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Michaelangelo, Christ on the Cross, c. 1541

A Lament for Holy Week

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Christ’s last words on the cross in the accounts of Matthew and Mark fuse a tender, intimate address, ‘my God’, with the deep despair of abandonment. The question is not, “have you forsaken me?”; nor is the question directed to a third party, “why has that God forsaken me”; instead the question speaks directly to God, simultaneously trusting and accusing, “you have forsaken me, why is this so?” Paradoxically, the God who has abandoned is also near, able to hear the accusation and the cry of God’s beloved.

Psalm 22, from which Jesus quotes, is a psalm of individual lament from more than 500 years earlier. Although there are no concrete details about the situation causing the psalmist’s despair, some scholars have suggested that it is an illness of some kind, based on the effects on the psalmist’s body in vv. 14-15:

         I am poured out like water,
               and all my bones are out of joint;
         my heart is like wax;
               it is melted within my breast;

The psalm was taken up into the liturgy of ancient Israelites, possibly as a song sung by those with illnesses travelling up to Jerusalem for healing. The psalm continued to be sung, even after the temple was destroyed, and the second temple rebuilt. And Jesus, upon the cross, takes up the words of generations of Israelites who have cried out to the Lord, including many in time of illness.

During this Holy Week, Psalm 22 is the psalm assigned for Good Friday in our lectionary. In this time of extraordinary widespread sickness, unemployment, loneliness, uncertainty and suffering, our churches cannot meet together in one location, but we can cry out together with the psalmist to “my God”. Like Israelites over many generations, we lament and long for the rescue from trouble and praise that comes at the conclusion of the psalm. Yet, we also hear Christ’s cry in this psalm; and in our lament we contemplate the Cross.

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