12 April 2006

The Son is Not Forsaken by the Father

What follows is what I preached at Holy Mass today. It is my recasting of Sermon LXVIII by St Leo, combined with the latter half of his Sermon LXVII. These sermons present evidence that the early Church did not understand Our Lord's "Eli, eli..." cry to be the lament of a son angrily abandoned by his father, but rather the dual lesson of the weakness of our flesh together with Our Lord's determined will to die for the life of the world. In this way, St Leo's sermon has urged this scribe to look away from the Anselmic view that dominates late-medieval, post-Reformational, and modern day confessional atonement theology.

Representing all the members of His body in Himself, and speaking for those whom He was redeeming in the punishment of the cross, the Lord Jesus Christ uttered that cry which He had once uttered in the Psalm: “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me? Why are You so far from Me, and from the words of My groaning?”

That cry is a lesson, not a complaint. For the Son of God could not have been forsaken by the Father or separated from Him since, in His Person, Christ is both God and man. So it is on behalf of us—the trembling and the weak—that He asks why the flesh that is afraid to suffer has not been heard.

Therefore, when you hear Our Lord say, “My God, My God,” I urge you not to believe that, when Jesus was fastened to the wood of the cross, the almighty God and Father had turned His back on Him. For in Christ’s own person, the natures of God and man are so completely joined that the union cannot be destroyed by punishment or by death.

To be sure, both natures retain their own properties. Yet, in Christ, both are so united that He Who is arrested by the hands of wicked men is the same as He Who is bound by no limits. He Who is pierced with nails is the same as He Whom no wound can affect. He Who underwent death is the same as He Who never ceased to be eternal. So both things are established facts in Christ—both the truth that He suffered humiliation and the truth that He retained His divine majesty. For you must remember that, in Christ Jesus, the Divine power joined itself to human frailty so that God might make what is ours His and, at the same time, make what was His ours. The Son, therefore, was not separated from the Father, nor the Father from the Son. And there was no division within the unchangeable and inseparable Trinity. So, even though the Son alone became man, the Father did not—for this or any reason—separate Himself from the Son any more than Christ’s flesh was separated from His divinity.

So why, then, did Jesus cry out with a loud voice and way, “Why have You forsaken Me”? To notify all men that He wished not to be rescued, not to be defended, but to remain in the hands of cruel men so that He might be the Savior of the world and the Redeemer of all men not by misery but by mercy; and not by the failure of comfort but by His determination to die.

Yet by praying to the Father, Our Lord Jesus shows that this determination is not His alone; that He is not the only one determined to act on our behalf. For the blessed Apostle says that the Father “spared not His own Son, but gave Him up for us all.” And he says, “Christ loved the Church, and gave Himself up for her, that He might sanctify it.” Hence, the giving up of the Lord to His Passion was as much of the Father’s will as it was of His own will. So if the Father did “forsake” His Son, then it was only because the Son also abandoned Himself in a certain sense—but not as if He was fleeing in fear, but as if He was voluntarily withdrawing or hiding His full divinity. For the Crucified restrained His divine might, and refused to use His power, so that He might secretly deceive death and the devil.

For how would He—who had come to destroy death and the author of death by His Passion—how would He have saved sinners if he had resisted His persecutors? The Jews, then, believed Jesus had been forsake by God. For they were able to commit such unrighteous cruelty. Yet they refused to understand the mystery of His wondrous endurance. So they blasphemed and mocked Him saying, “He saved others, Himself He cannot save. If He be the King of Israel, let Him now come down from the cross, and we believe Him.”

But the Savior’s power would not be displayed against the blind rage of the foolish scribes and wicked priests. And the redemption of mankind would not be delayed by obeying the blasphemer’s evil tongues. For if they had truly wanted to recognize the deity in the Son, they would have remembered His countless miracles which confirmed true faith. In fact, they acknowledged as much when they said that He saved others. But those many great miracles, done openly and in public, does nothing to soften the hearts of those who resist the Holy Spirit. And so all of God’s benefits towards them are turned into their destruction. So even if Christ had descended from the cross, they would have remained in their sin.

