"On the Prayer of Jesus Dying on the Cross"
In Extreme Anguish, Prayer becomes a Cry
H.H. Benedict XVI
February 8, 2012
Dear brothers and sisters,
Today I would like to reflect with you on the prayer of Jesus as death was imminent, by considering what St. Mark and St. Matthew tell us. The two Evangelists give an account of the prayer of the dying Jesus not only in Greek, the language in which their accounts were written, but also -- on account of the importance of those words -- in a mixture of Hebrew and Aramaic. In this way, they have handed down not only the substance but even the sound this prayer had on the lips of Jesus: We truly listen to the words of Jesus as they were. At the same time, they described for us the attitude of the bystanders present at the Crucifixion, who failed to understand -- or who did not will to understand -- this prayer.
St. Mark, as we just heard, writes: “And when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour. And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, ‘Eloì, Eloì, lamà sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’”(15:34). In the structure of the narrative, the prayer -- the cry of Jesus -- is raised at the climax of the three hours of darkness that fell upon the whole land from midday until 3:00 in the afternoon. These three hours of darkness are the continuation of an earlier span of time, also of three hours, which began with Jesus’ Crucifixion. The Evangelist Mark informs us, in fact, that “it was the third hour when they crucified Him” (cf. 15:25). Taken as a whole, the account’s temporal indications reveal that Jesus’ six hours on the cross are divided into two chronologically equal parts.
In the first three hours, from 9:00 until midday, we find the mockery of various groups of persons, who demonstrate their skepticism and affirm their unbelief. St. Mark writes: “Those who passed by derided Him” (15:29); “so also the chief priests mocked Him to one another with the scribes (15:31); “those who were crucified with Him also reviled Him” (15:32). In the three hours that follow thereafter -- from noon “until three in the afternoon” -- the Evangelist speaks only of the darkness that has descended over the whole land; darkness alone occupies the scene, without any reference to the movement of persons or to words. As Jesus draws closer to death, there is only darkness that falls “over the whole land.”
Even the cosmos takes part in this event: Darkness envelops persons and things, but even in this moment of darkness, God is present; He does not abandon. In the biblical tradition, darkness has an ambivalent meaning: It is a sign of the presence and action of evil, but also of a mysterious presence and action of God, who is capable of vanquishing all darkness. In the Book of Exodus, for example, we read: “And the Lord said to Moses: ‘Lo, I am coming to you in a thick cloud’” (19:9); and again: “The people stood afar off, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was” (20:21). And in the discourses of Deuteronomy, Moses recounts: “The mountain burned with fire to the heart of heaven, wrapped in darkness, cloud and gloom” (4:11); you “heard the voice out of the midst of the darkness, while the mountain was burning with fire” (5:23). In the scene of Jesus’ Crucifixion, darkness covers the earth, and it is into the darkness of death that the Son of God is plunged in order to bring life by His act of love.
Returning to the narrative of St. Mark, in the face of the insults hurled by the various classes of persons, in the face of the darkness that descends over all things, in the moment when He faces death, Jesus -- by the cry of His prayer -- reveals that together with the weight of the suffering and death in which there is seeming abandonment and the absence of God, He has utter certainty of the closeness of the Father, who approves this supreme act of love, the total gift of Himself, even though He does not hear His voice from on high, as He had in other moments. In reading the Gospels, we become aware that in other important moments of His earthly life, Jesus had seen signs joined to the Father’s presence and approval of His path of love -- even the clarifying voice of God.
Thus, in the event that follows after the Baptism in the Jordan, as the heavens were rent, the word of the Father was heard: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11). Then, in the Transfiguration, the sign of the cloud was joined by the word: “This is my beloved Son; listen to Him” (Mark 9:7). Instead, as death approaches the Crucified One, silence descends, no voice is heard, but the Father’s loving gaze remains fixed upon the Son’s gift of love.
But what meaning does the prayer of Jesus have, the cry He sends forth to the Father: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” -- doubt regarding His mission or the Father’s presence? Does this prayer perhaps not contain the keen awareness of having been abandoned? The words Jesus addresses to the Father are the beginning of Psalm 22, in which the psalmist manifests before God the tension between feeling left alone, and the sure awareness of God’s presence among His people. The psalmist prays: “O my God, I cry by day, but thou does not answer; and by night, but find no rest. Yet thou art holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel” (Verses 2,3). The psalmist speaks of a “cry” in order to express all the suffering of his prayer before a seemingly absent God: In extreme anguish, prayer becomes a cry.
And this also happens in our relationship with the Lord: When faced with the most difficult and painful situations, when it seems that God is not listening, we need not fear entrusting to Him the entire weight of what we carry in our hearts; we need not fear crying out to Him in our suffering; we must be convinced that God is near, even when He appears to be silent.
