In Matt 27:46 the Scriptures state: “Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?'” Dumitru Staniloae the Confessor interpreted this passage in a most curious sense:
God does really withdraw himself from our vision in order to prove and strengthen the tenacity of our love for Him. Even our Lord Jesus Christ on the cross had this feeling of complete abandonment from God….[T]here are those who can be attached to God in this way even…God seems to disappear from their view. (The Victory of the Cross, p. 18-19)
The preceding interpretation, taken plainly, poses several issues if one presupposes upon the gold standard of Orthodox anthropology, that of Saint Maximus. In Questions and Doubts, Maximus taught that “His humanity know[s] all things.” (Quoted in Hatzidakis, Jesus: Fallen?, p. 366) According to Maximus, Christ only voluntarily permitted His human nature ignorance for a time, writing in reference to his childhood that “it did not seem fitting to make his wisdom manifest without respect to age.” (Maximus, Life of the Virgin, par 60). The perfect knowledge of Christ’s humanity requires that in the instances that Christ set aside His omniscience, it was a voluntary and miraculous act that only applied to His human nature. (cf Matt 24:36) This doctrine is called by the final session of the sixth ecumenical council “economic conversation.”
Being that “this is how it works,” this makes it very difficult to understand how, in any sense (being very charitable to Father Dumitru) one may affirm that Christ felt, as this pertains to emotions, “complete abandonment.” For one, it would seem He should have known better as He had perfect knoweledge. Second, the capacity of feeling entirely forsaken appears to contradict Saint Cyril of Alexandria’s Christology in that:
His flesh was holy and perfectly pure….He was entirely free from the stains and emotions natural to our bodies, and from that inclination which leads us to what is not lawful. (Sermon II on the Gospel of Luke, par 1)
It should not be surprising that one can read Saint Hilary of Poitiers, seemingly, condemning Father Dumitru’s view:
There is still, the heretics say, another serious and far reaching confession of weakness, all the more so because it is in the mouth of the Lord Himself, My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me Matthew 27:46? They construe this into the expression of a bitter complaint, that He was deserted and given over to weakness. But what a violent interpretation of an irreligious mind! How repugnant to the whole tenor of our Lord’s words! He hastened to the death, which was to glorify Him, and after which He was to sit on the right hand of power; with all those blessed expectations could He fear death, and therefore complain that His God had betrayed Him to its necessity, when it was the entrance to eternal blessedness?…You who trisect Christ into the Word, the soul and the body, or degrade the whole Christ, even God the Word, into a single member of our race, unfold to us this mystery of great godliness which was manifested in the flesh. 1 Timothy 3:16 What Spirit did Christ give up? Who commended His Spirit into the hands of His Father? Who was to be in Paradise that same day? Who complained that He was deserted of God? The cry of the deserted betokens the weakness of the dying: the promise of Paradise the sovereign power of the living God. (On the Trinity, Book 10, Par 49, 61)
In Saint Hilary’s condemnation of the (adoptionist) heretics, he exegetes the passage as referring to the two natures of Christ, His human nature specifically complaining “He was deserted of God.” As Hilary makes clear elsewhere, this was a result of a voluntary process His human nature did not have to undergo. (cf On the Trinity, Book 9, par 7)
Is it possible to harmonize Father Dumitru with Saints Maximus, Cyril, and Hilary? It may every well be if one takes time to meditate upon how most fathers, similar to Hilary, interpret Matt 27:46 as significant in demonstrating Christ’s humanity. Saint Bede teaches:
Nor need you wonder at the lowliness of His words, at the complaints as of one forsaken, when you look on the offense of the cross, knowing the form of a servant. For as hunger, and thirst, and fatigue were not things proper to the Divinity, but bodily afflictions; so His saying, “Why hast Thou forsaken me?” was proper to a bodily voice, for the body is never naturally wont to wish to be separated from the life which is joined to it. For although our Saviour Himself said this, He really shewed the weakness of His body; He spoke therefore as man, bearing about with Him my feelings, for when placed in danger we fancy that we are deserted by God.
