“Dad! Dad! Daddy, Daddy, where are you? It’s dark. It’s getting darker. I cannot see. Are you near? Where are you? You promised to always be near me. You promised to always protect me! Dad! Where are you? Why are you not here?”
This is the hardest passage in the Bible for me to read. It is the one where the most significant doubt creeps in and the whole setup must be questioned. Here you have the son of God on the cross, crying out in pain for salvation, only a short time past the temptations the Devil lay before him. The devil just told Jesus to throw himself down because it is written that the angels will save him. Where are the father’s angels now? Did Jesus not throw himself down? Did he not refuse to take Pilate’s out?
I do not always like when we try to put the Bible into contemporary language, but I think it really helps here to speak it directly, as if it were ourselves appealing to our parents. If you have a parent you grew up, mother or father, thinking of as a protector, I want you to think of them. When were they there for you? When were they not? How did that moment feel when you first realized your parents were neither all-knowing or all-powerful and not all-perfect? Is this much unlike this moment for Jesus?
Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani? You promised me to be here. You had me believe I was the Messiah! Now I dangle, young flesh failing me, muscles spent, blood dripping as I die, dehydrated, on this shameful cross.
It is important to divorce this moment from the rest of the story, from the other words. There is real pain, real doubt, real confusion in this moment. This is not just to fulfill prophesy. This is the fully human Jesus Christ dying a fully human death.
I worry, deeply, that we have forgotten what happened on the cross: God chose to watch his only son die, and God did nothing. That’s not criticism; that’s not praise; that’s not theologizing or exegesis; that’s just description. God, who could have sent a flight of angels leading a chariot of fire to cut down that cross and ascend with Christ alive to Heaven, chose, instead, to stand aside a gruesome death preserved for the public shame and ridicule of all people. For his son. For the people. Because that was the moment of ultimate humility for God, where Fully Divine God let Fully Divine Jesus live out his Fully Human life – just like we all must, no special tricks or gimmicks, no flights of angels.
I am no longer amazed when I hear people tell me they have a job opportunity and they are praying on what to do, because they almost always choose the more comfortable job position, the one that best benefits them. Happens almost every time. And that’s a very reasonable, very U.S. American way of making a choice. But let’s not mix up our comfort with God’s call.
I am amazed when I hear stories of people like my college friend Michael (MJ) Sharp, who worked alongside my cousin for Mennonite Central Committee in Congo, and took a position with the United Nations where he didn’t need to travel as much anymore if he didn’t want to, but continued to place himself in harm’s way to negotiate peace with rebels. He was killed last year and buried in a shallow grave along with a co-worker for the job choices he made. Michael was faithful, using his skills to bring peace to conflict. God did not send a flight of angels to his rescue.
Christ doesn’t burn in the sweltering sun, dressed in the vestments of dripping blood having been whipped and stabbed, covered in his own excrement, for a belief that the church building is sacred and meeting there is the most core function of our faith. He doesn’t die – his last words breathed including doubt if it was worth it, wondering “where are you now, Dad,” – for people dressed in their Sunday best, pretending to be perfect, expending all their Holy energies on keeping people from following Christ because of who they love, the color or their skin or the size of their bank account.
What greater blessing could there be than to be God’s own child? That blessing carries with it the literal weight of the world, the most influential personhood in history and death on a cross at 33 years of age wondering, Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani? That doesn’t sound much like the blessings I hear people in our pews claiming to be receiving. This call we receive, this faith we take on, this path we follow, doesn’t promise us wealth and comfort; it is us promising God to understand when God needs to stand aside so that we can save our neighbors even if we are losing everything ourselves in the process.
Kevin Ressler is executive director at Meals on Wheels of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and co-founder of the Lancaster Action Now Coalition. He attends Community Mennonite Church of Lancaster.