Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center, American University
April 6, 2012—Good Friday
Mark 15:33-39

Illustration by Kathleen Kimball

When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “Listen, he is calling for Elijah.” And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.” Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”


Some years ago a famous person’s papers were published.  There were not the usual unsavory details that are in so many celebrities’ diaries, but there was an unexpected revelation in it.  The diary recorded a letter sent to a priest with a heartfelt, and anguished, confession:

Now Father— since [19]49 or 50 this terrible sense of loss—this loneliness—this continual longing for God—which gives me pain deep down in my heart—Darkness is such that I really do not see—neither with my mind nor with my reason—The place of God in my soul is blank—There is no God in me—When the pain of longing is so great—I just long and long for God—and there is that I feel—He does not want me—He is not there—… God does not want me— Sometimes—I just hear my own voice cry out—”My God” and nothing else comes—The torture and pain I can’t explain.” [1]

It will likely surprise you to learn that the person who wrote those words was Mother Teresa.  We’re surprised because we expect someone like Mother Teresa, clearly someone holy and doing God’s work, to have such an intimate experience of God that words like “The place of God in my soul is blank” and “He is not there” should never form in her mind, let alone cross her lips.

What does it mean that someone as holy as Mother Teresa should feel such doubt?  Shouldn’t someone that holy have a constant sense of God’s presence?  Shouldn’t someone like that be on a daily-phone-call level of relationship with God?  Why would someone like that feel so… Godforsaken?


Of course, she’s not the only one.  If we’re honest, we have to admit that she is not alone at all.  We have all of us experienced that “long dark night of the soul”, that experience of loss and alienation.  That time where we have cried out in the darkness for God and not heard a whisper in reply.  So much so that we begin to doubt whether anyone is on the other end of our prayers.  And the doubt grows until we have this gnawing feeling that we stand upon the precipice.  We look out into the void.  And we fear that nothing lies beyond it.

It is an existential pain that can only be known by the faithful.  For this is not a loss of belief in God, it is a loss of connectedness to God.  We believe, we continue to proclaim, but we have this sense of being cut off from God.  Indeed, Mother Teresa never stopped believing everything she believed about God; she simply stopped feeling God’s presence.

It is something we all know.  And so that the church does not perpetuate this myth that only the faithless experience, I will say that I myself have experienced this same profound alienation.  This sense of calling out into the void and there being no answer.  God is in his heaven, but all is definitely not right with the world.  Godforsakenness.


It is probably one of the reasons that I have long been such a fan of Mark’s gospel.  In addition to the fast-paced writing, the emphasis on action, the inclusion of outsiders, and the focus on the here and now, it is the gospel narrative in which Jesus suffers the most.  And I don’t mean in the Mel Gibson The Passion of the Christ kind of way.  I mean suffers the way that we do.  In Mark’s gospel, when Jesus dies on the cross, he does not die with the supremely confident “It is finished” that he does in John’s gospel.  Or even with the wonderfully merciful, “Father forgive them, they know not what they do,” followed by “Into your hands I commend my spirit” they way he does in Luke’s.  No, he dies crying out, “My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me?”  A lament of sheer and utter despair.  Is there any more heart- wrenching feeling than the feeling of forsakeness? The feeling of having been abandoned? Of being utterly alone?

There are those who are fond of pointing out (and I have been one of them) that this is the beginning of the 22nd Psalm.  A Psalm that begins “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me?” and ends with “Future generations will be told about the Lord, and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it.”  And so, they like to point out (and I have been one of them) that Jesus isn’t despairing so much as pointing the way to deliverance.  He starts the Psalm knowing how it ends.

But as one commentator notes, Jesus isn’t quoting the Psalm.  If he were, he’d quote it in Hebrew.  Mark gives us Jesus’ words in Aramaic—not the language of the scriptures, but the language of Jesus heart.  Jesus may be basing his speech on the Psalms but he is not quoting them.  He is crying out in anguish.  He is feeling Godforsaken.

The attempt simply to say that Jesus is quoting the Psalms and that the Psalms have a happy ending (as I myself have done), can rob this scene of its power.  It can take the most profound statement of alienation and reduce it simply to an anticipatory statement of rescue and deliverance.

But this statement cannot be wished away.  It is profound.  When they were read by a young German prisoner of war named Jürgen Moltmann, himself pressed into service as a teen at the end of World War II, they changed his life.  He would spend the rest of his life as one of our age’s leading theologians attempting to understand those words.  What does it mean that the Son of God should cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”


It is a profound mystery.  And a profound reality that is communicated.  That the Word of God made flesh should himself cry out: God! Why have you left me?  That the one closest in relationship to God, so close as to be called “Son” should himself wonder why God had abandoned him and die in that anguish.

At the very least it means that when we are feeling that alienation, that profound loss, that Godforsakenness, we are not removed from God, but that we are actually having the most profound experience of God.  For God is in the Godforsakeness.  In that alienation, in that experience, we truly come to experience the crucifixion.  We come to experience Christ, who stands with us in that alienation and loss.

The cross is a declaration of solidarity with us in those profoundly godforsaken times in our lives.  It is a statement that even when we are feeling the most cut off from God, there God is, in the midst of that alienation. It is a paradox, but a healing paradox, that when we feel the most removed, when we have the most doubt, when we have the greatest sense of loss, is precisely when we are in the presence of the One who himself experienced that alienation.  And in that is our healing and hope.

For if God be in the midst of the alienation and loss, then there is no darkness, no experience, no separation in which God cannot be encountered.

For we will all experience this alienation and loss.  Some of us in this sanctuary may be experiencing it right now.  But we need not smooth it over with sentiment and false platitudes.  We need not ignore it, hoping it will go away.  We need not assert that to feel this way is somehow to have been unfaithful to God.  We can embrace the loss.  Embrace the alienation.  Embrace the Godforsakeness, knowing that when we do, we embrace the One who for our sakes was himself Godforsaken and stands with us in the midst of it.

[1] Peter Rollins, Insurrection, Howard Books, New York: 2011, 77 (citing Mother Teresa:Come Be My Light)

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