Written by Elaine Ellis Thomas, Rector of All Saints Episcopal Parish in Hoboken, NJ.
As part of my training for ordained ministry, I spent a summer as a hospice chaplain. Sitting at the bedside praying with those nearing life’s end was an extraordinarily holy time. For those with dementia or who were otherwise non-responsive, it always seemed like something of a miracle that, as soon as I began to say the Lord’s Prayer or sing an old hymn, from somewhere in the recesses of memory, they could recite or sing along with me. The 23rd psalm was another favorite. Everyone seemed to know the words.
When you grow up in church, spend your life in bible study or daily and weekly liturgies, the words that we say and pray become like breath to us. For Jesus, the psalms would have been the hymns he learned from childhood. It is no wonder that, in the moment of his greatest distress, he would cry out to God in dereliction and anguish. This was his language. These were the words inscribed on his heart.
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
As with all psalms of lamentation, Psalm 22 does not stay with the theme of abandonment. It moves through God’s faithfulness, a prayer for relief, and a promise to praise God for deliverance, but Jesus only gets out those first words.
The onlookers and others gathered around enacted other parts, deliberately or not. They pierce his hands and feet and cast lots for his clothing. They mock and scorn him; they taunt him saying
“He trusted in the LORD; let him deliver him;
let him rescue him, if he delights in him.” (v. 8)
The gathered chorus fulfills the verses of the psalm while Jesus remains at the opening cry of sheer rejection.
But Jesus knew the psalms. Was there some glimmer of hope in his lament? Did he recall that God’s faithfulness endures forever, that “They shall come and make known to a people yet unborn the saving deeds that he has done” (v. 30)?
Perhaps not, but this is the promise to us. In the salvific work of the cross, we are not forsaken. Even as we cry out to God during these months of pandemic and death and anxiety and loss, we know that
All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to
the LORD, *
and all the families of the nations bow before him. (v. 26)