Last words of love and longing

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?  (Psalm 22:1; Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34)

Why, since you wounded this heart, don’t you heal it?  And why, since you stole it from me, do you leave it so, and fail to carry off what you have stolen?  (St. John of the Cross, The Spiritual Canticle, Stanza 9)

I happened to read both of these verses last night.  Yes, there’s an immediate superficial similarity in the pained poetry of lost love and the Psalm of abandonment.  But I think this goes deeper.

John of the Cross uses poetry, heavily influenced by and even sampled from The Song of Songs, to describe the soul’s longing for its (her, in John’s imagery) true love, which is God.  And in his own commentary on this stanza of his poem, he uses the language of death, which intersects with Psalm 22 at the cross.

Commenting on Stanza 9, John writes,

Her [the soul’s] complaint is not that he [God] wounded her – for the more a loving soul is wounded the more its love is repaid – but that in sorely wounding her heart, he did not heal her by slaying her completely. The wounds of love are so sweet and delightful that if they do not cause death they cannot satisfy. Yet they are so delightful that she would want them to wound her sorely until they slay her completely. Consequently she says: “Why, since you wounded this heart, don’t you heal it?” This is equivalent to saying: Why, since you wounded this heart until it has become sorely wounded, do you not heal it by wholly slaying it with love? Since you cause the sore wound in the sickness of love, may you cause health in the death of love. As a result the heart, wounded with the sorrow of your absence, will be healed with the delight and glory of your sweet presence.

John of the Cross’s own sketch of Christ on the Cross.

If this is an accurate observation of the soul devoted to God, then the one perfectly devoted soul, Christ’s,  offers more than a cry of generic human pain or humiliation from the cross.  It is a cry for completion or perfection – that Christ’s painful zeal for God’s will can give way to the death of love that renews the delight and glory of Father and Son in the unity of the Spirit, no longer hindered or obscured by the earthbound body that Jesus accepted to save us.

In this sense, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? moves closer to It is finished (John 19:30) and Father, into your hands I commit my spirit (Luke 23:46).  It is the cry of the lover for the beloved that is finally answered with the delight and glory of the beloved’s sweet presence. 

So it is that Jesus, after crying out the Psalm, endures but a few more moments of useless ministrations from the crowd (this is similar to Stanzas 2 and 6 of the Canticle, which express the futility of intercessors and messengers when unity with God is the soul’s desire), and is slain completely by the wounds of divine love.

We believe that Jesus shares fully in our humanity, and so his cry does capture the universality of suffering and estrangement from God.  But as St. Paul points out, there is crying that ends there in futility, and a different kind of grief that can wail in hope – what John of the Cross lyricises as the longing of the lover for the beloved – of our soul for the God who awaits our arrival.


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