“Crucifixion” by Graham Sutherland
Art on board, c. 1947
“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
It hits the ear like a loss of faith. A moment of extreme doubt giving way to exasperation, to anger, perhaps. It hangs in the air, this outburst, heavy like smoke on a windless field. God, I thought we had a deal! My enemies are all around me. My persecutors have nailed me to a tree. I loved them. I prayed for them. WHERE ARE YOU?
Scholars have even given this saying from the cross a fancy name: the cry of dereliction.
Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani.
My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?
The cry of dereliction. Dereliction, a word that has two meanings. The first is a feeling of abandonment. We can imagine that is where Jesus is at; his Gethsemane moment has reappeared. He’s bereft. The second meaning, though, is part of what makes Good Friday so difficult. Dereliction also means to shirk one’s duty. In this situation, Jesus is not the one who is found wanting. Where is God on Good Friday?
Before continuing it is important to establish that the cry of dereliction is the opening lines of Psalm 22. It is a prayer of deliverance, a prayer uttered from the depths of pain with the confident assurance that God will act in the present or very near future because God faithfully has acted in the past. We have nothing except the hope produced by pain and memories.
In Mark’s Gospel, the first in the canon to report the crucifixion, Jesus only utters the first line of Psalm 22. It can be argued that Jesus starts the psalm aloud and then continues it in his head or cries out the first line with the expectation that others will understand that, despite his horrid circumstances, he has retained full faith in God. And that’s a perfectly logical, theologically sound interpretation.
But I’ll be honest, that doesn’t work for me. At least not this year. I don’t know why, but God and I just aren’t on the same page. There have been some trying ministry situations over the past few weeks and for whatever reasons my spiritual well seems to be have run dry. God and I are missing each other, leaving messages on the machine.
This is the first Holy Week in my life that I have not felt profoundly close to God.
The cry of dereliction reminds us that sometimes the memory of God is all we’ve got. Like a faded black and white photograph that we didn’t store very well, coffee stains and yellowing about to kill what time hasn’t already taken, a phantasmal memory that haunts us and taunts us, remaining just out of our mind’s grasp. God. It can be easy to feel forgotten.
Psalm 22 is asking us to begin praising God on the cross because God has shown up in the past and will show up again. And there are lots of pastors tonight preaching that sermon and I say, God bless. It is a good sermon. But I can’t preach it because I’m still in the cry of dereliction.
Good Friday challenges us to look at our expectations of God. When we feel distant, what do we remember? When we have an Easter hope, to what does it point? I think we have to talk about what we mean when we say God will show up again. Because it is easy to make false promises, to boast and be grandiose about what God will do on Easter, but the truth is our lived faith often is much more subtle and dirty. I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling Good Friday more this year than I am Easter Sunday.
So where is God on Good Friday?
Jesus does not pray the entire psalm aloud. He just prays the cry of dereliction, which seems to indicate that he’s not quite in the praising mood. Jesus is able to have his moment of doubt and pain, and it does not stop the power of resurrection. In Jesus’ experience of dereliction, God is already at work on the transformation that will occur Easter morning. The two are not mutually exclusive. The resurrection is in the offing. While Jesus suffers, feeling alone, God is preparing a place of glory.
This can sound kind of like empty promises if we regard God as a genie. The chaos and quandary of the cross are exactly this: they make no sense; the horror of God sending God’s son to die such a death defies logic, yet it perfectly exemplifies the eternal majesty of divine love. Nothing can kill it. And when we submit to it completely, we are granted everlasting life. perfect love remains even when we are overcome with alienating pain.
For me, this year, the cry of dereliction is especially potent: Jesus feels that human desperation, that disconnect, that panic, that summoning of faith that must happen when derelict. Sometimes all we have is the memory of a whisper, a memory of a whisper that our joy comes on Easter, that there will be confirmation again that God makes miracles, in the ways we least expect them, but right now all we have is the cry of dereliction. And that’s enough. Amen.