‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’ These words of Jesus have seared themselves on the memory of the Church. Matthew and Mark record them in the precise Aramaic words that Jesus used. They are the opening words of Psalm 22. Taking their cue from these words of Jesus, all the evangelists to a greater or lesser degree interpret the Passion of Jesus in the light of this psalm, including Luke and John, who choose not to include the words themselves in their Gospels. All the Gospels tell how they divided Jesus’ garments, casting lots for them, in a precise echo of the psalm: ‘They divide my garments among them, and for my raiment they cast lots.’ (Ps. 22:18). All save John tell how Jesus is cruelly mocked, as is the psalmist. Matthew and Mark note the detail that the mockers wagged their heads: ‘All who see me mock at me, they make mouths at me, they wag their heads.’ (Ps. 22:7). Matthew goes further, recording how those who mock Jesus repeat almost verbatim the words of the psalmist’s persecutors: ‘He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him.’ (Matt 27:43)
Psalm 21 begins with an expression of dreadful abandonment and solitude, but as the psalmist’s prayer continues he comes to hope. His hope is first that, in the end, his soul will not be abandoned by God: ‘O my help, hasten to my aid! Deliver my soul from the sword, my life from the power of the dog!’ (Ps. 22:19-20)
Luke’s account focuses on Jesus’ confidence that the Father will not abandon him. Jesus promises the criminal at his side that they will be together, that day, in Paradise, and his last words narrated by Luke are, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!’ (Luke 23:46) None of what Luke says should let us think that he thinks less, or wants us to think less, of the agony that Jesus endured, or that it was an agony of the body only, and not of the depths of his soul, as Matthew and Mark portray it. The point is precisely that it is a soul in agony, and plunged into a darkness blacker than that covering the whole earth, a soul that feels itself abandoned by God, that gives itself at the last into the hands of the Father.
There is a second element to the psalmist’s hope. He feels himself abandoned by God, and also by men. All his friends are gone, there are only enemies around him. His hope is not only that God will save his soul, but that he will be restored to the great community of those who praise God: ‘I will tell of your name to my brethren; in the midst of the assembly I will praise you.’ (Ps. 22:22)
John’s Gospel shows us Jesus on the Cross in the company of what will be the great assembly, the Church. The Church is present on Calvary in the Beloved Disciple, standing there with the Woman, the Mother of Jesus.
Today we are that great assembly, accompanying Jesus. But of what value is our companionship? Are we not in reality as removed from Jesus, as incapable of being his soul companions in his agony, as all those who mocked him? He may be a companion to us, as he was to the good thief, but in what sense can we accompany him? In all our relationships there may come a point at which there is nothing we can do for one another. Finally, in the face of death, there is nothing to be said or done. Then there is only compassion. The dying need compassion. What human compassion can there be for Jesus in his agony? Compassion requires understanding, the ability to go spiritually where the other is going, and so to be present. But Jesus in his agony goes far beyond where we can follow, because his agony comes from bearing our sins. We may be, and we are, through his death, forgiven our sins and purified of our sins, but we can never carry sin. Only Jesus, the Lamb of God, carries the sins of the world. Nor can we know, as Jesus knows, the horror of sin. Only the sinless one can experience that. We who have sinned never shall.
Is Jesus, then, alone among men, to have no other human being who can understand, who can have compassion, who can accompany him to the end? The Father, in his love for the Son, did not want it so. He says of Jesus what he said of Adam: ‘It is not good for the man to be alone. Let us make him a helper fit for him.’ And so God fashioned the Woman, Mary, redeemed like us, but sinless, and so able to understand sin, and understand, accompany and have compassion for the one who carries the sins of the world. She stands with Jesus on Calvary, and with her is the Beloved Disciple. By ourselves we can only stand at a distance and watch. But if we accept Jesus’ words to the Beloved Disciple, which are for every disciple, ‘Son, behold your mother,’ and take her to our own, then we can stand close and accompany the Saviour.
Abbot Anselm Atkinson OSB