When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “Listen, he is calling for Elijah.” (Mark 15:33-35, NRSV)
Apparently they understand Jesus’ words in Aramaic about as well as we do! But talk about adding insult to injury—in such a desperate cry as this, even then Jesus is alone, completely misunderstood. There is a pain beyond physical pain. Jesus’ passion, his suffering on the cross, is not just the intense physical pain and torture, but it’s also this pain beyond physical pain—it’s wrenching pain of the soul, deep suffering from within; pain which we describe with words like anguish, despair and dread.
In reflecting on Jesus’ words, I remember this pain, I carry it with me, it has changed who I am. It is the time in my life which I dread to recall, it was at the point of darkest despair, when hope was gone and anguish settled in my soul. I feared that I would die, alone. I was isolated, untouchable, unforgiven. And God was silent. My prayers felt like they were unplugged. Ancient Christians call this experience the dark night of the soul; I suspect they too were reflecting on Jesus’ words from the cross. Desolation—where is God when it hurts so bad?
It took significant time for me to realize that God had not abandoned me and that he was unmistakably present with me through this dark night of my soul. I did not perceive it that way in the experience. This is what is profound about Jesus’ experience on the cross. What we perceive, this desolation, the silence of God, the pain of anguish, despair and dread—in the dark night of the soul, what we perceive, Jesus experienced it, beyond our pain. For the first time ever, Jesus, the Son of God, felt the distance, the darkness, the disconnection from the Father. “Eloi, eloi, lema sabacthani?” Can’t you feel the anguish, the despair and the dread? “My God, my god, why have you forsaken me?”
I remember singing in an Easter cantata, “The Father turned his face away.” The Son was left alone in agony feeling the anguish in his human soul beyond the pain we’ve suffered. Because he knows this depth of human pain and suffering, I know that I am never alone. So great is his love for me that he suffered and died.
The Palms & The Passion
I have found there is great power in just hearing the Word of God on that Sunday before Easter rather than hearing a sermon. Each of the four gospels record various events and teachings from the triumphant entry into Jerusalem to the Last Supper and through to the crucifixion. I have prepared dramatic readings of the Biblical text (Matt, Mark, Luke or John) and would happily make them available to your congregation if you would like to try this on Palm Sunday or during a special worship service during Holy Week. I also have a short seminar, "Reading Scripture in Worship," for readers who like to make the Word more clear to their hearers.