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The cry from the cross

By Peter Sellick - posted Thursday, 24 March 2016


On Palm Sunday, listening to the passion narrative according to the gospel of Luke I was reminded that Luke suppresses the seditious cry from the cross "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Mark, the first gospel to be written placed these words in the mouth of Jesus dying on the cross from the first line of Psalm 23.

Matthew includes the cry and John, like Luke, omits it. The last words of Jesus in the gospel of Luke are "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit." The last words in John are "It is finished."

Thus Luke and John replace this terrible cry that would seem to sever the relationship between Jesus and God, with words that suggest that he was in complete control right to the end. Luke uses a pious expression and John has Jesus indicate that the work he was sent to do was finished.

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We are faced with two ways of understanding the man Jesus. The first, that takes seriously the cry from the cross, would have Jesus going to the absolute depths of human suffering: unmitigated abandonment and hopelessness in which even a gracious God rejects the sufferer. Jesus experiences Hell. The full weight of human sin that separates humanity from God is placed upon him.

This scenario would empty any attempt at theologising. The death of Jesus empties everything.

The second way tempts Docetism, (Jesus only seems to suffer). This Jesus embarks on the work of the Father, goes to Jerusalem where he knows he will be in trouble. He accepts what they do to him and is never broken by it. He remains in control.

Why did Luke and John suppress the cry from the cross? The words are seditious because they undermine the understanding that Jesus died as the Christian martyrs died, in control and full of hope. Given the persecution of the early Church this was crucial. The victory of Christian faith was thought to be that Christians were unafraid of death.

But this conclusion is political. It seeks to shore up the Church and in doing so obscures a crucial insight into the passion narrative: that Jesus really did go to the depths of suffering that included the abandonment of God.

If we take the cry from the cross seriously then we must conclude that Mark is telling us that Jesus felt the abandonment of the God he called "Father" and to whom he prayed directly, as an intimate. He experienced a collapse of faith and died in utter despair.

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There is no way of knowing whether the cry from the cross accurately described Jesus' state of mind near the point of death. All we have is Mark placing the words in his mouth in an attempt to plumb the depths of the event. All we can do is to examine what it means theologically, how it affects our understanding of the Christ.

According to John and Luke the death of Jesus is an achievement, a finishing of his work in the world. Jesus never loses control.

This is quite different from a Jesus who dies in utter abandonment not only by his disciples but also by the God he thought he knew intimately as full of grace and mercy. There is the danger that the cry from the cross will ruin the whole enterprise.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences. He has a website called Coondle Art Presentations.

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