“Father, forgive them. . . . .” “This day you will be with me in paradise.” “Woman, behold your son.”
The first three words all have an air of the regal and divine about them. In fact, they can sound more like utterances of an impassive Greek god on Mount Olympus than the anguished cries of Calvary’s Suffering Servant.
But wait, Jesus’ final sermon is not over yet. Now comes the fourth word, in which His Sacred Humanity shines with such brilliance. The Son of Man, identifying with man, speaks the haunting word which has echoed down the centuries: “Why?”
Why evil? Why suffering? Why death? Why do bad things happen to good people? Why does God seem so far removed from it all? The late Archbishop Fulton Sheen made the intriguing observation that in this one line of Christ, for a twinkling of an eye, even God sounded like an atheist.
St. Paul, in his turn, asks a question, too. He presents it rhetorically: “He who did not spare His own Son but handed Him over for us all, how will He not also give us everything else along with Him?” (Rom 8:32).
The problem of evil is resolved only in reference to the mystery of the Cross. Christian theology has a very balanced view of suffering. We need never seek it out and may actually pray for deliverance: “Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me” (Lk 22:42). However, when it does come, the Cross must finally be embraced: “Still, not my will but yours be done” (Lk 22:42).
When faced with suffering, a human being has several options. The first is to shrink from it by escaping into drugs, sex, sleep, or some other reality-denying technique. The second is to accept the pain with bitter resignation, reminiscent of an earlier generation of existentialists like Sartre and Camus. The third is to see in suffering an invitation to growth (at the psychological level) and participation in the Lord’s Paschal Mystery (at the faith level). The first two postures are unacceptable for a Christian. So we need to consider the implications of the third.
One who believes in the God of the Bible knows the meaning of Divine Providence, namely, that our lives are always in the hands of a loving, omnipotent Father. That helps us see that “nothing is going to happen to me today that God and I, together, will not be able to handle.”
Easier said than done? Jesus led the way. He showed us how suffering can be humanizing and divinizing at the same time. The fourth and fifth chapters of the Epistle to the Hebrews show this clearly as we read that in Christ “we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens” (Heb 4:14), first having “offered prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears to [God]” (Heb 5:7). Most importantly, “Son though He was, He learned obedience from what He suffered; and when He was made perfect, He became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey Him” (Heb 5:8-9). Thus, Jesus is our model in suffering.
Although the Old Testament presents us with a provident and immanent God, suffering does not become bearable and meaningful (even for a holy man like Job) until God Himself endures it in His Son. Therefore, while it is true that Christ dies for us (in the sense of atoning for our sins), it is equally true that He did not mean to eliminate suffering and death as a personal experience for His brothers and sisters. From that vantage point, we must conclude that Jesus did not die in our stead but, through His own Death and Resurrection, taught us how to die – and rise.
In the ‘60s, it was fashionable to suggest that Christ’s recitation of Psalm 22 on Calvary showed torment and despair. Better exegesis, however, suggests a man of faith who chooses a psalm tailor-made to His needs. First, this prayer acknowledges the existential situation from a human point of view: fear, confusion, anxiety. But then comes an awareness that God is present in this traumatic hour, and that becomes the foundation for a new perspective of hope. This attitude never denies the reality of pain, but it does allow pain to be considered in the light of a future of vindication and joy. And so, our Lord can say: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken Me?” Nevertheless, immediately He is impelled to follow up on that with sentiments that culminate (in the psalm) with lines like these: “I will proclaim your name to my brethren. . . . Let the coming generation be told of the Lord that they may proclaim to a people yet to be born the justice He has shown.” “Post crucem, lucem;” “After the cross, the light.”
In Christ, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, God tackled head-on the problem of evil and even that of His own seeming remoteness. For God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, as St. Paul teaches. The Cross, bearing the Suffering Servant, still asks the question – in the name of all humanity – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
That same symbol also answers the question.
(Editor’s note: This is the fourth of seven reflections by Fr. Stravinskas on the Seven Last Words, leading up to Good Friday. They were originally preached on Good Friday 2017 at the “Tre Ore” at Holy Innocents Church, Manhattan.)
• “Seven Last Words from the Cross: ‘Father, forgive them…’” (March 23, 2018)
• “Seven Last Words from the Cross: ‘This day you will be with Me in paradise’” (March 24, 2018)
• “Seven Last Words from the Cross: ‘Woman, Behold Your Son’” (March 25, 2018)
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