“The God who is with us, is the God who abandons us.”
These words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer are so ironic. The God who is with us, who stands in solidarity with our human realities of pain and suffering, is the God who, in Bonhoeffer’s words, is “against us.” How can this be?
“My God, my God why have you abandoned me,” captures this irony. We can’t ignore the personal possessive pronoun, “my,” or the subtext of despair: “why have you abandoned me?” How could anyone experience despair and despondency if his or her lover is with him or her? It doesn’t make sense.
But questioning our experiences of pain and suffering becomes a method that draws us in and makes us partakers in the mystery that is unfolding. Mystery, according to Jeremy Driscoll, is that concrete something that bombards us and places us in contact with the Divine. This means “My God, my God why have you abandoned me,” isn’t merely a cry of despondency, but a prayer of the Beloved, Jesus, to his Lover, the Father. Jesus’ suffering and agony places him in contact with the Father.
However, the question remains: why would the Lover abandon His Beloved, especially in a time of need? Remember, we are dealing here not with a constructed narrative, but with an actual event that gives voice to our individual experiences of pain, suffering, rejection, and abandonment. We are in the territory of “the real,” of human tragedy. Perhaps, as Rabbi Harold Kushner puts it, we are asking the wrong question, “why?”. The question we ought to be asking is “what” do we do when it is true that our lover has abandoned us?
The first question, “Why have you abandoned me?” shifts the responsibility away from us, the Beloved, to the Lover. If he hadn’t abandoned us, we can reasonably say, we wouldn’t be in the mess we are. On the other hand, the second question, “What am I to do when my lover has abandoned me?” enables us to accept the role and responsibility of being the Beloved. The Father, whom Jesus acknowledges has abandoned him, is the Father he loved and obeyed even unto death on the Cross. And Jesus’ answer is to follow his example in loving the Father regardless.
This is Christianity on full display. It is an undoing of the postlapsarian (after the Fall of humankind) matrix of tit-for-tat, of saying, “I am with you as long as you are with me. I love you as long as you love me.” And so, Jesus offers a counterexample. He gives us an inkling of the prelapsarian state, that is the state before the fall of humankind when loving wasn’t conditioned on the behavior of others; when we simply loved regardless of whether the other loved us or not.
Considering this, we can appreciate why Matthew’s Passion narrative has Jesus crying at the ninth hour, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” Matthew is demonstrating to us how Jesus loves the Father, as well as how Jesus loves us sinners. The test of love isn’t when we are loved by the other. Saint Paul puts it this way, “What proves that God loves us is that he loved us while we were still sinners.” In other words, God loved us while we were still working against him. Matthew wants us to understand that if Adam and Eve had loved the Father despite the wrong the tempter suggested the Father was doing to them, they wouldn’t have fallen to the tempter’s ploy.
In Christ, we see that evil is prevented and overcome by love.
Image Credit: Photo by Gwendal Cottin on Unsplash
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Fr. Francis Afu is a priest of the Catholic Diocese of Armidale, Australia. He is currently on study leave, pursuing a master in Islamic Studies with Charles Sturt University, Australia.