When I ponder the final words of Jesus on the Cross, I feel intrigued by the word “abandon.” Matthew and Mark recall Jesus’ anguished cry to the Father, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” (Matthew 27:46, Mark 15:34). But Luke recalls Jesus “abandoning” himself into the Father’s hands in trust and surrender, as he breathes his final breath (Luke 23:47). How can two so drastically different human experiences be expressed with the same English word?
I feel a personal connection with both experiences. The one is so full of anguish, sorrow, or panic – even fury. The other is touched with tenderness, intimacy, trust, and security. The one screams out from isolation; the other approaches in sweet intimacy.
During my college seminary years, I drew much consolation from reading Abandonment to Divine Providence by Jean Pierre de Caussade (1675-1751), a French Jesuit. His words spoke into my orphaned heart that struggled to trust and surrender in vulnerable relationships – even though I couldn’t have named the experience at the time.
During that same time, I went on my first ever silent retreat. I look back with a smile on the “me” of a quarter century ago. In my willful heart, there was both a tender longing for intimacy with God and a pharisaical legalism. Like young Saul, I threw all my zeal into the retreat. My 21st birthday came and went; a few friends even sang for me at breakfast. I smiled and blushed, but dutifully kept my silence.
I felt a longing as I recalled our high school chaplain describing the importance of his annual retreats. He had once testified to how God began speaking to him when he stayed in silence long enough. This must be how it works, I thought. So I spent a full three hours in the chapel each afternoon – mostly kneeling. But I didn’t conquer God; he conquered me. On the third day, abruptly and unexpectedly, it was as though a massive wave pulsed through the room and me. I suddenly and intensely felt the the strength and security of his providence – a sense that truly (in the words of Julian of Norwich) “all will be well and all manner of thing will be well.”
Amidst that peace and an intense desire for more of that peace, I felt convicted of all the times that I was “pushing through” the present moment. I was either enduring that which was unpleasant or devouring that which was pleasurable. Either way, I wasn’t opening myself to the gift that can only be received in the present. He helped me see how often things that felt confusing or overwhelming in the present moment actually led to abundant blessing. He flooded my mind and heart with the image of looking back down the mountain at the twisting path already walked – including steps that made utterly no sense at the time – and marveling at how no other path would have worked. He gave me some felt sense of how he sees all of these things simultaneously; all the moments are one in him; all are “now” for him. He invites me to surrender to him in the “now” of the present moment. I resist. When I left the chapel and felt the throb of circulation as the blood returned to my knees. I paused in the hallway to gaze on a copy of a Pinturicchio painting of the Crucifixion (see above). I felt a jolt of awe as I gazed upon the “now” of Jesus’ once-and-for-all sacrifice on the Cross. Beneath him lay death dismantled, overcome by his love and his shed bled. Behind him was paradise restored, and a felt sense of God’s eternal rest sustaining him in that moment of surrender. I felt Jesus’ trust in his Father and an intense desire to share in that trust.
In the twenty-five years since, I have felt both senses of “abandonment” many times over. Perhaps the most distressing situations for me are those in which I feel left alone by those I thought I could trust – suddenly facing an overwhelming and dangerous threat by myself, when I thought I would have protection and security. That feeling of abandonment is so ancient for me and so familiar. The lies can race through my head at lightning speed: They don’t understand; they don’t care; they can’t be trusted; I am all alone! In some cases, I flee and isolate myself; at other times I attack with an angry outburst and hold others to impossible expectations, as if they are supposed to revolve around my needs. The more I mature in Christ, the more quickly I notice, and the more frequently I choose a different path – or repair if I repeat old patterns.
Again and again, God has also invited me into trust and surrender, reminding me to live in the present moment and look for his gift. If I abide and gaze and receive, the gift is always there, including in those moments in which I am invited to take up my cross with Jesus.
I can only receive the gift of the present moment to the extent that I let down the defenses of my self-protection. Otherwise I limit how much I can receive, and ultimately how much I can give.
The English verb “to abandon” comes from the French abandonner. The French verb has multiple senses, which one way or another are ways of untying, releasing, or relinquishing a band that ties something together. When we do so with a committed relationship or a grave duty (e.g., parenting, governing, leadership), other humans experience abandonment in the first sense (“My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”). But there is also an untying or letting go when we encounter beauty, when we forgive harm, when we dance, or when we connect with another person.
Jesus, in his Passion, enters fully into both human experiences of “abandonment,” and reconciles them. Those of us who have experienced abandonment in the first sense tend to have spectacular defenses against ever letting anyone close again. Jesus cries out to the Father on our behalf. Jesus also “abandons” in the second sense. He cancels the debt of our sins, releasing all claims to make us pay. He meekly surrenders himself like a lamb, even in the face of contempt, violence, and powerlessness. He releases every merely human solution and entrusts all of it to his Father. He freely submits and becomes the seed sown into the earth that bears abundant fruit. May we claim his victory and allow him to reconcile in our hearts all that impedes our own surrender.