Famous Last Words, IV: Dereliction
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? —Mark 15:34
For the last 1,800 years, the Christian Church has taught that Jesus verbalized seven discrete sayings while he was dying on the cross, but to get to that shapely, satisfying, sacred seven, the Church has had to plunder all four Gospels.
Luke gives us three; John gives us another three, but there is no overlap with Luke; they’re a different three; Mark and Matthew give us just the one, the same one. Luke and John do not agree with each other, and they do not agree with the Mark/Matthew tradition.
In Luke, Jesus dies forgiving his enemies, welcoming a thief into Paradise, and handing over his soul peacefully to his Father.
In John, Jesus dies taking care of his mother and his best friend and then ending it all with a triumphant “Mission Accomplished!”
In Mark, Jesus dies broken, shattered, and despairing. Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.”
Forsaken: meaning “to run out on, to leave in the lurch, to be the hell and gone, because hell is precisely where the cross is, where Jesus is.”
Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani: they are among the only words recorded for us in Aramaic, the language Jesus actually spoke every day of his life. One author suggested that those ugly Aramaic words have survived 19 centuries to the present day because they were absolutely unforgettable; once you heard those words you could never unhear them, no matter how hard you tried, and if you’d heard them, you probably tried hard and often to unhear them.
The fourth word from the cross is often called The Cry of Dereliction. ‘Dereliction’ is not a word you speak every day, but when you do speak about a derelict, you’re likely to be referring to the homeless guy pushing a shopping cart full of cardboard and empty Coke bottles under the Lake Shore Drive viaduct.
Or maybe you’re talking about an abandoned warehouse that’s crumbling before your very eyes, a derelict building, because a derelict is a person who has been abandoned, or a building that’s been neglected, someONE or someTHING that is utterly alone in this world.
You see, here’s the thing about Jesus of Nazareth. Either you got him, or you didn’t. Those who got him were the little people with nothing to lose, whom he’d lifted up to a dignity they’d never known before, and they adored him.
Those who didn’t get him were those of status and power and much to lose, or maybe it wasn’t that they didn’t get him; maybe they did get him and understood completely the implications of his eccentric disregard for status and caste and pyramid-shaped flow charts, and so they formed this unholy conspiracy of Temple and Empire and mobilized the Implacable Engine of Corruptible Entitlement to expel him from their world.
If you want to live into the dereliction of Christ a little more deeply this Lenten season, let me recommend a little Gospel-shaped parable for you. Have you seen this film The Shape of Water? There have been so many remarkable films in the past year that the Academy Awards offers us an embarrassment of riches in the Best Picture category tonight, and you probably have your own favorites, but for someone who loves Gospel-shaped stories, it’s hard to beat The Shape of Water.
Sally Hawkins plays a mute janitor at a military lab in Baltimore in 1962. Michael Shannon hams it up as Richard Strickland, the lab’s sinister, sadistic chief of security, whose traumatic war experiences have made him cruel to his employees and family members alike. Clearly the director Guillermo del Toro means for him to be a symbol for all that is mean and brutal in the leadership of our present day.
At this military lab, they are studying (torturing would be a better word) an almost unearthly amphibious creature discovered in the mud of the Amazon River. He has gills and fins and webbed extremities, but he walks on two feet and is clearly intelligent. He looks like the creature from the black lagoon. He does not speak English.
Elisa the janitor speaks in sign language. She is so lonely it hurts to look at her. Her only friend is the unemployed gay man who lives in the apartment next door; obviously he is as outcast as she is in 1962.
Unaccountably, Elisa falls in love with the creature from the black lagoon. When asked how she could fall in love with a creature so alien and so inhuman, she says, “He’s just like me; he can’t speak either. He does not know what is incomplete about me. He doesn’t notice what’s missing.”
The creature from the black lagoon has many Christ-like characteristics. He can heal wounds with his touch. In his native Amazon, he is worshiped as a god, but he is loathed by the power structures of this alien world he has been dropped into. There is one more way he is like Jesus, but I can’t tell you what it is, because I’ll spoil the story for those of you who haven’t seen it.
But mostly, he is like Jesus because he does not care what is missing about us, what is incomplete. He just loves us. In fact, he loves the incomplete and the imperfect more than the finished and the accomplished, because the incomplete and the imperfect have no one else who loves them. And this makes him dangerous to the enfranchised, and they must get rid of him.
One New Testament scholar talks about “the crescendo of abandonment” that is especially prominent in the Gospel of Mark. Just one abandonment or dereliction after another.
In that Upper Room at the Last Supper, Judas betrays him.
In the Garden, his best friends fall asleep on him and then when they finally wake up from their nap they flee in panic.
In the Sanhedrin, the priests perjure themselves and testify falsely against him.
In the courtyard Peter denies him.
