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?” Mk 15:33–34
Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani? What are we to make of these extraordinary words of Jesus on the cross? For some Christians, they are almost unbearable. Can it be true that Jesus thought that God the Father had forsaken him? Is it possible that Jesus doubted the love of the one he called Abba, “Father”? Did Jesus give up hope when he was crucified? Did he despair when he was on the cross?
There are two main ways of understanding these mysterious words of Jesus, which he quotes from Psalm 22 and which would have been recognizable to any Jewish person at the time who had received religious training.
The first possibility is that Jesus’ words are not an expression of abandonment but, paradoxically, an expression of hope in God. Although Psalm 22 begins, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” expressing the frustration of someone who feels abandoned by God, the second part of the psalm is a hymn of thanksgiving to God, who has heard the psalmist’s prayer:
For he did not despise or abhorthe affliction of the afflicted;he did not hide his face from me,but heard when I cried to him.
In this interpretation, Jesus is invoking the psalm in its totality as the prayer of one who cried out to God and was heard. An example based on a more well-known psalm might be someone who says, “The Lord is my shepherd,” and trusts that hearers would be familiar with the rest of Psalm 23 (“Even though I walk through the darkest valley...”) and its overall message.
In other words, the phrase “The Lord is my shepherd” is usually taken not just as an affirmation of God as shepherd but as shorthand for the entire psalm. In short, this frequent explanation of Jesus’ terrible cry from the cross is that he was using that line from Psalm 22 to express his confidence in God.
But there is another possibility: Jesus really did feel abandoned. This is not to say that Jesus despaired. I do not believe that someone who had such an intimate relationship with the Father, with Abba, could have lost all belief in the presence of God in this dark moment. But it is not unreasonable to imagine Jesus, in this grave hour, feeling as if the Father were absent. And remember, if he is crying out to God, he is still in relationship with God.
Here we need to distinguish between a person’s believing that God is absent and feeling it. The latter is common in the spiritual life. You may have had this experience yourself: believing in God, but not feeling that God is close. You ask, “Where are you, God?” Here is an important intersection between Jesus’ life and our own.
Of all people, Jesus could be forgiven for feeling abandoned. Think of what he has gone through by this point in the Passion. First, he has witnessed his betrayal by Judas, one his closest friends, who had identified him to the authorities in exchange for 30 pieces of silver. Also, the Gospel of Mark says that by this point all but one of the apostles has fled, whether out of terror, confusion or shame.
So Jesus almost certainly feels abandoned and experiences, perhaps not for the first time in his life, human loneliness. Jesus has also been subjected to an exhausting series of late-night inquests, brutalized by Roman guards and marched through the streets of Jerusalem under a crushing weight; he is now nailed to the wood and suffering excruciating pain. So he could be forgiven for feeling abandoned. The one who abandoned himself to the Father’s will in the garden of Gethsemane the night before, who had given himself entirely to what the Father had in store for him, now wonders on the cross, “Where are you?”
These feelings were probably intensified by his having been abandoned by his followers. Until this point, if Jesus felt lonely or misunderstood by the disciples, he might have turned to the Father for comfort. Now he goes there and feels alone. It may be the loneliest any human being has ever felt.
What Do Scholars Say?
Let me turn to some contemporary biblical scholarship. One of the great 20th-century New Testament scholars, Raymond E. Brown, S.S., is the author of a study of the Passion narratives called The Death of the Messiah. In an essay entitled “Jesus’s Death Cry,” Father Brown says that in his view, abandonment was in fact what Jesus was experiencing.
Some Christians, says Father Brown, might want to reject the literal interpretation that would imply feelings of abandonment: “They could not attribute to Jesus such anguish in the face of death.” Yet, as Father Brown says, if we accept that Jesus in the garden could still call the Father Abba, then we should accept this “screamed protest against abandonment wrenched from an utterly forlorn Jesus who now is so isolated and estranged that he no longer uses ‘Father’ language but speaks as the humblest servant.”
What does Father Brown mean? When Jesus speaks to the Father in the garden, he says, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me...” (Mk 14:36) Abba is a familiar way of speaking, something like saying “Dad.”
But on the cross, when Jesus says, “My God, my God,” he uses the Aramaic word Eloi (or the Hebrew Eli, depending on the Gospel). That is a far more formal way of speaking to God. The shift from the familiar Abba in the garden to the more formal Eloi on the cross is heartbreaking. Jesus’ feeling of distance, then, reveals itself not only in the scream and not only in the line of the psalm that he utters, but also in the word Eloi.
How could someone who had enjoyed an intimate relationship with God feel abandoned? To answer that, it may help to consider a similar situation closer to our own time.
A Contemporary Example
In her early years, Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, the foundress of the Missionaries of Charity, enjoyed several mystical experiences of intense closeness with God. She also experienced that rarest of spiritual graces, a locution; she actually heard God’s voice. And then—nothing. For the last 50 or so years of her life, until her death, she felt a sense of emptiness in her prayer. At one point, she wrote to her confessor, “In my soul I feel just that terrible pain of loss—of God not wanting me—of God not being God—of God not really existing.”
When her journals and letters were published not long after her death in the book Come, Be My Light, some readers were shocked by these sentiments, finding it difficult to understand how she could continue as a believer and indeed flourish as a religious leader. But Mother Teresa was expressing some very human feelings of abandonment and speaking of what spiritual writers call the “dark night.” This state of emotion moves close to, but does not accept, despair.
In time, Mother Teresa’s questions about God’s existence faded, and she began to see this searing experience as an invitation to unite herself more closely with Jesus in his abandonment on the cross and with the poor, who also feel abandoned. Mother Teresa’s letters do not mean that she had abandoned God or that God had abandoned her. In fact, in continuing with her ministry to the poor, she made a radical act of fidelity based on a relationship she still believed in, even if she could not sense God’s presence. She trusted that earlier experience. In other words, she had faith.
Jesus does not despair. He is still in relationship with Abba—calling on him from the cross. In the midst of horrific physical pain, abandoned by all but a few of his friends and disciples, and facing his imminent death, when it would be almost impossible for anyone to think lucidly, he might have felt abandoned. To me this makes more sense than the proposition that the psalm he quoted was meant to refer to God’s salvation.
So Jesus understands not only our bodily suffering, but also our spiritual suffering in these feelings of abandonment. He was like us in all things, except sin. And he experienced all that we do.
So when you struggle in the spiritual life, when you wonder where God is, when you pray in doubt and darkness, and even when you are close to despair, you are praying to someone who is fully human and fully divine, someone who understands you fully.