This is a somber night for Christian believers, the family of God, and quite honestly too much for some to bear. I acknowledge that you who are here tonight have found the strength to face the darkness, rather than avoid it. And I am glad that we are together in community as we observe this night. The liturgy and the scripture readings are heavy and dark, actually the heaviest and darkest of all year.
We remember the last day of Jesus’ life on earth, his pain and his suffering, the cruelty and betrayal he experienced, and we identify with the fear and shock of his closest friends and followers. How difficult it must have been for them to witness the agony of Jesus and how difficult it is still for those who love him to accept his pain.
The liturgy, scripture and music are enough to contemplate tonight so I will be brief. I want to focus for a moment on the psalm spoken each year on both Good Friday and Maundy Thursday, psalm 22. In our prayer book psalms are titled in Latin using words from the first verse and those brief words are enough to bring to mind the entire psalm. The 22nd psalm is titled “Deus, Deus, meus”. My God, my God.
I quote from St. Augustine who said, “The passion of Christ is recounted in this psalm as clearly as in the gospel.” You hear described Jesus’ crucifixion, both the physical and emotional pain he experienced. The physical pain uses phrases such as, “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, My mouth is dried out like a potsherd; my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; they pierce my hands and feet, I can count all my bones.
And then the emotional pain, “All who see me laugh me to scorn; they curl their lips and wag their heads, saying He trusted in the Lord; let him deliver him.” These are spoken by a person in excruciating agony and in the depths of despair.
We also hear what the soldiers did, “they divide my garments among them; they cast lots for my clothing. These are familiar words, aren’t they? We know these actions and honest expressions of darkness described by the poetic words of the 22nd psalm from the gospels this week. The parallels between this psalm and the gospels’ descriptions of Jesus’ passion are many, and we who are Christians can see quite clearly our Lord’s passion predicted in them.
Yet, this psalm does not end with the suffering. As is the pattern of many of the lament psalms, it continues, expressing words of grace and awe and gratitude as the writer remembers how God has acted in the past, and so praises Him. "For he does not despise nor abhor the poor in their poverty; when they cry to him he hears them. All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; for kingship belongs to the Lord.
We hear verses of profound despair and alienation, followed by verses offering deep comfort and peace. The despair is not the end; rather God’s saving deeds will continue and we shall be known as the Lord’s forever. The finishing verses are ones of hope. God’s saving deeds will continue and we shall be known as the Lord’s forever. And in these words we see foreshadowed the hope that is found in Jesus’ resurrection.
Although not used in John’s gospel heard tonight, in the passion accounts from Matthew and Mark, Jesus utters from the cross the title of this psalm, eli, eli, lema sabachthani?, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Some theologians have taken the view that this phrase shows a break in the God-head that was necessary to bring about human salvation. Others have suggested that perhaps Jesus used those words to point out that he was fully human by describing his feelings during his abandonment and death. And others have said that Jesus used this psalm to get the reader’s attention, saying, “This is about me. What has been foretold in scripture is happening now.”
Personally I think these words were spoken for Jesus community of faithful followers. They were words meant for his mother, his disciples, and all who were standing on that hill witnessing his suffering and death. When Jesus used the Hebrew title of this psalm, his message was the entire psalm. And this I believe was intended for those whom he loved and who loved him.
That psalm, while a description of what Jesus was experiencing, ends with the promise of hope. Even from the cross Jesus loved his community of followers and wanted them to continue in their journey.
On this side of the resurrection we know tonight is not the end; however those original followers did not have that perspective. These words Jesus gave them are an acknowledgement of his agony but also a reminder of the hope found in the trustworthiness and goodness of God.
Even today, this psalm carries a powerful message for those who are in deep distress. Remember that Jesus did not use the title of the 23rd psalm, “The lord is my shepherd” from the cross, but rather “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When we are suffering ourselves, or meeting others in direst of circumstances, this 22nd psalm gives words to describe the depth of those very real and very dark emotions.
And yet, it does not leave us in that state of hopelessness. This psalm is both powerful and truthful. It is an honest prayer that puts words to both our lowest state and our highest. Or as David Wood, a pastoral care writer puts it, “the abyss and the alleluia”.
Psalm 22 does speak truth to both the abyss and to the alleluia. Tonight, we are not yet at the alleluia, but we know it is coming. Meanwhile Good Friday teaches us that even in the abyss we know our God has been there and is still there, is especially there, for us. Even when we momentarily cannot feel it, God does not abandon us.
We are not alone even in the ugliest circumstances we face. Good Friday tells us, there truly is nothing that can separate us from the love of God. Amen.