Therefore the insults of empty exultation were scorned by Our Lord. And the Lord's mercy in restoring the lost and the fallen was not turned from the path of its purpose by insult or mockery. For a unmatched victim was being offered to God for the world's salvation, and the slaying of Christ the true Lamb, predicted through so many, ages, was transferring the sons of promise into the liberty of the Faith. The New Testament also was being ratified, and in the blood of Christ the heirs of the eternal Kingdom were being enrolled. The High Priest was entering the Holy of Holies, and to intercede with God the spotless Priest was passing in through the veil of His flesh. In such a fine manner, a transition was being effected from the prophetic Torah to the apostolic Gospel, from the synagogue to the Church, from many sacrifices to the One Victim. So when the Lord gave up His Spirit, that mystic veil which hung before and shut out the inner part of the Temple and its holy recess was torn, by sudden force, from top to bottom. For Truth Himself was displacing figures, and forerunners were no longer needed in the presence of Him they announced. To this was added a terrible confusion of all the elements, and nature herself withdrew her support from Christ's crucifiers. To be sure, the centurion in charge of the crucifixion, fearful at the sight, said “truly this man was the Son of God.” Yet the wicked hearts of the Jews, which were harder than all tombs and rocks, is not reported to have been pierced by any regret or repentance. So it seems that the Roman soldiers were then readier to recognize the Son of God than the priests of Israel. The Jews, then, were deprived of all the sanctification imparted by these mysteries; and they turned their light into darkness and their “feasts into mourning.”

But let us not follow their lead. Instead, let us prostrate our bodies and our souls, and worship God's Grace. For He has poured out His grace upon all nations. And let us, each day, beseech the merciful Father and the rich Redeemer to give us His aid and enable us to escape all the dangers of this life. For the crafty tempter is present everywhere, and leaves nothing free from his snares. With God's mercy helping us, which is stretched out to us amid all dangers, we must steadfastly faith resist this devil so that, though he never ceases to assail, he may never succeed in carrying the assault. And let all religiously keep and profit by the last few days of our fast. And let no excesses mar the benefits of such self-restraint. For the things which pertain to sobriety and temperance must be the more diligently observed in these final days, so that our brief zeal might teach us a lasting habit. And whether in works of mercy or in strict self-denial, let not one minute pass without being faithful so that, as the years and time glides by, we may increase in good works and not squander our opportunities to do good. For to devout wills and religious souls God's Mercy will be granted, that He may enable us to obtain that which He enabled us to desire, Who liveth and reigneth with our Lord Jesus Christ His Son, and with the Holy Ghost, for ever and ever. Amen.


cheryl said...

It always concerned me from a trinitarian perspective how often I have heard that the Father left Christ. The most recent occasion was about a month ago. It had made its way into a sermon by one of the pastor whose church my family was visiting.

Thank you for posting this.

Anonymous said...

I have read portions of Gustaf Aulen's Christus Victor and really liked what he had to say about the unfortunate hi-jacking of atonement theology by Anselm and those he influenced.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps this is how St. Leo understands this episode based on rabbinic understanding and the actual Aramaic meaning of the word "sabachtani". I just remembered this word from my Talmudic studies (which is all written in 4th Century Aramaic), so please forgive me if the point that I'm trying to make is unclear....

The Hebrew of Psalm 22.1 is "Eh'li Eh'li lama azavta'ni" and rightly is exclaimed by Dovid Ha'Melech in his desparate situation where stood in between life and death as a result of God's Holy Spirit leaving his reign over Israel. The word in Hebrew "azavta'ni" is translated into English as "forsaken".


In the common Aramaic usage of the rabbis, the word "sabachtani" NEVER EVER means "forsaken me". rather it is more exactly translated as "what I've just taught is for this purpose".

For example, in the Talmudic tractate Shabbos, first Mishna, the Talmud says:

"Rav Idi taught: The houseowner who is inside his house passes an object to the poor man outside on the street -- thus, on account of this action (N'SABACHTA) the houseowner has committed a "prohibited labor" and thus he is obliged to bring an ol'ah sacrifice to the priest." (end of Talmudic example).

Thus, we now translate the Aramaic of the words that Christ spoke in the Gospel as a DISCOURSE rather than a plaintive and desperate cry:

"Eh'li, Eh'li lah'ma".... It is to this end".

If we read this Gospel verse in the typical way that rabbinic discourse was taught between teacher and his students we see that Christ quoted the first few words of the Psalm as a question and then answered and made clear how his students were to understand this verse of the Psalm.

Here's how the lesson might have been cast....

Jesus asks his students at the foot of the Cross:
"When Dovid Ha'Melech cried out in his suffering "Eh'li Eh'li lah'ma..." what was he telling us about my Messiahship????"

