My God My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me?

Today is the quietest day of the church year. On no other day do we sit together for so long with so little to say to one another, like family members gathered around the bed of the Beloved, who is dying. Hour after hour, we just sit here, with sounds no larger than a cough or a dropped book echoing through all this air. There is the sound of feet too—shoe heels on stone—as people come to pay their respects and go. Even the occasional siren has its place. It is the sound some of us would make with our own mouths, if we ever began to let our sorrow come out—not only our sorrow for him, the Beloved, but also our sorrow for ourselves and for the whole broken, bleeding world. Who named this Friday "Good"?

Instead of wailing, we will sing some songs, say a few prayers. We are adults, after all, and this is a public place. Plus, we need the ballast of sound to keep us sitting upright in our seats. We need spoken attempts at meaning—however futile—to keep our anxiety at bay. But it is the silence we are really here for—that, and the story.

The Bible contains not one but four accounts of Jesus' death. They agree on the essentials: Jesus died on a cross at a place called Golgotha, hung up between two other men with a sign above his head. "King of the Jews," it said. The charge was treason against the Empire. The method of execution was Roman. People were so sure he was not coming down that they divided up his clothes where he could see them. He was offered some sour wine before he died and then he died, just before sundown on the day before the sabbath.

Those are the bones of the story, which each gospel writer fills out in a different way. Matthew and Mark's accounts are almost identical, except for a few differences in phrasing. Their Jesus is a broken man, who is so injured in every way that he needs help carrying his cross and whose only word from the cross is a cry of abandonment at the end.

In Luke's gospel, Jesus has more to say. Luke adds a word of pardon from the cross—"Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing"—as well as a conversation between Jesus and the two men dying with him that the other gospel writers do not mention. When Jesus dies, he does not ask where God has gone. Instead, he uses his last few breaths to commend his spirit to God. Luke's Jesus is as gentle and forgiving in death as he was all his life.

In John's gospel, however, Jesus is neither broken nor particularly gentle. He is brave, omniscient, and in charge all the way. John does not say anything about Simon of Cyrene carrying Jesus' cross for him. Jesus is strong enough to do that for himself. Nor does John allow anyone to mock Jesus while he dies. Even on the cross, Jesus is in charge. He arranges for his mother's care, says he is thirsty (in order to fulfill the scriptures), and when he dies there is no question about where God is. God is on the cross, pronouncing that "It is finished."

While all four of these accounts report the same event, they are not easily harmonized. They are four alternative readings of that event, so different from one another and yet so faithfully told that the editors of the New Testament decided that none of them could be left out. By including all four, those early shapers of the gospel sent us a message between the lines: namely, that there is more than one way to view what happened on the cross, and all of them are right.

Even if they do not agree on everything—not even something as important as Jesus' last words—their very disagreement preserves the mystery of what happened on this day. There is no one definitive word. There is no one answer to the awful questions raised by this day—chief among which is why God allows the innocent to suffer. In the case of Jesus, we are asked to believe that God not only allowed the suffering but willed the tortured, humiliating death of the Beloved.

You have heard the same explanations I have heard. Before Jesus, sinful humanity was so deep in debt to God that no human being could pay it all. So God sent Jesus to die for our sins, erasing the debt once and for all. This is the most traditional view of the cross, but it does not answer the question of suffering. What kind of father demands the death of a son in order to pay off a debt to himself?

According to another view, it was God who died on the cross, putting an end to divine bookkeeping through the voluntary sacrifice of divine power. But if Jesus was God, then whom was he talking to in the garden and from the cross? He clearly believed that someone else had the power to remove the cup of suffering from him, or at least to be with him while he drank it down--but who, in both cases, declined to do so.

I don't pretend to understand any of it. Sometimes I think that the suffering of Jesus was not God's will at all. It was, instead, the will of those who were arrayed against him—those whose patriotic values he had offended, whose sense of God he had betrayed. It was the will of ordinary people like you and me, who prefer dead messiahs to living ones, since living ones are so much harder to tame.

It seems entirely possible to me that God's will for Jesus was a long and fruitful life, brimming over with the divine justice and love he was born to embody. When the world opposed that justice, however—when the world reviled that love—God's will did not give Jesus license to stop being Jesus. God's will supported him to go on doing justice and loving mercy even in the face of deadly opposition. So in that sense, I suppose, it was God's will that Jesus suffer and die—since suffering and death turned out to be the unavoidable consequences of being who he was. It was God's will for Jesus to be fully who he was every day of his life—even if the fullness of that life shortened the length of it.

But if that was the case, then where was God at the end? According to at least two gospels. Jesus believed himself forsaken by heaven as well as earth. Couldn't God have spared one angel there at the end? Couldn't God have whispered one comforting word in Jesus' ear, just to help him get through the last few awful, parched hours? It happened at his baptism in the river Jordan. It happened on the Mount of the Transfiguration with Peter, James and John. "This is my son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased." Where was that same voice at the end, when the Beloved was panting his last few breaths? What difference might a word have made?

But there was no word, except Jesus' own. "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" It was a quiet day for him too—the quietest day of his whole life, when he asked for bread and got a stone. Whatever else it was, it was the death of hope—that God might intervene, might stop the suffering, might at least say a word that would make the suffering bearable. None of that happened. God was, for all practical purposes, gone—and yet Jesus died seeking God. He died talking to the Abba who would not talk back to him, giving us the stripped down vision of faith that remains at the heart of our tradition.

When all of our own hopes have died, we still have this faith that seeks nothing for itself—not wisdom, not spiritual power, not rescue from suffering. "Success" is not in its vocabulary. This faith seeks nothing but God, to whom it is willing to surrender everything—up to and including its own cherished beliefs about who God is and how God should act. This faith is willing to sell all that it owns and bet the farm on one chance for union with God. If God plays hard to get, then this faith will never stop its wooing.

Purged of all illusion, weaned from everything that is not God, this relentless faith will devote itself to doing justice and loving mercy no matter what the consequences are, and if the consequences turn out to be a cross, then this faith will hang there for however long is necessary, asking God to be present, asking God to speak, regardless of whether or not God chooses to answer. This kind of faith, embodied by Jesus, is what makes him the Christ—God's own Being of Light, God's own Anointed One—whose self-annihilating love for us and for all creation is never more vivid than it is on this day.

I actually know people who come to church on Good Friday and who don't come back on Easter. Easter is too pretty, they say. Easter is too cleaned-up. It is where they hope to live one day, in the land of milk and honey, but right now Good Friday is a better match for their souls, with its ruthless truth about the stench of death and the high price of love. It isn't that they don't care about what happens on Sunday. They do. They just don't believe that God is saving all the good news until then.

Today, on the quietest day of the year, we have come to sit in the presence of one who was fully who God created him to be every day of his life—who loved God with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his strength, and with all his mind—and who loved his friends so much that he stepped into the oncoming traffic of death in order to push them out of the way. He furthermore did it all with no more than the basic human equipment—a beating heart, two good hands, a holy vision, and some companions who could see it too—thereby showing the rest of us humans that such a life is not beyond our reach. Whatever else happens on Sunday, here is enough reason to call this Friday Good. Amen.


Copyright ©2000 Barbara Brown Taylor

This homily was delivered at the Lenten Noonday Preaching Series at Calvary Episcopal Church, Memphis, Tennessee, on April 21, 2000. An earlier version of this sermon appeared in Home By Another Way (Cowley 1999).