As his suffering continues, the Gospels of Matthew and Mark record Jesus referring to his God rather than the intimacy of Father at other times on the cross.
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- Episode 5: My God, My God, Why Have You Abandoned Me? Part II - Transcript
Episode 5: My God, My God, Why Have You Abandoned Me? Part II - TranscriptAuthor: Archdiocese of Brisbane
Through these podcasts, we are up on the dark mountain of Calvary. And we are listening to and exploring the seven last words of the dying Jesus. And at the end of the last of the podcasts, we came to a point of rest exploring the fourth of the seven words. Which is, ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’ And in some ways, I think this is the central word of the seven.
And we saw how it, in fact, is a quote of Psalm 22. And that this leads to a reflection upon the presence of the Psalter in the entire passion narrative. And when I speak of the passion narrative, I am really speaking of the four that we find in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
This word is taken from Matthew and Mark, where we find it. ‘My God. My God, why have you abandoned me?’ So, the fact that the Psalter, the Psalms sound throughout the passion narratives, is full of significance. So, we touch upon that now. Because what it suggests, that for the evangelists, the story of Christ’s death isn’t just a ball-by-ball description of an atrocious execution. It’s an interpretive telling of the tale. Seeking to understand the death and help us, the reader, to understand the death. And the understanding of the death is that there is some profoundly ritual or liturgical character to it.
Because you see, the Psalms were written for the liturgy of the temple. They are liturgical songs. So, the fact that we hear echoes of and in this case citation of the Psalter, suggests that there’s some kind of liturgical element or character to this death. Now, crucifixion was itself a ritual. By which I mean the process that led to the death, depicted quite vividly, in Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ. That was a social ritual, a legal ritual of humiliation, really, that led ultimately to the death. But what we’re seeing here is a different kind of ritualisation of the death of Jesus. In other words, it becomes, paradoxically, a liturgy of glorification and life. Not a ritual of humiliation and death. Which was what the Roman authorities were imposing upon Jesus.
So here on the dark mountain, with the Psalms echoing from the lips of Jesus. And in all kinds of other ways heard. The death is presented as a liturgy of glorification and life. So that extraordinarily, Calvary, with all its horror. Becomes the new Temple Mount. And this is where the death of Jesus, as understood here in the passion narratives, turns the world as we know it on its head. In other words, Calvary becomes the Temple Mount because it is now the place of sacrifice. The sacrifice that took place in the temple. The sacrifice which ensured the communion of God and God’s people. But these were animal sacrifices of various kinds. Now we are dealing not with an animal sacrifice of any kind, but where Jesus himself is the victim.
So, he is the victim of the sacrifice. He is also the priest who is offering the sacrifice of himself. And the altar of sacrifice is the cross. This place of execution, a place of shame and dishonour, is in fact, the altar of the sacrifice. The sacrifice which sheds the blood, which ensures forever. The communion between God and God’s people.
So that’s why we speak of a new and eternal covenant in the blood of Christ. And on this Temple Mount, the holy of holies. The epicentre of the divine presence and glory. Is the body of Jesus executed as a criminal. And one thinks of what you hear in John Chapter 2 where the evangelist says, he was speaking of his body, the temple, which was his body. So, this dying and dead body of an executed criminal. Becomes the epicentre of the divine presence and the divine glory.
So, what we find Jesus doing in this moment as he comes to death. Is he is, as it were, by citing the Psalm. He is building on Calvary, a temple of language. And this is crucial for biblical religion as a whole. The temple of the word is built. He is the word made flesh. So, the temple of the word is the holy of holies, from which there flows the blood and water.
Taking us back to the great vision of Ezekiel Chapter 47. Where the Prophet sees a trickle of water coming from the side of the temple. And the trickle becomes a stream. And then it becomes a mighty river coursing down east of the temple in Jerusalem, which means hitting the Judean desert and eventually the Dead Sea. And wherever that river goes, the prophet says, death is turned to life. The desert becomes a garden, and the Dead Sea teems with life. So, turning death to life. The stream that flows from the side of the temple. And from the side of the body, which is the new temple.
