Part II – Understanding Christ’s Cry of Abandonment
In response to the last post (Understanding Christ’s Cry of Abandonment), I have been asked about Pope Saint John Paul’s II comment on Christ’s cry, taken from one his Encyclical On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering:
One can say that these words on abandonment are born at the level of that inseparable union of the Son with the Father, and are born because the Father “laid on him the iniquity of us all”. They also foreshadow the words of Saint Paul: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin”. Together with this horrible weight, encompassing the “entire” evil of the turning away from God which is contained in sin, Christ, through the divine depth of his filial union with the Father, perceives in a humanly inexpressible way this suffering which is the separation, the rejection by the Father, the estrangement from God.
The question posed to me is whether this quote is teaching that the Protestant Penal Substitutionary understanding of Christ’s cry of abandonment does indeed have some validity within the Catholic understanding of the atonement. That is a good question, and I think the best place to turn for an answer is to other comments made by Popes John Paul II and Benedict on this very issue.
The following are some excerpts from the handful of times each Pope has commented specifically upon this verse. Note: I have trimmed down many of these quotes to hopefully shorten the length of this post, as well as underlined the portions that apply to us, while putting in bold the portions that apply to Christ.
John Paul II: At the same time the dying Redeemer’s entreaty rings out in the liturgy: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt 27: 46; Mk 15: 34). We often feel this cry of suffering as “our own” in the painful situations of life which can cause deep distress and give rise to worry and uncertainty. In moments of loneliness and bewilderment, which are not unusual in human life, a believer’s heart can exclaim: the Lord has abandoned me! However, Christ’s Passion and his glorification on the tree of the Cross offer a different key for reading these events. On Golgotha the Father, at the height of his Only-begotten Son’s sacrifice, does not abandon him, but brings to completion his plan of salvation for all humanity. In his Passion, Death and Resurrection, we are shown that the last word in human existence is not death but God’s victory over death. [General Audience, Wednesday 19 April, 2000]
This is precisely the theme/lesson I had brought up in the previous post. The cry is essentially a “Why?” prayer to God about suffering, which we know as Christians is answered in Christ’s Resurrection, when God shows that He does hear our prayers and does bring good out of the suffering we endure in life.
John Paul II: When he is on the Cross, the spectators will sarcastically remind him of his declaration: “He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him; for he said, “I am the Son of God’” (Mt 27: 43). But at that hour the Father was silent in his regard, so that he could show his full solidarity with sinners and redeem them. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches: “Jesus did not experience reprobation as if he himself had sinned. But in the redeeming love that always united him to the Father, he assumed us in the state of our waywardness of sin” (n. 603). On the cross Jesus actually continues his intimate dialogue with the Father, living it with the full force of his lacerated and suffering humanity, never losing the trusting attitude of the Son who is “one” with the Father. On the one hand, there is the Father’s mysterious silence, accompanied by cosmic darkness and pierced by the cry (Mt 27: 46). On the other hand, Psalm 22, quoted here by Jesus, ends with a hymn to the sovereign Lord of the world and of history. [General Audience, Wednesday 3 May, 2000]
This quote is significant because it both identifies the “abandonment” as the Father’s “silence,” and it also quotes a key portion of the Catechism on this matter, paragraph 603. Jesus is showing “solidarity with sinners,” not taking their punishment in their place, not being forsaken by God in their place, but rather ‘feeling what they feel’. Our ‘state of waywardness’ is living in this fallen world, surrounded by evil and suffering, which Jesus chose to enter into. The Pope calls Christ’s cry an “intimate dialog with the Father,” which is odd if (as Protestants say) this is the epitome of the Father’s wrath upon Christ.
John Paul II: Then Jesus adds: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” (Mt 27:46; cf. Ps 22:2). These words of the Psalm are his prayer. Despite their tone, these words reveal the depths of his union with the Father. In the last moments of his life on earth, Jesus thinks of the Father. [Good Friday, Stations of the Cross, 2000]
This is a common theme throughout these quotes: What has been called “Jesus’ cry” is more accurately Jesus praying to the Father. This is a prayer, it isn’t an expression of pain simply vocalized for the audience. The prayer signifies Christ’s intimate union with the Father, hence why He says “My” God. Jesus is praying from the heart; He is not suffering wrath.
