JOB: The Cry Of Jesus On The Cross, by Jean-Claude Sagne

From Job and the Silence of God. Translated by Iain McGonagle.

It is through the cry of Jesus that we can understand the spiritual drama of Job.  The passion of Jesus and its presence in the church come between the sufferer of the time of the first alliance and ourselves.  The glory of the cross provides the only light by which we can apprehend Job’s ordeal.  That at any rate is the way opened up to us by a spiritual reading of the sacred scriptures, the central principle of which is the accomplishment by Jesus of all the figures of the Old Testament. We shall, therefore, begin by seeking to understand something of the cry of Jesus on the cross before returning to the spiritual drama of Job.  But what is the relationship between what Jesus suffered in his passion and what Job discovered in his ordeal?  The upshot of our reflection will be to suggest that the spiritual suffering of Jesus consists not in the repetition of the interior ordeal of Job but in its transposition to an altogether deeper plane and in a response to it in the form of a testimony.  It is also possible to see in the passion of Jesus a sort of realization of what Job prefigured, but such a realization is a spiritual accomplishment rather than a literal reproduction written somewhat larger.  This is why it is the passion of Jesus that must be the starting-point of our reading of Job, for the “language of the cross” (1 Corinthians 1:18) is the supreme wisdom in all that touches the destiny of man in his relationship to God. Our reflection will, therefore, proceed in two stages: by way of (1) a meditation on Jesus’s cry on the cross; and (2) an interpretation of the suffering Job’s protest.  I shall end with the spirituality of the cross, suggesting the value of the cross as a recapitulation and accomplishment of all spiritual suffering.