So, what we find in the Christian life, is that the liturgy of the Eucharist. Where we have the word, the sacrifice and the feast. And the liturgy of the hours, where again, the church takes up the Psalms. But the words of the liturgy of the Eucharist. Like the liturgy of the hours, are completely biblical. It’s the Bible turning into prayer. And at the heart of it all, there is the prayer of the Psalter.
So that, again, whenever we take up the words of Scripture. Particularly the words of the Psalms in the liturgy of the Eucharist and in the liturgy of the hours. What we are doing is we are maintaining and refurbishing that temple of language. That the Bible provides. Not just on the dark mountain of Calvary. But wherever we are. And this is the temple that no one and nothing can destroy.
I mean, the Jerusalem temple has gone down any number of times. The temple made, built with human hands, can always be knocked down, can be destroyed, as it has been. So many temples, not just the temple in Jerusalem. But the temple of language, cannot be destroyed. Nothing and no one can knock it down or take it away. So that’s why again and again and again, we have to maintain, and as it were, refurbish the temple of language. And we do that every time we celebrate the Eucharist. Or we celebrate the liturgy of the hours. We maintain and we refurbish the temple of language first built by Jesus, the word made flesh. On the mountain, the Temple Mount of Calvary.
In this moment there is the semblance. Now again, I underline that word, the semblance, of abandonment and isolation. But we saw last time that the Psalm that begins with this cry of abandonment, in fact, finishes with a hymn of praise. And in Christian usage even gives way to glory be to the Father, and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, which is the language of paradise. The language of paradise is Doxology, the language of praise.
So, it’s only the semblance of abandonment. But in order to get to praise, that’s not cheap praise. We have to go into this experience of what seems to be abandonment and isolation as Jesus does. So that again, we’re dealing with that fundamental tension in the Bible between the world that seems to be and the world that is. The world of illusion and the world of truth. And in a sense, as we have seen, the whole point and power of the Bible is to lead us out of the world of what seems to be, into the world of what is. And that can be a long, complex and bloody journey. But it is the journey home to paradise.
So, seemingly abandoned and isolated. Seemingly calling on a God who is silent and inactive. Where are you? Why are you silent? Why are you inert, inactive, in this moment of my desperate need? That’s the question. And it’s not just the question of Jesus or the question of the Psalm. It’s the question that every human being asks in some way at some time or sometimes. We have to deal with the seeming abandonment by God and isolation from God and others. We have to enter into and understand the silence and inaction of God. How are we going to deal with it?
Now, scripture itself is full of those silences of God. I mean, we want God to speak all the time. And in a sense, God does communicate. But sometimes the communication of God is precisely in a silence. That can feel scarifying. Can be the very opposite of what we’re seeking, and yet, in some strange way is always the silence of love.
I mean, I can remember vividly in my own past. A moment of great pressure, great need and suffering, even in my own life. From the heart of all of that. I pleaded with God to act and to speak. And all that came back to me was a kind of silence.
Now again, at that point, you can say, well is God there, or is this all, fiction, fantasy? Or does this God not care? But in the end, what I came to see. Was that the silence itself was the response. And it was a response of love, but not a love that is cheap or easy. And not necessary, the kind of love that I might have sought. And again, I’m not the only one who’s ever gone through that experience. So, scripture deliberately builds into the telling of the tale, these silences of God. There are all kinds of gaps, things we don’t know, we might want to know, but we’re not told. And this is the Bible’s way of saying that you’ve got to deal with the gaps and the silences of God. If you want to understand the way the real God works and communicates, ceaselessly.
And this is why the rabbis, from whom we can learn a great deal. The rabbis talk about the Bible as black fire on white fire. I’ve always loved that. And if you look at the page of a Bible. On the page there are words, obviously. And the words are usually black. And the words are the black fire.
But surrounding the words and between the words. There’s the white fire. In other words, the gaps between the words and the margins around the words. It’s not empty stuff, it’s all fire. And you’ve got to understand the white fire, not just the black fire. If you want to understand the way in which God communicates. And that’s what the Bible’s trying to lead us into, this experience of an immersion in the black fire and the white fire, it’s all fire. This is quintessentially true on the mountain of Calvary. So black fire on white fire. God is communicating.
