What's the Most Disturbing Words Jesus Spoke?

A reader of this column named Shane sent to me a question that I have taken far too long to answer. Maybe I was just a bit overawed by the depth of the mystery here. He writes:


I had a question regarding one of Jesus' words to St. Faustina in entry 1320 of her Diary: "At three o'clock, implore My mercy, especially for sinners; and, if only for a brief moment, immerse yourself in My Passion, particularly in My abandonment at the moment of agony."

What was the "abandonment" of which Jesus spoke? I know that our faith teaches Jesus was never abandoned by the Father during His Passion - as Persons of the Trinity, it would be a metaphysical impossibility. I have read where some mystics and theologians posit a "virtual" abandonment, where Jesus, in His humanity, subjectively felt abandoned by the Father. But this doesn't feel right to me either. Even when our Lord quoted the first words of Psalm 22 - "My God, my God ..." - He immediately followed them with words of the utmost tenderness, "Father, into Your Hands I commit My Spirit." Any light you could shed on this would be most appreciated.


Not only is this a great question, Shane, but it brings us face to face with what I think are the most disturbing words that Jesus ever spoke. On the Cross, the Son of God actually asked why His heavenly Father had abandoned Him at the very time He most needed to feel His Father's comfort and strength. This is an experience that many of us can relate to. It often happens that in moments of crisis, in times of extreme personal and emotional suffering, that is precisely when our loving God seems farthest away- when we most need to feel Him near! It can come as a terrible shock to the sincere and faithful soul when he/she first goes through such an experience of abandonment. Thus, the first thing to note about Jesus Christ's own cry of abandonment on the Cross is that he evidently loved us so much He was even willing to go through that experience of spiritual desolation with us.

Now we need to be clear that Jesus was not actually in despair on the Cross (which would have been a sin). Shane mentions that His words about being "forsaken" actually are a direct quote from the first line of Psalm 22. It was common practice in ancient Israel to quote the first line of a psalm in order to refer to the entire text, and despite the words of desolation at the start, the psalm ends on a note of trust in God and the triumph of His saving will. Hence, as Shane suggests, it is probably wise to interpret the words "My God, My God, Why have You forsaken me?" (Mt 27:46; Mk 15:34) in conjunction with words Jesus spoke soon after that: "Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit" (Lk 23:46). In other words, at that moment on the Cross, Jesus may have been expressing, simultaneously, both the feeling of sheer human physical and emotional misery in the midst of His afflictions, and yet, at the same time an underlying surrender to divine providence. It is as if Jesus was saying: "My God, though I feel right now as if You are far away from me, as if You have abandoned Me in My misery and affliction, yet still I know that you are My Father, and so in You I put all my trust."

The Navarre Bible Commentary on St. Mark puts it this way:

One of the most painful situations a person can experience is to feel alone in the midst of misunderstanding and persecution on all sides, to feel completely insecure and afraid. God permits these tests to happen so that, experiencing our smallness and our world-weariness, we place all our trust in Him who draws good from evil for those who love Him (cf. Rom 8:28).

Again, part of the Gospel message in our Lord's cry of abandonment on the Cross is that He does not ask us to walk through any depth of suffering and affliction that He has not walked through and shared Himself: even the temporary, excruciating spiritual experience of feeling abandoned by God Himself. One of my favorite expressions of this truth is found in the writings of a Protestant author from the 20th century, Borden P. Bowne:

I know something of the arguments whereby we seek to keep our faith in the divine goodness in the presence of the world's pain and sorrow and the manifold sinister aspects of existence. I do not disparage them; upon occasion I use them; but I always feel that at best they are only palliatives and leave the great depths of the problem untouched. There is only one argument that touches the bottom, and that is Paul's question: "He that spared not His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, will He not freely give us all things?" We look on the woes of the world. We hear the whole of creation, to use Paul's language, groaning and laboring in pain. We see a few good men vainly striving to help the world into life and light; and in our sense of the awful magnitude of the problem and of our inability to do much, we cry out: "Where is God? How can He bear this? Why doesn't He do something?" And there is but one answer that satisfies: and that is the Incarnation and the Cross. God could not bear it. He has done something. He has done the utmost compatible with moral wisdom. He has entered into the fellowship of our suffering and misery and at infinite cost has taken the world upon His Heart that He might raise it to Himself. (Studies in Christianity, p. 99)

Down through the centuries, theologians have tried to peer even more deeply into the mystery of Christ's cry of anguish on the Cross, and although their speculations do not amount to defined doctrines of the Church, they are sometimes well worth pondering.

For example, some theologians have pointed out that the very next line of Psalm 22, the one after the first verse that Jesus quotes on the Cross, in the Latin translation says "far from my salvation are the words of my sins." Thus, according to the Haydock's Catholic Commentary, "The [early church] Fathers answer that He spoke these words [from Psalm 22] in the person of sinners, for whose sake He suffered" (p. 134).

Even if the Latin vulgate version of Psalm 22:2 is inaccurate, the point may still hold. Since Jesus was "substituting" Himself for us on the Cross (Catechism, entry 615), offering the perfect sacrifice on behalf of sinners to make up for our sins (Is 53:6; 2 Cor 5:21; Gal 3:13), then He not only had to die a physical death on the Cross for our redemption ("For the wages of sin is death," Rom 6:23) but also had to experience spiritual death for us - that is, the state of separation from God due to sin - if He was truly to bear on His Heart the penalty that sinners deserve.

This does not mean the Father actually abandoned Him on the Cross, of course, for as Shane so rightly points out, that would be a "metaphysical impossibility": The Father cannot actually separate Himself from His Son, because the Blessed Trinity cannot be divided up into separate parts. Rather, some theologians speculate that in His human soul the Son on the Cross simply lost the Beatific Vision of His Father for a time; others say that the Son simply did not permit the comfort of that vision to sustain him on the Cross. In any case, it must have been possible for the divine Son incarnate to "taste" the terrible penalty of eternal loss in some way, and thereby bear that penalty away for all who turn to Him in repentance and faith.

There are mysteries here too deep for us to fathom. Perhaps Bl. Pope John Paul II said it best in one of His poems:

But the depths of His words no one knows
No one knows how far
The farthest reason goes
How limitless His suffering was -
Solitude on the tree of the Cross.

Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception. His latest book is Divine Mercy: A Guide from Genesis to Benedict XVI (Marian Press). Got a question? E-mail him at questions@thedivinemercy.org.

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