Offered by Father Matthew Dallman for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year A, 2017.
The fourth of the Seven Last Words of Jesus echoes about the hearts and minds of faithful Christians as we approach the events of Holy Week. This word from Jesus is plain, and it is unadorned. It is: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” It was Saint Matthew who recorded these words in his Gospel. Saint Matthew tells us this happened at about the ninth hour of the day. That sort of reckoning of time began at what we would call 6 am, or thereabouts. So the ninth hour of the day would be about 3 pm in the afternoon, and has traditionally in the Church been a holy time each day for prayer and recollection of Our Lord’s crucifixion. Saint Matthew also tells us that in speaking these words, Jesus cried with a loud voice. He wanted this to be heard by all close enough to hear, indeed with ears to hear. He did not want there to be any mistaking what He said. He cried with a loud voice so that what He was saying would be clear.
This fourth of the Seven Last Words is a direct quotation from the first verse of Psalm 22. We will pray with this Psalm at the end of the Maundy Thursday Mass as the Altar is stripped bare of all candles, linens and decoration to bring to our minds that Jesus, the Last Supper having been Instituted and given to us in tremendous glory, is now beginning to enter into His humiliation—first in His Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, and then to His Passion and death on the Cross. As the Altar is stripped, Psalm 22 will be chanted, so that we share in the feelings that Jesus Himself was experiencing during this unspeakable time.
Indeed, that is why Jesus quoted from Psalm 22 on the Cross. He quoted “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” so that the Church would forever know something of His profound feelings amid His dying. He quoted the first verse—and all the faithful Jewish people around Him on the Cross, including His Mother Blessed Mary and the Beloved Disciple John would have recognized Psalm 22 and known immediately what Jesus was doing—He quoted Psalm 22 so that the Church would be able to know His interior life, His emotions, and His prayer on the Cross.
Indeed there is great anguish expressed in Psalm 22. There is great desolation, feelings of abandonment. “But as for me, I am a worm and no man, scorned by all and despised by the people.” Jesus is feeling like He is a victim, and that is because He is a victim—of injustice on all levels of reality. He spoke the Truth, and because of it, all of Jerusalem, speaking for us and all people, yelled, “Crucify Him!”
There is great desolation and feelings of abandonment in Psalm 22, but there is also praise given to God. “You were my God when I was still in my mother’s womb. Be not far from me, for trouble is near, and there is none to help,” He says. “Be not far away, O LORD; you are my strength; hasten to help me,” He says. “I will declare your Name to my brethren; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you. Praise the LORD, you that fear him; stand in awe of him, O offspring of Israel; all you of Jacob’s line, give glory.” Yes, Jesus felt like a victim, because He was. Yet in His victim status, He praised God and is telling us to praise Him as well. Jesus is acknowledging His victim status, but not getting stuck in it because He is praising God and praying to God amid His suffering.
We are to do the same. An important stage in the process of forgiveness, after we have owned our hurt and after we have avoided the traps of guilt and “what-ifs,” is to acknowledge that, yes, I am a victim of a wrong. I did not deserve to be wounded, what happened should not have happened, but it did and there is nothing I can do about it. Be like Jesus, and bewail being a victim. Even go ahead and feel abandoned and forgotten: express those feelings if you have them, for having them is natural. But know that God never abandons anyone to the grave, and He is always closer to us than even our breathing. Jesus knows that in our lives we will endure great tribulation, so He cried out that He was forsaken to give permission to us to accept our similar emotions, and to show Himself prepared to share suffering of all His members of His Body.
This fourth Word of Jesus is a great gift to us in our process of forgiveness, because through this gift He can always be present to us in our hurting; so He can always be present to us in our suffering, our bleeding, and in serious cases of being hurt, wounded, and exploited—here I am referring with great reverence to situations of rape, sexual abuse, psychological torment and the like—events that do not kill us physically but seem to kill us psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually. Indeed, in tragic moments where a person is like Lazarus, dead in a cave, sealed with a stone. Some people are victims of crime and tragedy in just this sort of way.
As Mary and Martha prayed to Jesus, asked for His presence, affirmed His divinity and ability to offer salvation—let us do the same for our wounds and the wounds of others we happen to know about. Let us say with Psalm 22: “Be not far away, O LORD; you are my strength; hasten to help me.” Let us declare His Name. Let us praise Him in the midst of the congregation of the world. Jesus will always come to the aid and comfort of the suffering as long as they call His Holy Name—as long as our hearts are surely fixed on where true joys are to be found. Amen.
Cover image “Crucifixion of Jesus” by Dionisius is licensed under CC BY 2.0 / Cropped from original.