Monday, March 05, 2012

Christ's Cry from the Cross

What is a Catholic to believe about the manner in which Christ has redeemed us by His death? That is, what is a properly Catholic soteriology? Anselm has done a thorough job of refuting the common Protestant error of Penal Substitution elsewhere on this blog (look for "Anselm's Posts on Soteriology" on the sidebar), but what, in a positive sense, is a Catholic left with to believe once we have refuted the errors of those who espouse Penal Substitution?

This is a big question with many facets. There are many ways the conversation can go, but I think the following five issues are the few key points for discussion:

1) The Agent of Christ’s Death
2) The Nature of Christ’s Sufferings
3) What About Christ’s Death Makes it Atoning
4) Interpreting Different Scriptural Texts Dealing with the Atonement
5) How Christians Appropriate the Grace Merited in the Atonement

There is no way to tackle this at once, but I think I would actually like to begin with the fourth point on Scriptural texts dealing with the Atonement, especially Christ’s cry of dereliction (“My God, my God, why have You forsaken Me?” –Matt. 27:46). This verse is usually a proof text for the Protestant claim that Christ is experiencing “abandonment” by God the Father. This abandonment, in the Protestant idea, comes about as a result of Christ literally being “made sin”, that is, loaded with the actual sins of the whole human race in such a way that He assumes the guilt due to us. Because of this, God Himself forsakes Christ and Christ bears the full brunt of the guilt of man’s sin in isolation from God. Thus, the cry from the cross means that Christ is giving voice to this horrendous experience of being forsaken by His Father.

In the first place, I think it is evident that this cannot mean what Protestants think it does. As Anselm has pointed out elsewhere, Christ enjoyed the beatific vision constantly, even during the Crucifixion, and this has been infallibly defined by Pope Pius XII in Mystici Corporis. Christ also specifically references the hour of His passion in contrasting the abandonment of His disciples with the faithfulness of God the Father, who is “always” with Him:

“Behold, the hour cometh, and it is now come, that you shall be scattered every man to his own, and shall leave me alone; and yet I am not alone, because the Father is with me” (John 16:32).

This means that the cry of Christ from the cross cannot mean that His vision or union with God the Father was obscured during the Crucifixion. But the point of this post is not to say what the cry of Christ does not mean, but rather explore what it does mean.

There are many theories as to what Christ’s last, anguished cry means. The Church’s most eminent saints disagree at times, and I might add that not all of their opinions are tenable, in my opinion. St. Ambrose, for example, says:

It was in human voice that he cried: "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" As human, therefore, he speaks on the cross, bearing with him our terrors. For amid dangers it is a very human response to think ourself abandoned (Of the Christian Faith, 2.7.56).

Though it may be a human thing to think oneself abandoned, it is not something we can attribute to Christ since, even in his human nature, His intellect was free from positive error, and if we were to say that Christ wrongly believed Himself to be abandoned by God, this would indeed constitute a positive error.

Aquinas states that the difficulty with this passage comes in understanding what it means to be “forsaken” or “given up”, and in typical Aquinas fashion, gives several definitions of the phrase:

As observed above, Christ suffered voluntarily out of obedience to the Father. Hence in three respects God the Father did deliver up Christ to the Passion. In the first way, because by His eternal will He preordained Christ's Passion for the deliverance of the human race, according to the words of Isaias (53:6): "The Lord hath laid on Him the iniquities of us all"; and again (Is. 53:10): "The Lord was pleased to bruise Him in infirmity." Secondly, inasmuch as, by the infusion of charity, He inspired Him with the will to suffer for us; hence we read in the same passage: "He was offered because it was His own will" (Is. 53:7). Thirdly, by not shielding Him from the Passion, but abandoning Him to His persecutors: thus we read (Mat. 27:46) that Christ, while hanging upon the cross, cried out: "My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?" because, to wit, He left Him to the power of His persecutors, as Augustine says (Ep. cxl). (ST, III, 47, 3).

