MY GOD, MY GOD, WHY HAST THOU FORSAKEN ME?
Joost De Blank "Is It Nothing To You" (1958)
I FIND it difficult to recall the next three hours. It was as if time stood still, as if all life were ' its breath. I cannot explain it: I can only say it was like watching a contest which was no Saturday afternoon sporting event but a life and death struggle. (Perhaps the feeling of Longinus was like that experienced by the people of Kent and Sussex as they saw the Battle of Britain being fought in the skies overhead. They knew their salvation depended on the outcome, and yet they themselves could do nothing except watch.)
Time's most sacred minutes were marked between the hours of twelve and three. I didn't understand what was happening, but that something tremendous was happening I had no doubt at all. In some ways it was rather like an eclipse of the sun, when an unexpected darkness comes over the land and nature falls silent. It was like this, but it was much more than this. Nature might be silent, but there was a movement in the atmosphere as if the devil himself were calling up all the legions of hell to assault that figure on the Cross. -- Oh, I know I am being wise now that I believe, but I know too that at the time I was trembling for fear. There were cosmic powers engaged and poor mortals could only crouch terrified.
I wish I could put it far more clearly, but I know this beyond all doubt, that suddenly after the last word there was a complete change, a complete change in the sky for example. The blazing sun was hidden, and an unexpected and frightening darkness covered the land. And with the darkness the behaviour of the people changed. Not now the noisy jeer and the ribald jest. Now in the darkness it was as if dormant consciences aroused them to their treachery. The darkness gave them time to think, as it often does, and the things done heedlessly in the daytime come to torment us in the night. A hush fell over the crowd. I could hear the sound of sobbing, and I heard, too, that sound which you will hear all over Jewry when the guilt of sin strikes home. I heard them beating their breasts.
Beating their breasts indeed! I nearly turned on them in a fury. `That's right,' I almost shouted, `you're sorry about it all now - sorry now it's too late.' Too late! too late! It is possible to be too late. I thought again of the penitent thief upon the cross, and I remembered that in Holy Scripture `there is one death-bed repentance that none may despair; there is only one that none may presume.'
But I realized that we would have no more trouble with the crowd now. Not that we could have done much about it because my own men were as uncertain of themselves as the rest. They no longer gambled, their eyes were fixed too upon that central Cross. None of us knew or could understand, but we stood on a battleground, we stood on holy ground. All was deathly still, and then that voice the sound of which calls day and night in my ears: 'My God. my God why hast thou forsaken me? He cried the words in a loud voice, and I believe he cried them in Hebrew, but I needed nobody to translate. The tone in which he said it revealed all to me. Blasphemy comes easily to a soldier not deliberate usually, but because it's part of the lingua franca of the service. `My God,' `Good God,' these are expletives used by 'many with no thought of what they are saying. Job the Patriarch was tempted to curse God and die, and this man would have had all my sympathy had some blasphemy come not only from his lips but from his heart. Crazy he might be, but he had given up everything for his God, and he had come to his death rather than recant. (It makes one think-doesn't it? - when so many of us are afraid of nailing our colours to the mast, when we think we ought to laugh with the rest at a lewd joke or share in the conventional dishonesties of our society without protest.) The point is-his God had failed him. Why not shake his fist, nailed as it was to that Cross, in the face of this faithless God? But there was nothing of that. His voice was almost as the voice of a little child who suddenly discovers that he is not alone in the darkness. `My God, my God, why did you have to forsake me? It was almost as if he was for a 'moment afraid he had let God down, for above all it showed his concern for his God.
Above all else his question made it unmistakably clear to me that his relationship with God was far and away the most important thing in his life. Nothing else really had any consequence beside that. So many of us want God for what we can get out of him. We are quite bitter about it if God does not answer our prayers our way. People give up religious practices because, as they say, they have never got anything out of it. A woman prays that her son may come home from the wars; he doesn't, and she never prays again. Whatever else this cry of dereliction might mean, it revealed the reality of all true religion - that we want God for himself because he wants us for ourselves, and that life without God is not life at all, but a living death.
This was something new to a man like myself brought up the Roman way. There are plenty of gods to choose from, and if the first god doesn't do what you want him to do, why-try another god. There are plenty more in the pantheon.
Something more happened to me as I stood on Golgotha at that time. Again I discover putting it into words is an almost impossible task, but all I can say is, I have never felt completely isolated again. I have certainly been through times of black darkness, times when I couldn't see the sun, times when a heavy insupportable weight pressed upon my soul, but always I reassure myself with the remembrance that he has been through that experience too that he came out with faith undimmed on the other side, and I hang on. I hang on because he has shared our darkness.
I can't pretend that I am always conscious of God's presence at such times - I think then I should be living by sight and not by faith-but my faith tells me HE IS THERE, and I can go on. `Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me.'
Of course, I have learnt to understand better now what was happening at this time. I know that the darkness that came over the land was the judgement on man's sin. I know now that the Cross is- the effective action of God's holy love, and that the darkness and the cry were God vindicating his holiness in his love.
But the world still walks in darkness, and I myself often enough still walk in darkness, the darkness of our own making. Not that God forsakes us, but that we forsake God ! I know now that because that figure on the Cross cried that dreadful cry we can never cry it because we are never God-forsaken. But sometimes when I sin, sometimes when I spit in the face of Christ, sometimes when I deliberately disregard his love I overhear another cry: `My son, my daughter, why hast thou forsaken me? and I have no answer but to bow my head in shame.
FOR THE READER'S MEDITATION
1. Am I still putting off that moral decision?
2. Do I trust in the dark?
3. Does God ever have to cry about my forsaking him?