Why Have You Forsaken Me?

(Year B, Good Friday, March 30, 2018; Psalm 22)

15       My mouth is dried out like a pot-sherd;
my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; *
and you have laid me in the dust of the grave.

16     Packs of dogs close me in,
and gangs of evildoers circle around me; *
they pierce my hands and my feet;
I can count all my bones.

17     They stare and gloat over me; *
they divide my garments among them;
they cast lots for my clothing.

(Psalm 22, BCP 1979)

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I don’t normally write about the psalms, tending to focus more on the Gospels and Epistles.  However, I feel strongly that it would be a disservice to overlook Psalm 22, as it has the most explicit description of Our Lord’s crucifixion found in a prophetic work.

I am writing this a few hours after having followed the two great traditions of Christian observances on Good Friday – giving a truthful confession seeking earnest reconciliation and repentance, and participating in the Stations of the Cross mini-pilgrimage around my church’s sanctuary.  I am writing a few hours before participating in one of the most solemn and somber liturgies of the Christian year, when we commemorate Our Lord’s death and burial, having been betrayed and falsely charged on Maundy Thursday, shortly after instituting the Lord’s Supper.  The graphic for this piece is Station 12 of my parish’s Stations of the Cross which are set up in our sanctuary.

Before becoming an Anglican Christian, I had a very… strained relationship with the psalms.  I didn’t understand their purpose, why they were in the Bible.  I couldn’t make heads or tails of what they were trying to tell me, or what I was supposed to “do” with them.  Of course, at the time, I saw little profit in the Old Testament other than as history of the people Jesus came from.  With that general view of the Old Testament, it’s little wonder that my view of a book of abstract poetry was limited and (shamefully) dismissive.

Anglican (along with Orthodox and Catholic) worship forces the participant to consider the whole of Scripture, including the psalter (the collection of psalms).  More than that, it forces one to interact with the Scripture, and with the Author of Scripture – our prayers are two-way: The Scripture speaks to us, and we respond in our collects, petitions, intercessions, and thanksgivings.  The psalms fit into this process both as God speaking to us from Scripture, and us taking up the petitions of the prayers as the voice of the Church, though some of the psalms are primarily one or the other, and other alternate, like a dialog.  This is part of why, I believe, the popular mode of reading the psalms in prayer is responsively – the back and forth nature reminds us of a dialog.

It didn’t take long for me to realize my great error in dismissing the psalms, and never was the sin more apparent than when I first read Psalm 22 – as I said, this is the most explicit description of the crucifixion found in the Old Testament, and it describes a mode of torturous execution that would not be present in Palestine until several centuries after the psalm was written.  Not only that, it describes precisely the events that are recorded in the total of the crucifixion account, when referencing all four of the canonical Gospels.  Details like lots being cast to divide Jesus’ garments among the soldiers, the nails piercing hands and feet, the crowd jeering him for his inability to save himself – all of these reveal the prophetic voice and intent of the psalm.  David was never so surrounded, even in his flight from Saul; he was never pierced by nails in his hands and feet; his clothing was never divided amongst captors.

Most telling though, is when Jesus makes reference to the psalm from the cross in his dying breath: “Eloi eloi lama sabacthani!” which is the Aramaic translation of the opening verse of Psalm 22.  I didn’t catch this even after I first read the psalm, but this exclamation, which I had taken to be merely an outcry to God, also served the purpose of putting the psalm in the minds of the crowd, if their hearts and ears were opened.  In the synagogue, the psalm would probably not have been referenced by its number, but by a phrase early in the text.  A vestige of this is retained in the psalters of the historic Church, where a “title” in Latin or Greek is present, which is usually the first few words, or maybe the opening phrase of the psalm.  So, in effect, Jesus is not only crying out to God, he also calls upon the faithful to recall this psalm of David so that they would have the truth revealed to them.

When I realized this, I was struck by the importance of this psalm and the depth of prophecies potentially contained in all the psalms.  I was also reminded of Jesus illuminating all the Scriptures concerning himself to the pair of disciples on the Emmaus road – which included the psalms and the prophets.  Last year, in partnership with my Vicar, I led a study which examined the presence of Christ in the psalms.  This internal integrity between the psalms, the prophets, and the narrative accounts in the Gospels of the suffering and death of Our Lord drove away certain doubts that I had battled with when I viewed the Old Testament as just a history book.

On this Good Friday, I ask and encourage you to engage with the psalms, and especially Psalm 22, 40, 69, and 110.  If you have the time, I also encourage reading Psalm 119 in its entirety; this psalm talks about the speaker’s deep love and obedience to the Law of Moses, a depth of love and a thoroughness in obedience that is seen in only one man in the whole of Scripture – Jesus the Messiah.

Grace and Peace to all in the Name of Jesus Christ.

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