“My father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me…” (Matthew 26.39)
“And he took with him Peter, James and John, and began to be very distressed and troubled” (Mark 14.33)
“Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me…And being in agony he was passionately praying and his sweat became like drops of blood, falling down upon the ground” (Luke 22. 42 & 44)
“My Soul has become troubled, so should I say, ‘Father, save me from this hour?’ But for this purpose I came to this hour” (John 12.27)
An often neglected aspect of “Good” Friday and the very tortuous circumstances that enveloped Jesus is a very clear biblical picture: Jesus was human. Jesus was not a mind reader, he was not a fortune teller and he did not posses X-Men type powers that allowed him to sustain these brief moments of hell leading up to his betrayal, trial and final execution. Jesus was fully human and we would be remiss to read the story of the passion of the Christ this Easter as a cheap gloss whereby Jesus (who is also God) knew that despite all these horrible things that were about to unfold, in the end it would work out.
The events of Passion in the Gospels are not just nice details to fill our bibles so that God actually has a story of God’s death. The details are not immaterial, meant to simply tell us the “how” and “why” of Jesus death. In other words, the details mean something. When we overly divinize Christ too soon the details become moot because Jesus knew what would happen, Jesus knew he was the supreme lamb and he knew as God that he would be resurrected. Jesus has no reason to be worried; he knows resurrection awaits him. If this was the case, then how is the sacrifice of Christ really a sacrifice? If we lay down our lives for our friends, yet we know that our life will again be taken up…is the loss of our life really love? Are the verses above simply wrong? Did Christ not really experience despair and did he not mean it when he asks God to “take this cup from me?” If this is the case, then I struggle to understand why Jesus would pray so hard that something that seems like “blood” would perspire from his forehead. A man who knows the end does not pray so fervently.
What the gospels present to us is a very dialectical view of Christ. We often look at Jesus as this one who marched proudly and boldly to his death. He knew his hour had arrived and he bravely stretched out his back for flogging, he boldly spoke truth to people who had authority to kill him and he unflinchingly stretched out his arms on a cross as he was welcoming the nails that would drive through tendons and bone. But this is not the only picture of the Gospels; it’s not even a dominant picture. Christ is not so bold and he is not looking forward to what seems to be developing all around him.
In the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) we get a picture of Christ that prays the unthinkable and is deeply distressed by the events of this week. The synoptic Christ is NOT looking forward to a potential trial with authorities. He is not looking forward to potentially facing a death sentence. Matthew and Luke tell us that Jesus even prayed…”if this cup can pass…then please make it so” and Mark tells us that Jesus was greatly disturbed and filled with inner turmoil. Why would Jesus have these feelings if they were not genuine? How could his deep distress be justified if this is a man who knows that in 3 days it will be fine?
Yes, Jesus does end his prayer with “not my will, but yours be done,” but this is simply an affirmation that Christ has surrendered himself to the mission of the God he serves. Ever since the scene of his baptism the life of Jesus has not been animated by his own words; it has been a mirror image of God to the world via his ministry. Jesus has been busy proclaiming the Kingdom of God and performing visible manifestations of this Kingdom. If God chose to end his Kingdom proclamation then so be it; Jesus cannot resist what God is doing. But, to this God that Christ earlier in the Synoptics calls his “father,” this God with whom Christ has a much more intimate relationship than is normal, he asks, “if this cup can pass from ME…make it so.”
The Synoptic Jesus is not bold and he is not excited…and the cliché statement that he was thinking about YOU and YOUR sin…and that this somehow made this horrible trial easier is simply a romantic way to sanitize the crucible of violence and anguish experienced by the human Jesus. Jesus was tortured, mutilated and turned into a human poster…YOUR sin does not make this easy.
So the Synoptics give us a very hesitant Jesus, a human Jesus, with deep feelings and emotions that stir him to his very being. They give us a picture of one who is not convinced that there is any “Good” in this Friday.
