The woman said to Peter, “You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?” He said, “I am not.”
– John 18:17
Dietrich Bonhoeffer begins his book Life Together, a treatise on community written from the underground church situation in Nazi Germany, with the startling reminder that Jesus suffered and died bereft of the community he held dear. The crowds turned on Jesus in the end; okay, everyone knows fame is fickle. And from the day of his first public sermon, he had enemies. But his closest friends had shared the intimacy of a long meal the evening of his arrest. In a matter of hours they would be gone. Mark reports, “They all ran away” (14:50).
Along with the physical wounds suffered by Jesus in his darkest hours, there were the kind of wounds that reach deeper than thorns, nails, or spear. His cry, “I thirst” (John 19:28) surely was not limited to cravings that a damp sponge could alleviate. This is not to minimize the impact of physical trauma on the whole human psyche. But added to his afflictions is this trauma: to be deserted, alone in extremis, in the most vulnerable moments of his life!
I have loved ones in hard places, and the hardest place of all may be the place of abandonment.
In Romania, when I have asked my longtime orphan friends to tell something important about their life story, they have replied, “sunt abandonat” (I am abandoned). It is the central wound of their lives – a wound that festers far into adulthood.
It is a tragic thing for a child to have parents die and to be left alone in the world. My young friends might envy that circumstance – to be able to cherish the memory of their flesh and blood taken away by some turn of fate. For almost all of them, however, their parents live in the next village or the next valley. For reasons a sociologist might try to explain but a child cannot fathom, they were not wanted. Their abandonment was a deliberate act. “I know the feeling of hugging,” one said. “And I know the feeling of being tossed out like a useless rag.”
A young man counts from one to five on his hand, unfolding his fingers from his fist. “One, two, three, four, five children in my family. I was fourth.” He taps on his fourth finger. “Fourth, and the only one abandoned. It was catastrophe for me! Why me, the fourth? I could understand if I had been the first, and my parents were too poor and not ready. Or the last, and they could handle no more. But the fourth?”
“Once I showed up at the door,” another related. “I had planned this for a long time, and one day I did it. I saw my siblings through the doorway, and it was like looking in the mirror. They had my features! I thought to myself,
‘In there is safety, and security, and love. They have a place to be, and they know whom they belong to.’ I asked my mother if she knew who I was and she stammered, ‘Yes.’ I asked her if she loved me and she did not respond. I asked her, ‘Why did you abandon me?’ and she had no answer. Before I could speak any more she slammed the door.”
On hearing his friend relate this story, a fellow orphan said, “There is not a night in my life I do not lie on my bed and remember the reality of this: that I have been left alone in the world by those who should have cared for me. And there is not a day in my life I do not feel in some way absolutely alone.
Jesus knew, and knows. On this of all days, abandoned. By a great mysterious paradox, the One who was born Immanuel – God With Us – is now on his dying day with us in the absolute extremity of alone-ness.
It is dark, dark, strangely good news today for all who thirst for presence and experience only the bitter ache of absence.