“Now from the sixth hour until the ninth hour there was darkness over all the land. And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” that is, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”” Matthew 27.45-46.
For many of us, this is a confusing verse and one that has been a stumbling block in ages previous (the Arians would proof-text this verse to prove the sub-Divine status of the Logos) and in our own. For some moderns, this exclamation shows the desertion of Christ by The Father due to the ‘burden of sin’ that He bore. For some others this is merely prophetic as it points us to the reading of Psalm 22 (LXX) which the Lord was bringing to the attention of the Jews standing around His cross while mocking Him.
At this point, many questions present themselves to us. The first question before us is this: could this really be the desertion of the Logos by His Father with Whom He was before the ages (John 1:2)? The text of Scripture seems to constrain us against saying this. St. Paul in his 2nd epistle to the Corinthians makes a statement exactly to the contrary,
“Now all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation, that is, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation.” 2 Corinthians 5.18-19.
God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself. This does not simply imply the Divine status of The Logos Who became incarnate. This statement refers to The Father co-working in Christ for our salvation. Yes, it is only the Divine Logos Who becomes incarnate as Jesus Christ, but this work of salvation which He brings about is the work of The Holy Trinity. The Father is in no way divided from The Son in the work of Salvation whether on the Cross or thereafter. It would be dangerous to begin divorcing the Trinity. St. Gregory the Theologian writing on this very topic was adamant to refuse any sort of division in The Trinity. The Logos of The Father is always united to His Father, even as He utters this cry on the wood of the cross. Therefore St. Gregory the Theologian writes:
“Thus it is that He [Christ] effects our submission, makes it his own and presents it to God. “My God, my God, look upon me, why have you forsaken me?’ seems to me to have the same kind of meaning. He is not forsaken either by the Father or, as some think, by his own Godhead, which shrank in fear from suffering, abandoning the sufferer. Who applies that argument either to His birth in this world in the first place or to his ascent of the cross?” St. Gregory the Theologian The Fourth Theological Oration which is Oration 30, chapter 5
What then can this seemingly mysterious passage mean? Is its content simply prophetic pointing to the psalm which would describe His agony? Perhaps this interpretation holds some value for us, but the Lord Himself gives us a greater clue and key into the meaning of the passage in one of His earlier sayings. Thus, we read about Christ’s reproach of the nation as they asked for a sign,
“But He answered and said to them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” Matthew 12. 39-40.
“A wicked and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign shall be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.” Matthew 16.4
This text is interesting in that it is a clear reference to Christ’s being buried and rising on the third day. However, the Jewish hearers of Christ’s time would also likely have known a little more of the text by heart than we do. There is a very interesting passage from this little book that may enlighten what we see in Christ’s cry of desolation on Good Friday,
“And Jonah prayed to the Lord his God out of the belly of the whale, and said, I cried in my affliction to the Lord my God, and he heard me, even to my cry out of the belly of hell: you heard my voice. You did cast me into the depths of the heart of the sea, and the floods compassed me: all thy billows and thy waves have passed upon me. And I said, I am cast out of Your presence: shall I indeed look again toward thy holy temple? Water was poured around me to the soul: the lowest deep compassed me, my head went down to the clefts of the mountains; I went down into the earth, whose bars are the everlasting barriers: yet, O Lord my God, let my ruined life be restored.” Jonah 2.2-7.
This text from Jonah is remarkable in that Jonah cries in his affliction that he is ‘cast out of Your presence”. However, those familiar with the story know that it was in fact Jonah who cast himself from the presence of the Lord and was trying to escape the Lord. When given the command to go to Nineveh, Jonah fled in the opposite direction and as it is written, “he went down to Joppa, and found a ship going to Tharsis: and he paid his fare, and went up into it, to sail with them to Tharsis from the presence of the Lord (Jonah 1.3).” It is Jonah who departs “from the presence of The Lord” (the same biblical expression used of Cain after he has killed his brother cf. Gen 4.16) and yet it is Jonah who cries out against God that he was cast into the sea and out of the presence of the Lord.