And He, as the Great Teacher answers and instructs them:

"Here's how you must understand this statement of Dovid Ha'Melech... SABACHTANI! (It is for THIS purpose that The Father brought suffering upon my humanity -- It is for the purpose of bringing salvation to my creation!)"

So, this is God teaching us the REAL meaning of Psalm 22.1, even as He's suffering the torment of the Crucifixion.

The point is, it's not just one sentence that Jesus cries out on the Cross, it's a quote of the first few words of Psalm 22.1 and then an explanation of how we must understand the inner meaning of this verse.

Thus, St. Leo's discourse becomes clear.

Eric Phillips said...


Maybe Jesus was making an instructive Hebrew-Aramaic pun. An interesting suggestion. I don't think the reading you've just suggested can _replace_ the traditional translation, though. Whatever the prevailing use of "sabachthani" among 4th-century rabbis, when Christ used it on the cross, it completed an Aramaic rendition of David's question from Psalm 22.

I don't think it's hard to figure out why He might have asked this question. He was being crucified--He, the one man who did not deserve to die at all, and God was letting it happen. The Just Judge, the Defender of the righteous, had abandoned Him--not ontologically or relationally, but to His enemies. It didn't matter that as God He knew the answer to the question already. He had much more right to this utterance than David had ever had, and by using it He made that point.

cheryl said...

The Just Judge, the Defender of the righteous, had abandoned Him--not ontologically or relationally, but to His enemies.

That kinda clears it up for me somewhat.

Thanks Eric.

William Weedon said...


You wrote:

The Just Judge, the Defender of the righteous, had abandoned Him--not ontologically or relationally, but to His enemies. It didn't matter that as God He knew the answer to the question already. He had much more right to this utterance than David had ever had, and by using it He made that point.


That is so exactly the truth! Thank you for putting this so very well. You've preserved exactly the point that St. Leo was at pains to preserve. Dude, you make Theodore proud!!!

William Weedon said...

One more thought, in Scripture the bridge between Psalm 22/Isaiah 53 and the Passion accounts is Wisdom 2:

Wisdom 2:12
“Let us lie in wait for the righteous man, because he is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions; he reproaches us for sins against the law, and accuses us of sins against our training. 13 He professes to have knowledge of God, and calls himself a child of the Lord. 14 He became to us a reproof of our thoughts; 15 the very sight of him is a burden to us, because his manner of life is unlike that of others, and his ways are strange. 16 We are considered by him as something base, and he avoids our ways as unclean; he calls the last end of the righteous happy, and boasts that God is his father. 17 Let us see if his words are true, and let us test what will happen at the end of his life; 18 for if the righteous man is God’s child, he will help him, and will deliver him from the hand of his adversaries. 19 Let us test him with insult and torture, so that we may find out how gentle he is, and make trial of his forbearance. 20 Let us condemn him to a shameful death, for, according to what he says, he will be protected.”
Wisdom 2:21
Thus they reasoned, but they were led astray, for their wickedness blinded them, 22 and they did not know the secret purposes of God, nor hoped for the wages of holiness, nor discerned the prize for blameless souls; 23 for God created us for incorruption, and made us in the image of his own eternity, 24 but through the devil’s envy death entered the world, and those who belong to his company experience it.

cheryl said...

wow. I'm going to share that with my pastor.

Anonymous said...



cheryl said...

beware of what?

could you be more specific please?

Eric Phillips said...

A very fitting passage, Pr. Weedon.

Which Theodore did you have in mind? The one I did my dissertation on? I don't remember discussing that with you, but the Lutheran blogosphere can be a small place.

William Weedon said...


Yes, I was thinking of your Theodore. The blogosphere is small indeed. I was delighted to hear of your work. I am always haunted by Sasse's observation that a church without patristics is a sect. Now, there are those who would argue whether or not Theodore should be counted among the fathers (given what Constantinople II did), but I assume you are not among them? You know how highly I treasure Chrysostom's writings, and they were dearest friends in the faith, no?

William Weedon said...


I do not think that St. Leo's words at all evidence a desire to escape what the text says, but to understand the meaning of our Lord's use of Psalm 22 from His holy cross in light of the mystery of the God-man. Eric gave the explanation that fits exactly with the context of the Psalm being prayed (the rest of it together with the opening words) AND the dread and glorious crucifixion of our Lord. His Father abandons Him to His enemies.

