Three years ago, in 2018, a family doctor from the Swedish clinic on Capitol Hill, Dr. Daniel Low, wrote an op-ed for the Seattle Times on the “epidemic of loneliness” that he saw from treating a wide variety of patients in his practice. He gave three examples of three different people he had seen in one week: a 19 year old college, student-athlete battling depression; a middle-aged immigrant from Ethiopia, mourning the recent loss of her husband; and, a 62 year old, queer gardener who had moved to Seattle to take care of his parents. From the doctor’s perspective, the most debilitating condition affecting all three was loneliness. His view was that loneliness had reached the level of a public health crisis. He wrote of patients who couldn’t get surgeries because they had no one to drive them home from the hospital after the operation while they were under anesthesia. He wrote of others who came into the clinic weekly, because it was the only place where they could interact with other human beings. He cited a Cigna research survey from that same year, 2018, that reported, even then, that nearly half of those in the United States are sometimes lonely or always feel alone.
That was three years ago, in 2018. Before the pandemic! One of the most devastating impacts of the fight against this virus has been the isolation that we have had to endure for over a year now. There are hundreds of 1,000’s of people who have not had a human embrace for a year. There are hundreds of 1,000’s of our human relatives who died alone in sterile isolation. Given the global impact of this virus and population growth through the decades and centuries, there may be more human beings currently suffering from loneliness right now than at any other point in history.
Consequently, it may be that the story about Jesus that follows may never have been more important for more people to hear and know than right now. The story of “Good Friday.”
At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).Mark 15:33-34
This story reveals to us, in excruciating horror, that Jesus Himself plumbed the depths of aloneness and abandonment. Plumbed the depths of the other epidemic plaguing our society – loneliness.
But I believe he did so intentionally. I believe he allowed this horror to happen to himself in order that we might know, to the depths of our being, that we are never alone. Because of the event of Good Friday, no matter how it feels. Jesus is present with us always, through all of life, and even death.
Biblically, part of the reason that God appeared on earth in flesh and blood as Jesus was in order to reveal what a human life looked like, when lived in perfect communion with God; a human life lived from birth through death. So Jesus had to experience the fullness of human life from birth through death. Physically, such was not very difficult to accomplish. With some help from the Holy Spirit, Jesus was birthed by Mary, raised by Mary and Joseph. And then, with a little help from the religious leaders and the occupying Roman government, Jesus was physically pegged to two giant wooden beams, hoisted vertically and, after several hours, died.
All of that was actually the easier part. The more difficult part was experiencing what death represents for human beings. Biblically, death is the ultimate consequence of sin. Biblically, sin is essentially a turning away from God, and the guidance of God. Sin in that sense, separates us from communion with God, from a direct relationship. Sin distances us from God. Therefore, the ultimate separation from God is the ultimate consequence of sin, our death. But Jesus never sinned. He lived in complete communion with God, the Father / God, the Mother. Therefore, the more obvious progression for Jesus upon dying would have been to simply slough off his mortal coil of flesh and emerge immortal. Yet, if he did that then he would never have experienced the fullness of humanity. And so, in some way beyond rational comprehension, Jesus took on himself the spiritual dimension of death, took on himself the ultimate consequence of sin.
In the story above, Jesus experiences separation from God, the Father / God, the Mother. In fact, Jesus experienced this separation to a depth no human being can ever even imagine. Tom Wright, the British theologian puts it this way:
“This is the God-forsakenness of the Son of God. A horror, a sharing of the depth of suffering, mental and emotional, as well as physical, that characterized the world in general … The dark cloud of evil, the world’s evil, Evil itself, greater than the sum of its parts, cut him off from the one he called ‘Abba,’ in a way, he had never known before.”
As broken human beings, we basically experience this separation in little bits throughout our whole lives. But Jesus had never known any spiritual separation from God before. And in that moment he felt it in full. This is what this story agonizingly reveals.
At the sixth hour, darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour. And at the ninth hour, Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani,” “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
The horror of abandonment, captured in his cry from the cross, etched itself so deeply into the memory of those who heard it, that it was written exactly as Jesus had voiced it, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani.”
Even further, the aloneness and abandonment Jesus endured encompassed the loneliness of all human beings ever. One of the most profound commentaries on this story that I know of comes from a poem written by Denise Levertov. Levertov is, herself, reflecting on a commentary written by the English mystic, Julian of Norwich. In the poem entitled, “On a theme from Julian’s chapter XX,” Levertov meditates on what Julian called the oneing of God, the oneing of Jesus with the Godhead, the reality that they are one essence.
