Palm Sunday: Why have you forsaken me?

Palm Sunday: Why have you forsaken me?

Readings: Mt 21:1-11 (Procession Gospel); Is 50:4-7; Ps 22; Phil 2:6-11; Mt 26:14-27:66

Has it ever bothered you that Jesus on the Cross seems to be abandoned by his Father in heaven? I have certainly wondered why on earth Jesus would cry out, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? After all, we believe he is the eternal Son of God, who never left his Father’s side in heaven even while he walked on earth as a man. Even if in some sense we accept that the divinity of Jesus means he can never be truly separated from the Father, nevertheless we may still be troubled by the apparent aloofness of the Father. How could a loving Father look on while his only Son was tormented and crucified, without doing anything to stop it? In other words, we can easily find ourselves joining the chorus of mockers: He saved others, he cannot save himself…. He trusted in God; let him deliver him now if he wants him. For he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’

El Greco, The Crucifixion

It is astonishing how quickly we find ourselves on the wrong side! How easily we slip into the mindless stampede of the herd! We are barely into Holy Week, which begins with the crowds chanting Hosannah to the King of Kings, and already we find ourselves echoing the words of the mob on Good Friday: Crucify! Crucify! It is not just the Lectionary which encourages us to connect these two scenes, by giving us both Gospel readings on the same day. It is our very own patterns of thought and behaviour which betray us, which reveal how fickle our hearts truly are. We see a man in distress and think he must have deserved it somehow. This is exactly the attitude Jesus was trying to extirpate in the story of the man born blind, which we heard two Sundays ago. We succumb to this attitude time and again, thinking we are competent to judge the moral or spiritual worth of another, when only God can do that. And that is why we are fickle: we are too quick to acclaim, too hasty to condemn.

But where does that leave us with the cry of Christ from the Cross? The first thing to notice is that it is a quotation, the opening lines of Psalm 22. Jesus knew the Scriptures – and is indeed, as God, their ultimate author – and knew exactly what he was saying. So, what does Psalm 22 mean? Following St Augustine, we can say that the psalms can be analysed in terms of the different voices, or personae, which they adopt. Very often, a psalm will change voice suddenly, without warning, and the reader must be attentive to the shift in position. Modern editions, of course, can use quotation marks and paragraph breaks to suggest how the text should be read; but this does not clear things up entirely. Augustine also insisted that we read the psalms in the light of Christ. They are either about Christ, the head of the Church, or about the Church, which is Christ’s body. Sometimes, we hear speaking the whole Christ (totus Christus): Christ united with the Church.

Now, Psalm 22 begins with a pitiful lament, and Augustine argued that Christ is speaking here, not for himself, but on behalf of sinful humanity. And then we can notice the crucial thing: it is not God who has abandoned humanity (let alone Jesus, his beloved Son), but we who have abandoned God. In his own humanity, Jesus takes on the full weight of our fallen state – all the sin and wretchedness of the ages, past, present and future – and can speak truly for humanity when he cries out to reveal how deeply we have cut ourselves off from God. It is as though he is saying, My God, my God, see how far we have run away from you! 

But that is not the end. Read to the end of Psalm 22 and you will see the darkness turn to light, the lament into praise and thanksgiving. For he has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; and he has not hid his face from him, but he has heard, when he cried to him (v. 24). The moral of the story of Psalm 22 is that the upright person will be vindicated by God. They will be glorified, no matter how afflicted they seem at present to us. To achieve this in our own lives, we must first empty ourselves before God. Although God fills us with life, so often we try instead to be fulfilled without God. The readings from Isaiah and Philippians show us a better way: Christ humbled himself, offering no retaliation to his beastly tormenters, but being obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. In his loving obedience, Christ was perfectly united with his Father, not abandoned by him. And so, in the moment of his final agony and death, that is when the bystanders recognise him for who he really is: the Son of God. Let us walk together towards the Cross this Holy Week, and join our sufferings with Christ, in order to share his glory in the Resurrection.

Matthew Jarvis OP

Fr Matthew Jarvis is currently studying Patristics at the Catholic University of Lyon.