by Rev. Alan Combs

goodfri_11167c“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” These words come at the beginning of Psalm 22. Immediately, the biblical scholar-wannabe in me asks a biblical scholar-wannabe question. How much of Psalm 22 did Jesus mean? Psalm 22 forms two distinct parts. The first eighteen verses or so are full of pain, oppression, and despair. They feel very much like what Jesus might have had in mind while hanging on the cross, blood pouring from his nailed hands and feet, struggling to breathe.

But then Psalm 22 changes at verse twenty-five. “From you comes my praise in the great congregation,” the Psalmist declares. The Psalm shifts to a prayer of deliverance. Yes many “strong bulls of Bashan” (I want to start a band called “Strong Bulls of Bashan) surround the Psalmist (22.12), and yes “I can count all my bones,” (22.17) but at the end of the day “dominion belongs to the Lord,” (22.18) so much so, that “All who go down to the dust shall bow before the Lord, and I shall live for God” (22.28).

And so, goes the debate. Did Jesus really just mean that first verse?

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Or did he also want to anticipate everything that follows? Of course, there is no way to know what Jesus was thinking, except for what actually came out of his mouth.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Most of the time I feel like maybe we hope that Jesus is hoping we’ll know the Psalm well enough to anticipate verse twenty-five and what follows because it is hard to rest in the utter despair of the cross.

It feels like we are trying to clean things up.

Yes, the cross was awful, but even in his last words, he’s anticipating, Sunday, right?

I think that bails Jesus and us out of that moment.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

These are the words that ring out. These are the words that he cries out in the absolute torture, the absolute agony of his execution by the powers and authorities of this world.

It is in that moment, his cry is still to the Father. Even in the very center of the alienation and division from God that we should all feel all of the time, but don’t because we’ve tricked ourselves into thinking maybe we aren’t so bad after all, Jesus’ cry is still to God.

It is difficult to penetrate the mystery of that cry. What it can mean for the Son to cry out to the Father that the Father has forsaken him? How can this be? And yet, here on the cross, and soon in the tomb, we find this forsakenness, the alienation at its peak.

One tradition that is practiced during some Good Friday worship services is meditation at the cross. Generally, a plain wooden cross is placed on a table, and the gathered worshipers have the opportunity to kneel before the cross, sometimes even to touch it.

prayer_6045cThis seems to be the right posture for this moment. Rather than trying exegetical maneuvers to explain or clean up this moment, perhaps our first move should be to kneel. To look upon the cross, even though what we really want to do is look away. To hear Jesus’ cry of agony and forsakenness, even though what we really want to do is cover our ears.

We don’t do this because we enjoy his pain or his torture. We do it because it puts us face to face with our own alienation, our own brokenness, and the reality of our innate desire to damn ourselves by turning away from God and towards ourselves. It makes it real and present to us, but instead of sending us to despair, we are sent to Jesus.

We are confronted with the one who enters into our brokenness, the who wrecks the house of the powers and principalities who attempt to assert themselves by nailing him to the cross, and the one who shows us what love truly looks like by laying down his life for us. The one who conquers the world by dying and being raised, the wisdom of God that is foolishness to the world.

Alan is the pastor at Lane Memorial United Methodist in Altavista, Virginia.