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03 April 2011

Truly Communicating the Fourth Word

The Japanese Zen master Soen Nakagawa Roshi once had a student who was an American Jesuit priest. At their first formal interview, the master said to the priest, “As best as you can, communicate to me Christ's fourth word on the cross.”

The Jesuit priest was surprised that the Zen master wanted him to recite from the Bible, but he immediately recited what he knew well, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He was proud at just how seriously and correctly he recited Scripture, and was almost ready to give a well-thought out interpretation of the words, when the Zen master rang his bell and said, “Wrong”.

Dismissed, the priest left disconcerted and dejected. He had been told that he had done “wrong”; and worse, he had been told he had done wrong with something he was so familiar with. At home, he looked up the seven words on the cross and verified that indeed he had recited the right words.

So it went on for six days: The Zen master asked the priest to communicate the fourth word on the cross; each time the priest gave the same response and each time the Zen master rejected it. By the seventh day, the priest was completely frustrated and dumbfounded.

At the last interview, he pleaded with the Zen master, “Please, Sir, put me out of my misery. I am tortured because I can't figure out what was wrong with my answer!”

Marc Chagall: Crucifixion 

Soen Roshi complied with great compassion, yet in a most startling manner. Suddenly, the priest saw Soen Roshi as the very embodiment of crucifixion; the Zen master became Jesus Christ on the cross, arms agonizingly outstretched, head thrown back in pure despair, ... and heard him howl at the top of his voice, with the full force of his being: MY GOD, ... MY GOD, WHY! .... WHY HAVE YOU FORSAKEN ME!

The priest had never done as asked: instead of communicating the words (as the Zen master did), he had only recited them. What was wrong with the priest's answer was not the content, but the distance he communicated, the lack of passion when he recited the words. While he was stuck in his head, the Zen master felt the words and then expressed what he felt.

As long as I can remember, there have always been preachers who tried to soften this text by emphasizing that Jesus was “just quoting” from Scripture, as if to say that he certainly couldn't have felt abandoned by God. Somehow the idea of Jesus feeling abandoned by his father seems too startling to many. I believe that Jesus knew his Bible and knew Psalm 22.

I also believe, however, that Jesus meant every word; someone in true agony is not likely disposed to quoting from Scripture. “Eli, Eli, lamasabachthani" -- this is not a question, it is a statement about Jesus’ humanity: “I am a fragile human being, son of man, and I am afraid. I am trembling, and I would like to go back.” Jesus is left in total emptiness and trembles with fear.

Only the God that lets himself go all the way down into the pit can help humankind, the God that becomes a trembling abandoned human being. Our God is one that comes down into our pits, all the way down.

And because only the Crucified God is believable to those who suffer, as the People of the Crucified God we need to truly communicate our own solidarity, our own love. Reciting lines from Scripture will not do. Nobody can love with their head; the heart is required for that, the full force of our being.

Matthew 27:46

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