeed abandoned him. How many suffering people throughout history have made the same cry: after undergoing loss through a natural disaster, after being exiled to concentration camps, after the onslaught of a life ending illness, after loosing a loved one, after the devastation of war. Yes, it can seem that the God of love, the God of consolation, the God they once followed so closely, has abandoned them. Chris’s suffering was total; total body pain, total humiliation, total interior desolation, and because of this, his identification with our suffering is total too. He has drunk from every cup of our own misery; he has allowed himself to experience everything that we can endure; he has even been allowed to feel a sense of abandonment by his Father. Every suffering we endure, Christ has already undergone for us, so great is his love.
One of the greatest fears people have today is suffering. We have done our best to hide it from every aspect of our culture. Even Catholics are not immune to this fear. A few years ago I heard about a Catholic school that had taken down the crucifixes on the walls of the classrooms—it was to shocking, to offensive. But there on the wall, where the crucifix hung, was still the image of a cross, bleached by where the sun had hit it every morning. One can try to hide from the cross, but it will always be present. One gentleman asked me at the beginning of Lent, “Father, this thing about redemptive suffering, about uniting our sufferings to Christ, it does nothing for me, it doesn’t help me at all.” It must have been the Holy Spirit, but an answer jumped quickly to my mind. “It’s not so much that you try and try to unite your sufferings to Christ, and so feel that it’s redemptive; it’s more that Christ has chosen to continue suffering in you.” It must have been what he needed to hear, because he paused, smiled, and said thank you.
The cross is scandalous. It should not surprise us when someone takes it down, when someone struggles to accept it, when they run from it. Don’t we do the same? Isn’t our first reaction one of horror? Scholars say that the crucifix was not widely accepted in Christendom until the thirteenth century. It is not easy to embrace the cross but at the same time we cannot fight against it. We need to cry out, “Father, all I ask is that you do not abandon me as I carry it.” Do not ask for a life without the cross, but for the cross with Christ.
During Holy Week, I will be posting a daily reflection on the 7 Last Words of Christ.
- Thursday: Prelude to the Passion
- Friday: Father! forgive them!
- Monday: You will be with me in paradise!
- Tuesday: Behold your mother! Behold your son!
- Thursday: I thirst!
- Friday: It is finished!
- Saturday: Father! Into your hands I commend my spirit!
Great post. It gives words to my vague uncertainty when comparing Catholic and Orthodox versions of the crucifixion. They make a strong argument for not showing the emotion, the gore, the suffering. (The Orthodox are EXCELLENT at explaining their theology). I like very much your explanation of our imagery, and why it is important to depict the Crucifixion the way we do. I so appreciate being able to learn Catholic thought and theology presented forthrightly and directly, and not being given a mournful look and being told that it is “special” and a “mystery”. I think that is why I have learned so much and enjoyed these latest posts of yours, which do not turn away from difficult subjects. Thank you.
Thanks, Reinkat. I’d like to learn more from the Orthodox Theological Tradition, because I know there are deep insights and undoubtedly true perspectives this heritage brings to the table. Like you, I also love the beauty and richness of our Catholic tradition. The true “mystery” of theology, for me, is that the One Truth of Christ our Savior is unfathomable, and the spiritual approaches to Christ and knowing him more intimately are so multifaceted and vast (respecting all parameters that need to be respected, of course) that even one of those approaches opens up inexhaustible matter for deeper contemplation. Holy Week, Good Friday, and Easter are a school of Christian Theology, an annual seminar the Lord himself.
It is interesting to learn of the different perspectives. Although both Orthodox and Catholic teach that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine, the main emphasis is different–hence one reason for the difference in imagery. The Orthodox stress His divinity and glory, the Catholic emphasize His humanity and suffering with us. Similarly, when depicting Mary, the Orthodox put a bit more emphasis on her status as Mother of God, and we Catholics refer to her more often as the Virgin Mary.
Both ways together offer much to contemplate.