In the Praetorium, Pilate convicts him.
In the prison the soldiers flog him and crown him with thorns.
At the cross, thieves and common citizens alike mock him and shake their heads in disgust.
In this Gospel, there is no good thief asking for a friendship; that comes from Luke. In this Gospel, his mother and his best friend are not there with him at the cross when he dies; that comes from the Gospel of John. In this Gospel he is utterly, absolutely, and completely alone.
And then the cruelest stroke of all: even God is gone; his best friend, his soul-mate, the one to whom he’s devoted his entire existence, even God is gone. “My God, my God, why have you left me holding the bag, holding the world, when I can hardly hold up my own head?” It is indeed a crescendo of abandonment.
So if in Luke, Jesus dies forgiving, accepting, and at peace; and if in John, Jesus dies triumphantly and in the company of family and friends; in Mark Jesus dies abandoned, defeated, and without hope.
Why does Mark tell the story in just this way? Why does he give us such a sad and disconsolate conclusion? Why is this the only word of Jesus from the cross that Mark records for us?
Well, it’s possible that Mark didn’t know about the other six words of Jesus from the cross. Mark was not there, of course; Mark was probably just a child when Jesus died around 30 A.D. And maybe in the corner of the Empire where Mark lived and wrote, among the stories passed along orally from neighbor to neighbor and friend to friend and parent to child, this is the only word Jesus speaks from the cross.
Or, maybe, even if Mark knew about all seven words from the cross, this is the only one he wants us to hear. For Mark, this is the crucial word—‘crucial’ which comes from crux, which is Latin for ‘cross.’
This is where Mark’s entire Gospel has been headed from the beginning. Jesus’ whole life has been focused like a laser beam on this very moment. This is where and when we understand why he came, why he lived, why he taught, why he suffered, why he died: to express God’s solidarity with suffering humanity.
Someone put it like this:
The abandonment of Christ on the cross is the response of God to the scandal of human suffering, of the death of the innocent, of anxiety, and of all the why’s that have no answer. It is the definitive ‘yes’ of God to fallen humanity, to human estrangement from God. It is a ‘yes’ that does not remove the suffering, does not explain it, does not justify it, but inserts it into the Trinitarian mystery of God…Every ‘why?’ belongs to the very mystery of divinity….In his abandonment, Jesus becomes God for those who are without God. Jürgen Moltmann is probably one of the two greatest living Christian theologians in the world. The other is Hans Küng. Both of them are German. All the great Christian theologians are German; the English-speaking world just doesn’t measure up. Maybe there’s something inherently sacred about the German language. Anyway, Jürgen Moltmann is one of the two greatest living theologians. He’s over 90-years-old today and is Professor Emeritus at the University of Tübingen.
He came of age in Hitler’s Germany and never attended church and never heard a sermon until he was over 20-years-old. He served in the German military during World War II, an antiaircraft gunner in Hamburg.
He remembers serving there when the Royal Air Force unleashed a fire storm called “Operation Gomorrah,” which destroyed the eastern part of Hamburg, the city of his birth.
He says that the friend standing next to him at the gunnery was torn to pieces by a bomb which left him unscathed. “That night,” he says, “I cried out to God for the first time. ‘My God, where are you?’”
After the war Dr. Moltmann was taken to a Prisoner-of-War camp in Scotland, and the chaplain at the POW camp gave him a Bible. He says he wasn’t much interested in it; he would rather have had a few cigarettes.
But he disinterestedly paged through it and happened upon the story of Jesus’ passion, and he says, “When I read Jesus’ death cry ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?’ I knew with certainty: this is someone who understands you. I began to understand the assailed Christ because I felt that he understood me: this was the divine brother in distress, the One who takes the prisoners with him on his way to resurrection.”
So that is why this is the one word of Jesus from the cross that St. Mark wants us to hear. In his dereliction, in his abandonment, Jesus becomes God for those who are without God.
So that when the sun hides its face in eclipse and darkness covers our world, when the earth quakes and the mountains fall into the sea, when enemies tell lies about us and strangers taunt us and friends abandon us, when a dire diagnosis terrifies us, when health declines or memory fails, all of this, all of our personal Calvaries, are taken up into the vast and lavish love of the Father, who will bear us up beyond the last day, and into eternity.
Words in quotes slightly adapted from Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth (New York: Harper & Row, 1977), pp. 38-42.
Buechner again, ibid.
Slightly adapted from Gérard Rossé, The Cry of Jesus on the Cross, trans. Stephen Wentworth Arndt (Mahway, NJ: Paulist Press, 1987), p. 64.
Buechner. AGAIN! op. cit.
Rossé, op. cit., p. 115.
Jürgen Moltmann,“Wrestling with God: A Personal Meditation,” The Christian Century, August 13-20, 1997, pp. 726-729.