Jesus speaks prophetically in the Hebrew tongue to show that He does not contend with the Old Testament. He said, “Why hast Thou forsaken Me?” (Ps. 21:1). to show that He was truly man, and not just in appearance. For man avidly desires life and has a physical appetite for it. Just as Christ agonized and was sorely troubled before the cross, showing the fear that is ours by nature, so now He says, “Why hast Thou forsaken Me?” displaying our natural thirst for life. For He was truly man and like us in all respects, but without sins. (Comments on Matt 27:46)
The same saint speaks similarly elsewhere:
He speaks this as man crucified by God for me, for we men have been forsaken by the Father, but He never has. For hear what He says; “I am not along, because the Father is with me.” [John 16:32] Though He may also have said this as being a Jew, according to the flesh, as though He had said, Why hast thou forsaken the Jewish people, so that they have crucified Thy Son? For as we sometimes say, God has put on me, that is, my human nature, so here also we must understand “Thou hast forsaken me,” to mean my nature, or the Jewish people. (Comments on Matt 15:34)
Saint John of Damascus generalizes Matt 27:46 application even more than Saint Theophylact:
Hence God the Word when He became man had this longing, manifesting, on the one hand, in those things that support existence, the inclination of His nature in desiring food and drink and sleep, and having in a natural manner made proof of these things, while on the other hand displaying in those things that bring corruption His natural disinclination in voluntarily shrinking in the hour of His passion before the face of death. For although what happened did so according to the laws of nature, yet it was not, as in our case, a matter of necessity. For He willingly and spontaneously accepted that which was natural. So that fear itself and terror and agony belong to the natural and innocent passions and are not under the dominion of sin.…Further, these words, My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me Matthew 27:46? He said as making our personality His own. (Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Book 3, Chap 23, 25; cf Saint Augustine, Exposition of Ps 38, Par 26)
In discussing Christ’s “natural thirst for life,” in the words of Theophylact, Father Dumitru’s words appear to lend themselves to the belief it is natural to feel completely forsaken and abandoned. In fact, the Damascene admits that “fear and terror and agony” are “innocent passions” that Christ experienced. However, one must be careful not to impute the (similar) feelings of despair or grief, as they are treated by Saint Maximus as sinful:
[T]he great and innumerable mob of passions was introduced into human life and corrupted it. Thus our life became filled with much groaning…If, on the other hand, our condition of self-love is distressed by pain, then we give birth to anger, envy, hate, enmity, remembrance of past injuries, reproach, slander, oppression, sorrow, hopelessness, despair, the denial of providence, torpor, negligence, despondency, discouragement, faint-heartedness, grief out of season, weeping and wailing, dejection, lamentation, envy, jealousy, spite, and whatever else is produced by our inner disposition when it is deprived of occasions for pleasure. (1.2.15)
In short, the only possibility is that Christ voluntarily assumed blameless passions associated with the loss of life (as it is natural and good to want to live), but not blameworthy passions which a natural fear of death may excite such as despair and grief.
Therefore, it would be appropriate for the Lord to feel forsaken only inasmuch as God had to literally and factually forsake Him for Him to actually die. This is because life is only possible by the grace of God (cf Gen 6:3) and the only thing that would cut one off from this grace, apart from the forsaking of God, is sin. Being that Christ never sinned, He should have lived by default. Sinless humanity enjoys tentative immortality. (cf Saint Theophilus of Antioch, To Autolycus, Book II, Chap 27; see 2nd-3rd and 4th century sources on this topic) And so, to be cut off from life, this would have been unnatural to His human nature as sinless human nature cannot die left to its own devices. It’s death, in effect, is supernatural and miraculous, which is why both Christ’s divine and human natures had to voluntarily opt to die for it to even occur.
How exactly is Christ experiencing “feeling” in this event then? How do His sinless emotions interpret literal forsaking? Saint Maximus’ teaching on “appetites [ὀρέξεως]” is important to grasp. (cf p. 136 this source, explained in detail by Dr. Bejamin Heidgerken in this interview.)
Humans naturally have “appetites.” Before the Fall, these appetites would have been rightly ordered towards natural goods (such as life, knowledge of God, etcetera). This is why Satan had to tempt man with natural goods, as before the Fall man could “not have been deceived by manifest evil.” (Saint Gregory of Nyssa, On the Making of Man, Chap 20) After the Fall, these appetites towards natural goods still exist, but the gnomic will of man (how man wills after the Fall) cannot discern anymore what is naturally “appetizing” and what is not. (cf James 1:14) So, it is not as much the human nature’s appetite has changed from the Fall, but instead what has fallen is mankind’s interpretation of what is appetizing. Now, thanks to the Fall, Satan can pose temptations to man to eat to excess and other misplaced desires/appetites contrary to the original purpose of a desire.
