The words Christ spoke on the cross are some of the most important in history. Because of how important His Passion was, every word He said was uttered with purpose and significance, such as fulfilling the Messianic prophecies or giving a just reward to the good thief.
I am very far from the first and surely will not be the last to reflect on one of the phrases of the God-man near death. Nonetheless, I wish to present my own interpretation of one particular phrase because of the comfort that this reflection has provided me through the years.
Christ Suffered As Man
The phrase I reference is—to me—the most poignant, that of “Eloi, Eloi, lamma sabachthani?” or in English, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” First, note that I want to offer a divergence from traditional exegesis in my treatment of it. The typical exegesis is that since Christ was quoting the first line of Psalm 22, His intent was to bring the whole Psalm to mind, as the Jews who were listening to Him at the time had it memorized. Undoubtedly, He did bring the whole Psalm to mind for them, and for all the other Gospel readers who knew it well. Yet, that same Psalm has plenty of other lines—apart from its being the first, could there have been another reason for Him to choose that one?
I say yes, and here is my reasoning. Jesus was (I use the past tense because I reference the Passion) fully God. Thus, having all knowledge, He knew the example His words would offer to us, His followers, for millennia, so that we, like Him, could freely acknowledge our suffering, yet not let it consume us. In fact, His is naturally the greatest example of abiding a great agony while not shrinking from it. Just as He did in life, Christ showed us the best way to obey the will of God in death.
Christ Suffered As God
That is one way in which being fully God affected Jesus’ words. However, along with being fully God, He was fully man as well. He had already abided all sorts of hurt and disgrace in His earthly life, but this was the ultimate of pains. For any ordinary human it would be unendurable to be tortured like that—just watch The Passion of the Christ and imagine yourself in that position. However, it was not until I read an excellent reflection on the Passion, What Jesus Saw From the Cross by A.G. Sertillanges, that I understood there was a supernatural agony as well.
Specifically, it was Sertillanges’ explanation of the agony in the Garden that really spoke to me. If memory serves me right, he explained that in the Garden Jesus had to suffer through all the pain caused only to God for every sin that had ever been or would be throughout time. Importantly, this helped me to understand that God, though greater than everything He created, could and did endure this greatest of all hurts for the sake of His creatures.
Christ Let Himself Feel Forsaken
With that in mind, I extrapolated from Sertillanges’ thinking. It makes sense that in the rest of Christ’s Passion this supernatural suffering would also be present, giving great significance to these words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When man fell, he no longer enjoyed the special relationship he originally had with God, and God withdrew His immediate presence from man.
As a consequence of this, I would guess that pretty much everyone alive has felt the illusion of total alienation from Him at the dark points in their lives. Though still unchangeably God and fully man, in the moments just before death, I think Christ surrendered Himself to one agony He had not yet felt, an agony uniquely human — that agony of being seemingly alienated from the One Who said He would never leave us.
Christ Died Alone In Order That We Would Not
Why is this? I believe that this extraordinary hurt was among His very last, proclaimed publicly from the cross, in order for us to know that He had experienced literally every last pang possible, both as man and God, and, beyond just giving an example, allow us to understand all the more how very much He loves us. He let Himself feel abandoned by His Father in Heaven so that we would know He suffered just like the rest of us. This also shows an irony in our own feelings of alienation, in that we could never really be alienated from Someone Who lovingly gave Himself up to every pain in the world and more, merely for the sake of saving us.
Therefore, in addition to referencing Psalm 22 as He cried “Eloi, Eloi, lamma sabachthani?,” Christ provided the greatest model of obedience to God’s will and enduring suffering. But, even more importantly, His endurance of all possible pains displayed the greatest love the world had seen or ever will. His choosing to suffer every agony, even divine solitude, insured that we whom He loved might not have to suffer the same fate, only an illusion of it.
As we embark on the journey of the three holiest days of the year, may we remember well how He could not have given up any more for us, and let us strive to give all the more for Him.
A blessed Triduum to all.