“A Long Journey of Presence and Absence” (Matthew 27.45-54)
Crucifixion. The word sometimes gets lost on us as we are inclined to think about the cross as a piece of religious furniture and crucifixion as some religious ritual. But lets be clear, what happened on Good Friday at the place called skull was an execution.
The Gospels give us permission to eavesdrop, to listen in on words spoke by Jesus on the cross. Words we have come to know as “the last words.” We might find ourselves asking the question “What would we expect to hear at an execution?” Each of the Gospel writers contribute. This is not a collecting of data about crucifixion. We listen in in order to learn how to follow. We read these words with the hope to discover what it means to be a disciple.
Matthew paints a gloomy scene. Jesus is not only executed but executed alongside convicted criminals. He has received the death penalty. Passersby insult him. He is taunted and mocked. He is insulted some more. Matthew does not even mention the pain. There is total darkness. It was inevitable that emotions would be strong. It is then we get the words… “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani.”
“My God, My God, whay have you forsaken me?” These are the only words from the cross we get from Matthew. We get them in Aramaic, perhaps so we won’t overlook them. Perhaps so we feel the emotion. Jesus is experiencing some strong feelings and takes this time to quote a psalm. This is not a coincidence, the psalms are words used by old Israel to navigate during emotional terrain. The psalms are songs and prayers that travel a long journey of presence and absence. This “word” is part of the practice of singing and praying the psalms. Old Israel knew about the presence of God, that is why they could sing about being led beside still waters. Old Israel also knew absence. They know the feelings of being forsaken. Some still feel it.
Mark also records these words. His is a dark Gospel with dark powers showing up in the early chapters. Even Jesus is accused of being in league with dark powers. He writes these words after the deaths of Peter and Paul. He writes them to a church in danger of losing their own life. We might say they felt forsaken. He writes so that those who feel forsaken may have hope. The early church knew what it meant to feel forsaken. Some still feel it.
Of all people we can trust Jesus speaking these words. He knows what the presence of God feels like. He knows the presence of God in healing the leper, in making the lame walk, the blind to see. He knows the presence of God when the dead are raised. He knows as he witnesses the kingdom of heaven come to earth. We can trust Jesus. Since he knows so clearly what presence is like, we can trust him to recognize absence.
What goes through our mind as we read this text? This is a word we might expect during an execution but not one we were hoping for. We hear a word like “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” and we might think “Oh that Jesus, always thinking about forgiveness.” But we read this word “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” and think “Oh no, what are we going to do with this?” Forgiveness fits nice in our vocabulary. Abandonment belongs to some other story. Yet this text reminds us, our story is one of presence and absence.
These words remind us the cross is not for safe religion. The cross cannot be reduced to a piece of religious furniture. Crucifixion is not just another religious ritual that can be cleaned up easily afterward. Pop religion will try to convince us that a scene like this is not even possible. Pop religion, pop psychology, pop songs – they all try to do the same thing. They all try to convince us they can simplify complicated things in the hope of selling something along the way. We know this all too well, we are presently getting a regular dose of pop politics.
The cross goes against the way the world works. The cross leaves the holiness of God raw in the world. This is evidenced as the temple curtain is torn and as the Son of God hangs exposed. The cross exposes a holy God and His plan of victory by weakness.
We do not want to neglect the conclusion of the scene. The temple curtain tears, the earth shakes, the rocks split, tombs open, bodies are raised, the Romans are terrified. And whatever conclusion we come to, we know, this was no ordinary execution. What are we to make of this response to Jesus three o’clock afternoon prayer? What are we to make of the way God answers the prayer of His forsaken son?
We may know what presence feels like. We may be able to point to people, situations, and activities where we have known the presence of God. We may claim to know absence. We may experience absence even when among people, in places, and during activities where we used to feel His presence. These words may leave us with questions. But they do not point fingers at us. The text simply highlights the reality of a long history of presence and absence. The text does not provide an escape from absence, instead it may imply that following Jesus may bring us into places where we feel forsaken. But Matthew reports them so we can learn to follow. Matthew wants us to know what it means to be a disciple.
Perhaps, more than anything, the text wants us to recognize that God is present even in what seems like a certain absence. That God is there even during unimaginable pain. The psalm that begins “My God, My God,…” goes on to say “You have been my God from my mother’s womb.” Further we hear, “My strength is dried up like a potsherd, And my tongue cleaves to my jaws.” Further still we hear “A band of evildoers has encompassed me; They pierced my hands and my feet. I can count all my bones. They look, they stare at me; They divide my garments among them, And for my clothing they cast lots.” Does this sound familiar to anyone? Still further “I will tell of Your name to my brethren; In the midst of the assembly I will praise You.” And finally, “They will come and will declare His righteousness to a people who will be born, that He has performed it.”
This is not the sad psalm we sometimes think it is. This psalm sings victory. This psalm, the prayer of the crucified one, prayed to it’s conclusion, winds up in a great congregation. We find the presence of God in a place of certain absence. Perhaps more than anything, the text wants us to know that even in our worst times, we are not alone. We journey with one who knows how to navigate dark days. We are following one who has traveled the paths of presence and absence. This is good news.