Is. 50:4-7 Phil. 2:6-11 Mt. 26:14-27:66 or 27:11-54
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Longing for experiences of God’s loving presence is an oft-repeated theme in my prayer life. It’s so recurrent that, in self-critical moments, I’ve wondered if I’m a spiritual hypochondriac. That’s too harsh, I know; still, when I am struggling and I ask, “Where are you here and now, God?” It usually isn’t that God is really missing. Rather, the remedy is recognizing where God already is in my life—and remembering to rejoice and be glad in it.
That is, it’s often one thing for me to say “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Ps. 22:2)
It’s another thing completely for Jesus – God incarnate Himself – to utter that line.
When Jesus says this, you sit up and pay attention. This isn’t the cry of a sometimes naïve believer. This isn’t something a mere shift in perspective can soothe. This is Jesus talking; this is a cry of true psychic pain. This pain is so great that it feels as if God, goodness itself, cannot be found at all in the experience of it. As uttered by Christ, the line indicates the greatest kind of interior suffering known to man. I know others who have experienced suffering much like it as well. It’s real, and it’s devastating.
Reflecting on this line draws me deeper into what I see as part of the distinctive spirituality of Lent. To me, Lent is a season of austerity – a time to discover what is truly important and necessary for loving God. This austerity is partially captured in each of the penitential practices of Lent: devoting extra time and effort to prayer instead of mere pleasure, avoiding unnecessary quantities of food and needless luxuries by fasting, and reallocating resources for the good of others by giving alms. Through these practices, we learn what exterior goods are nice but not necessary; further, we discover if these goods are even obstacles to our relationship with God.
But what about interior goods? For example, the line Jesus speaks points to an interior good that He lacks – the feeling of God’s presence. We can have this too because we love God, so we want God to be with us. And when the one we love is with us, we are full of joy. This joy reinforces our love, and we are empowered and inspired to do great things. Suffice it to say, when we do feel this joy, it’s good to feel it – and it’s good that we feel it! There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this feeling at all – just as there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the good things we forego through acts of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
But what if that feeling is blocked off? What happens to our love of God and desire to live for a heavenly reward when we reflect deeply on Jesus’ cry from the cross and experience that abandonment as far as we’re able? In the spirit of Lent, I think we’re challenged to imagine even this good stripped away and ask some tough questions: Do we think God owes us some rewarding feeling – that is, do we think the feeling is necessary, given our human condition on earth? Are we motivated more by expected feelings of self-righteousness than a desire to do what it takes to be in union with God? That is, is this pleasant interior feeling a kind of obstacle to honestly loving God in all we do here on earth?
Again, this certainly isn’t to say we should be perpetually miserable and be suspicious when we take pleasure in good works. Not at all. It also isn’t to say that, when we are angry and feel abandoned by God, we ought not be completely candid with God. It is to say that, just as we are challenged in Lent to dispense with certain exterior goods, we would do well to pray about what interior goods could distract us from unconditionally loving God. It is to say that we would do well to challenge ourselves by reflecting on this difficult and painful moment in the life of our Lord and Savior. In so doing, we are truly tested and stretched – just as in our other Lenten exercises – so as to be ready to receive even more Easter joy.
Graduate Student (4th Year) Pursuing a Ph.D. in Philosophy