Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?

We had a beautiful Mass here on the weekend for Passion Sunday. Palms were blessed, hosannas were sung and we all stood to listen to the Passion. I don't know about you, but no matter how many times I hear the story of Jesus' death it still leaves me with a host of emotions. 

What I can never get my head around is that two of the Gospel writers, Matthew and Mark, tell us that Jesus' last words were, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Why were these his last words? Surely he knew that his Father was with him? And if his faith faltered, what hope do the rest of us have when we face difficult times?

It's probably my least favourite line in all of the Bible, because I just don't get it. A pentecostal friend explained that it was because at that exact moment, Jesus took on all of the sins of the world and so God turned away. I don't know about that… surely that's when God would be most present?

What's your take on it? Why were Jesus' last words about God deserting him?

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    Comments: 14

    1. Brendan Malone April 16, 2014 at 5:42 pm

      Jesus is actually quoting the opening lines of Psalm 22 – which is a particular type of traditional Jewish prayer which begins with some form of serious lament, but is always intended as a prayer of trust in the saving power and providence of God.

      Here's the opening verses of the psalm – which, as you can see, begin with lament, but then move into a declaration of trust that the plans of God are being outworked despite the terrible suffering and emptiness:

      "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?    
      Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish?
      My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, but I find no rest.

      Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One; you are the one Israel praises.
      In you our ancestors put their trust; they trusted and you delivered them.
      To you they cried out and were saved; in you they trusted and were not put to shame."

    2. Rubyshine April 16, 2014 at 8:35 pm

      I've always taken it as a reflection of Jesus' humanity. That despite knowing it was all part of God's plan, and something he had to do, that in the moment if extreme agony it was natural to feel abandoned. I've never thought for a second that God actually did turn away from him. 

      For me it's also a reminder of the extreme sacrifice Jesus made and how difficult it would have been. It pushed him to the limits of physical, emotional and spiritual endurance. If he was up there, whistling a tune, waiting for it all to be over than that wouldn't have nearly the same impact on the gratitude I feel.

      When I look at the sequence of what Jesus said while on the cross:

      Luke 23:34: Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.

      Luke 23:43: Truly, I say to you today, you will be with me in paradise.

      John 19:26–27: Woman, behold your son. Behold your mother.

      Matthew 27:46 & Mark 15:34 My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?

      John 19:28: I thirst.

      John 19:29-30: It is finished.

      Luke 23:46: Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.

      It strikes me as a natural progression of being strong in the face of anticipated difficulties by thinking of others, then as things get tougher really fighting and struggling with what is happening, and finally to acceptance of God's will and entrusting yourself to him. That we all might strive to entrust ourselves to God, in the face of extreme difficulties.


    3. muerk April 19, 2014 at 2:37 pm

      Jesus' greatest suffering was not the physical pain, but His separation from the Father because he took our sins upon Himself. Sin separates us from God, so Jesus was separate from the Father. Also the words are from Psalm 22, Jesus is trusting the Father completely even though He has no consolation. 


      Jesus' words are a roadmap for us as we live our life. Like Jesus we can feel that God is far from us, but despite our suffering we have to trust that God knows best and that we must follow His Will even in our darkest times. It's about faith, trust, and hope. 

    4. John Jensen April 19, 2014 at 4:05 pm

      Jesus was not separated from the Father – ever.  This is of fundamental importance.  The idea that He was is common amongst Protestants, and was, unhappily, embraced by the otherwise great theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar.

      Jesus' words on the Cross are, indeed, mysterious.  In His human nature He was, indeed, separated – but the 2nd Person of the Trinity is incapable of such separation.


    5. Benedicta April 19, 2014 at 6:14 pm


      John Jensen and Muerk

      I think there is much more that can be said on Christ's saving work on the Cross.

      I would recommend the attached article by Matthew Levering. While writing in light of some thoughts by Gerald O'Collins SJ the whole article in depth gives many insights which reconcile Christ's human suffering, beatific vision and the hypostatic union.