John Paul II: Jesus’ cry on the Cross, dear Brothers and Sisters, is not the cry of anguish of a man without hope, but the prayer of the Son who offers his life to the Father in love, for the salvation of all. At the very moment when he identifies with our sin, “abandoned” by the Father, he “abandons” himself into the hands of the Father. His eyes remain fixed on the Father. Precisely because of the knowledge and experience of the Father which he alone has, even at this moment of darkness he sees clearly the gravity of sin and suffers because of it. He alone, who sees the Father and rejoices fully in him, can understand completely what it means to resist the Father’s love by sin. Faced with this mystery, we are greatly helped not only by theological investigation but also by that great heritage which is the “lived theology” of the saints. The saints offer us precious insights which enable us to understand more easily the intuition of faith, thanks to the special enlightenment which some of them have received from the Holy Spirit, or even through their personal experience of those terrible states of trial which the mystical tradition describes as the “dark night”. Not infrequently the saints have undergone something akin to Jesus’ experience on the Cross in the paradoxical blending of bliss and pain. In the Dialogue of Divine Providence, God the Father shows Catherine of Siena how joy and suffering can be present together in holy souls: “Thus the soul is blissful and afflicted: afflicted on account of the sins of its neighbour, blissful on account of the union and the affection of charity which it has inwardly received. These souls imitate the spotless Lamb, my Only-begotten Son, who on the Cross was both blissful and afflicted“. In the same way, Thérèse of Lisieux lived her agony in communion with the agony of Jesus, “experiencing” in herself the very paradox of Jesus’s own bliss and anguish: “In the Garden of Olives our Lord was blessed with all the joys of the Trinity, yet his dying was no less harsh. It is a mystery, but I assure you that, on the basis of what I myself am feeling, I can understand something of it“. What an illuminating testimony! [Apostolic Letter NOVO MILLENNIO INEUNTE]
This is a powerful insight by the Pope because he says Christ’s cry of abandonment is akin to “the dark night of the soul,” wherein the saints experienced both God’s joy and suffering, even spiritual dryness. How could the Pope even say this if he understood Christ’s words to be suffering damnation in place of the believer?
Benedict XVI: Christ’s prayer reaches its culmination on the Cross. It is expressed in those last words which the Evangelists have recorded. Where he seems to utter a cry of despair: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt 27: 46; Mk 15: 34; cf. Ps 22: 1), Christ was actually making his own the invocation of someone beset by enemies with no escape, who has no one other than God to turn to and, over and above any human possibilities, experiences his grace and salvation. With these words of the Psalm, first of a man who is suffering, then of the People of God in their suffering, caused by God’s apparent absence, Jesus made his own this cry of humanity that suffers from God’s apparent absence, and carried this cry to the Father’s heart. So, by praying in this ultimate solitude together with the whole of humanity, he opens the Heart of God to us. There is no contradiction between these words in Psalm 22 and the words full of filial trust: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Lk 23: 46; cf. Ps 31: 5). These words, also taken from Psalm 31, are the dramatic imploration of a person who, abandoned by all, is sure he can entrust himself to God. The prayer of supplication full of hope is consequently the leitmotif of Lent and enables us to experience God as the only anchor of salvation. [Ash Wednesday, 2008]
Jesus identifies with mankind in experiencing “God’s apparent absence” when man cries out to God in the midst of their suffering. But given that Jesus was praying from the heart here, this prayer touched the Father’s heart, which in turn “opens the heart of God to us.” This is how Jesus is making atonement and interceding for us, not by taking our punishment in the Penal Substitutionary sense. The Pope even goes onto say Jesus’ prayer “Father into your hands I commit my spirit” is saying the same thing as “My God, why have you abandoned me,” and yet we know the former cannot be construed to mean the Father’s wrath, so neither can the latter (since they are both ultimately saying the same prayer).