Eric Phillips said...


Obviously, "relationally" can be a very broad word. Technically, the expectation of a perfectly righteous man that God will rescue him from his enemies is a "relation," so when Jesus was abandoned to His enemies, you could call that "relational" if you want to.

I was using the word more specifically. I meant it 1) in a trinitarian sense: the Son did not cease to have the relation to God of Son to Father (thus I paired it with the word "ontologically"--the Son did not cease to be homoousios with the Father), and 2) in an affective sense: the Father's disposition toward the Son did not change.

I agree, though, that it is going too far to say, "The Son was not forsaken by the Father." Rather, we should clarify in what sense He was, as I've done above.

Unknown said...

Perhaps Fr. Fenton and Rev. Weedon would care to enlighten me by answering a few questions. Why St. Leo? Perhaps another Father's comments on Jesus' quotation of Psalm 22 would also suffice. Are St. Leo's two sermons sufficient enough grounds to support the claim that this was common thinking in the early church? Moreover, is there room in your thinking at present to consider the idea that even the Fathers could be wrong (after all, Luther concluded as much). Will you ever afford them the freedom to be wrong? Lastly, where is sola scriptura in the recent quasi-Orthodox leanings of many confessional Lutherans?

As a fellow Lutheran pastor, I guess I remain concerned that this kind of "orthodoxy" runs very closely with the true orthodoxy's alternative.

William Weedon said...


The forsakenness IS necessary for the fulfillment of the divine economy: for Christ must not be rescued from death itself, but go into it to destroy its power forever all His brothers and sisters. Glory to Him for that!

I am certain that Fr. Fenton my no means meant that St. Anselm should be entirely rejected (I posted from St. Anselm myself on my blog today), but what I reject is that the Father had a change of heart toward the human race effected by the sacrifice of the cross in the way that, for example, Pieper sets this forth. (See vol 2, p. 348ff.) Similarly the idea that the Father looks upon the Sacrifice of His Son with loathing as He made Him sin for us. Nowhere does the NT anywhere even come close to hinting at this. Rather, as the Canon expresses it, the Father looks upon the offering of His Son with a favorable and serene countenance. Upon the Cross He is and remains the Beloved Son (notice how this is stressed in the Gen. 22 prefigurement).

St. Anselm becomes a problem when his answer to Cur Deus Homo is exalted to being the ONE answer and all other answers are made metaphors of that one. I am not sure how successful we have been in escaping that. My $.02.

Eric Phillips said...

Pr. Weedon,

You're very perceptive to guess that my understanding of this passage had something to do with reading Theodore.

John Chrysostom and Theodore of Mopsuestia were friends, yes, and I must say I learned a lot about the faith by studying Theodore's writings, but I'm not one of those who wants to rehabilitate him completely. I cannot agree with the condemnation of his _person_, and I find that in several cases his doctrines have also been unjustly criticized, but he does have some real doctrinal problems, especially when it comes to the big issue, the one that got him declared a heretic. His Christology is actually much better than any simple summary can make it sound, but it does suffer from a fatal flaw: in Theodore's understanding the Word did not _become_ a man, but rather _inhabited_ one.

William Weedon said...

Oh, and Peter, you might enjoy this writing by Metropolitan Anthony. I have found it to be wondrous in its probing of the Eli and its implications for the great exchange...


William Weedon said...


I just thought it was a decidedly "Antiochian" read, rather than the more, well, imaginative read from down south...

So the Council did nail his Christology. Pity.

cheryl said...

Moreover, is there room in your thinking at present to consider the idea that even the Fathers could be wrong (after all, Luther concluded as much). Will you ever afford them the freedom to be wrong?

Perhaps I am missing out on something. But the issue is not so much the fathers, but trinitarian theology. We have to be careful not to separate the Son from the Father. It's quite similiar to why the reform by and large deny Mary as Theotokos.

While it is true that Christ can be both said to be forsaken and yet not forsaken, we need to be careful how we conceptualize it. It is due to pastors ect. claiming that Christ was forsaken by the Father, without any clarification as to what that means in light of proper trinitarianism, that has lead many christians within the lutheran church even, to develope not only a very calvinistic trinitarianism, but a very calvinistic christology too.

And it's not just this passage which is employed in this manner, but others as well, such as the episode in the garden, where Christ cried out, "take this cup away from me..."

