January 4, 2013
Dear brothers and sisters,
I am taking the good news today from Matthew 27:45-50.
From noon onward, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And about three o’clock Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Some of the bystanders who heard it said, “This one is calling for Elijah.” Immediately one of them ran to get a sponge; he soaked it in wine, and putting it on a reed, gave it to him to drink. But the rest said, “Wait, let us see if Elijah comes to save him.” But Jesus cried out again in a loud voice, and gave up his spirit.
Mark, Matthew, and Luke all include the observation that the sky became dark from about noon until Jesus’ death around 3:00 in the afternoon. The New American BIble notes indicate that this may be a reference to the book of the prophet Amos, who was a shepherd in Judah in the middle of the eighth century B.C.E. and who delivered God’s words of divine judgment. Chapter 8 is of interest here: “The time is ripe to have done with my people Israel; I will forgive them no longer….On that day, says the Lord GOD, I will make the sun set at midday and cover the earth with darkness in broad daylight….I will turn your feasts into mourning and all your songs into lamentations….I will make them mourn as for an only son, and bring their day to a bitter end.”
Matthew drew much of his material from Mark including Jesus’ last cry. Luke and John have much different versions. Matthew changed Mark’s “Eloi” to “Eli,” from the Aramaic to the Hebrew. He left the rest of the sentence in Aramaic. These are the words of David’s lament from Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? Why so far from my call for help, from my cries of anguish?” That partly answers my question about why Jesus cried out to God, instead of to his Father as he usually addressed God. Psalm 22 is interwoven throughout the account of the crucifixion.
Jesus cried out again in a loud voice. Did he repeat himself? Or did he helplessly groan in pain and anguished abandonment? Or did Jesus cry out, as Barclay suggests, what John wrote, “It is finished.”? Barclay notes that in Aramaic and Greek, that is just one word. In Greek it is tetelestai, which means a shout of victory.
To me Jesus’ last words are a reminder of his humanity. He was in unimaginable pain. The minutes must have seemed like hours and the hours days. He had given everything to God, submitting to His will at every turn. Now, the reality of dying, the darkness of death, gripped him. He couldn’t escape the question, why. Why do I have to endure this alone?
That captures my own feelings about death. It’s not death so much that bothers me. I don’t think I fear death. I fear dying, though. I fear feeling like I’m clawing for air; I fear being knotted by pain; I fear the yawning abyss of darkness. Abandonment. Alone, powerlessly letting everyone slip away. That is frightening to me.
Jesus “gave up” his spirit. The New American Bible notes that he willingly surrendered his life, his spirit, to God in a last act of submission. I have sat with people as they lay dying, wondering at the tenacity of the human will to live. However, there comes a point when the spirit gives up. With my grandmother it was a moment as she lay unconscious when she sat upright and said, “I see the light, I see the light.” I’ve always thought of that as a “God moment.” Now, I think of it as a gift. A gift of confidence that God is there to receive me, to embrace me. I need not fear darkness, separation, abandonment. I can willingly volunteer my spirit, knowing that I will be re-united with God’s spirit. I just hope that can come well in advance of the moment of death, but I doubt it will. My will to live is too strong. Not even Jesus could overcome his human will until his last gasp — tetelestai, his shout of victory, in seeing the light, the waiting embrace of God, his Father.