Pope Benedict XVI: Jesus, with the cry of his prayer, shows that with the burden of suffering and death in which there seems to be abandonment, the absence of God, Jesus is utterly certain of the closeness of the Father who approves this supreme act of love, the total gift of himself, although the voice from on high is not heard, as it was on other occasions. This also happens in our relationship with the Lord: when we face the most difficult and painful situations, when it seems that God does not hear, we must not be afraid to entrust the whole weight of our overburdened hearts to him, we must not fear to cry out to him in our suffering, we must be convinced that God is close, even if he seems silent. However a question arises within us: how is it possible that such a powerful God does not intervene to save his Son from this terrible trial? It is important to understand that Jesus’ prayer is not the cry of one who meets death with despair, nor is it the cry of one who knows he has been forsaken. At this moment Jesus makes his own the whole of Psalm 22, the Psalm of the suffering People of Israel. In this way he takes upon himself not only the sin of his people, but also that of all men and women who are suffering from the oppression of evil and, at the same time, he places all this before God’s own heart, in the certainty that his cry will be heard in the Resurrection. In this prayer of Jesus are contained his extreme trust and his abandonment into God’s hands, even when God seems absent, even when he seems to be silent, complying with a plan incomprehensible to us. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church we read: “in the redeeming love that always united him to the Father, he assumed us in the state of our waywardness of sin, to the point that he could say in our name from the cross: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’” (n. 603). His is a suffering in communion with us and for us, which derives from love and already bears within it redemption, the victory of love. At the supreme moment, Jesus gives vent to his heart’s grief, but at the same time makes clear the meaning of the Father’s presence and his consent to the Father’s plan of salvation of humanity. (GENERAL AUDIENCE, Wednesday, 8 February 2012 – Homily on Christ’s cry of abandonment]
Unlike other times when the voice of the Father boomed from Heaven, “This is my beloved Son,” no such confirmation came here, which certainly was a hard reality to bear. Yet even in the midst of Jesus saying God has abandoned Him, the Pope explains that Jesus knows the Father is indeed near. The abandonment is only apparent. And as with John Paul II above, here we see Benedict explicitly quoting CCC#603, showing that there’s no wrath or Penal Substitution component to it.
Benedict XVI: Often we cannot understand why God refrains from intervening. Yet he does not prevent us from crying out, like Jesus on the Cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt 27:46). We should continue asking this question in prayerful dialogue before his face. Our protest is not meant to challenge God, or to suggest that error, weakness or indifference can be found in him. Instead, our crying out is, as it was for Jesus on the Cross, the deepest and most radical way of affirming our faith in his sovereign power. Even in their bewilderment and failure to understand the world around them, Christians continue to believe in the “goodness and loving kindness of God” (Tit 3:4). Immersed like everyone else in the dramatic complexity of historical events, they remain unshakably certain that God is our Father and loves us, even when his silence remains incomprehensible. [Deus Caritas Est]
This lesson is the essence of a spiritually mature person: the one who knows suffering is all part of God’s plan and that God indeed does hear us, and does still love us, even if He is not answering us – especially during the truly rough times.
Benedict XVI: This Psalm presents the figure of an innocent man, persecuted and surrounded by adversaries who clamour for his death; and he turns to God with a sorrowful lament which, in the certainty of his faith, opens mysteriously to praise. His initial cry is an appeal addressed to a God who appears remote, who does not answer and seems to have abandoned him: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest” (vv. 3-4). God is silent and this silence pierces the soul of the person praying, who ceaselessly calls but receives no answer. Day and night succeed one another in an unflagging quest for a word, for help that does not come, God seems so distant, so forgetful, so absent. The prayer asks to be heard, to be answered, it begs for contact, seeks a relationship that can give comfort and salvation. And like the oppressed righteous man in the Book of Wisdom (cf. 2:12-20), like Jesus on Calvary (cf. Mt 27:39-43), the Psalmist saw his own relationship with the Lord called into question in the cruel and sarcastic emphasis of what is causing him to suffer: God’s silence, his apparent absence. And yet God was present with an indisputable tenderness in the life of the person praying. This is a cry that opens the Heavens, because it proclaims a faith, a certainty that goes beyond all doubt, all darkness and all desolation. And the lament is transformed, it gives way to praise in the acceptance of salvation: “He has heard… I will tell of your name to my brethren; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you” (vv. 22c-23). Dear brothers and sisters, this Psalm has taken us to Golgotha, to the foot of the cross of Jesus, to relive his passion and to share the fruitful joy of the resurrection. Let us therefore allow ourselves to be invaded by the light of the paschal mystery even in God’s apparent absence, even in God’s silence, and, like the disciples of Emmaus, let us learn to discern the true reality beyond appearances, recognizing humiliation itself as the way to exaltation, and the cross as the full manifestation of life in earth. [General Audience, 14 September, 2011 – Homily on Psalm 22:1]
The Pope says Jesus’ cry is “a cry that opens the Heavens”! That’s quite strange if this cry is the cry of someone undergoing the Father’s wrath! Rather, this cry of abandonment is actually a demonstration of such confidence that God will deliver (He just isn’t at the moment), that God looks upon this act of confidence very favorably.