William Weedon said...

Dear Homebrew,

About St. Leo, I think he would be fairly representative of the early Fathers on this question. Of course, I have only read a fraction of their writings.

About can the Fathers err, well, of course they can err. But one aspect of what makes the Church regard them AS Fathers is that they mostly didn't err.

About sola Scriptura, well, there is a sense in which it is quite Patristic (I have put together a collection of places where I note the Fathers speaking in this manner that floats around the Internet), and there is also a sense in which it can be the nasty door to private interpretation, which the Scriptures themselves rule out. I have no problem at all with sola Scriptura understood in the way the Fathers understood it, but I certainly do have a problem with every Christian armed with the Scriptures regarding THEIR interpretation as the infallible truth of God.

A blessed Good Friday to you!

cheryl said...

In my opinion it doesn't seem that he does, no. However, I myself am not a big fan of Anslem. (about the eighth/ninth century is when I start to cring--theology wise).

I realize that may make me a poor lutheran. It's something I personally struggle with.

In regards to my comments on calvinism. I was refering specifically to the notion of dividing up the Trinity/Christ.

I apologize if I came off as seemingly negating Scripture, when Christ said that He was forsaken.
I did not mean to indicate that His words were untrue.

With that said however, it has been my experience, that interpreting Christ's words within the context of the satisfaction theory (in it's various forms be that the anslem or lutheran one (which is not exactly the same)) has seemingly (even if not actually) divided up the Godhead, by separating one person from another.

There is but one-indivisable God.

cheryl said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

It's worth noting that according to His divinity, Christ has the very same will as the Father, not just an identical will, just as He has the same essence (homoousios) and not an identical essence (homoiousios).

According to His humanity, He also has a will, but a will that is never at variance with the divine will, but always in submission to it.

Will pertains to nature, not person.

Fr John W Fenton said...

Concerning discussion about the will of Christ--I refer you to:


Concerning Fr Fenton's view of Anselm--I don't reject him entirely. I simply don't prefer his departure from the earlier interpretation of the Biblical data concerning the atonement. I would also say that, based on my readings, Luther would say the same--however, I am willing to be corrected on this latter score.

Concerning the Aramaic--I think the insight is brilliant, and I am grateful for it.

Concerning St Leo as the only father--each Lent I search out sermons from church fathers that I've not yet read concerning the passion and resurrection. Years past included St Bede, St Gregory, Martin Luther, St John Chrysostom, St Augustine, St Ambrose. This year happened to include St Leo and St Cyril of Alexandria.

Concerning Trinitarian questions--the past year or so I've been studying issues involving the 5th & 6th Ecumenical Councils and, no doubt, those readings have effected (in a salutary way, I hope) my approach.

I thank you all for your comments, which have helped carry the conversation. I apologize that I've not had the time to respond to each or every.

Rev. Paul Beisel said...

It pains me to read some of these comments. As I read them, I think to myself, "relativism is just as alive amongst Lutherans as it is amongst liberals and unbelievers." Why would Jesus have said, "Why have You forsaken Me?" if he did not mean it? Maybe He was talking "tongue-in-cheek." I agree with Peter's comments. The Anselmic theory of the atonement is either right or wrong. Which is it?

Kepler said...

Pr. Beisel,

If I am forced to choose between Anselm and Aulen, I must admit...Anselm isn't going to make the cut. Why, you ask?

Because 95% of Lutheran hymnody reflects the Christus Victor view of the Atonement.

This is the Feast of Victory of our God = Christus Victor
A Mighty Fortress = Christus Victor
Lord Jesus Christ, My Life, My light = Christus Victor
Thy Strong Word = Christus Victor

etc etc etc.

Now don't get me wrong, I don't mean to suggest that there is zero Anselm in Lutheran thought...but if you're going to force people to pick one or t'other...well, I think it's clear which direction I will go...


Rev. Paul Beisel said...

I wasn't trying to say that it is either or. I think there are elements of both in the Scriptures. I asked if Anselm's theory of the atonement right or wrong. It can't be both. It is either right or wrong. But I'm not saying that is the whole story. I am critical of those who outright deny the anselmic theory, or refuse to say whether it is right or wrong. I think the mystery of our Lord's atonement is deep enough to be seen on several different levels simultaneously.

Rev. Paul Beisel said...

If the Son is not forsaken by the Father, then we are not accepted by Him.