The understanding of this passage is another area where Protestant and Catholic theology will in general diverge. Protestant Reformed minister RC Sproul offers this view:
“The key to understanding the cry of Jesus from the cross is found in Paul’s letter to the Galatians: Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree’ (Galatians 3:13, NIV).
To be cursed is to be removed from the presence of God, to be set outside the camp, to be cut off from His benefits. On the cross, Jesus was cursed….As the Lamb of God, the Sin Bearer, He was cut off from the presence of God.
On the cross, Jesus entered into the experience of forsakenness on our behalf. God turned His back on Jesus and cut Him off from all blessing, from all keeping, from all grace, and from all peace….God the Father turned His back on the Son, cursing Him to the pit of hell while He hung on the cross.”
But does this Scripture passage say that Chris is being cursed by the Father, as it’s being interpreted by Sproul? A Catholic perspective here:
“St. Augustine explains clearly in his reply to Faustus, that what it means that Christ was cursed is that Christ suffered death. Christ took our sin in the sense that He willingly bore its consequence, namely, death, because death is the consequence of sin and its curse. Death is not natural. But Christ took the likeness of sinful man in that He subjected Himself to death, even death on a cross for our sake.”
Another passage in Sacred Scripture we should closely review is this passage from Isaiah. It should be very familiar to Catholics as it’s always part of our Good Friday liturgy.
Isaiah 53:4-6,10-11 Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all…. Yet it was the will of the Lord to bruise him; he has put him to grief; when he makes himself an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring, he shall prolong his days; the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand; he shall see the fruit of the travail of his soul and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous; and he shall bear their iniquities.
A Catholic perspective of that passage can be found here:
“This means that Christ carried in His body the sufferings that sin has brought into the world, and that Christ suffered in His soul over all the sins of the world, and their offense against God. He bore our iniquities not in the sense that God punished Him for what we did, but in the sense that He grieved over them all, in solidarity with us. That is what it means that the Lord laid on Him the iniquity of us all. He suffered the consequences of sin (i.e. suffering, grief, death), by entering into solidarity with us, entering into our fallen world, and allowing Himself to suffer in it with us, for us, even by our hands.”
Two things in that passage stand out to me that are important to this discussion. First, “yet it was the will of the Lord to bruise him.” This could certainly be read to understand God was actively punishing Christ. But would that be accurate? We have to remember that all things that happen are indeed God’s will, but there is a difference between that which God causes (His active will) and that which God allows (His permitted will). That concept was reviewed in this post. The other very key aspect of this passage is that “yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.” This indicates that Christ was not so much “stricken by God,” but rather that is how we perceived him. There is a significant difference between the idea that God was actively carrying out His wrath upon Christ, and the understanding that is how those at the cross perceived what was happening to him.
The Catholic view of this is summed up in CCC603 — Jesus did not experience reprobation as if he himself had sinned. But 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?” Having thus established him in solidarity with us sinners, God “did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all”, so that we might be “reconciled to God by the death of his Son”.
The Father did not spare his son – he did not rescue him from the hands of sinful men working as instruments of Satan. Is it possible that Jesus felt like the Father had abandoned him on the cross? Most certainly in his human nature, that is possible. There are times in our own lives when our circumstances seem so dire and so impossible, we may indeed feel as though God has abandoned us. We too may cry out to God asking why He has forsaken us. But we can know by faith that He never does. And we also know that Jesus has been in that same place, and will sustain us in our suffering.
Perhaps most important though is the reality that Jesus is sending us a clear and direct message from the cross that even though it may appear to us that he’s been abandoned by the Father, he has not been. Those present familiar with Sacred Scripture would have recognized that in his cry of “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Jesus is quoting the first line of Psalm 22, and directing us there for an understanding beyond the surface, beyond how we “esteem” him at the moment.
Psalm 22 is a crucifixion Psalm, penned 1000 years before the crucifixion of Christ and about 400 years before crucifixion was even invented as a form of execution. We see within it aspects of what is directly happening to Christ – scorned by men, despised by the people, mocked (let the Lord deliver him!), they have pierced my hands and feet, they divide my garments and cast lots for them – all scenes from his passion. In class we read this Psalm aloud, often with two people because there is a tremendous tension within the Psalm that is well demonstrated by two different voices. On one hand we see the despair of the just man crying out at his predicament. On the other hand, we see the total confidence he expresses in God’s faithfulness. I have included the Psalm below broken out in this manner as it swings between the two, and would encourage you to take the time to fully read it. I remember doing this with an RCIA class one time, and afterward a woman told me it gave her chills to hear the Psalm with the understanding that this is Christ speaking to us from the cross. It is quite powerful when understood in this way.
The Psalm takes a dramatic turn beginning in verse 19. It becomes a Psalm of great praise, and we can see why in verse 24. For we hear from Christ on the cross, even though we may “esteem” him as being abandoned by the Father, that is far from truth. Verse 24 states “For he has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; and he has not hid his face from him, but has heard, when he cried to him.” Regardless of how Christ may have felt at the time, regardless of how it may have looked to the world at the time, and regardless of how some may misinterpret Sacred Scripture, it is quite clear that the Father never turned his back on Christ. Just as He never turns His back on us.
And the Psalm ends with the proclamation that men shall “tell of the Lord to the coming generation, and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, that he has wrought it.” I wrote in my last post that in the Catholic understanding Christ has all the members of the Church present before Him and united to Him at the cross. While we see in the passion narrative from Sacred Scripture that only a handful of faithful disciples accompany Christ at the cross, we see in our hearts the reality that he saw — a sea of people that is the Church, standing beside him offering our gratitude and love for the battle he is fighting on our behalf.
We adore you O Christ and we praise you. Because by your holy cross, you have redeemed the world.
My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? Why art thou so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but thou dost not answer; and by night, but find no rest.
Yet thou art holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. In thee our fathers trusted; they trusted, and thou didst deliver them. To thee they cried, and were saved; in thee they trusted, and were not disappointed.
But I am a worm, and no man; scorned by men, and despised by the people. All who see me mock at me, they make mouths at me, they wag their heads; “He committed his cause to the Lord; let him deliver him, let him rescue him, for he delights in him!”
Yet thou art he who took me from the womb; thou didst keep me safe upon my mother’s breasts. Upon thee was I cast from my birth,and since my mother bore me thou hast been my God. Be not far from me, for trouble is near and there is none to help. Many bulls encompass me, strong bulls of Bashan surround me; they open wide their mouths at me, like a ravening and roaring lion.
I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax, it is melted within my breast; my strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue cleaves to my jaws; thou dost lay me in the dust of death. Yea, dogs are round about me; a company of evildoers encircle me; they have pierced my hands and feet— I can count all my bones—they stare and gloat over me; they divide my garments among them, and for my raiment they cast lots.
But thou, O Lord, be not far off! O thou my help, hasten to my aid! Deliver my soul from the sword, my life from the power of the dog! Save me from the mouth of the lion, my afflicted soul from the horns of the wild oxen! I will tell of thy name to my brethren; in the midst of the congregation I will praise thee: You who fear the Lord, praise him! all you sons of Jacob, glorify him, and stand in awe of him, all you sons of Israel! For he has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; and he has not hid his face from him, but has heard, when he cried to him. From thee comes my praise in the great congregation; my vows I will pay before those who fear him. The afflicted shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the Lord! May your hearts live for ever! All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him. For dominion belongs to the Lord, and he rules over the nations. Yea, to him shall all the proud of the earth bow down; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, and he who cannot keep himself alive. Posterity shall serve him; men shall tell of the Lord to the coming generation, and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, that he has wrought it.