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By: The Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
I’m cheating a little because the part of the Good Friday story I’m going to focus on here doesn’t even appear in this Gospel—but it does appear in the Psalm.
The fourth of Jesus’s seven last words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”, featured in Mark and Matthew’s accounts of the crucifixion, comes from the first line of Psalm 22, this year’s psalm for Good Friday.
I love this line because, for me, it encapsulates the mystery of not just the crucifixion but of the incarnation: Jesus is God, imbued with divine salvific power; yet he also knows the painfully human experience of feeling utterly powerless and forsaken by the Divine. Serving as a pediatric chaplain attending parents facing their worst nightmares and now serving my parishioners in some of their worst moments, I find it deeply moving to meditate on the fact that Jesus is paradoxically with us, even—perhaps especially—when we feel most abandoned by our Maker.
Psalm 22 also, of course, serves as inspiration for a few other parts of the crucifixion narrative: the prophecy fulfilled in John 19:24 comes from Psalm 22:18, while Luke 23:37 (“If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!”) echoes the taunt found in verse 8: “‘Commit your cause to the Lord; let God deliver—let God rescue the one in whom God delights!’”
The psalm features classic elements of a psalm of lament, seesawing back and forth between complaint (vv.1-2; 6-8, 12-18) and expressions of trust (vv.3-5, 9-10), onto petition (vv. 19-21) and finishing with anticipatory thanksgiving (vv.22-25) and a call to praise (vv. 26-31).
It also contains striking imagery, including the only time in the Hebrew Bible that a human is called a worm (v. 6), a stunning image of God as the midwife who places the newborn on its mother’s chest (vv.9-10-11), a common trope comparing the psalmist’s enemies to wild animals (vv.12-13, 16, 20-21), and a description of the psalmist’s suffering so vivid (a heart like melted wax, a tongue dried up like a potsherd, vv. 14-15) that it calls to mind Job, the gold standard for bodily suffering.
Read on Good Friday, the depiction of physical devastation in this psalm points us to the reality that Jesus came to be with us on earth in part to draw closer to us not just through our joys, but through our embodied pain. His human experience is one way we know how much God loves us: that God-made-flesh chose to share our finite and fragile lot.
And what a lot it was. As the Gospel reading reminds us, in his last days on earth Jesus was betrayed and humiliated; sustained grievous physical wounds; and suffered the immense spiritual pain of being abandoned by God, forsaken in his utmost hour of need.
How many of us have felt similarly abandoned in the moment of receiving a diagnosis; in the midst of chronic illness; in the war zone that is a bitter divorce; in the depths of depression or addiction; in the bleak midnight of broken dreams; in the long, loss-filled marathon of a global pandemic?
Yet in that mysterious paradox, through his suffering and death Jesus is with us, even in the barren wasteland of our forsakenness. Through Jesus, somehow God is with us even when we are abandoned by God: “For God did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; God did not hide God’s face from me but heard me when I cried to God.” (v. 24)
What might at first seem a stunning admission of faithlessness—whether by the psalmist or by our Savior—actually goes straight to the heart of our faith. On the lips of Jesus, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” becomes a beautiful, despairing cry—a witness to the Gospel’s power to penetrate into even the most despair-filled corners of our existence.
May we bear witness, too—to Jesus’s pain, to our own, to the world’s pain; not flinching away from it but boldly facing it, insisting along with the psalmist that God meet us there—and ultimately trusting, along with the psalmist, that it will be so.