      I think that based on the understanding of Christ through St Thomas, Christ had complete freedom through the beatific vision to offer his flesh to the pain of the Crucifixion the emotional suffering of his humanity may find a way to explain Balthasar theology on the matter.

      Rich and rewarding reading for those starving for good things.

      Happy Easter! 

    6. John Jensen April 19, 2014 at 9:32 pm

      No disagreement, Benedicta.  There are deep mysteries there, as in Our Lord in the garden.  There was never any way in which His human Will would ever have separated it from His divine Will – and that of the Father.  Yet He prays in a way that could make us think Him in some dubiety.

      There are limits that the Church will not permit us to pass.  One is that, in whatever sense He was separated from the Father on the Cross – and, yes, He was in some sense – it is important we realise that He is God and He is eternally God and the Beatific Vision was and is eternally His.

      Thanks for the reference.  I will read the article.


    7. muerk April 20, 2014 at 11:52 pm

      John: Yeah… true, excellent point. Erm… Now I must read some theology of the Cross and of the nature of the Trinity. 

    8. John Jensen April 21, 2014 at 8:27 am

      I have been reading with great interest that article, a link to which Benedicta posted above.  Found it very helpful on St Thomas A's understanding of the Redemption as sacrifice.

      I think there is a widespread view that Christ is being punished for our sins.  I don't think that is the way Catholics see it.  He is making a sacrificial offering for our sins.  It is a positive act of love for the Father and for us on His part.


    9. John Jensen April 21, 2014 at 8:31 am

      PS – what I mean by a positive act is that what it is not is God's pouring out His wrath on His Son in our place.  You hear the latter view a lot.  I don't think it can possibly be correct.

      There has been a lot of excellent discussion of this on:



    10. Teresina April 21, 2014 at 9:44 am

      I remember being told as a child at school, probably in a simple way, that Christ's dying on the cross, because he also had a human nature, proved to God, after all the broken promises since  creation that there was still sufficient good in mankind, so that Christ took that suffering on on behalf of the good of mankind, but that as John Jensen said He was never separated from the Father.  Also that His suffering was all the greater because the suffering to come was before Him all His life.

    11. Teresina April 21, 2014 at 9:47 am

      Yes, as JJ said it was a positive act and He unlocked the gates of hell and released the just who until that time had been unable to enter heaven because of the broken promises.

    12. Benedicta April 21, 2014 at 10:16 am

      Thanks JJ

      That was an easy to read an insightful article on the difference between Reformed and Catholic sense of the atonement – the diagram was a good idea….these things can be complex to follow! (Sorry Muerk).

      What I found interesting from Aquinas' insights through Levering was the exploration of his perfected human nature through the hypostatic union increasing his suffering and also because of the beatific vision seeing all through time the ramifications of sin. That Jesus suffering can't be considered as a particular human event of suffering no matter how exemplary….it is in a substantially different mode altogether….Christ is the exemplar.

      I also loved Aquinas' insight into the ordering by Christ's charity (Divine charity) the whole sacrificial act….which as Teresina says, he knew from the beginning. He knew who he was and why he was Incarnate. His absolute freedom in charity defined the Crucifixion. As Levering said he permitted the nails to be driven in.

      Aquinas elsewhere asked the question; could man not have been saved in another way. The answer was yes, God could have saved us through power….just forgiven and restored us. (I think this is mentioned in the article). But by saving us through justice; prefigured in all the Judiac cultic rights and fulfilled in Christ's action on the Cross..we were saved by an act of justice. The injustice of sin was overturned by the justice of the Cross. The main point of not saving us through power but justice is that through the humanity of Christ we are able to participate in our own redemption…and so I think we are raised in this way to become Sons and Daughters of God.

      This seems strange…but an earlier Church Father (perhaps Abelard or Lombard…not sure, but whoever influenced Aquinas)…wrote about the apple taken from the tree in Eden. The Apple was taken against God's will so in order to right that act of injustice Christ fastened himself to the Tree. (He replaced the Apple). I rather like that as it simply shows the exchange of injustice for justice.