The Cry of Jesus on the Cross

“Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour.  And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, ‘Eli, Eli, lama sabacthani?’ that is, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?'” (Matthew 27:45-46) The cry of Jesus consists in the citation of verse 2 of Psalm 21.  It upsets the delicate balance to take this verse away from the whole psalm of which it is the introduction and the threshold, but it upsets even more to cancel out the import of this cry by reassuringly emphasizing the note of praise with which the psalm ends.  The fact is that this psalm is a song of deliverance which glorifies the Lord for having saved the poor man from his attackers.  What we have to do is to take the psalm as a whole as a horizon of confidence and praise against which a cry that is nevertheless intolerable stands out. “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”  After the repetition of the opening invocation, which serves to reinforce its supplicatory power, the question thrown out by Jesus is not so much a request for an explanation as a searing lucidity about his entire dereliction.  It is a cry of loneliness.  There is a well-known fragment from Pascal’s Pensées that is relevant here: “Jesus is alone on the Earth, not only in feeling and sharing his pain, but in knowing it: only he and Heaven know it.  He suffers this pain once, but he then does so as if he could no longer contain an impossible suffering.”  Jesus suffers from being abandoned by everyone, even by his God and Father. How does the Father abandon his Son in the hour of his passion?  How does Jesus feel himself abandoned by the Father?  There is first of all the silence of God in the face of the insults and blasphemies that are hurled at the Son and discredit him as the false Messiah.  There is also the apparent passivity of God in regard to the torture inflicted on the man of sorrows, the suffering servant.  God seems to have withdrawn entirely from the scene of judgment.  He allows the innocent man to be accused, condemned, and executed. That, however, is not all.  Beyond the religious and political proceedings that end in eliminating a Messiah who dashes the expectations of the Jewish crowd and those who manipulate it, there is about the passion of Jesus a much more mysterious and impalpable dimension which is that of a spiritual combat with Satan and all the powers of darkness.  Before trying to decipher this unseen warfare I should like to say from the outset that we can bear the light on this subject only in so far as we cleave, with a faith that lives in love and prayer, to the perfect and constant communion of the Son and the Father in that ocean of peace which is the divine life.  For the rest, it is the gradual and always very partial discovery of the depths of Trinitarian life which gives us an inkling of the gravity and intensity of the spiritual combat of the cross.  As soon as one begins to leave aside, let alone to misunderstand, the permanence of the perfect union of the Son with the Father to whom he does not cease to return in obedience and adoration, attention to the cross becomes intolerable and gives rise to various contradictions.  The cross can be thought of tragically or it can be idealized, but either way one inevitably ends up with the same paradoxical and yet understandable conclusion, namely, the relativization of the place of the cross in the life of a Christian. Now the cry of Jesus on the cross seems to lend itself to a tragic reading of the scene of Calvary: the Father’s unleashing of his anger against the innocent victim in whom he ceases to recognize his beloved son is a breach of the communion of the Trinity.  And as for idealizing the cross, this consists in so emphasizing the unique value of the sacrifice of Jesus that its perfection makes the attempt of the disciple to imitate it not only useless but misplaced.  What is astonishing in the discovery of the mystery of the cross at the center of the Christian life is that the more its inescapable presence is accepted, the more it absorbs tendencies towards a doloristic or masochistic sensibility, without ever doing away with them entirely.  It is keeping the cross at a distance that secretes idealized or terrifying notions of it which then justify and perpetuate themselves.  That is why we have to keep on starting time and again from what constitutes the deepest reality of the event of the cross: the love of Jesus for the Father.  It is just this immeasurable love of the incarnate Son who wants to return to his Father with everything he has that enables us to get a glimpse of the spiritual combat which he undergoes and also to hear and understand his cry of dereliction. The mystery of the incarnate Lord is that he recapitulates in himself the whole of human history seen as a holy history, that is to say, as a response to the invitations of God. This recapitulation is above all in the order of love. Jesus in his humanity is inhabited by a love for the Father that is so simple, complete, and full that he draws everything he carries within himself towards the Father in his wake, and this includes not only his own human nature but that of each one of us too. This is obviously not a question of supposing that Jesus lives out an offering of love for the Father in the place of each one of us by way of substituting for our personal life.  The role of Jesus is more that of witness and guide.  He concentrates within himself everything that can illumine and direct men’s return to the Father by way of filial confidence and abandonment to the will of the Father.  That is why Jesus in the time of his agony and passion endures all the spiritual ordeals that can affect man in his return to God.  It is to the extent that he carries them within himself that he can by his living presence today help us to bear and to surmount them.  To sum up, Jesus’s love for the Father is that of an elder brother concerned to open up the road to the younger ones who follow him in trust.  This is why Jesus takes on the heaviness of the burden that most weighs down sinful man’s élan towards his creator and father. This is where I should like to place the spiritual context of the conflict between sinful man and God who calls him.  What the epistle to the Hebrews stresses above all is the spiritual obstacle represented by the fear of death, a fear that is in fact the source, prototype, and ultimate figure of all human anguish.  It is by way of this fear of death that he who enslaves man by holding the power of death and playing on it becomes discernible: “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same nature, that through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage.” (Hebrews 2:14-15)  The fear of death is one of the typical consequences of original sin.  At its most intense this fear can include the fear of death which is the reaction of the guilty man.  Fear of God, fear of being punished and abandoned by him, of losing one’s life, is the fate of a man who lets himself be shut up in his sin.  Jesus as the beloved Son of the Father comes to reestablish trust in the goodness, sweetness, and mercy of the Father. But the drama in question goes much further than the struggle against the anguish of death that can assail every man.  Jesus is in the grip of the one who holds the power of death, the father of lies and killing.  In the course of his agony and passion Jesus is attacked by the Adversary, he who wishes to prevent the deliverance of the human race which he holds captive, especially by means of distorted notions of God.  The cry of Jesus on the cross is therefore to be understood as the ultimate expression of the spiritual darkness of one who finds himself overwhelmed by an evil that is more serious, obscure, and fearful than the violence of men.  It is the cry of the innocent man encircled by lying and orchestrated accusations.  It is the cry of a man who sees his death to be very close and inescapable.  Beyond even that it is the cry of somebody who feels himself oppressed by a superhuman hand inflicting an interior torment which is of a different order from the convulsion of anguish occasioned by a merely psychic crisis. At the same time this cry remains a prayer and its very intensity is an appeal to God.  It is to the Father that Jesus speaks in order to address him as “My God.”  We need a lot of trust and love in order to be able to share with those nearest us what troubles us most, especially in our relationship to them.  It is also because Jesus has such complete filial trust in the Father that he experiences so painfully the feelings and thoughts of revolt and sadness that can shoot through him in his sharing of the spiritual combat of the sinful man.  Jesus’s greatest suffering in his passion is to undergo the interior temptation to despair of his mission to save, because what he offers man as a proof of the redemptive love and mercy of the Father, the gift of his life as the Good Shepherd, becomes the place where men unleash their violence and their rejection of God.  There is in the mystery of the cross a poignant meeting between the sweetness of God, manifested in the patience of Jesus, and the revolt of sinful man against God because this sweetness of God in the midst of the humiliations of the Son made obedient even unto death becomes intolerable to sinful man who finds his pride and violence exposed in it.  The cry of Jesus on the cross is, in the last analysis, the supreme suffering of a love which sees itself rejected in the very gesture with which it opens itself out to the compassion and helpfulness of his brothers, whilst God appears as a silent witness or even an accomplice.  The deepest suffering Jesus has to undergo is, on account of the unequaled quality of his filial love for the Father, to feel his heart shot through with feelings and thoughts of despair of God. Is the cry from the cross then the expression pure and simple of this despair?  No, for it is a cry of love and a prayer, where sinful man’s greatest temptation – which is precisely to despair of God and in the effectiveness of his mercy – is taken up and turned back into measureless confidence.  What proves this notion to us is the way in which John and Luke understood the death of Jesus as abandonment into the hands of the Father and as an ultimate testimony of obedience.  Jesus had to open himself up to sinful man’s spiritual drama in order to make of it the last word of his offering to the Father.  In order to be able to give the Father everything that goes to make up the condition of sinful man, Jesus had not only to know and to go beyond the fear of death but also to know and to go beyond the fear of God, the fear of the Father, the fear that makes us picture the Father as disillusioning, deceitful, and cruel.  The suffering of Jesus consisted precisely in opening up his human sensibility to this fear of the Father whilst being quickened to the core of his being by the simplest possible and most complete love for the Father.  It is on account of his love for the Father that Jesus experiences the spiritual suffering of contradiction and struggle in his relationship with the Father, and it was on account of his love for the Father that Jesus was able to let this final ordeal issue in the supreme abandonment of his life into the hands of the Father.

