"Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing."
Luke 23:34

Recall holding a just-born infant, or think of an occasion when you cradled a sick and soon-to-die grandparent or elderly friend.  We are drawn to embrace those we love, but they can be so precious, fragile, and beautiful that we fear to take hold of them.  These cross-shaped words of Jesus, words uttered in agony, put us in a similar position.  We are at once drawn to these words, but we fear taking them in our hands, realizing that we cannot comprehend their power.

To comprehend these words we rightly fear would threaten all we hold dear, that is, the everyday.  Everyday death always threatens the everyday, but we depend on our death-denying routines to return life to normality.  But this death, and these death-determined words, are not ordinary.  This is the death of the Son of God, a death that encompasses death, challenging our assumption that we have or can "come to terms with death" on our own terms.  To comprehend this death, to be faced with these words, means life can never return to normal.

This first word, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing," seems to offer us comfort.  Yet in "Mysterium Paschale" Hans von Balthasar reminds us that this first word from the cross was made the "first word" by virtue of a questionable attempt to harmonize the Gospels.  In fact, von Balthasar argues that the first of the seven last words should be the only word we have from the cross in the books of Matthew and Mark, that is, the cry of abandonment.

However, to begin with "Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachtahani?  My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" asks too much of us.  What are we to make of such a cry if this is the Son of God?  We cannot suppress the thought:  "If you are the Son of God, should you be saying this?  If you are God, if you are the Second Person of the Trinity, how can you be abandoned?"  This is clearly a God with a problem.  There is ample precedence in the Psalms for expressions of being abandoned by God, but we think the Psalms express our despair, our feeling of abandonment, not God's abandonment.  We assume, therefore, it is not seemly for God to pray the Psalms.  Confronted by these words from the cross, we find it almost impossible for us to resist trying to protect God from being God.  Accordingly, we seek some way to explain how or why these words of abandonment could be uttered by Jesus. 

Von Balthasar must be wrong.  Beginning with Jesus's request that those that crucify him be forgiven – which we try to remember may also include us – seems to offer the kind of explanation we need to save Jesus from the absurdity of being abandoned.  These explanations are often called atonement theories.  Such theories try to help us understand why Jesus, the son of God, had to die.  We think it is really very simple:  Jesus had to die because we needed and need to be forgiven.  But, ironically, such a focus shifts attention from Jesus to us.  This is a fatal turn, I fear, because as soon as we begin to think this is all about us, about our need for forgiveness, bathos drapes the cross, hiding from us the reality that here we first and foremost see God.

Moreover, as soon as these words form the cross are bent to serve our needs, to give us a god we believe we need, it is almost possible to resist entertaining ourselves with speculative readings of Jesus's words from the cross.  For example we think what a wonderful savior we have in Jesus, who, even in his agony, kindly offers us forgiveness.  Of course we are not all that sure what we have done that requires such forgiveness, but we are willing to try to think up something.  Ironically, by trying to understand what it means for us to need forgiveness, too often our attention becomes focused on something called the "human condition" rather than the cross and the God who hangs there.