Tuesday, April 3, 2012

"Eloi eloi lama sabachthani...": Holy Week Meditations on Christ's Last Words

Eloi eloi lama sabachthani... 

The first “last words” Christ is recorded as saying are not even in English...or Greek, as the case would have been for St. Mark the Evangelist.  To a non-Jewish reader unversed in Hebrew or Aramaic, they’d be incomprehensible without the accompanying translation Mark provides.  And I wonder if that’s the point.  Because even in translation, coming from the God-Man, the Savior of the world, they are incomprehensible - horrific if we let them be: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” 
A few years back, when I was serving as the Worship Coordinator for the Duke Youth Academy, I wanted to put together a live stations of the cross to bring our day of focus on crucifixion and Good Friday to a close.  That day, the high school students had also gone on a pilgrimage of pain and hope through Durham, North Carolina, where they visited, among other things, slave quarters from an old plantation, an old civil rights activist, and several neighborhoods bearing and still receiving the scars of segregation and racially-motivated violence.  I didn’t want to let them off the hook, didn’t want to allow the sheer reality of the situation to become two-dimensional souvenirs on 4x6 inch celluloid.  

I did not want to mitigate the horror.
I wanted our stations to gather into itself the context in which the students were immersed. We invited the students to each select a station, and to write a prayer to accompany the readings.  The prayer would tie the specific station to an experience of the cross from the day’s pilgrimage, or related to racism somewhere in the world.  A handful of students volunteered to dramatically portray the stations.  When he heard about what we were up to, the only Black male staff member came to me and solemnly requested to play Jesus.  I was both thrilled and mortified.  Because the students playing the soldiers, who would accompany Jesus around the sanctuary from station to station, whips and nails in hand, were both white. 
I also enlisted the aide of my good friend, Duke classmate and Delta-bluesman, Toby Bonar.  I asked Toby to create a solemn litany, a kind of Blues-Taize chant, for the worshipping community to sing during the time it took the crucifixion party to move from place to place.  I wanted its words to be Christ‘s earliest last words: my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?  I’d never heard them sung in a focused manner in worship before, only as incidental verses in the traditional reading of Psalm 22 on Good Friday.  And inevitably, we were taken too quickly from the actual verse Christ chose to scream from the cross, rushing to the promise of hopefulness and the words of trust at the psalm’s end.  Another recoil from the horror I told Toby we couldn’t allow, as we invited the students to take up the pain of their pilgrimage in the sacred space of worship of the Crucified God.
That evening’s worship still scars by memory, like the shadow of a fire burned into a cave wall.  I shudder when I think of Rodney, carrying a life-sized cross, around the sanitized stone and sculpture of Goodson Chapel in the fading light of a Carolina sunset, whipped with cords of choir robe cinctures born by white student soldiers whose determined grimaces could not mask the pain they felt at inhabiting the role of their race’s implication in the continuation of the cross.  
I shiver when I sing again the simple, haunting, almost whispered crone that Toby created, floating like the ghost of so many souls lingering at a crossroads in the Southern countryside, waiting for the train of justice and redemption to collect them from their purgatory on the rails of a finger-picked slide guitar and a wavering bluesman’s voice conjuring Robert Johnson as he sang, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”  
I cringe and I weep when, at the climax of the service, the sanctuary gone utterly dark, Jesus, bound (standing) to a cross of tree branches, wearing a crown of thorns he insisted must be real, broke the silence of our meditation with those same words, but this time, at a scream, eyes displaced by their whites in his sockets, as if possessed by the spirit of a moment two centuries past, channeled and conjured into reality before us.
“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me???”
And then, utter darkness.  

And a chapel full of teenagers sat riveted together, in the darkness, and wept, and prayed.  Speechless at words not our own.  And the horror, I pray, was not mitigated.   
My New Testament professor Joel Marcus believed that, in Mark’s Gospel, the cry of dereliction is purposefully described in the same language as the cries of the demons as they are cast out by Jesus.  He invited us to ponder whether or not, in the end, even Jesus had been consumed by the ever-widening shadow, whether or not, like Aslan, shorn and bound upon the stone table, God had actually lost to the forces of sin and evil, and been utterly consumed.  That this was not just an existential cry of despair and doubt, but the very real, very final, death rattle of the conquered God, the shriek of triumph of the dark as it took possession of the body of Jesus, and so, of the universe.  
Utter darkness.  Horror.  Unimaginable.  Incomprehensible.  This is what, I think, Mark is after in trying to tell the story of the death of Jesus.  I think that is why these are the only words Jesus speaks from the cross in his Gospel.  Anything else footnotes that moment of utter heartbreak, softens it, makes God less dead than God is on that cross, at the hands of Sin, Death, the Devil, and of humanity.  
And the accompanying horror, that still haunts, outrages, and decimates us today.  That in the face of the cross, God does absolutely nothing.  God abandons.  God forsakes.  God is utterly passive.  The final judgement and confrontation with the culmination of the collaboration of the powers of human and supernatural evil is, simply, to do nothing.  To die.  And in Mark, at least, in the original, there is no resurrection.  Only an empty tomb.  And a group of very scared people.  No wonder the other Gospel writers scramble to fill in more details.  
It would be tempting hear to offer a mitigation.  To remind us that, just as with those students’ encounter with God’s seeming abandonment of black people upon the cross of American racism, so too, our Lenten pilgrimage is one of both pain and hope.  To read the whole of Psalm 22, and point to the promised dawn that follows the darkness.  Even, as has become so popular in today’s alt-Christian literature, to sanctify despair and proclaim, “to doubt is divine.”    
But all of these too, are mitigations of the horror.  Even well-intentioned participational worship services ultimately contribute to the reduction of the horror to a spectacle.  Of the entire history of humanity, few have dared to look into the Void of that moment, to stand in the force of the black hole created on Golgotha that sucks the light of the world and crushes hope beneath its force.  I sense no one would, if not forced into it, and sadly, we have participated in too many systems and societies that are built on the foundations of cries of dereliction we have helped elicit - or else, avoided by domestication and sentimentality. 
But Jesus’ cry is not in our language.  It is not comprehensible to us.  It’s not something we can merely understand, capture, consume, and then move on from.  It defies us. That’s the point, I think.  It just happened.  Happened like slavery, both in our country and in our hearts.  Happened like the collapse of a star.  Happened like the end of the world.  And we cannot remain spectators, though we try with all our might.  We are a drawn into it’s happening.  If there’s any hope in it at all (and thank God, there is), it begins here - with horror.  

And maybe, with singing horrified words that our not our own.  And sitting in the darkness together.


  1. Thanks for sharing this story Matthew. Makes me remember these words...I forget who voiced them. "The joyful faith in the Risen One never loses sight of the Crusifed One". God help us look and remember rightly.

  2. I feel that the horror of the cross is the main reason for the hope it inspires. Because the horror so closely resembles the suffering and despair that regular people feel in this world, it makes it seem more realistic to hope.