As another example of how sinless appetites lead to sin due to the Fall, the appetite for knowledge gives mankind a natural desire for justice. But, this same appetite is exploited so that man wants justice to excess so that he is wrathful, passionately angry, vengeful, etcetera. The appetite for truth and justice exists all the same–but the way it is interpreted is dysfunctional in the fallen mind.
Now, let’s apply this to the Lord at the cross. As the fathers said beforehand, He certainly had a thirst/appetite for life. Such an appetite is both natural and good. To make clear, this desire is not a blameless passion–it precedes the Fall. Appetites are part of natural human psychology and are therefore good.
However, Christ voluntarily assumed the blameless passions, corruptibility, and the ability to die/passibility. Even though His appetite for life is no different than Adam’s before the Fall, what is in fact different is that it can be “excited” more extremely. This is because the blameless passions, which allow for fear, agony and death permit the thirst/appetite a sense of urgency not possible without these passions. Hence the excitement of this appetite is the natural result of a good psychological faculty exposed to a fallen state of affairs (that being, the voluntary assumption of corruptibility and blameless passions).
Taking the preceding into account, Christ’s prelapsarian human psychology would have experienced a recognition of being literally being forsaken by His own divine nature (whose will is singular and shared with the Father and Holy Spirit), that nature not having any human appetites (or any psychological categories natural to the human mind) and thereby not being effected qualitatively by willing such. This is because humanity naturally does not want to die while divinity does not contain this psychological drive. What does this mean for Christ who is both God and man, containing a divine nature and human nature in a singular composite hypostasis?
Christ’s own human will, despite His natural appetite/thirst for life, likewise has an appetite for truth and justice. Without blameworthy passions/concupiscence, Christ’s human will freely accepted the divine will and so He embraced not only the cross, but death–something that required both divine and human willing.
To the feeble minded, this may appear to border on Nestorianism. It must be emphasized, that Christ’s human will did not contradict the divine will–in fact, it cannot. It is impossible for incarnate divinity (or deified humanity) to will against the divine. Humanity naturally cooperates with the grace of God and deification (or being deified) renders impossible the defecit in knowledge which may lead one through deception to do otherwise. And so, in Christ His human will never contradicted the divine will, they are by default synergistic as perfect humanity is intended to be with divinity.
How about when Christ says “Your will not My will be done?” (Luke 22:42) Is this a contradiction? No! What one sees is Christ’s human will literally willing the divine will, in spite of a natural, sinless appetite to live (there called “My will”). Ironically, what is referred to as “My will” is not His will, divine or human, whatsoever as proved by the same sentence. As one can see plainly stated by Christ, what He literally wills is to do the will of the Father. Therefore, the only way one can interpret Luke 22:42 is that it is implicitly referencing the category of thought pertaining to appetites that Saint Maximus posited.
The preceding being said (and already being far beyond the intellectual capabilities of the author), how can one harmonize Father Dumitru without simply saying he is wrong? One must choose to read his assertion that Christ felt “complete abandonment” to be a reference to Christ’s profound human understanding due to His perfect knowledge. Christ understood that He ought to have the grace of God and continued life. He had no reason to die, because He is sinless by default. His human psychology contains natural appetites to live and a concordant revulsion of not having God’s grace. And so, to willingly permit Himself not to be vivified and thereby die, He had to sinlessly and full knowingly reject of the sharpest of natural appetites–to live–with the excitement of the blameless passions. This created the literal feeling of abandonment.
What Father Dumitru could have not meant, following this method of analysis, was that Christ’s feeling of abandonment was an emotion of despair or grief. In some respects, due to the Lord’s perfect human knowledge, it was far more profound than this. Despair and grief is an emotion which whirls around due to its gnomic, deliberative quality. Christ, not having gnomic will, perfectly understood exactly what was occurring to Him and had complete knowledge of how antithetical His death was to both morality and nature. It was literal abandonment and it was literally unjust (in its individual application, not its salvific quality) as the just was dying against nature for the unjust who due to their sin must die as a result of the law of nature (sin cuts off mankind from grace, which leads to death).
There must be more to this topic. It is too beyond me. But I will leave it there for others to pick up, or by the grace of God, I can return to it in some edifying manner.