“Eli Eli, lama sabachthani?” “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
For many of us who have grown up in Church, we have been exposed to the Passion so many times (and often a curated and sterilized version) that the momentous emotion packed into this story is often lost on us. But if you read this story with a “beginner’s mind” (Shunryu Suzuki), it might just wreck your day.
So let’s back up a bit to before Jesus was born, and consider the Messianic prophecy and what everyone thought it meant. The Romans had tyrannically taken over, and the Jewish people were merely tolerated by those in leadership. As their traditions and way of life were threatened, they began interpreting the prophecies in light of what they expected of their Messiah - a warrior leader akin to the great Fathers of the Old Testament. He would come, overthrow the Roman government, and save the Israelites.
At the time, there was already a fairly violent and active sect of the Jewish people who were attempting a revolution but were waiting for their Messianic leader. Barabbas and at least one of Jesus’ disciples were part of this radical political group called the Zealots. Nowadays we may think of the Zealots as a terrorist organization, depending on your perspective. Either way, when Jesus arrived on the scene there was an expectation that, despite his peaceful ways, he would eventually become the leader that would overthrow the Roman government and save the Jewish people. But that’s not what happened. What did happen was chaos and confusion that led to a spiritual darkness for many.
The first darkness came for Judas. Some Biblical scholars believe that the reason Judas sold out Jesus was because he believed that it would incite Jesus to finally rise up as the warrior King. He did not think Jesus would be killed; and in a desperate attempt to save his leader, he threw the 30 silver pieces back at the Pharisees, but it was too late. The devastation he felt was so deep that he killed himself.
The second darkness came for Peter. After Jesus was arrested in the garden, Peter and the other disciples were shocked and did not know what to do. Their entire lives had been given over to following their Teacher; their careers were abandoned, families left behind, and suddenly their Teacher was gone. Peter, burdened by shame and waning hope, finds himself huddled by a fire as close as he could get to his Rabbi. And he is terrified. He was there in the garden and cut off the ear of one of the servants of the Roman soldiers. If they discovered him, he would be punished severely. So when he is recognized and asked if he is a follower of the man arrested, he denies it, three whole times. Striving always for perfection, he betrayed Jesus just as Judas had.
Finally, the smothering darkness Jesus experienced. Betrayed by His closest friends and the leaders of His Jewish faith, Jesus finds Himself on a cross, literally the most humiliating of deaths. So humiliating and barbaric that, by law, Roman citizens could not be crucified regardless of how heinous their crimes. This execution was reserved for the lowliest of criminals for the worst of crimes.
We know Jesus’ death was a redemption for the sins of humanity, and I wonder if that means that in His last hours He experienced the sins of all humanity, in addition to the brutal physical pain of crucifixion. I wonder if He experienced being the sinner with all the hate, rage, and shame that comes with that. I wonder if He experienced being the victim of sin with all the betrayal, pain, fear, and vulnerability that comes with that. And I wonder if He felt the absence of God, for the first and only time in all eternity, and if that is why He cried out, “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?” Because the absence of God is Hell. It is the absence of all that God brings to the world - love, joy, peace, hope, order, beauty. In Jesus’ last moments, when He has been through every conceivable emotional and physical pain, His Abba abandons Him.
And darkness falls.
And the earth trembles.
And the people are left in a heavy vacuum of loss and darkness so profound that even the Roman guards fell to their knees. In this emptiness we begin the dark night of the soul for all humanity. Our Messiah didn’t overthrow the government. Our Messiah did not save the people. Our Messiah was dead.