Readings Psalm 22:1-11, Matthew 21:1-11
At one level, the story of Holy Week is one in which Jesus becomes increasingly alone. The final line of the portion of psalm 22 we heard read (which Jesus himself will pray on the cross) asks this of God:
Do not be far from me,
for trouble is near
and there is no one to help.
There is a melancholic loneliness pervading much of the gospels. Jesus often withdraws, or at least attempts to withdraw alone. He is often misunderstood and struggles with the fact that those closest to him cannot grasp his teaching. This is amplified in this week where he will be betrayed by one of the twelve. On that same fateful night, wracked with worry and grief, the friends he asks to stay awake with him while he prays keep falling asleep (there’s a dreamlike quality to that story, which we will hear more next week, one of those dreams where someone you love is behaving in a way decidedly unlike themselves, unable to follow a simple request or even offer a modicum of support while you become increasingly stressed and fearful). Upon his arrest many of his followers will flee, Peter will deny him, and few will remain to see the whole Passion through. On the cross he writhes and cries about his God forsakenness, and his abandonment. His life extinguished, Jesus ends up entombed alone, in an allotment that does not even bare his name. Most of his friends will forget that he told them he would meet them again in Galilee.
Starkly different scenes from the one’s we mark today – as Jesus is surrounded on all sides by gleeful and reverent crowds… the drop is dramatic and swift.
Psalm 22 then, as the place where Jesus ends this week, as his response to this drop, is rigorous and unflinching in its honest suffering and desperate pleas. It takes us to the heart of the grief of loneliness and isolation, the pain of feeling abandoned and forsaken when the trials of the world bare their teeth, it takes us to the quiet (and not so quiet) despair of feeling forgotten. A feeling all the more acute in its wretchedness because it is surrounded by the memory of when times were not like this.
Just as the pain of abandonment on Good Friday is made all the more palpable by the faint echoes of the crowd’s Hosannas shouted less than one week before, this pain felt by the psalmist is pronounced because they can still remember when God, as midwife, took them from their mother’s womb and laid them gently on her mother’s breast. They remember that God has been an ever-present source of life and nurturing tenderness in their own life… and yet, now they are a worm, and not human; scorned by others, and despised by the people. Now they are encircled by wild animals and poured out like water – bones out of joint, laying in the dust of death. Where once the psalmist existed between the careful hands of God and the nursing breasts of their mother, now they exist within the lion’s mouth, between the horns of the wild oxen.
How far the fall, how deep the drop, how sickening the sense of forsakenness and abandonment. How significant then, that Jesus too prays this prayer, recounts this song, at the end of his most desperate week.
Many will remember Christ’s teaching, what you did to the least of these, you did to me. We may also remember Christ’s words to Saul/Paul when he is struck blind on the road to Damascus: why are you persecuting me? In these two teachings, Christ – the head of the church – is unified with the body. Christ is present in the suffering Christian and speaks in their voice. It has long been treated as a puzzle, how could Jesus (who is God incarnate, the second person of the Trinity) be forsaken and abandoned by God? But reflecting on these passages, we can see Jesus’ turning to Psalm 22 at his moment of anguish, as not only an honest plea for presence and aid, but as this unifying of the Head and the Body. Christ takes on the voice of the human speaker of the psalm (and not only the one who wrote it, but all who have sung and prayed these psalms in their own times of desolation and struggle) Christ takes on that voice and speaks it in the voice of the eternal Word. By doing so, Christ speaks for us within the life of God, Christ makes his own our protest, our cries, our grievances, so that we need not fear this speech, but embrace it, step into it as a place in which God speaks, where God is. In taking up this psalm, in making these words of abandonment his own, Christ makes even the feeling of God abandonment and forsakenness a place where God abides, a place where God becomes incarnate, a place of our salvation.
And so we do not need to skirt around these words and feelings when we experience our own deep drops, our own anguish, isolation, betrayals, our own seasons of desolation and pervasive loneliness. As the divine and human one, Jesus shows us that even in these harsh and honest words, God is not silenced or pushed away. As the divine and human one, Jesus makes a way for these very human words to be spoken in a divine voice – so that they may not be lost, or fall limply into a void, but be held in God, and in that embrace, be opened toward something new.
The Psalm ends in thanksgiving. For God, the psalmist declares, did indeed rescue them from their plight.
For God did not despise or abhor
the affliction of the afflicted;
God did not hide their face from me,
but heard when I cried out.
God, who took the psalmist from their mother’s womb and placed them gently on her breast, has indeed not strayed or turned away. Christ, who takes these words as his own, through death and resurrection, demonstrates that nothing – neither the world’s violence or our despair can interrupt God’s loving presence and life-giving force.
This doesn’t mean that we are immune to pain, or carried over all snares – Jesus prays this prayer on the cross and on that cross he suffers unto death. The feelings are real, in him and in us, the violence of the world is real, toward him and us. It is for this very reason that the words existed before Christ and were taken up by him. The promise though, is that the feeling and the words are not the end. In many ways they are the beginning. In their speaking they issue forth a promise that as the body of Christ we can say nothing or feel nothing that Christ, the head of the body, has not already taken up and given voice. And so, even in the depths of suffering and loneliness, even when the bottom drops out and we cry my God, my God, why have you forsaken me… we do not do so on our own, the voice is not entirely ours. Even in these words we are unified with Christ, taken up into the divine life of God, where here, yes, even here – in the tomb of our despair - God is doing a new thing.
Image Credit: The King, Solomon Raj
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