The Gospel of John on the other hand gives us a bold Christ. This is the only Gospel that does so. The Johannine Jesus is not timid and he is not deterred from his coming “hour.” In the Gospel of John one finds the very famous “lifting up” sayings in which Christ proclaims that he is moving toward this event in which he will be “lifted up” in order to bring all people unto himself. This is John’s way of pointing his readers to the passion and the “lifting up” of Christ on the cross.
There is also the theme of “my hour” that is recurrent across John’s narrative and this theme enters the Gospel fairly early. After the introductory portions of the text, chapter 2 presents to us the first miracle of Jesus at the wedding at Cana. This is the event in which the wedding runs out of wine for its celebrants and Mary asks her son Jesus to intervene. Jesus replies abruptly, “Woman, what do I have to do with you? My HOUR has not yet come.”
Another example is when Jesus goes down to the feast at the encouragement of his family in John 7. The text implies that his family is trying to get him in trouble with the authorities and they slyly say, “well no one does anything in secret when he seeks to be known by others…so if what you do is real, show yourself to the world.” His family is not supportive here; they are trying to get Jesus jailed or even worse, killed. The text tells us that his historical family did not believe upon Jesus or his works…and into this context Jesus replies to them, “My time has not yet here…but your hour is always here…you go up to the feast because my time has not yet come.”
Jesus is fully aware that he is a polarizing figure and he knows that if he goes up to the feast at their request that violence could easily ensue. Jesus does eventually go to the Feast of Booths in John 7, but he does so in secret…he doesn’t want to make a scene because his HOUR is not yet here. The Johannine Jesus is committed to this theme throughout the Gospel and Jesus does nothing that is inconsistent with him moving toward this enigmatic hour; an hour of which Jesus seems to be aware, but of which the characters in the story fail to understand.
The Johannine Christ boldly steps into his mission in John 18.11 as the Roman cohort comes for him. Peter tries to defend Jesus through violence and he swings his sword at a nearby soldier striking his ear; it’s a wonder Jesus and his disciples were not all killed then and there. Jesus tells Peter to stand down and then he asks him, “Shall I not drink of the cup the father has given me? It is for this hour I have come.”
So in John we have a Jesus who is focused on his mission, boldly moving toward it and in the synoptic we have a dithering Jesus who is fully human and filled with anguish…a very human Jesus who is not so confident.
Yet, even though John sanitizes the human grief of Christ and Luke portrays a Christ who on the cross dies a good death, a death in which he calmly whispers to God, “Into your hands I commit my spirit.” Matthew and Mark preserve a very early tradition that testified to Christ crying to God in words of honest despair and nothingness. Jesus does not die peacefully giving up his spirit in Matthew and Mark. Here, he dies a horrible death of wailing and crying…hurling contempt toward God for what is happening.
This would be an early tradition and is most likely very historical since it would make sense for the community of Jesus to not retain statements made by Christ that would seem to create enmity between Jesus and God. If you’re trying to spread the good news of Jesus, it’s much easier to do so without Jesus getting mad at the Father from which he was sent and even declaring a firm separation. Jesus was so adamant in John about his hour and purpose and this cup of which me must partake…yet as he is nailed to the Roman Cross, his body convulsing and consciousness fading in and out…he musters up the ability to scream, wail and cry out to his “Father,” in Matthew and Mark: “MY GOD MY GOD WHY HAVE YOUR FORSAKEN ME!?”
Do we really take these words seriously? Amidst the varying portrayals of Jesus and his attitude toward the events of these next 3 days, do we take this witness of Jesus in Matthew and Mark seriously or do we think Jesus was just making a hyperbolic statement on the cross that would provide the gospels with drama that would captivate the readers?
Why would Jesus utter such words? How does this make sense in a Christian tradition that has so sanitized and neglected to see meaning in these his very last words? What was Jesus expressing in the scene that theologian Jurgen Moltmann describes as the “Crucified God.”
