Yesterday our church, like many churches, celebrated what has come to be called Passion Sunday. The idea of “Passion Sunday” has come about to replace “Palm Sunday,” because of the drop off of attendance to Holy Week services where the passion narrative is read and remembered. By having “Passion Sunday”, no matter whether folks attend mid-week worship, if they attend on Sundays they will hear the passion narrative proclaimed before coming to celebrate the resurrection on Easter.
Anyway, that bit of liturgical explanation is not what I wanted to talk about. Rather the topic of this posting is “abandonment.” Yesterday as we read the passion narrative from St. Mark’s Gospel, the last words that we hear Jesus uttering are “Eloi Eloi Lama Sabachthani” which the narrator translates for us as “my God, my God, Why have you Forsaken me?” We’ve all heard these words before but it was this Sunday that they resounded in my ears and heart more so than previously.
Our pastor commented on these words as Jesus feeling that he had seemingly been abandoned , but commenting that he wasn’t and that we never are. Now I understand the theology of that sentiment and the comfort we as Christians derive from that hope, that no matter what, we are never abandoned. After the service at church, I briefly commented to my pastor that I wasn’t so sure that was accurate. At this point we haven’t yet had the opportunity to discuss this further, but I also haven’t stopped thinking about that reality.
What was Jesus saying on the cross when he uttered his last words in Mark’s Gospel (and Matthew’s version too)? Now our theological affirmation that Jesus was not abandoned, stems from the belief that God resurrected him and exalted him, thus he was not completely and permanently abandoned. Also Peter, in his Pentecost sermon, says that Jesus was not left or abandoned to Hades, but was resurrected. Understanding how central the resurrection of Jesus is to our Christian faith, I likewise understand the insistence that Jesus was not abandoned by God. The objective interpretation of the passion and any abandonment of Jesus comes from Sunday, not Friday.
I wonder, though, is abandonment really an objective reality or much more profoundly a subjective one? Does it make us feel better to believe that Jesus wasn’t abandoned to the cross and death? Does such an interpretation do justice to the accounts we have of Jesus on the cross? Is the abandonment felt in his dying negated in the resurrection or does affirming the abandonment rather make the passion and subsequently the resurrection all that more meaningful? Ultimately is abandonment determined objectively or is it better understood as a subjective reality?
When I think back to times that I have felt abandoned, and even when that feeling lead to the presence and comfort of those who love me (hence not permanently abandoned) the outcome did not negate the reality of being abandoned, I still felt the reality and the pain of abandonment. Now Jesus was feeling abandoned and indeed he was not rescued…he died alone on a Roman Cross. Now the truth is that God resurrected him but that wasn’t until Sunday, the cross was happening on Friday and he lay in the tomb all of Saturday too.
I think Jesus was abandoned to death for a time and then in the plan of the Father was resurrected, glorified and exalted; but to interpret the passion by the resurrection seems to me to rob it of a very significant human experience. We all from time to time feel it, hurt from it, are marked by abandonment. Some of us live with it all of our lives, for some of us that sense and pain of abandonment lies at the core of our being, regardless of whether there is a alternate interpretation of our circumstance. I for one have always resonated with Jesus because he was abandoned. As a person who is adopted, who has searched unsuccessfully to connect with that “absent” part of myself, who has always felt that abandonment profoundly, even though my birth mother probably did what she did out of love. I, for one, would prefer to not summarize the passion by the resurrection and choose rather to appreciate that profound sense of abandonment that Jesus must have known.
Now I know that some will say that I am interpreting Jesus’ passion through my own experience. I would answer, who of us doesn’t do this? Is not our experiences part of the framework through which we understand Jesus: his life, death and resurrection. But you will have to wrestle this out and come to your best understanding of the significance of these important last words of Jesus: “Eloi, Eloi Lama Sabachthani.”