I became a Christian because early in life I was given the language: sin, debt, fear, hell, wrath — grace, love, repentance, atonement, heaven . . . these were the economies of belief.
I left Christianity when the world grew larger than my Saskatchewan village and I overheard, then began to pick up, another language. I returned out of personal failure, left again when the cloud of guilt moved off, returned through reason, left by reason, returned through experience, left by the same route, returned hurt, left angry, returned, left — to where I can honestly say that it is possible for me to leave and return on a daily basis.
Except for this: beneath the caged bird that swings in my head — lower — at heart level, I remain a Christian because of Jesus’ singular cry, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”
It’s a line from the 22nd Psalm, a poem that Jesus recalls, consciously or half-consciously, moments before his death. It’s a prayer of someone staring into the abyss. A prayer prayed by the wretched of the earth. And here, in the mouth of Christ, because of what we supposedly know or have been taught about this God-man, it sounds almost scandalous.
Why? The one who promised never to forsake, who taught that God, his Father, would never forget his covenant of mercy and never forsake any who sought him, at his last hour cries out in pain and confusion, and casts accusations of abandonment into the quickening dark.
There is of course theology to explain the imponderable. The traditional exegesis here is that the Son, in peerless grace, bore the weight of world’s sin, and so, became sin, and necessarily endured the furious wrath of the Father. Now while he knew all along that God had not ultimately forsaken him, knew he would be raised again in three days, he nevertheless cried out in the depth of that brief separation, and in the process referenced the fulfilment of Scripture. The rest is left, as is said, to the secrets of divine sovereignty and omnipotence.
I have no issue in deferring to theologians who make it their business to wrestle with this ineffable scene. But there is little comfort in it. Or at least in the predominant version. If Jesus was merely citing a passage to be picked up as a proof text of prophesy, while enduring (admittedly agonizing) a planned three-day separation from God, then it all reads rather false.
For me — as in good poetry — something both deeper and more obvious is happening. More obvious, because to cry out at your own lynching seems eminently natural. Deeper, because for those of us pulled (or haunted) by the mystery of the Incarnation, this moment reveals Jesus as entirely human — deepening the mystery. No other biblical account places Jesus so squarely within the loneliest of human experience: those desperate, deadly, fragile, “inhuman,” God-absent hours that can shadow our days; the suffering which touches, at some time, each of our lives.
On Sundays, Christians cite the doctrine of Christ’s divinity: fully God/fully human clicks off our tongues like clockwork. But here we see Christ in the paroxysm of hopelessness, “the light of the world” is switched off, meaning itself is on trial.
But if we recline within this event — lament — listening carefully, we glimpse a Christ beyond doctrine, beyond any theodicy, and just here, it is possible to imagine that the walls of isolation that human suffering always erect, have been breached and shattered. And maybe, there is mercy, and something approaching justice.
There is room here for my own railing at God’s absence, my own, why this? my own cry at seeing my child in unrelenting pain. On this hill, in this final-first scene, I can begin, imperceptibly at first, to believe that I am heard.
I want to pause here and offer this to those facing the raw reality of recently having lost someone near — perhaps someone far too young — through tragedy, through sickness. For such families, friends, relatives, there may be no “Easter” this year, no Easter, perhaps for years to come. Only keening, only the paralysis of grief, only a God-forsaken Why?! At such a time only a fresh articulation of grief is worth anything.
Perhaps (and if this non-answer begins to look like an answer I beg forgiveness), in the struggle to understand, in the futility of the cry itself, cried over and over, are the seeds that may in time germinate and crack the hardpan of grief — bringing entrance again, to life.
As far as I can see, without this cry, there could be no crack opening toward Easter. However, I see too, as though sighting the flicker of a distant candle, that without Easter, there would be no cry.
Berg works for Hope Mission, a social care facility for homeless people in Edmonton’s inner city. His poetry and prose have been in staged performances and have appeared in such publications as the Edmonton Journal, Orion, Geez, and Earth Shine. He blogs at growmercy.org