In my opinion, however, it is St  John Chrysostom who comes closest to the mark here in referring Christ’s cry to Psalm 22 and giving it a prophetic significance. Chrysostom says:

Why does he speak this way, crying out, "Eli, Eli, lama sabach-thani?" That they might see that to his last breath he honors God as his Father and is no adversary of God. He spoke with the voice of Scripture, uttering a cry from the psalm. Thus even to his last hour he is found bearing witness to the sacred text. He offers this prophetic cry in Hebrew, so as to be plain and intelligible to them, and by all things Jesus shows how he is of one mind with the Father who had begotten him
(The Gospel of Matthew, Homily 88.1).

Christ’s cry itself, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken Me” is taken from Psalm 22:1, the same Psalm that prophesies all of the details of the Crucifixion:

~All who see me mock at me, they make mouths at me, they wag their heads; (v. 7)
~Yea, dogs are round about me; a company of evildoers encircle me; they have pierced my hands and feet – (v. 16)
~I can count all my bones --they stare and gloat over me; (v. 17)
~they divide my garments among them, and for my raiment they cast lots. (v. 18)

It is as if, in His final breath, He is saying, “Look, that which is written in the Psalm is coming to pass before your very eyes.” According to Hebrew custom, it is sufficient for our Lord to quote only the first line of the Psalm to bring the whole thing to remembrance, just as it is now when someone says, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want”, “Te Deum”, or “O’ Say Can You See”; the recitation of the first line calls to mind the whole, and everything the whole implies. Therefore, Christ’s cry can be seen as a kind of final appeal to the Scriptures that testify that He is Who He claims.

John Paul II interprets Christ’s cry from the cross as being a sign of continuing communication between the Father and the Son despite the apparent abandonment of the Son by God – and I think we have to keep that word apparent in the forefront of our minds, because to the Pharisees and those who were watching, it did indeed appear as if He had been abandoned. John Paul II says:

"On the Cross, Christ's total forgiveness, even of his executioners, establishes the new justice. Dearest "Brothers and Sisters, the cry of Jesus on the cross (cf. Mt 27,46) is not the anguish of a desperate man, it is the prayer of the Son who offers his life to the Father for the salvation of all mankind. From the cross Jesus shows the conditions which enable us to forgive. To the hatred with which is persecutors nailed him to the Cross, he responds with a prayer for them. He not only forgives them, he continues to love them, to want their good and to intercede for them. His death becomes the full realization of Love" (Message of John Paul II for World Mission Sunday, 19 May 2002).

The only problem here is that the Pope interprets Christ’s words “not as the anguish of a desperate man” but as a “prayer of the Son who offers his life to the Father” but does not explain why the prayer is then phrased awkwardly in the context of God-forsakenness. I do think JPII is close to the truth here, but it needs better explanation.

St. Augustine has a very helpful explanation, connecting the various threads of thought from Chrysostom, Aquinas and John Paul II. He sees the cry as an expression of Christ’s humanity, akin to “If it is possible, let this cup pass from me.” In other words, because Christ was a man, He did not, on a natural level, like the idea of being scourged and crucified. But, because His human will was perfectly in accord with His divine will, He was likewise able to say, “Nevertheless, not my will, but thine be done.” Augustine interprets the cry from the cross similarly:

Out of the voice of the psalmist, which our Lord then transferred to himself, in the voice of this infirmity of ours, he spoke these words: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? He is doubtless forsaken in the sense that his plea was not directly granted. Jesus appropriates the psalmist's voice to himself, the voice of human weakness. The benefits of the old covenant had to be refused in order that we might learn to pray and hope for the benefits of the new covenant. Among those goods of the old covenant which belonged to the old Adam there is a special appetite for the prolonging of this temporal life. But this appetite itself is not interminable, for we all know that the day of death will come. Yet all of us, or nearly all, strive to postpone it, even those who believe that their life after death will be a happier one. Such force has the sweet partnership of body and soul (Letters, 140 to Honoratus 6).

In his most compassionate humanity and through his servant form we may now learn what is to be despised in this life and what is to be hoped for in eternity. In that very passion in which his proud enemies seemed most triumphant, he took on the speech of our infirmity, in which "our sinful nature was crucified with him" that the body of sin might be destroyed, and said: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" ... Thus the Psalm begins, which was sung so long ago, in prophecy of his passion and the revelation of the grace which he brought to raise up his faithful and set them free"
(Letters, 140 to Honoratus 5).

