By Br Ryan Harkin
God so loved the world, he gave us his only Son; But why did he abandon him?
A few months ago visiting a random museum in Manhattan with a friend I ran into a man who asked me: “Father, I have a question that I’ve asked every priest I ever met and no one has ever been able to give me a decent answer, may I ask you?”
O Lord, I thought, this is going to be a tough one. “Well sir,” I said, “at the current moment I’m only a seminarian studying for the priesthood so I probably won’t be of too much help, but if you want…”
“Great, here it is!” he said. “When Jesus was there up on at that cross and he said those words: ‘My God, My God, why have you abandoned me?’ did he really mean it? Did his Father really leave him to such an extent that he had to scream out to him with that question?”
“That is a good question,” I said.
Luckily for me I had just recently finished an eight-day long retreat and the preacher mentioned this exact, so I told him just that, and went on to explain.
You see, God’s love for us is so deep, it’s literally unthinkable for us to realize it whole and entire in this life. Only in heaven will we be able to fully grasp an adequate understanding. The greatest way God was able to illustrate this unfathomable love was for him to manifest it by taking on our weak human nature, which is exactly what Jesus Christ did. But he didn’t stop there.
Christ saw that, because of our human nature, we didn’t know how to suffer correctly, i.e., how to bring the redemptive value out of it and give our sacrifice the value that it truly has. So, in his great love for us, he decided to show us. How?
From the very beginning of his earthly existence, from the austere crib of a humble manger in Bethlehem, to the constant fight of making ends-meat in Nazareth, and, finally, to the point of allowing suffering every form of humiliation during his passion and then dying on the cross, he taught us through his example. He became a man in order to teach us how to live as men.
In the words of our beloved John Paul II “The Great”:
“Christ the Redeemer fully reveals man to himself.” (Redemptor Hominis; Cf. Gaudium et Spes)
Jesus was a man who knew well how to suffer and to do so with spiritual joy, a joy that never lost sight of the goal he had: the salvation of our souls, which is nothing other than being with him forever in heaven. That was the goal he was willing to suffer for during his earthly life even to the point of saying those drastic words on the cross.
Did it happen? Did the Father really turn his back on the son? And if so why?
The answer is simple and it basically follows from knowing that there is nothing we could possibly suffer that Christ didn’t already suffer, in some way, during his earthly life. He came as a Redeemer of mankind, and suffering, as a consequence of sin, was of the first to be redeemed. What was it that he was experiencing there on the cross when he said those words, “Why have you abandoned me?” if not a consolation to all those who, afterword, would his follow example of suffering?
You’ve heard of saints, like St. John of the Cross and, more recently, blessed Mother Teresa. These saints suffered the ‘dark night of the soul’, in the absence of light and consolation in prayer, without inner voice of God to let them know that he was proud of them and loved them, that they were headed on the right track in serving him.
That was the suffering they endured. God gave them the special grace to suffer as a loving response of fidelity and self-giving in their aspiration to holiness.
With this in mind, we can better understand why Christ cried out those words to his Father on the cross: “My God! My God! Why have you abandoned me?”
It can be seen as a sort of consolation to us all in our suffering, as though he were actually saying saying: “I have suffered, I know what you are going through, and I am here with you; please trust in me,” because for our sake, he was willing to suffer even to the highest degree of feeling totally abandoned by his Father.
That is how I explained Christ’s words on the cross to my friend. However the idea here is that Christ wants to be intimate with us. He wants us to know that he is close and he proves his closeness to us in our darkest hour, by going before us, leading with his example, and suffering the darkest form of earthly suffering, for our sake.