This also leads us to reflect upon the mysterious and powerful silences of Jesus in the passion narratives. When he stands before the High Priest, he says nothing. When he stands before Pilate. Pilate is completely flummoxed by his silence. And Jesus makes no reply. Nor does he make any reply to his mockers and his torturers. So, these silences of Jesus are again part of the silence of God. Before oppressive authority. Before the cry of the mockers and the tortures. Those silences of Jesus are the silences of God. But they’re not empty silences. They are potent silences. And they are potently communicative.
In Phnom Penh, in Cambodia. There was a particularly horrific genocide centre in the years of the killing fields. And all over the genocide centre I’m told, there were signs and they ordered complete silence. Any sound was punished by instant death.
Now, that’s the silence of death. Not the silence of life. And Brian Keenan comes to mind, too. Brian Keenan was taken hostage in Beirut. And he was imprisoned for a long time in a kind of black hole. And he wrote from the heart of that blackness this. ‘I am full of nothing. My prayer rebounds on me as if all the words that I sent up were poured back on me like an avalanche tumbling around me. I am bereft even of God. My own words become bricks and stones that bruise me. I have been lifted up and emptied out. I am a bag of flesh and scrape. A heap of offal tossed unwanted in the corner of this filthy room.’
Now they’re desperate words. But they are words that are protesting against the silence of death. I imagine, too, that the journal that George Pell wrote from his prison was the same kind of protest against the silence of solitary confinement. And there are many other examples of it. Elie Wiesel’s famous book, ‘Night’, written about his experience in Auschwitz. When he emerged from the death camp, Wiesel said, I couldn’t possibly speak or write of what I saw because that would be to trivialise it and that would be obscene. So, he took a vow of silence, really. But eventually he was persuaded to write about what he had seen and experienced in the death camp. And he wrote this extraordinary book called ‘Night’. Originally in French, ‘La Nuit’.
And really, again, the fact that he took up his pen, profoundly biblical this, and protested against the silence of death that filled the death camp. Was a way of transfiguring, not understanding the silence, the silence of death. There’s a point beyond which we can’t understand it. But you can, you can transfigure it. So that the words of people like Wiesel and like Brian Keenan and like George Pell. They not only protest against the silence. This is where these words of Jesus really do matter in the silence of Calvary. They don’t just protest against the silence of death. But they can actually transfigure the silence of death.
It’s like great music. Mozart was once asked, it is said what he liked best about his music. And he thought for a moment and then he said the silences. Now, whether that’s true or not, there’s a truth in it. One thinks too of Bach’s Passion music. Or Haydn’s Seven Last Words, so on. What’s Mozart saying? He’s saying that great music, such as he composed. It takes the Silence of the tomb, the silence of death and transfigures that silence so that it becomes the silence of the womb. The silence of the tomb is empty and dark and cold. The silence of the womb is totally different. It is full of life. It is full of light. It’s full of a warmth. And the joy of life.
So, this is the function of the words of scripture, quintessentially here, the words of Jesus as he dies. Words that don’t just protest but transfigure. Turning the silence of the tomb, to the silence of the womb. The silence of death, becomes the silence of life. And from that silence, there emerges the great songs of praise. And we hear the language of paradise, therefore.
So, as we stand on Calvary with this fourth of the seven words. We go to the heart of an experience of abandonment. The first word we saw began with a sense of intimacy with the Father. And we will also see that the last of the seven words will conclude with the same sense of intimacy with the Father. But that’s not what we find here, at the heart of things. There is the experience of abandonment, the silence of God, the inaction of God. So that what we seem to see as we journey through these seven words, is a journey from one depth of intimacy with the Father. To another depth of intimacy with the Father. But only through that experience of what seems to be abandonment, isolation, silence, darkness, emptiness. It’s through that that Jesus enters and we with Him into a new depth of intimacy with the Father. Even on the dark mountain.