The Protest of the Suffering Job

What enables us to understand better the cry of Jesus on the cross is the comparison with the protest of Job.  In so far as we can paint it in broad strokes, the protest of Job seems to be based on three complaints that he addressed to God.  There is first of all the affirmation of his innocence, then the reproach that he is being tormented by God, and finally the protest at the inequality of men’s destiny before God. Job’s affirmation of innocence is a cry of personal truth, whereas the accusations leveled at him by his friends are nothing but ritual charges. (Job 22:5-9 and 20:19-23)  Job is fully justified in priding himself on irreproachable conduct in the eyes of God and man.  It is not just that he cared for the poor by giving them alms and hospitality but that he took pains to maintain the purity of his heart through the delicate way he regarded young girls (Job 31:1) and the constant and complete acceptance of the will of God (Job 1:20-22).  It would, therefore, be wrong to think of Job’s justice consisting merely in the material conformity to a rich landowner’s code of propriety.  He is conscious of a God who wants to find in his creatures an integrity of heart formed by filial obedience and adoration. The second charge Job makes against God is that he torments him.  It is not just that Job’s ordeal breaks open the prevailing notion of a God who afflicts the wicked and protects and blesses the just, but that there is some indication of a reversal. On this view, God is not content to test the just along with the wicked indifferently.  No, it is as if God pits himself with particular ferocity against the innocent servant that Job is.  God does not cease to watch Job whom he has picked as his target (Job 7:18-20)  God becomes Job’s accuser (Job 9:15), thereby paradoxically taking over from the adversary mentioned at the beginning of the sapiential story. (Job 1:9 and 2:4-5)  In the legal proceedings instituted against Job, God, the just judge, plays the role of the prosecutor and never stops spying on Job so as to catch him red-handed.  The creator of all things, who has formed Job’s flesh with his own hands, seems to take pleasure in crumbling him bit by bit in his own hands.  The God of Job seems at times to be the complete opposite of the Creator and Father in some sort of deliberate perversion of his role towards man.  God persists in surrounding Job with terrors and assaults him with acts of violence.  In a word, God seems to have become the enemy of Job. Job’s third complaint is to do with the inequality of men’s destiny in regard to divine justice.  It is not just that God does not seem to pay attention to the integrity of men’s conduct but that he seems to favor the unjust and the wicked since they succeed in everything, pace the too short-sighted wisdom of Job’s friend.  The wicked man seems for all the world to enjoy a special protection from God. (Job 21:30)  God remains deaf in the face of men’s worst violence against the poorest in the community. (Job 24:12) The fact remains, however, that Job addresses his complaint to God himself in whom he persists in recognizing the just judge.  It is also a fact that Job, in however veiled a way, proclaims his hope in a God who will take his defense against God himself and who will give back his life and happiness in the eyes of all (Job 16:19-21 and 19:25-27), beyond death itself.  The cry of Job is therefore a prayer addressed to God, a plea full of confidence.  In any case the close of the book testifies to the innocence of Job, because God himself praises him for having spoken about him uprightly. (Job 42:7-8)  In this way God authenticates Job’s speech of protest, albeit only after having shown him in a poetic manner, as in some sumptuous children’s picture book, the unfathomable wonders of his creative providence.  In short, God believes that Job was right in his point of view as long as he did not foreclose the mystery of wisdom that guides everything and that draws the universe and men’s lives towards a new and unknown world, the world of God. It would be a mistake to think that the Book of Job concludes flatly by coming back to where it began.  The new gift that God gives Job is not limited to the magnificent reconstruction of his framework of life: it consists in the experience of his presence in the intimacy of listening to the revealing Word.  Job finds himself enfolded more deeply in adoration and in the conviction of his littleness before the creator and master of all.  Having disabused the wisdom of religious men of his time of its naïve presumptuousness, Job finds himself confronted directly by the wisdom of God.  This goes far beyond any argued response to claims reaffirmed in the light of daily and verifiable experience.  God does not even take the trouble to lift a corner of the secret of the future veiled by death.  The response to Job consists in the affirmation of his constant and universal presence, in the gift of his presence: he is there everywhere and always, and so he has never left Job and could never abandon him.  His presence may become invisible, but that is on account of the mystery of divine paternity: before his creator man can only remain a child very quickly bewildered when he loses his immediate bearings.  The only light he has, in the end, is his certitude that God is always with him.  This is the gift Job has received in the ordeal. If we now return to the cry of Jesus on the cross, the two experiences evoked should illuminate each other: the figure of the just sufferer in the first alliance, and the passion of the holy one of God.  The two experiences are connected in many external ways.  Like Job, Jesus is abandoned by his friends to the insults and derision of his foes.  Like Job, in fact much more so, he is attacked in his own flesh.  Like Job, Jesus is surrounded by the shadow of death.  But what makes Jesus most like Job, beyond these external similarities, is his innocence in the face of a God who seems to abandon him.  At the same time, Jesus does not take up Job’s complaints against a God perceived as his accuser, enemy, even executioner. (Job 30:21)