For these reasons, the fathers of the Church see Jonah as a type both of Christ (three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, in sheol) and as a type of all humanity which is perishing due to its departure from the life-giving God. We read from St. Irenaeus of Lyons,
“Long-suffering therefore was God, when man became a defaulter, as foreseeing that victory which should be granted to him through the Word. For, when strength was made perfect in weakness, (2 Cor 12.9) it showed the kindness and transcendent power of God. For as He patiently suffered Jonah to be swallowed by the whale, not that he should be swallowed up and perish altogether, but that, having been cast out again, he might be the more subject to God, and might glorify Him the more who had conferred upon him such an unhoped-for deliverance… So also, from the beginning, did God permit man to be swallowed up by the great whale, who was the author of transgression, not that he should perish altogether when so engulfed; but, arranging and preparing the plan of salvation, which was accomplished by the Word, through the sign of Jonah… This was done that man, receiving an unhoped-for salvation from God, might rise from the dead, and glorify God, and repeat that word which was uttered in prophecy by Jonah: “I cried by reason of mine affliction to the Lord my God, and He heard me out of the belly of hell;” (Jonah 2.2) and that he might always continue glorifying God, and giving thanks without ceasing, for that salvation which he has derived from Him.” St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies Book 3, Chapter 20, Tract 1
and similarly from Methodius of Olympus in the late 3rd and early 4th century,
“But Jonah, who fled from the presence of God, is himself the first man who, having transgressed the law, fled from being seen naked of immortality, having lost through sin his confidence in the Deity.” Methodius of Olympus, Fragments From The Book On The Resurrection.
From these fathers and many others it is clear that Jonah is also a type of lost humanity which has departed from the presence of the Lord. Thus, the type of Jonah signifies both lost humanity and the Saviour Who descended into the depths to rescue this lost humanity. The statement of Christ that He would give no sign other than that of Jonah the prophet points to His assumption of lost humanity. This expression requires some unpacking. Christ is not simply a Divine Saviour who comes to visit humanity, rather He co-identifies Himself precisely with lost humanity that He may save it. In our previous post (He Took Our Infirmities), we have described how it is that this co-identifying with broken humanity is the cause and content of our salvation. In this light we can read from the Epistle to the Hebrews,
“Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage. For indeed He does not give aid to angels, but He does give aid to the seed of Abraham. Therefore, in all things He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God.” Hebrews 2.14-17.
The Divine Logos comes and becomes all that humanity is that He might save this humanity. St. Gregory the Theologian puts it in an axiom,
For what He has not assumed He has not healed; but that which is united to His Godhead is also saved. If only half of Adam had fallen then that which Christ assumes and heals might only be half as well; but if the whole of Adam’s nature fell then it must be united to the whole nature of the Begotten One, and so be saved as a whole.” St. Gregory the Theologian, Letter to Cledonius. Trans: McGuckin, John A. St. Cyril of Alexandria: The Christological Controversy. Brill, 1994. p.393.
Now, what does this have to do with Christ’s cry “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” Christ is completely and totally co-identified with the lost humanity who have, much like Jonah, departed from God and yet cry out waiting from salvation from God. In His complete assumption of our brokenness Christ brings this humanity back to wholeness again. If we turn again to the passage from St. Gregory the Theologian we see that this cannot mean that He is deserted by The Father, but rather expresses Christ’s complete assumption of humanity and our lost and broken condition,
“Thus it is that He [Christ] effects our submission, makes it his own and presents it to God. “My God, my God, look upon me, why have you forsaken me?’ seems to me to have the same kind of meaning. He is not forsaken either by the Father or, as some think, by his own Godhead, which shrank in fear from suffering, abandoning the sufferer. Who applies that argument either to His birth in this world in the first place or to his ascent of the cross? No, in Himself, as I have said, he expresses our condition. We had once been the forsaken and disregarded; then we were accepted and now are saved by the sufferings of the impassible. He made our thoughtlessness and waywardness his own, just as the psalm, in its subsequent course, says-since the Twenty First Psalm clearly refers to Christ… But, in the character of the Form of a Servant, He condescends to His fellow servants, nay, to His servants, and takes upon Him a strange form, bearing all me and mine in Himself, that in Himself He may exhaust the bad, as fire does wax, or as the sun does the mists of earth; and that I may partake of His nature by the blending.” St. Gregory the Theologian The Fourth Theological Oration which is Oration 30, chapter 5, 6.
