Christian tradition has combined the different words that Jesus’ speaks from the Cross to form the Seven Words or Sayings that are the traditional basis of the Three Hours Devotion. Some of these Words from the Cross are either quotations from Psalms or are closely connected with them. Today we are going to explore three of them.
Throughout the gospels, the words of the psalms are frequently to be found on the lips of Jesus. From an historical viewpoint, this is not surprising, because Jesus as an observant Jew would have encountered the psalms very regularly both at the synagogue and in prayers in a household setting. From a Christian theological viewpoint, Jesus is understood as standing in a very close relationship to the psalms, as the true David who speaks through the psalms, and as the one of whom the psalms speak.
Psalm 22 is especially connected with the Cross. Some of its details point directly to Jesus’ experience: “they pierce my hands and my feet”; “they cast lots for my clothing”.
How are we to understand Jesus’ use of those startling and terrible words from the Psalm, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me”?
To understand these words and why they are important we need to go right back to the very basics of who Jesus is. The Church teaches that Jesus is truly God and truly human. We remember the Christmas gospel from the prologue of the Gospel According to St John – “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth”. In Jesus, the gap between God and humanity has been closed; in the person of Jesus, God and humanity are united. This is the starting point of our redemption, but it is not enough in itself. Sin, suffering and death must be faced head on, and so Jesus puts Himself in the place of sinners, He undergoes mental, physical and spiritual anguish, and He dies a painful and shameful death.
Jesus shares the worst of human experience. God is not some remote “out there” looking coolly at our struggles from afar; God in Jesus knows our struggles from the inside. And that includes even the bleakest of feelings, that sense of the loss of God, that sense of abandonment by God that can afflict us in our darkest moments. When in distress or in pain we cry out to God: “where are you?”; when we cannot understand God, when we feel God does not hear our prayers, when we even rage against God, hurling our voices into the silence, Jesus is with us, He has been there before. Even our feelings of abandonment are known and understood by God in Jesus from the inside, and are held within His love.
How deep, how total is Jesus’ sense of abandonment is something that is argued about by theologians and biblical scholars. Central to this argument is the question of how much of the rest of Psalm 22 is implicit in Jesus’ quotation. When Jesus uses these words – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”, does He mean just that, or does He imply the rest of the psalm, which concludes in praise and thanksgiving?
Why is vinegar offered to Jesus? Is it an act of compassion? Or are the bystanders hoping to prolong the spectacle?
Death by crucifixion is long and drawn out, and death comes from multiple causes: a slow partial asphyxiation, blood loss, and dehydration. Those who offer Jesus sour wine know that He is not going to be saved by their action. Some of the gospel accounts suggest that there was speculation among the bystanders that Elijah would come to save Jesus, so I suppose it might just about be possible to argue that the bystanders were hoping to keep Jesus hanging on until Elijah turned up. But my sense is that what we see here is more about curiosity, about wanting to see what will happen, rather than a genuine compassion for Jesus in His suffering.
The spectacle of suffering, whether physical, emotional, or spiritual, has a strange allure for us. Our gaze is drawn by the ambulance parked at the end of our road, we slow down to get a look as we pass the motorway accident, on our televisions and in our newspapers we learn of terrible crimes, of corruption in high and low places, we get to feed our curiosity and imagination on the suffering and the sin of others. Our urge to judge is satiated, albeit briefly, and we look on with a detached interest and sense of superiority that is the very opposite of compassion.
All too often we are interested in the suffering of others not in order to show pity nor to offer comfort, as we may like to pretend to ourselves; our idea is rarely to share spiritually in the suffering so as to offer support; rather we succumb to the temptation to watch from a position of detached superiority, mingled with judgement.
We wag our heads with the bystanders.
In our first reflection we thought about Jesus’ use of the words from Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” In this last reflection, we consider a very different quotation from the psalms, taken from Luke’s account: “Into your hands O Lord I commend my spirit” is taken from Psalm 31, a psalm traditionally used by the Church at Night Prayer. The words come naturally to one preparing for sleep as to one preparing for death.
Human emotions are complex. Theologians sometimes want to explain away Jesus’ words of dereliction and abandonment in Mark’s gospel, which some find challenging to the idea of Jesus’ divinity. It is hard to imagine God feeling abandoned by God. But if we take the fullness of Jesus’ humanity seriously, it’s not hard to understand at all. We have conflicting emotions all the time. We often feel that we have let ourselves down, we could even say that we sometimes feel that we are abandoned by ourselves. In the human condition, especially under pain or stress, it is not at all unusual for apparently contradictory emotions to coexist: love and hate, pity and anger, pleasure and pain, despair and hope.
Jesus’ words of abandonment are not just a rhetorical device to bring the whole of Psalm 22 into play, with its concluding praise and thanksgiving. The sense of forsakenness is real; it is precisely this depth of emotional and spiritual suffering that must be experienced by Jesus as truly human and as truly God in order that the whole of human life may be redeemed.
But that does not have to mean that there is not also some fine thread of trust between Jesus and the Father that is not broken. Feeling contradictory feelings in a time of pain and stress is a part of the human condition that Jesus shares with us; Jesus feels rejected, abandoned, forsaken, He comes close to the point of utter despair. But there remains a glimmer of hope, there remains a fine thread of trust in the Father by which He hangs and by which at times we all hang.
We do not have to decide between Jesus’ words in Mark’s gospel, and Jesus’ words in Luke. Jesus fully shares our humanity, and so He knows the complexity, the contradiction and even the contrariness of our nature. When we are at our lowest ebb, when we hurl reproaches at God, when we say with Jesus “why have you forsaken me?”, may we also learn with Jesus to be held by that fine thread of trust, and to pray to the Father with Him: “Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit”.