Jesus has spent his entire ministry proclaiming the closeness of God to humanity. He has redefined what it means to be in relationship to God. He has seen people healed in his ministry. This is a testimony that God is near. He has been preaching a non-judgmental message of grace that extends to all who will believe. He has been baptizing people and getting them ready for the coming of God into the world. He has raised dead people and experienced a closeness with God that heretofore had been unheard of…yet, at this moment when he most needs this God that is so close…this God is in fact so FAR away. All that he has preached, taught and performed were testimonials to who God is, yet this God does not spare Christ this fate! Jesus, the one who prayed to this God as his “Father,” is realizing that the closeness and the grace that he has proclaimed…are in his final moments not available to him.
Moltmann says it like this, “When we look at his non-miraculous and helpless suffering and dying in the context of his preaching and his life, we understand how this misery cried out to heaven; it is the experience of abandonment by God in the knowledge that God is not distant but close…In full consciousness that God is close at hand in his grace, to be abandoned and delivered up to death as one rejected, is the torment of hell.”
In other words, the God that animated the very preaching and life of Christ is letting his preaching and life end. The vision that Christ has for the world is contingent upon his living to continue to incarnate this reality and the God who he feels has called him to this prophetic role is letting it all end in such a horrible way. The God that Jesus knows so well has turned his back on him and his prophetic mission. Christ has been left to die by the one he called “Father.”
To make the situation more stark, when Christ asks the question, “My God my God why have your FORSAKEN me?” he is not only anguishing over his own betrayal by God and the tortuous end to which his life has come…but he is connecting his life to the life of God as inseparable realities.
Jesus has fostered a unique symbiotic relationship between himself and the father. He has understood his life to be the incarnation (though this language is not used in the Gospels) of God to the world. God is visible in his ministry and his ministry is the visibility of God. Jesus associates his very life with the very mission of God. Thus, for Jesus to end up on a Roman Cross is not just an indictment on a God that has not held up to his end of the bargain, but it is a cry that reflects the most bitter betrayal any of us will ever experience: Betrayal by our closest companions, betrayal by family.
Thus for Jesus the cry of forsakenness must mean not only that he feels forsaken by God, but in the very utterance of forsakenness Jesus is basically asking, “Why is God forsaking Godself!?” By forsaking Jesus God is not simply forsaking the sage of Galilee; God is turning his back against God. Jesus is not the only one crucified on this hill; God is crucified. The narrative of God is so connected with the narrative of Jesus that for Christ to be forsaken and die is for God to forsake God and kill God’s self! This is an event that is taking place between Jesus and his Father, one to whom he prayed, wept and beseeched would let these events pass. The Gospels of Matthew and Mark preserve a story that displays an interaction within the life of God…between one that makes God visible to the world and the one that is now invisibly visible to Jesus in his absent presence. To Jesus, God has become an absent derelict Father!
If Jesus was the Truth of God born into creation, then what happens in this cry is nothing less than God turning against God.
While we are often quick to give explanations in Christian theology as to the “why” of Jesus’ forsakenness, we must refrain from doing so on Good Friday. We may early not want to take Jesus’ words seriously; we may not want to hear his cry of forsakenness for what it really is: the death of God and the grief of one who so believed his life was animated as the prophets of old that he looks to the heavens in utter disbelief that his Words are coming to an end in this penal deed. We must not, then, say on Good Friday that Jesus died for this reason or that reason…but we must pause and enter the story of Jesus as a man betrayed by his Father and left to die. Racing to Resurrection Sunday is a cheap way of romanticizing his cry of dereliction and retards our ability to appreciate theologically the meaning of resurrection within the context of utter abandonment.
As we move through the next 3 days, let us not dismiss these Gospel stories and the differing portrayals of Christ…and let us not harmonize their details to the point of making the details meaningless…but let us acknowledge as those who stand around the cross that the beginning of faith is NOT in the events that we will call Easter a few days from now, but faith only begins after God is crucified. While many religions testify to prophets and disciples dying for the faith, only in Christianity does God die for Gods self and does God declare to God’s self such forsakenness.