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  • Writer's pictureDr. Anthony Lilles

Psalm 22 and the Prayer of Christ from the Cross

"My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" Last Saturday, following a conference on the last seven words of Christ, a few retreatants asked about these words. They wanted to know whether Jesus actually felt abandoned. They had heard that the reason he recited the first words of Psalm 22 was not really to express his own personal feelings as much as to reassure his disciples that God would be victorious even in the face of the cross. To hold this, however, is to make a facade out of the whole passion of the Lord. It is true that the words of Jesus are meant to reassure us. Yet to hold that he did not actually feel what they suggest makes the cross far too abstract and intellectually acceptable. For those who want to begin to pray like Jesus, we must realize that he never said anything he did not fully mean. When he said these words, he was truly disclosing his own agony. Only when we attend to the real anguish behind these words can we find the courage to pray when we too feel abandoned. To understand the rest of this post, I recommend actually praying this psalm attending to the tension between the evil that is experienced and the faith which adheres to the truth. Psalm 22 contains two movements of the heart that seem completely contrary to one another, an awareness of overwhelming wickedness and of the faithfulness of God which seems impossible to sustain. In the beginning of the psalm, a man ravished to death with holes torn in his hands and feet is complaining to God because God does not seem present or mindful of his plight. He is not only abandoned by God but also surrounded by enemies who have frightened, overpowered and consumed him - dogs, bulls and lions. His clothes have been stripped off and stolen, the object of a game. He is completely vulnerable with no one to protect him. This is what he experiences and this is what others see as his actual situation. This experience is not the last word. Though he feels completely forsaken, he chooses to praise the Lord and to believe in his goodness. This second movement of heart seems completely incongruous with what has actually happened to him. How is it possible to believe that God is mindful of "the affliction of the afflicted" when He seems so absent in the face of great suffering? Those who do not believe that Jesus actually suffered this tension know very little about the mystery of the Cross or the power of the Christian faith. It is the cross and only the all too dirty bloody mess of the cross that creates the spiritual space by which true friendship with God is established. It is only because Jesus knows what the absence of God truly is that He is able to reveal the glory of the Father to those who also suffer this absence. What is most difficult about human suffering is not the physical or even psychological pain, but most of all the awareness that suffering renders life meaningless. There are those moments when our hearts are completely gripped by the crushing discovery that there is no human or natural reason to hope, not only for oneself, but especially for all those one loves the most. I cannot help but think that when Jesus began to pray Psalm 22, the anguish He felt included the knowledge that all those who would follow Him would have to undergo the same overwhelming sense he was drinking in at that moment: like Him, as they struggled to cling to the Father, they would feel that their own prayers were rejected, that their own faith was without purpose. Here is the reality. The abyss of human misery, an abyss we will inevitably fall into as we approach the reality of our own death, involves a kind of rejection that the Lord suffers with us. It is when we feel most abandoned by God in our efforts to love Him and those entrusted to us that we are most intimate with Him in this life. Such suffering love is always redemptive, especially when it is rejected and despised. The persecution of such faith opens up deep caverns in the human heart through which God's love can flow into the world, if we remain faithful in believing in him. The reality is, loving faith in the Lord does not take away suffering or the experience of abandonment. Instead, it transforms it, endows it with meaning beyond what is natural, even beyond this life. The cross is a place of hope, the place of encountering God, not only because Jesus indicated that this was the case, but because He suffered the absence of the Father for us and with us, opening up a purpose and meaning for each of us which only faith-filled love can know. The cross is the place where the absence of God and faith in Him collide so that God's power might be revealed. It is the divine power which discloses itself only in the midst of suffering that real hope can be invincibly based. By this hope, the hope that flows from from the side of Christ, we find the courage to pick up our cross and follow the Lord. Jesus knew, even in the face of his own experience, that God is mindful of the affliction of the afflicted. By becoming completely one with him in his death, we, members of his Body, "proclaim His deliverance to a people yet unborn."

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