Saturday, April 19, 2014

never shall the cross forsake me

St. George’s Chapel

May the words I speak and the words you hear be God’s alone. Amen.

Rembrandt's Sterbeworte Christ 
(literally translated: "death words of Christ"--found here)

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1). In the Gospels according to Matthew and Mark, this is the final thing Jesus says from the cross before he “breathes his last” (Matt 27:46-50, Mark 15:34-37). 

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The question is understandable, coming from the mouth of one who has been betrayed, arrested, abandoned, interrogated, sentenced, beaten, taunted, and crucified. The mouth of one whose request to remove the cup from him is refused by God, even though he kneels, begging, sweating tears of blood (Luke 22:42-44). The mouth of one who out of his closest friends, all but two flee at the moment of truth, and one of them even denies his affiliation with Jesus three times (John 18:15-18, 25-27). It is not difficult to imagine how completely alone Jesus feels as he hangs upon the cross. 

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The question is understandable, coming from the mouth of someone who is bullied at school. The mouth of someone whose home is destroyed by a natural disaster. The mouth of someone who has been diagnosed with a terminal illness. In our own times of grief, betrayal, and pain, we may feel that God has utterly abandoned us, or that the distance between us and God is too great.  

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The answer to the question is in the question itself. When Jesus asks this question, he is quoting from Psalm 22. Being well versed in Scripture, Jesus knows the psalm in its entirety. The psalm starts out with the feeling of abandonment: God, why are you “so far from my cry and the words of my distress?” (Psalm 22:1). “I cry...but you do not answer,” the psalmist continues (v. 2), but the psalm does not end there. 

The psalmist is working through his or her grief. It’s as if he or she is saying, “I feel like I can’t get in touch with You, God, like You aren’t listening to me as I sit here in so much pain. But I know that You aren’t always deaf to the cries of my people; I know You have helped us in the past, and we trusted in You to come to our aid. I need you to be close to me right now; things are getting scary down here, and I’m having difficulty handling it on my own. Actually, come to think of it, you really are a pretty awesome God; you pay attention to the lowly and the downtrodden. You’ve helped in the past; you’ll help now. Praise the Lord!”

In Jesus’ death on the cross, we come to understand that God is not absent in our suffering. God is not just there in moments of joy; God did not just create the world, claim it was good, and then leave us here to figure things out on our own. No, God in Jesus Christ came down to earth and experienced life as one of us. That meant in addition to joy, love, peace, and silliness, Jesus felt fear, anger, grief, and pain. He understood loss. He understood loneliness. And he understood--intimately--what it means to suffer. 

Psalm 22 covers a wide range of emotions the psalmist is experiencing. Many psalms are classified as laments, but this one does not fit that mold exactly. It moves from total abandonment toward trust in God’s saving help. It is fitting, then, that Jesus should quote this psalm while on the cross. It reminds us that in the midst of our struggles, we are loved completely by a God who grasps the meaning of suffering.

“When the woes of life o'ertake me, 
hopes deceive, and fears annoy, 
never shall the cross forsake me
Lo! it glows with peace and joy.” 
--In The Cross of Christ I Glory, H441, verse 2

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