Thus for St. Gregory the Theologian, Christ’s cry on the cross cannot point to anything other than His assumption of the broken human condition, His becoming totally and completely one of us in order that He may heal this very brokenness. St. Gregory expresses this concept of solidarity with us in very vivid and moving terms,
“Our whole nature had to be recalled from death to life. God therefore stooped over our dead body to offer His hand, so to speak, to the creature lying there. He came near enough to death to make contact with our mortal remains, and by means of His own body provided nature with the capacity for resurrection, thus by His power raising to life the whole of humanity… In our body the activity of any one of our senses communicates sensation to the whole of organism joined to that member. It is the same for humanity as a whole, which forms, so to speak, a single living being: The resurrection of one member extends to all, and that of a part to the whole, by virtue of the cohesion and unity of human nature.” St. Gregory of Nyssa, Catechetical Orations, 32.
God came near enough to death to make contact with our mortal remains. If that which is taken by the Logos is healed then this very precept applies to the broken state of humanity as it resembled Jonah in the belly of the whale. Christ’s cry on the cross is His resounding entry into the most broken and most injured part of our nature, into the death which we had brought upon ourselves by our desertion from God. Jonah serves as the ultimate type of both the broken humanity, but also the Logos who descends into broken humanity that He might heal it by His descent there. Through this lens we read the cry of Christ as one of complete solidarity with humanity in our brokenness; we also read with hope for it is the Logos become human who makes this cry, while He simultaneously heals this very condition. St. Athanasius makes this exact point about the Logos assuming the same properties of our flesh,
“For in the incorporeal, He does not have bodily properties, unless He takes a mortal and corruptible body; for mortal was Holy Mary, from whom was His body. Therefore it was necessary, when He was in a body and was suffering, and weeping, and toiling, these things which are proper to the flesh, are attributed to Him together with the body. If then He wept and was troubled, it was not the Logos, considered as the Logos, who wept and was troubled, but it was proper to the flesh; and if too He wished that the cup might pass away, it was not the Godhead that was in terror, but this condition too was natural to his humanity. And that the words ‘Why hast Thou forsaken Me?’ are His, according to the foregoing explanations (though He suffered nothing, for the Word was impassible), and are nevertheless declared by the Evangelists; since the Lord became man, and these things are done and said as from a man, that He might Himself lighten these very sufferings of the flesh, and free it from them. How could the Lord be forsaken by the Father, who is ever in the Father, both before He spoke, and when He uttered this cry. Nor is it lawful to say that the Lord was in terror, at whom the keepers of hell’s gates shuddered and set open hell, and the graves did gape, and many bodies of the saints arose and appeared to their own people…. For behold when He says, ‘Why hast Thou forsaken Me?’ the Father showed that He was ever and even then in Him; for the earth knowing its Lord who spoke, straightway trembled, and the veil was rent, and the sun was hidden, and the rocks were torn asunder, and the graves, as I have said, did gape, and the dead in them arose; and, what is wonderful, they who were then present and had before denied Him, then seeing these signs, confessed that ‘truly He was the Son of God.’” St. Athanasius Against The Arians Discourse III , 29, 56.