In repeating from the Cross the opening words of the psalm: “Eloì, Eloì, lamà sabachthani?” -- “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46); in crying out in the words of the psalm, Jesus is praying in the moment of man’s final rejection, in the moment of abandonment. However, He is praying the psalm in the awareness that God the Father is present, even in this hour when He feels the human drama of death. But a question arises in us: How is it possible that so powerful a God does not intervene to rescue His Son from this terrible trial?
It is important to understand that Jesus’ prayer is not the cry of one who goes to meet death in despair, nor is it the cry of one who knows he has been abandoned. In that moment, Jesus makes His own the whole of Psalm 22, the great psalm of the suffering people of Israel, and so He is taking upon Himself not only the tribulation of His people, but also of all people who suffer under the oppression of evil -- and, at the same time, He brings all of this before the heart of God Himself, in the certainty that His cry will be heard in the Resurrection: “The cry of extreme anguish is at the same time the certainty of an answer from God, the certainty of salvation -- not only for Jesus Himself, but for ‘many’” (Jesus of Nazareth II, p. 214).
The prayer of Jesus contains the utmost confidence and abandonment into God’s hands, even in His apparent absence, even when He seemingly remains in silence, in accordance with a plan incomprehensible to us. Thus, in the Catechism of the Catholic Church we read: “In the redeeming love that always united Him to the Father, He assumed us in the state of our waywardness of sin, to the point that He could say in our name from the Cross: ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?’” (n. 603). His is a suffering in communion with us and for us that is born of love and already includes redemption, the victory of love.
The persons present under the Cross of Jesus fail to understand this, and they take His cry to be a plea addressed to Elijah. In a frenzied scene, they seek to quench His thirst in order to prolong His life and verify whether Elijah will truly come to His assistance. But a loud cry brings the earthy life of Jesus, and their desire, to an end. In the final moment, Jesus allows His heart to express its suffering; and yet, at the same time, He allows the sense of the Father’s presence to emerge together with His consent to His plan of salvation for mankind.
We too find ourselves again and again faced with the “here and now” of suffering, of the silence of God -- we so often express it in our prayer -- and yet, we also find ourselves before the “here and now” of the Resurrection, of the response of a God who took our sufferings upon Himself, so that He might carry them together with us, and give us the sure hope that they will be overcome (cf. Encyclical Letter, Spe salvi, 35-40).
Dear friends, in prayer let us bring our daily crosses to God, in the certainty that He is present and listens to us. The cry of Jesus reminds us that in prayer we must overcome the barriers of our “I” and of our problems in order to open ourselves to the needs and sufferings of others. The prayer of the dying Jesus on the Cross teaches us to pray with love for all our brothers and sisters who are feeling the burden of daily life, who are living through difficult moments, who are in pain, who receive no word of comfort; let us bring all of this before the heart of God, so that they may feel the love of God, who never abandons us. Thank you.
[Translation by Diane Montagna]
[In English, he said:]
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Today I want to reflect with you on the cry of Jesus from the Cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This cry comes after a three-hour period when there was darkness over the whole land. Darkness is an ambivalent symbol in the Bible – while it is frequently a sign of the power of evil, it can also serve to express a mysterious divine presence. Just as Moses was covered in the dark cloud when God appeared to him on the mountain, so Jesus on Calvary is wrapped in darkness. Even though the Father appears to be absent, in a mysterious way his loving gaze is focussed upon the Son’s loving sacrifice on the Cross. It is important to realize that Jesus’ cry of anguish is not an expression of despair: on the contrary, this opening verse of Psalm twenty-two conveys the entire content of the psalm, it expresses the confidence of the people of Israel that despite all the adversity they are experiencing, God remains present among them, he hears and answers his people’s cry. This prayer of the dying Jesus teaches us to pray with confidence for all our brothers and sisters who are suffering, that they too may know the love of God who never abandons them.
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I greet all the English-speaking visitors and pilgrims present at today’s Audience, including groups from England, Ireland, Norway and the United States of America. I extend a special welcome to the many students who are here, and I pray that your studies may serve to deepen your knowledge and love of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Whatever darkness you experience in your lives, may you always remain firm in faith, hope and love. May God bless all of you!
© Copyright 2012 - Libreria Editrice Vaticana
[Appeal in Italian:]
Dear brothers and sisters,
In recent weeks a wave of cold and frost have battered several regions of Europe causing great inconvenience and considerable damage, as we know. I wish to express my closeness to the peoples hit by such severe weather, and I invite everyone to pray for the victims and for their families and loved ones. At the same time, I encourage solidarity so that the persons tried by these tragic events may receive generous assistance.
Lastly, I offer an affectionate thought to young people, to the sick and to newlyweds. May today’s memorial of St. Jerome Emiliani, patron of abandoned youth, spur you on, dear young people, to be attentive to those of your peers who are underprivileged and in trouble. May he help you, dear sick, to offer your sufferings for the Christian education of the new generations. And may he encourage you, dear newlyweds, to always trust in Providence, and not solely in your own abilities.
[Translation by Diane Montagna]