From these quotes, we can get a pretty good idea of how Christ’s cry of abandonment is to be understood from the Catholic perspective. Notice that nowhere is there any mention of God’s wrath being poured out upon Jesus. Nowhere is the Protestant notion of Penal Substitution being expressed here. Quite the opposite, in fact. Christ is praying to the Father here, not getting hurt by the Father, and His prayer expresses confidence that God will make everything right, rather than being about desolation.
Before I conclude, I think it’s very beneficial to us all that the Popes spoke upon paragraph 603 in the Catechism, which quotes Christ’s cry of abandonment and is at the heart of the section on the Atonement. (I invite all readers to actually read the whole section of the Catechism on this matter, it’s a relatively short read.) In reading the whole section, one will see that nowhere is Christ’s work on the Cross ever described in terms of Jesus undergoing the Father’s wrath. In fact, we see many signs of just the opposite idea. The Catechism states that “sinners were the authors and ministers of all the sufferings” Jesus endured (598), and that the only role God played was indirect, i.e., “God permitted the acts that flowed from their blindness” (600) and “the Father handed his Son over to sinners” (614). This is impossible if (as Protestants say) the chief suffering was directly by the Father, invisibly undergoing His wrath.
Indeed, the very context of #603 ties in with the original quote in question:
“For our sake God made him to be sin”
602 Consequently, St. Peter can formulate the apostolic faith in the divine plan of salvation in this way: “You were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your fathers. . . with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. He was destined before the foundation of the world but was made manifest at the end of the times for your sake.” Man’s sins, following on original sin, are punishable by death. By sending his own Son in the form of a slave, in the form of a fallen humanity, on account of sin, God “made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
603 Jesus did not experience reprobation as if he himself had sinned. But in the redeeming love that always united him to the Father, he assumed us in the state of our waywardness of sin, to the point that he could say in our name from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”406 Having thus established him in solidarity with us sinners, God “did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all“, so that we might be “reconciled to God by the death of his Son”.
Notice these two paragraphs fall under the heading of “for our sake God made him to be sin” (2 Corinthians 5:21), which I had shown in a prior article has nothing to do with Protestant Imputation, but rather the Incarnation. The Logos takes on our fallen humanity, as the Catechism says: “sending his own son in the form of a fallen humanity,” which is a direct reference to Romans 8:3. This is the context from which flows paragraph 603. And note that Romans 8:32 is also quoted here in explanation of the abandonment, namely that God “delivered up” Jesus into the hands of sinners and doesn’t rescue Him from this miserable situation, which is precisely how the Church Fathers interpret the abandonment.
Now we can get a better idea of the original quote of Saint John Paul II. Jesus is not suffering the Father’s wrath or ‘spiritual abandonment’, but rather the natural consequences of a fallen world and fallen humanity. Jesus “sees” the ugliness of what offending God really means, particularly since sin by its very act is a ‘turning away’ from God. Christ assumed our humanity so that He could heal it, which is precisely the point of the Encyclical. The Encyclical says nothing of God’s wrath, but rather focuses on the issue of human suffering from a ‘medicinal’ perspective, and how Christ’s suffering gives meaning to our own, especially in how we are called to participate in redemptive suffering. This is why in context he says: “in a certain sense He annihilates this evil in the spiritual space of the relationship between God and humanity, and fills this space with good”. So no, Jesus did “did not experience [abandonment] as if he himself had sinned,” but through the Incarnation he partook in the misery we partaking in and transformed it, turning it into something bearable and having meaning, even a “ladder to Heaven.”