How could a man writhing against the nails of a cross, who cries, “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?!,” die with the words, “Into your hands I commit my spirit”? To understand this is to understand what makes Jesus the Christ.
Of course, we have no way of knowing Jesus’ exact thought processes. But from other things the Bible says and from what we know of his culture, he might well have held out hope that God would send angels to rescue him at the last minute, as his taunters opined. As he neared the end, however, he gave up that hope, and realized that God had abandoned him. Even if we say, as some scholars do, that Jesus was only reciting psalms, and that this line is the beginning of the 22nd Psalm, his choice of that psalm makes the point. He despaired of rescue by the God he thought would do so.
Most of us will not be crucified. But many of us will suffer wasting illness, be disabled by accidents, lose lovers to death or betrayal, or fall into a situation of war, poverty, or chaos. Each of us will die, and for most of us death will seem too early, like Jesus’. Jesus’ crucifixion, whatever else it means, symbolizes for us the gift of life which includes devastating suffering as well as triumphant joys. The lesson of Jesus is that we must accept that gift. We can hope for success and rescue, for healing and companionship. We can rail about the unfairness of life all we want, and should struggle with all our strength to make life fair. But true faith means that in the end, when we see that nothing will keep us from loss, we accept the life God gives. We accept the mixture of pain and pleasure, and the inevitable entropic loss of life itself. If we are honest, we know that it is the Lord who slays us. Jesus shows us how to submit to the God who gives and takes away.
When Jesus said, “into your hands I commit my spirit,” he refused alienation from the God who abandoned him. He did not say God is well intentioned but weak. He did not say God was malevolent. He did not say that God is indifferent. He had expected God to succor him, and from that expectation his death seemed like abandonment. We too often look to God to fix things for us, and yet God’s cosmic process washes over us like a blind force. We too feel abandoned. In spite of all this, Jesus committed his spirit to the creator who dashed his hope and sent him to an early death. He loved the master whose love includes cruelty among its blessings.
Now the blessing of crucifixion is that it sets us free. If we love the God who gives us our lives with the hurts as well as joys, we cannot be in bondage to our expectations. We cannot be in bondage to our images of God as one who is on our side against our foes. We cannot be in bondage to any expectation. However we might be disappointed by this or that turn of events, we cannot be disappointed by God, because, understanding Jesus’ crucifixion, we expect from God only what God gives, and takes away.
By committing his spirit to God, Jesus mastered the art of loving the God who is unlovable in the ordinary sense. Jesus taught us to learn to love this God by saying that we should love our neighbors, an unlovely bunch! He taught us to learn to love this God by saying we should love our enemies, because God so often seems to be our enemy. He taught us to love this God by accepting crucifixion himself and refusing to let this separate his spirit from God. The old kind of being, the kind most of us have been, would turn from God in anger. The new being, which Jesus was and teaches us to be, can love the creator despite everything and, in so doing, conquer sin and death. Because Jesus committed his spirit to God, nothing whatsoever could keep him from God, even in death. Because we too can commit our spirits to God, the wiles of Satan and the terrors of death present no obstacle. Blessing the Lord who gives and takes away, we have nothing left to lose and the freedom to live with the abundance of God’s grace. Oh, what a happy death took place on Good Friday.