Six hours outstretched in the sun, yes, hot wood, the nails, blood trickling into the eyes, yes - but the thieves on their neighbor crosses survived till after the soldiers had come to fracture their legs, or longer. Why single out this agony? What's a mere six hours? Torture then, torture now, the same, the pain's the same, immemorial branding iron, electric prod. Hasn't a child dazed in the hospital ward they reserve for the most abused, known worse? This air we're breathing, these very clouds, ephemeral billows languid upon the sky's moody ocean, we share with women and men who've held out days and weeks on the rack - and in the ancient dust of the world what particles of the long tormented, what ashes. But Julian's lucid spirit leapt to the difference: perceived why no awe could measure that brief day's endless length, why among all the tortured, One only is 'King of Grief.' The oneing, she saw, the oneing with the Godhead opened him utterly to the pain of all minds, all bodies. - sands of the sea, of the desert - from the first beginning to the last day. The great wonder is that the human cells of His flesh and bone didn't explode when utmost Imagination rose in that flood of knowledge. Unique in agony, Infinite strength, Incarnate, empowered Him to endure inside of history, through those hours when He took to Himself the sum total of anguish and drank even the lees of that cup: within the mesh of the web, Himself woven within it, yet seeing it, seeing it whole. Every sorrow and desolation He saw, and sorrowed in kinship.
“Sorrowed in kinship” with every one of us, with every human being ever. Jesus endured everything in order to be with us in everything, Jesus endured the sense of utter abandonment, aloneness, even from God, in order that we will never be utterly abandoned. Never be utterly alone.
In terms of what this means for us now, I will turn to another profound commentary from another poet. In the first stanza of his poem entitled, “Why hast thou forsaken me?” Chad Walsh ponders that perhaps Socrates had the answer to the poem’s title question with his idea of opposites generating the opposite. But then he goes on,
Or, perhaps being man it was simply Jesus must first go wherever man had been, To whatever caves of loneliness, whatever Caverns of no light, deep, damp, darkness, Dripping walls of the spirit, man has known. I have called to God and heard no answer, I have seen the thick curtain drop, and sunlight die; My voice has echoed back, a foolish voice, The prayer restored intact to its silly source. I have walked in darkness, he hung in it. In all of my mines of night, he was there first; In whatever dead tunnel, I am lost, he finds me. My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? From his perfect darkness, a voice says, I have not.
As I write this a passage from the Hebrew scriptures comes to mind:
The people walking in darknessIsaiah 9:2-7
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
a light has dawned.
You have enlarged the nation
and increased their joy;
they rejoice before you
as people rejoice at the harvest,
as warriors rejoice
when dividing the plunder.
For as in the day of Midian’s defeat,
you have shattered
the yoke that burdens them,
the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor.
Every warrior’s boot used in battle
and every garment rolled in blood
will be destined for burning,
will be fuel for the fire.
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness of his government and peace
there will be no end.
This may seem odd to read here in spring just before Easter. In the Christian tradition it is usually read only at Christmas time. Yet to all those who stand under the darkness of death it speaks of the same light seen at the birth of Christ. A light has dawned on those living under the shadow of death. At Christmas time we also often celebrate the child as Emmanuelle. In Hebrew, this name is a compound of words translating to English as “God with us.” At Christmas time we celebrate this new experience in the joyful birth of a baby. But Jesus is not with us only in our birth, or even only in our day to day life. Jesus is with us, Emmanuel, God is with us, always. That same light has dawned in the darkness of our death.
I know that many of us live these days within the darkness of loneliness. For the past year, I have been preaching into a phone camera. As I preach each Sunday morning, I have no idea even if there’s anybody out there. I have no idea. And if there are any joining in the video stream, they may be sitting in a room alone. Covid precautions have eliminated the vast majority of our encounters with the touch and scent and breath of others.
But this story reminds us that none of us are truly alone. None of us. God has not abandoned us. Jesus endured everything we experience in order that we experience Jesus with us through everything. Everything. And so I close with Paul’s words of encouragement to the sisters and brothers in Rome to remember this truth.
“What shall we say then in response to all of this? If God is for us, who can be against us? They who did not spare their own son but gave him up for us all, how will they not also along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who is it that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died, more than that, who was raised to life is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine, or nakedness or danger or the sword [or the virus]? No. In all these things, we are more than conquerors through Christ who loved us. For I am convinced of this, that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present or the future, nor any powers, neither height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God. That is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Thanks be to God.