All that Jesus brings out by his cry is the silence of God, which may be an attestation not exactly of his complicity with the violence of men or of his weakness, but at least of his permissiveness and the complete non-intervention in the justice of men.  Jesus’s God appears not as a Father who is transformed into a perverse destroyer of the work of his hands, but at least as a remote God who remains indifferent to the injustice of men, even when this touches his beloved Son who cries to him, imploring his help and deliverance.  Jesus’s cry nevertheless goes far beyond Job’s protest, because he poses a question about the nature and maintenance of the privileged relationship between the Father and his only Son.  Job made his complaint to his creator, whereas Jesus’s cry on the cross went up to his Father who is God.  The depth of the spiritual drama in question is not in any way to be measured by the extent of the complaints but by the initial situation of intimacy with God which is then apparently put in doubt; Jesus’s passion is not a repetition of Job’s ordeal but the transposition to a much deeper plane.  By this very token the suffering of Jesus brings to the question of Job a response that is above all of the order of witness rather than of explanation.

We could say that the cry of Jesus on the cross is not God’s response to Job’s question but a hearing on God’s part in an extraordinary way of Job’s question by making it be reformulated by his own Son come to take flesh of our flesh.  In Jesus the Father raised the perfect man who shares his brothers’ distress in every way and above all their spiritual distress, that is to say their fear of God the Father, their fear of being abandoned by him.  Here again the letter to the Hebrews gives us teaching of an inexhaustible richness: “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard for his godly fear.  Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and being made perfect he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedech. (Hebrews 5:7-10)  Jesus who realized perfect obedience within himself, the loving return of the creature towards his creator, loving abandonment of the Son to his Father, nevertheless wanted out of solidarity with men his brothers, to taste the dregs of the most lacerating dereliction there can be, the anguish of being abandoned, not to say rejected by God.