Here we see St. Athanasius’ insistence that these sufferings come to Christ given His true humanity, given that He becomes as you and I. Not as The Logos considered in Himself is He uttering this cry but as God-made-human is He uttering this cry. He enters into all of these sufferings, along with humanity, that He might ‘lighten these loads’, that He may heal these very burdens on humanity. That humanity which had been, as Jonah in the belly of the whale, as though it were deserted of God is that very humanity that The Logos then makes His own in His Incarnation. By this union, that humanity is restored to Life and no longer made alone, mortal, and corruptible but has rather been united to God in its very brokenness. St. Severus of Antioch gives it a very poignant analogy,
“For in that he took upon Him the seed of Abraham He is consequently said to have become those things which our nature was subject. Nor yet was he subject to these things for a moment of time, but rather after they had been vainly applied to him He destroyed them. Just as the sun, when it shines a gloomy and dark house, as soon as it puts forth its ray, dispels the darkness, since it itself is not affected by darkness, in the way also the Only God the Word, the Sun of righteousness, as soon as He approached our nature, also dispelled the curse.” St. Severus of Antioch, Letter to Eupraxius the Chamberlain.
Christ enters into our brokenness that he might destroy it and heal our humanity. This is what will subsequently happen on Easter Sunday when we see Christ utterly destroy death by nothing other than His entering into death. Much as light enters into a dark room and thus destroys the darkness without being darkened itself, Christ enters into our brokenness and destroys it, setting it aright.
Thus in this confusing cry on Good Friday we are presented with the Saviour and His complete and full entry into human brokenness. This is identified for us in the type of Jonah the prophet who is a dual-type, both of lost humanity and its Saviour. The Saviour Who would descend to His lost human race and unite Himself to it in order that He might heal it in His person. This point is brought to light in a pointed manner by St. Ambrose of Milan who writes,
“As being man, therefore, He doubts; as man He is amazed. Neither His power nor His Godhead is amazed, but His soul; He is amazed by consequence of having taken human infirmity upon Him. Seeing, then, that He took upon Himself a soul He also took the affections of a soul, for God could not have been distressed or have died in respect of His being God. Finally, He cried: “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me? (Matt 27.46)” As being man, therefore, He speaks, bearing with Him my terrors, for when we are in the midst of dangers we think ourself abandoned by God. As man, therefore, He is distressed, as man He weeps, as man He is crucified.” St. Ambrose of Milan, Exposition of the Christian Faith II.7.56
Ambrose is more insistent on this point that the assumption of these things; fear, weeping, hunger, etc are taken as Christ assumes a true and full humanity. We see from St. Gregory the Theologian and St. Athanasius that this complete insistence is due to Christ’s descent to that condition to heal it. As St. Gregory the Theologian has put it in the quote above,
“No, in Himself, as I have said, he expresses our condition. We had once been the forsaken and disregarded; then we were accepted and now are saved by the sufferings of the impassible. He made our thoughtlessness and waywardness his own… But, in the character of the Form of a Servant, He condescends to His fellow servants, nay, to His servants, and takes upon Him a strange form, bearing all me and mine in Himself, that in Himself He may exhaust the bad, as fire does wax, or as the sun does the mists of earth; and that I may partake of His nature by the blending.” St. Gregory the Theologian, The Fourth Theological Oration which is Oration 30, chapter 5, 6
As Christ has Himself given us an interpretative lens with which to see His exclamation, we can see it with new eyes. Christ is the fulfillment of the sign of Jonah because He too descends into the belly of the great whale that He may bring back the one who was trapped there – humanity itself. This too may give us insight into the use of shepherd imagery when speaking of The Lord. For the shepherd is the one who descends into the nooks, crags, holes, valleys and hills to retrieve the lost sheep by descending into the very place to which it has run. Christ, the True Shepherd descends into the place of our ruin that He may heal it in His union with us. Healingly uniting Himself to our brokenness, we are made anew.
Let us not think that Christ is deserted by The Father or that The Father somehow turns away from His Only-begotten. Rather let us contemplate the great mystery of Christ, the faithful shepherd who has descended into the belly of the great whale in search of the lost sheep. As a true shepherd He has not simply carried us on His shoulders, but rather He has ‘put us on’ that we may be returned to The Father in His very person, the Incarnate Logos.