Thus, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” means “O’ God, why was it necessary that the sins of man should demand such a price?” with the implied answer, “Into your hands a commend my spirit,” the “Not my will but thine” statement of the Crucifixion. Thus Christ’s cry becomes one not of despair but of absolute abandoning trust. His sufferings are Job-like, and his cry is reminiscent of Job’s response to his own sufferings, “Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him” (Job 13:15).

This interpretation takes some thought to come to, and admittedly I do not like it as much as Chrysostom’s straightforward interpretation of the cry as being in fulfillment of Psalm 22. A lot of this also has to be wrapped in to a more thorough treatment of Catholic soteriology, which I do not have time for at the moment but will hopefully get to in the near futue.


Ben said...

And what would your response be to St. Alphonsus' teaching of penal substitution?

Boniface said...

I'd have to look at his whole quote in context, if you have a reference.

Ben said...

It's from his book "The Glories of Mary", his sermon for the Feast of the Purification. In my edition it's Liguori Publications, 2000, page 247.

You can also find it online here:

"Let us leave aside all other considerations that we might reflect on today and dwell only on the greatness of the sacrifice Mary made of Herself to God when She offered Him the life of Her Son. This will be the subject of our discourse.

The Eternal Father had already determined to save man who had fallen through sin, and to deliver him from eternal death. At the same time He willed that Divine JUSTICE should not be deprived of a worthy and fitting SATISFACTION. And so He did not spare the life of His Son Who had already become man to redeem men, but willed that He should pay with the utmost rigor the PENALTY which all men deserved. He who has not spared even His own Son, but has delivered Him for us all [Rom. 8: 32]."

phatcatholic said...

Perhaps this can be one of a series of posts addressing the question of how a Catholic ought to understand the atonement of Christ. I await future installments.

Ben said...

You may also be interested in this comment of St. Thomas: "Christ bore a satisfactory punishment, not for His, but for our sins."

Ben said...

You may also be interested in this comment of St. Thomas: "Christ bore a satisfactory punishment, not for His, but for our sins."

Ben said...

Sorry to belabour the point, but I have just found this quote from Robert Bellarmine, S.J. which also seems to teach penal substitution (or something very close):

"What does it matter to object that God afflicted not only angels, but even His very Son because of sins? My dear people, there is nothing that God loves more mightily than His own true and natural Son, yet, when the Son took our sins upon His shoulders and professed Himself willing to offer satification for them, God smote Him and, as the prophet Isais says, bruised Him 'in infirmity' (53:10). He wished Him to bear sorrows and tortures which no human being has ever endured here on earth. Great, therefore, and implacable is the hatred of God against sin, when in His own Son he avenges the crimes of others!" (From Hell and its Torments, TAN, 10.)

If you still have any opinion on the matter, I'm still interested!
God bless.

Boniface said...


Anselm sent me this answer:

" I can respond to the quotation from St Thomas more immediately than the one from St Robert.
St Thomas distinguishes between punishment (poena simpliciter) and satisfactory pain (poena satisfactoria). The former is more or less what the Penal Substitution theory of atonement ascribes to Christ. The latter is what St Thomas ascribes to Christ. There is still an aspect of punishment here, but just two of the key differences are the agent of Christ's sufferings (God or sinful men), and the degree or amount of suffering required (one drop of the precious blood or the infinite suffering of eternal damnation).
Thus with regard to St Robert and other Catholic authorities, I would interpret them in a way which harmonizes with this account, if possible. If that can't be done then I would simply choose to follow the teaching of the angelic and common doctor, both on account of his superior authority and because his account seems more reasonable.

In defense of St Robert, though, I suspect that if pressed he would admit that what he is saying here is not that God positively punished Christ but that he willed to allow Christ to be punished."

Anselm also suggested that you purchase his book if you have not already.

Ben said...

I'm afraid that I'm a bit short on funds for that, Anselm!

I'll just have to do more study on this issue.