The church that we are members of commemorates Maundy Thursday of Holy Week with what is known as a service of shadows. Each of the shadows represents some aspect of Christ’s final hours before and during his crucifixion.
The service is always moving. The full weight of what Christ suffered so that I could have life never ceases to bring tears to my eyes. Each year, however, moves me in a unique way. This year was no exception.
During the “shadow of death” the pastor read Jesus’ agonizing cry from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” As I sat there thinking about these words, the awful reality hit me: God turned his face from his son!
Now this was not new news to me. I have heard those words and thought about them dozens of times over the course of my adult life, and even more since I became a theologian. What struck me was that what happened to Jesus is the exact opposite of God’s promise to his people.
You see, the story of the Bible is really a story about presence, the presence of God with his people. It begins in garden where God walks and talks with his people in the cool of the day. But the first couple does not want God’s presence on his terms. They rebel, deciding that they will live the way they want to regardless of God’s instruction.
The result: loss of the presence of God. Adam and Eve are cast out of the garden, cast out of the presence of God, a presence that brings the flourishing life God intended for them.
The rest of the story is God’s project to bring his rebellious people back into his presence in order that they would have abundant life. God offers a relationship with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God comes to his suffering people in Egypt, rescues them and dwells with them in the wilderness, bringing life to the desert. God directs the high priest Aaron to bless the people saying “The LORD bless you and keep you. The LORD make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you. The LORD turn his face toward you and give you his peace.”
The blessing of God, salvation, is tied up with God’s face being turned toward his people. In fact, at various times God’s people of the Old Testament cry, when they are feeling forsaken, for God to turn his face to them once again (e.g., Psalm 80).
But here, on the cross, Jesus quotes Psalm 22 in a way that sounds like a reversal of the Aaronic blessing. God not only has not turned his face of blessing toward his only son. God has turned his face away from him. Jesus hangs cursed. And he obviously feels the agony of that curse.
Worse yet, the anti-blessing is because of me. Me.
Just prior to this reading, the congregation sang “The Power of the Cross.” The text of one verse starkly states that Jesus hangs on the cross with “ev’ry bitter thought, ev’ry evil deed crowning your blood-stained brow.” As I sang those words and then heard Jesus’ cry my heart was pierced. The bitter thoughts and evil deeds were not abstractions to sing about. These were my bitter thoughts and evil deeds, specific things that I could name.
God turned his face from his own Son, so that I could have his face turned toward me.
“This the power of the cross: Christ became sin for us. Took the blame, bore the wrath, we stand forgiven at the cross.”
God’s face turned toward me, I stand forgiven at the cross.