      The other part of Aquinas is his description of Christ's action on the Cross. Not a passive victim but continually in communion with the Father and offering himself in justice for us. He describes (you will have to read the essay at the link if you want to understand this) the distinctions in the intellect and the sensibilities….which explain (I think) why Christ is not docetic by communing in the beatific vision through the Crucifixion and also why Christ can fully participate in his humanity in our human condition. This is important to try to gain some insight so that perhaps we don't read theologians to simply or fall into traps of a too docetic reading or a too immanent reading of the Crucifixion. It is a mystery but there are enough lights to help us find our way through, in order to understand the reality of it so the need for our salvation is evident. Our creatureliness becomes evident in light of Christ's human and divine nature but at the same time reveals to us the wonder of our blessed end.

      For me the whole thing needs to be read in the context of Judaism prefiguration as so many signs, symbols and multilayered meanings are missed.

      The Incarnation and the Paschal Mystery are the epoch of all time….it surely can't be too much for Christians to try and appropriate as much knowledge (Aquinas would say in this way you were contemplating the Holy Trinity – Dominicans pray fast so they can go back to the contemplation of study) of Our Lord and His wondrous love for us.

      For those who would like to know more John Jensen's article and website link looks great. I would also, for the bedtime readers, recommend Brant Pitre 'Jesus the Bridegroom' is a wonderful read.

      Happy Easter!


    13. Teresina April 23, 2014 at 5:12 am

      St Athanasius had this to say against the Arians:


      If then He wept and was troubled, it was not the Word, considered as the Word, who wept and was troubled, but it was proper to the flesh; and if too He besought that the cup might pass away, it was not the Godhead that was in terror, but this affection too was proper to the manhood. And that the words ‘Why hast Thou forsaken Me?’ are His, according to the foregoing explanations (though He suffered nothing, for the Word was impassible), is notwithstanding declared by the Evangelists; since the Lord became man, and these things are done and said as from a man, that He might Himself lighten these very sufferings of the flesh, and free it from them. Whence neither can the Lord be forsaken by the Father, who is ever in the Father, both before He spoke, and when He uttered this cry. Nor is it lawful to say that the Lord was in terror, at whom the keepers of hell’s gates shuddered and set open hell, and the graves did gape, and many bodies of the saints arose and appeared to their own people. Therefore be every heretic dumb, nor dare to ascribe terror to the Lord whom death, as a serpent, flees, at whom demons tremble, and the sea is in alarm; for whom the heavens are rent and all the powers are shaken. For behold when He says, ‘Why hast Thou forsaken Me?’ the Father shewed that He was ever and even then in Him; for the earth knowing its Lord who spoke, straightway trembled, and the vail was rent, and the sun was hidden, and the rocks were torn asunder, and the graves, as I have said, did gape, and the dead in them arose; and, what is wonderful, they who were then present and had before denied Him, then seeing these signs, confessed that ‘truly He was the Son of God.’

      – St Athanasius, Against the Arians III.56"

    14. Benedicta April 23, 2014 at 8:33 pm


      I agree with what I think you are inferring. That a too low a Christology….one that takes a interpretative view of Christ from the vantage point of his humanity; a humanity read as authentic in so far as it is like our humanity. It tends someway toward Arianism or semi-Arianism. What emerges is a Christ who seems to come to an understanding of his mission and ministry 'as he goes along'. He starts out 'like us' and then becomes aware of his divinity.

      What I think is the problem is trying to undersand Christ's humanity as being like our humanity now in this life. The fact is we are unfinished business, not perfect, and human beings in a state of becoming who we are meant to be….we are not yet at our blessed end. On the other hand Christ is perfect….he is fully human as we are going to be like him….when we reach our final blessed end. So in his earthly life Christ was perfect in his humanity and for this reason was more able to fully enter into our imperfect human existence now, his understanding was deeper and his response to human need perfect in all ways.  

      By coming to a more fitting understanding of Christ's humanity we no longer need to bring him down to our level of imperfect humanity in order for him to be fully human for us, to empathise with us, to enter into our abject human condition. He does this perfectly because his humanity is perfect….we are to be like him, not him like us.