Eloi, Eloi, Lama Sabbachthani? My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?
IT IS a pair of opposites: the cry from the depths to the heights. And the paradox is all in the fact that it is God himself who cries out that God has forsaken him. Can God forsake God then? No. But God-made-Man can feel what men feel when we feel forsaken and lost. The Hebrew word Eloi is from the old word El or in the plural Elohim – the High God or gods. The word appears in the first verse of Genesis. It is God as Eloi who drives back the Red Sea by a strong east wind to allow the Israelites to pass over on dry land.
Where is God now at this Passover? He is on the Cross as the Passover sacrifice for us.
You can, if you wish, look at all this from the forensic point of view, as if conducting a post-mortem. That’s what Albert Schweitzer did in his book The Quest for the Historical Jesus. Schweitzer concluded that Christ’s life had ended in failure and disappointment. He had trusted in God that he would deliver him. But he had been wrong. Schweitzer concluded that we should forget about Christianity and adopt the philosophy which he called reverence for life.
But there is much more to Our Lord’s cry from the cross than that. My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me is the first verse of Psalm 22– the psalm of lament sung in the symbolic ritual of the dying and rising king in ancient Israel. That psalm is also an unnerving prophecy of the death of Christ, who was the real dying and rising King. The words of this prophecy are terrifyingly exact:
‘All they that see me laugh me to scorn: they shoot out their lips and shake their heads saying, he trusted in God that he would deliver him: let him deliver him, if he will have him. They pierced my hands and my feet . . . They part my garments among them and cast lots for my vesture . . .’
Those words were written hundreds of years before the birth of Christ. Here they are, coming true at the first Good Friday.
But Our Lord knew when he uttered those terrible words that the psalm ends with a hymn of praise and thanksgiving for deliverance:
‘They shall come and the heavens shall declare his righteousness: unto a people that shall be born, whom the Lord hath made.’
We are that people, the people of God, those whom God came to save by his sacrifice.
Sacrifice was made in Israel in the time of Christ. The High Priest went into the holy of holies once every year on Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement. What did he do there? He made intercession for the people and addressed God by his name YHVH – a word so sacred that it was uttered only once a year by the High Priest in solitary prayer. When the word was written down, it was without the vowels so that no one would be able to pronounce it. This is the word JAHWEH, translated into English as I AM– the word by which Jesus named himself before the Pharisees.
That is why he was accused of blasphemy.
That temple where the High Priest interceded on Yom Kippur had its veil to screen off the holy of holies. When Jesus dies on the Cross, he enters the holy of holies and the veil of the temple is rent in twain, from the top to the bottom – that is from heaven to earth. And the holiness which before was hidden is now out in the open.
With Christ’s death, the barrier between sacred and secular is broken. You might put it in modern terms and say that Christ democratised holiness. He made holiness a gift available to us all. What was once hidden is now open and universal. That is why the centurion, a Roman, a gentile, a pagan, is the first beneficiary of this new grace – the first to see and say that ‘Truly, this was the Son of God.’
Not just men but women who until that time had not played a prominent part in religious observances. St Mark’s Gospel leaves us with this haunting verse about the women at the Cross. Ah yes, the women, the weaker sex, were there! The men had all run away.
‘There were also women looking on afar off: among whom was Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James the less and Joses; and Salome . . . and many other women which came up with him unto Jerusalem.’