In a different age, well about four-weeks ago, my intention had been for us to focus on the psalms through Holy Week. Building on our Lent course, my hope had been that we would be able use the deep and abiding poetic wisdom of the psalms to draw us into the mystery of Holy Week.
But then everything changed.
However, by the wonders of modern communication we are able to gather and reflect on this most holy and good of days. And so as we gather in our different ways we are able to return to the psalms as we focus on the meaning of this day for us both in the life of our faith, but also in the fear and disorientation of the world that we are living through.
When we come to Good Friday there is only one psalm we can turn to, Psalm 22. This is not simply because of its deep themes of abandonment and loss which define today, there are other psalms that touch on this these themes. We turn to Psalm 22 today because the Gospels, well Matthew and Mark, put the words of this psalm into Jesus’ mouth praying them, in Aramaic, from the torment of the Cross.
From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’
Quoting the first verse of this psalm in Aramaic, rather than the original Hebrew, the visceral rawness of Jesus’ seeming abandonment is drawn into sharp relief. Reaching for words not of formal worship but personal prayer, Jesus cries out in despair, which in turn call on him the ridicule of the onlooking crowd.
This ridicule points us to the deep paradox of this day.
For those onlookers, as for so many who have come afterwards, Jesus’ death was a sign of failure. A sign that this man’s life had been for nothing. That he had been abandoned by his followers and by his God.
However, the frame of this great psalm allows us to see through this paradox, looking through this seeming private story of abandonment to the universal and life changing truth that lies on the far side.
As we read Psalm 22, indeed as we read other psalms spoken in a singular voice, we could easily mistake them, as those bystanders of the crucifixion did, as a private prayer. Although often described in personal terms – a psalm of David and so on – these personal ascriptions should not, however, be mistaken as describing a private prayer. Through the Old Testament, and in the psalms in particular, these singular voices are used to describe how God is communicating with his people through a chosen individual.
The singular voice of this psalm acts to narrate not a private but a communal experience. In Psalm 22 the psalmist’s singular voice articulates, with personal frankness, the reality that all of us, all of God’s people understand. That all of us have fallen, and lapsed, and been ridiculed, and yet each one of us still yearns to know and trust in the faithfulness of God.
By placing these words in Jesus’s mouth – for Matthew and Mark Jesus’ last words before his death – we hear Jesus speak for us all in our fear of abandonment, our recognition of our fallenness, and our abiding hope to know again, even in the shadow of death, the faithfulness of God.
If this was all that these words meant, all that this psalm revealed to us today, it would be enough.
But it is not.
This Psalm was not prayed simply by a good man who stands for us all, this psalm was prayed by the Word who became flesh and lived among us, by God’s own self who, in Jesus, pitched his Tent among us. On the Cross we are not just given a vision of our own humanity, we are shown at the same time in Jesus the true reality of God’s own self, full of grace and truth.
On the Cross, in Jesus, we have a vision which is fully human and fully divine.
On the Cross Jesus shows us that that life is not about fulfilling our own self-interest and self-satisfaction, rather that life comes when we depend deeply and truly on God in all things knowing that, even in those places of deepest despair, God will never abandon us.
On the Cross Jesus shows us that suffering is not something to be avoided, but something to be accepted, knowing that God is already present in those places of suffering.
On the Cross Jesus shows us that death is not a failure or an insult to our human ingenuity. On the Cross Jesus shows us that death, our own mortality, is something we entrust to the faithfulness of God.
In the Cross, and on this day, we come to know again, in all the confusion and disorientation of this time that:
neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.