"Eloi Eloi lama sabachthani?"
I was a seminarian the summer that I spent several nights riding with the Chaplain for the police department in Louisville, Kentucky. My first night I remember driving down familiar streets that suddenly looked different in the shadows of street lights and darkened doorsteps.
On one particular night two men had gotten into a fight on a street corner, and one had killed the other. As we responded to the scene, the radio in the car noted a "crowd had gathered," and that there were many people trying to get inside the crime scene. The crime scene, a sectioned-off corner of the street, marked by yellow tape, just about half the size of a basketball court. Police, both inside and outside the area held people away. One of the woman, the mother of the victim, was being held by five other people. Her cries echoed through the neighborhood as it emerged from deep in her spirit. No one would let her near her "baby," as the investigation was ongoing.
It was the first time I saw a man dead in the street. I would like to think that it was the only time, but our society is not like that. People publicly die, and we all have seen their pictures.
It was late August, and the air was thick with humidity. In the light from a flashlight I could make out the man's face, non-expressive, already swollen from an earlier fight. This man had known pain.
The chaplain and I tried to talk with the mother of the man. A younger brother of the victim asked, "Can't you just let my mom in for a moment?"
I listened as the chaplain shared of "protocol," and "crime scene." My heart sank, and I realized that she would not be permitted. I looked, watched, and silently prayed. Somewhere in the back of my mind I was imagining a world that was different. A world where this man, who was still a boy in many ways, would be playing with friends, and his mother, laughing and telling others about the joy she had.
I watched as they placed the body in a bag in front of the crowd, lift him onto a stretcher, and then allowed his mother to come to her son one last time. She fell onto the bag that now contained her son's body and she wept, screaming, and asking God, "Why did you let this happen?"
There is not a Good Friday that I don't encounter this man and his mother. I read of the broken, bleeding body of Jesus on display, and I can see, smell and feel that night. On a hillside known as Golgotha, Calvary, or simply, "The Skull," as people watched, cried, and yelled at a man who was dying, Jesus was on display.
Jesus, used his final breaths to ensure that his mother would be cared for. She was not much older than her son, and she watched, perhaps remembering the moment the angel first approached her and said, "Fear not."
In the darkness of a barn, she first saw her child, and now in the midday sun, she watched him struggling to live.
I can hear her words in the voice of the woman from the streets of Louisville years ago. "Let me touch him."
I can hear the words, "Why have you forsaken me?" in the same tone as the mother asking God, "Why did you let this happen?"
I hear these words echo in my mind as I have now been with countless people as they encounter final words and final breaths. Death has become my daily journey as a hospice chaplain. For me, I have heard these words far more than only on the one day out of the year that the church finds the ability to ask them boldly.
We hold our breath after we utter these words. The liturgist quickly moves forward, just as we do, looking towards Easter morning when the tomb is empty and we announce, "He is risen!"
It is not the first time that texts ask the question. The Psalmist shares, "My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, but I find no rest." (Psalm 22:2)
Jesus cries out, "Why have you forsaken me?"
A mother cries out, "Why did you let this happen?"
A doctor must decide who gets a ventilator in the hallway of a crowded hospital full of COVID patients, "God, where are you?"
We struggle to understand how we are faithful when God is silent.
The images of these days have haunted humanity throughout history. Jesus cries out that, "It is finished," and dies.
Years ago I sat with a family in the ER of the hospital where I was a chaplain. A young resident at the hospital enters the room and begins to tell the family all the things that they did to help their father live, and he tells of the team's failure . He finishes, and turns away. The man's daughter turns and looks at me and says, "So what did he just say?"
I tell her, "Your dad has died."
Death and dying itself is never spoken of in the church, except on this day. Lazarus is raised from the dead. Moses goes off and God buries him. We simply do not talk about the single event that every one of us will experience in our life. We all have been born, and we will all die. It is a harsh reality, and I have often thought that this is why we have such difficulty with death and dying. Our faith communities fail us, and comments like, "Part of God's plan," and "Heaven needed another angel," do not serve us well.
I encounter families who have tried every last single "experimental treatment," only to find that their loved one is still going to die.
The moment we take our first breath, we are one breath closer to our own death.
I have often wondered to what depth Jesus understood his journey? To comprehend that one single life is lived in order to be the sacrifice for all humanity is hard for any of us.
Jesus tells the disciples, "I will only be with you for a short time longer."
Today is the day that we remember that Jesus died. It is the day that we are given permission to ask, "My God, why have you forsaken us?"
To open our eyes and understand our own mortality. To look at the world and understand that we are violent. That the world is not perfect, and that mother's and sons, fathers and daughters, brothers and sisters, and friends, will all encounter the moment when this life, "Is finished."
Today is the day we need to remember that we are in God's grip!
G. Todd Williams (c) 2020
Rev. G. Todd Williams lives in the Houston metro area and is a Hospice Chaplain and ordained Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) pastor.