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.

Hosanna in the Highest!

(Year B, Palm Sunday, March 25, 2018; Liturgy of the Palms Gospel Reading from Mark 11:1-11)

“And those who went before and those who followed were shouting, ‘Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!  Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!’” – Mark 11:9-10, ESV

Цвети (улазак Христа у Јерусалим)
Triumphal Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem,
Petar Milošević

Today is Palm Sunday, the day when the Church remembers the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, when people lined the street to acclaim him as the coming King who would usher in the new Kingdom of David.  It is also when the account of Jesus’ trial, mocking, torture, crucifixion, and death are told in the Gospel reading for the Eucharistic service.  As my priest put it this morning, if this juxtaposition seems jarring, good – it’s supposed to.

One of the thematic features of the liturgy for Palm Sunday is the reinforcement of the fact that the same crowd that was moved to proclaim, “Hosanna in the highest!” when Jesus entered Jerusalem was equally stirred up to denounce him and call for his execution, shouting “Crucify him!” mere days later.  I have been to congregations where the people play the part of the crowd in both Gospel readings and say “Hosanna” during the Liturgy of the Palms before the Processional, and also “Crucify him” in the Gospel during the Eucharistic Liturgy.  This is done to drive home to everyone in the congregation that Jesus was the only person present at his condemnation who was innocent.

In my last posting, I mentioned my struggle against pride in reading the Gospels and supposing myself better than the disciples who totally missed the point in Jesus’ teaching.  I used to struggle in a similar fashion when I read the accounts of Our Lord’s Passion, especially the crowd being stirred up against Jesus.  All modern Christians want to say that they wouldn’t be part of the guilty ones who cried out “Crucify him!” but the Gospel account makes plain that everyone who wasn’t Begotten from the Father had an intimate hand to play in the condemnation and death of Jesus.

What are the alternatives to being in the crowd?  There’s Pilate, aloof and disinterested in Jewish power struggles except for how it might impact his assignment to keep the peace in Judea, amazed in the enduring silence of Our Lord, but unwilling to make any move toward faith and truly speak out against the injustice.  There’s the Jewish religious leaders, who bought off people to rouse the crowd and spread rumors and false testimony.  There’s the soldiers, to whom Jesus was just another dirt-poor man from Galilee, another rebel who was shown to be nothing special.

Where are the disciples?

Peter is the last we see of any of the disciples in Mark’s Gospel by the time Jesus is condemned to death, and he denied any connection with Jesus, as had been foretold earlier in the day.  The Gospels say that they all went into hiding, with only one being bold enough to come to the foot of the cross (St. John the Apostle).  The people who are the least culpable are the guiltiest – Jesus had told them that these things would happen, and that he would be raised up and glorified, yet they didn’t believe him, and so they scattered as foretold in Zechariah 13:7.

As modern-day Christians, seeking to put ourselves in that first-century scene in Jerusalem, our choices are limited in terms of roles to play, and in truth not all Christians would be found in only one crowd.  For myself, I believe that I would probably be with the disciples, cowering in a room waiting for the soldiers to drag us out to be flogged, humiliated, and, if we were lucky, stoned to death.  Palm Sunday calls us to examine our hearts and see where we would be in the list of the guilty – because there is no option to stand on the sideline, and the one who was condemned and crucified was the only one innocent before the crowd.

Palm Sunday is the beginning of the observation of Holy Week in the Christian Church.  If you can join a local congregation in the observation of the liturgies and rites this week, I strongly encourage you to do so.  These are some of the heaviest and most powerful prayers and services of the Christian calendar.  The Maundy Thursday liturgy is one of the oldest collection of prayers in the Christian tradition, and the Maundy Vigil calls you to join in the disciples’ difficulty of staying in prayer for “even one hour.”  Good Friday is the soberest and most solemn service of the whole Church year, and confronts us with the cross of Christ, its scandal and our guilt.  Finally, the Easter Vigil and Resurrection Sunday usher in the Great Feast of Easter, which brings us out of Lent and into the joyful celebration of the Risen Son.

This week, I pray that all Christians would be mindful of their sins and seek repentance for anything they are truly sorry for, and continually thank God for the mercy shown to us in the willing sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

Grace and Peace in the Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ.