When God Goes AWOL
About the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?"—which means, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"
When some of those standing there heard this, they said, "He's calling Elijah."
Matthew 27:46-47 (ANIV)We all go through dark days... some deeper and darker than others... even the most righteous. Jesus himself cried on the cross "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" quoting the Psalmist. There have been whole twisted theologies pinned on this one line (not to mention a few controversial hymn lyrics), and it is a potent point in the passion narrative... But I think it is telling that those standing nearby misunderstood Jesus' quotation of the Hebrew for an appeal to the prophet Elijah... either they weren't very familiar with their Psalms in general, or else this is not a Psalm that they heard much in synagogue... I suspect the latter... That then, as now, there was a reluctance to acknowledge that God seems quite distant at the most difficult of times... that he goes AWOL in times of action...
But it's all a question of perception... and that is why, as I have argued before, I believe that this was Jesus revealing himself to be fully human... not expressing any sort of separation within the Godhead because the Father cannot look on sin... that makes no sense in terms of both the integrity and eternity of the Trinity, but because at that moment Jesus perceived himself to be totally alone... abandoned by his Father.
Perception is all... I wrote last week of the perception of threat that the Awoleyu family experienced in the wake of two racist attacks... that had as real an impact on their 8 year old daughter as any ongoing concrete threat to them... and the perception of abandonment that Jesus experienced was no more or less real whether or not his Father actually "turned his face away"...
Anyway, what has prompted reflections on this again? Well, first because I noted in the stats for my blog, a previous post on this subject had received a substantial number of hits in the run up to Good Friday. Second, because of one of Kim Fabricius' Doodlings that I pointed you to on Sunday, namely:
"Of course, it’s okay to pray in a foxhole. It’s just that if you do not pray in ordinary, prayers in extremis make no sense. That is why our Lord’s cry of dereliction makes total sense: it comes from someone whose whole life was a prayer."
Do prayers in extremis really make no sense? What about those of both Martin Luther and John Newton, which, we are told, then kick-started their spiritual journeys, and consequently blessed others. In this, as in much else, I would not inexorably follow Kim's line... But certainly Christ's cry of dereliction makes sense in the light of his prayer-filled life... From the outside his cry can be justified. But what about those who never notice God's presence on the good days and then moan about his absence on the bad ones? That applies not only to atheists in foxholes, but to Christians too!
Recently I descended into one of those deep, dark pits, and afterwards I realised that contributory factors included sheer post holy-week exhaustion AND an abandonment of periods of prolonged prayer and mindfulness in the hurly burly of Holy-Week... I was leading others in reflective prayer, but not participating myself... Had God then abandoned me in the midst of my exhaustion? Or had I simply been unable to sense his presence?
But conversely it is the discipline of a prayer-filled life that will help to carry us through those dark days, when we cannot pray, except to echo other people's sense of abandonment... Living with a sense of loss in the form of lament is a useful tool in such times... A tool often lacking in the contemporary Christian toolbox.
Which brings me finally (and long-windedly), to my final reason for reflecting on these verses again, in that last week, Padraig O'Tuama pointed me (and his other FB friends) in the direction of this haunting modern lament by Sufjan Stevens... Perhaps this may help someone else out there who feels that God has gone AWOL.