And if Jesus was heard by the Father, it was not by obtaining from him the right to pass death by.  He wanted to know death, the last ordeal of sinful man. If he was heard, it was through death, which was able to strike him down for an instant but not to keep him in its chains.  As soon as Jesus accepted death, he recovered his glory as Son and was able to testify to the victory of divine love, stronger than death and all fear, in the presence of the just of the first alliance: “. . . being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the the spirit, in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison.” (1 Peter 3:18-19)  There is in the death of Jesus an unfathomable abyss of spiritual dereliction compared with the transient ordeal of Job, which was more superficial – in so far as it is possible to compare the reality with the figure.  We do, however, also have to say that the resurrection of Jesus is completely different from a return to his previous condition.  The resurrection of Jesus, of course, constitutes neither a revenge on his enemies nor a compensation for his total renunciation.  The risen one keeps within himself his disposition of love and humility, patience, and obedience.  This does not prevent the glory of the risen Christ from wiping away all tears, all sadness, all doubt.

The witness that Jesus bears and that forms a living response to the questioning of Job is not, however, his welcome of the resurrection but his desire for the cross.  If the cry of Jesus on the cross is made a little comprehensible by the act of complete abandonment in which it issues, it already finds a partial explanation in the desire that underlies it and that is the desire to offer up his life.  The whole sense of the passion of Jesus derives from the fact that it is voluntary.  Jesus wanted to undergo death in order to free us from sin.  There was even in his resolute will that element of impatience that is the mark of love: “I came to cast fire upon the Earth; and would that it were already kindled!  I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how I am constrained until it is accomplished!” (Luke 12:49-50)  Jesus’s desire is the deepest reality of his being human and of his redemptive suffering.  This desire is at once the human expression and the human realization of his divine being as Son completely turned towards the Father in adoration and the offer of his life.  It is because Jesus is wholly love of the Father in the passion of his desire that he suffered so much from carrying our fear of being abandoned by the Father on our behalf, a fear instigated by him who is the accuser of our sin.

The Spirituality of the Cross

The language of the cross reveals the wisdom of God in regard to all aspects of our Christian life but especially in regard to what happens to us in our ordeals and purifications.  What gives the science of the cross its human truth and the authentic content of light and force for each of us is the love of God which the Holy Spirit instills into the heart of the baptized.  The Holy Spirit, in wakening and ceaselessly developing in us the love for the Father guides us in the way of Jesus, the unique Son and first-born, which is a way of humility and obedience, of renunciation and total gift, the way of the cross.  The more love of the Father there is in us, the more the gift becomes blessed and quickening, even in regard to the inescapable dispossession of and death to ourselves.  When the love of God in us is not stronger than everything, the fear of death and the fear of God become contradictory obstacles on the way of the cross and we tend to fall back on the rather superficial device of projecting on to others the spiritual struggle which tears us apart.

The cry of Jesus on the cross is not a reproach against God, but the explosion of suffering in love.  The communion between the Father and the incarnate Son finds its perfect human realization only in the passion and the cross in which the Son draws all human life and his desire for life into his life for the Father.  It is thus that the Son in his humanity is made perfect and accomplished in his obedience to the Father.  In human terms the relationship between the Father, and the Son is never so full as on the cross, when the Son gives back his life to the Father, led by the “eternal Spirit.” (Hebrews 9:4)  Love gives no explanation, but it makes a relationship with and against everything live.  If it could be heard by our ears, the response of God to Jesus, as to Job, would simply be: “I am always with you.”

In this perspective, the cry of Jesus on the cross prolongs and deepens the protest of Job, for the absence and silence of the Father can disturb the Son much more that the withdrawal of the sovereign God of the universe, become a little enigmatic for a time in the eyes of his faithful servant.  It is nevertheless in pressing Job’s questioning to its limit that Jesus brings a response that is not an explanation but a presence of love.  I should like to say that the love of Jesus for the Father allows him to put the strongest question there is because he is so sure of being heard and answered by the Father.  The witness of Jesus is the complete simplicity of his filial love the depth of which is that of an ocean without bottom or bourn, the very love that is the divine life.  Against this unfathomable ground of the mystery of the love of the Son for the Father, the cry from the cross is an appeal of love that draws its force from the quality of the relationship from which it springs.  In sum, the sense of this cry goes beyond every attempt at interpretation, but in this very fact it invites us to enter into the relationship of the Son to the Father in adoration and the gift of our life not costing less than everything.

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