A few years ago there was a great controversy stirred up by the movie, “The Last Temptation of Christ.” People complained that the film portrayed Jesus as far too human. This film was not the first to do that. People need only to look in the Gospel of Mark to see a human Jesus – vulnerable and beaten. Mark captures the human tragedy of the crucifixion in all its brutality. Throughout Mark’s story, Jesus lives out the will of God in a tender and courageous way: loving people; caring whether or not they were healthy; making sure they had enough to eat; giving hope when they were fearful or discouraged. Mark also shows Jesus sharing human conditions – hunger, fear, and discouragement. And at the end of Jesus’ ministry, there was a cross. He was not protected from suffering. None of us is. A woman recently had her faith shaken when she was diagnosed with cancer. She could not allow herself to cry out loud, “My God. Why have you forsaken me,” even though that is what she felt. Instead, she kept her loneliness to herself, feeling guilty and afraid. But Jesus voiced his despair publicly. There was no hiding it. In Mark’s Gospel, these are the last words of Jesus. A loud cry of sadness and abandonment.
Why didn’t the church try to suppress this terrible story? How can we tell it over and over every year? Because it is not a terrible story. Because it is a profoundly human story rooted in our own reality, based on familiar experience. Because it finds a home in our own psyches. The poet, Miriam Kessler writes:
My God, My God, he cried, if he is quoted right . . .
Somehow that moan is comforting to us, alone at night,
who tremble, daring dawn that He, so wise and strong,
should weep and ask for aid.
Somehow, my lovely distant God, it makes me less afraid.
“My God. Why have you forsaken me?” How can we tell this terrible story over and over every year? Because it is not a terrible story. And mostly because it is not the end. That mournful sentence was only the beginning of the Psalm Jesus quoted. He knew the scripture – the whole story, not just a few isolated sentences. He knew that the Psalm that started with a lament ended in promise. Did he get to the end of the Psalm in his mind? Was he able to hear the words of assurance in the end? “God has not despised or disdained the suffering of the afflicted ones. God’s face is not hidden from them but God has listened to their cry for help.” Did he finally remember those words? We don’t know.
But Mark ends with this ironic incident. “When the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, heard his cry and saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!” Jesus died crying, “Why have you forsaken me.” And still the centurion saw the son of God on the cross. What an affirmation! And what release! God is seen in the midst of despair. We cannot always feel that God is present with us. But God’s presence is not dependent on our feelings. It is simply there! God does not need our faith in order to be there for us. Though we can cry out in rage and despair, we do not negate the presence of God; we only confirm that we are human. Feeling abandoned by God is not the same as being abandoned. We know that Jesus’ mournful cry was not the end. We know that God was there on Calvary as God is with us, as we struggle with our own Calvaries. That is the message of Mark’s Gospel. But in the end, the veil that keeps us away from the holy of holies is torn away. We know that the love of God breaks forth in the darkest hour whether we can feel it or not. We know that Easter comes!