Jesus Forsaken?  How Good Friday Blends Into Easter Sunday

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NewBostonPost is publishing a regular weekly column on religion.  This week’s article is below.


Toward the end, Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

It doesn’t sound like a statement of faith.

Scripture scholars point out that it’s a quotation from Psalm 22.  So it can be seen as a prayer.

But what kind of prayer is it?

The key is in the psalm.

Psalm 22 begins on the downest of down notes – the “My God, My God” line Jesus says on the cross in Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34. It’s a plaintive cry – “a plea from a person in dire straits, apparently a serious illness,” says The Jewish Study Bible (2004).  The Jerusalem Bible (1966) calls it “This lament and entreaty of an innocent man under persecution …”

The tone doesn’t get much brighter, at least in the early going. “My God, I call by day, but you do not answer; by night, but I have no relief …”

Indeed, 12 verses in the psalm present relentlessly downer images.  (They are verses 2, 3, 7, 8, 9, 13-19.)  The narrator of the psalm describes himself as “a worm,” “scorned,” “despised,” one who is mocked and jeered at, encircled by “fierce bulls” and “lions that rend and roar,” one whose life “drains away,” whose “bones are disjointed,” whose heart “has become like wax,” whose throat is “As dry as a potsherd” (which is a broken piece of ceramic material), who is laid “in the dust of death,” surrounded by dogs, chased by “a pack of evildoers” that is closing in, with pierced hands and feet, who “can count all” his bones, whose garments are divided among his enemies.

With all this darkness, some commentators have concluded that Jesus may have actually despaired on the cross.

“We cannot tell whether or how Jesus found meaning in it,” German Scripture scholar Rudolf Bultmann writes, referring to Jesus’s death, in The Historical Jesus and the Kerygmatic Christ (1964, page 24). “We may not veil from ourselves the possibility that he suffered a collapse.”

Collapse?  Or near-collapse?

The difference matters.

A 2005 television miniseries about St. John Paul II seems to make a reference to this moment. In Karol, A Man Who Became Pope, the recent-Cardinal Karol Woytyla narrates over the scene as he is changing into a white cassock for the first time, just after his election to the chair of Peter. “God came this far, and he stopped a short step away from nothingness. Very close to our eyes,” he says.

Very close to nothingness is not the same as nothingness.  In fact, you might say, therein makes all the difference.

John Paul’s successor, Pope Benedict XVI, addresses Jesus’s cry before dying in his 2011 book Jesus of Nazareth:  Part Two, on Holy Week. Praying the psalms in the Old Covenant, writes the former Joseph Ratzinger (on page 215), was done “in union with all who suffer unjustly, with the whole of Israel, indeed with the whole of struggling humanity, and so these Psalms always span past, present, and future.”

“They are prayed in the presence of suffering, and yet they already contain within themselves the gift of an answer to prayer, the gift of transformation,” Pope Benedict writes.

Indeed, the ark of Psalm 22 begins turning early on.  Even amidst the narrator’s suffering, he notes in verse 5 that God “rescued” “our fathers,” who, he says in verse 6, “escaped” and “were not disappointed.”

The horror of Psalm 22 ends in verse 20, when the narrator asks the Lord to deliver him from his attackers. By verse 23, the psalm turns to pure praise. The narrator seems filled with confidence.  “All who sleep in the earth,” he says, referring to the dead, “will bow low before God; … will kneel in homage.”

The narrator himself, beset by what seem like impossible difficulties, says he “will live for the Lord.”

And not just he, but those who come after him, too.

The psalm ends:  “The generation to come will be told of the Lord, that they may proclaim to a people yet unborn the deliverance you have brought.”

What are we to make of this?

To begin with:  Suffering is real.  Jesus’s agony on the cross is not merely symbolic.  He suffered horribly – and not just physically, but mentally and emotionally as well.  The physical strain and rejection were all but overwhelming.  The elements of what some of his later followers would call “the dark night of the soul” are present in the Gospel accounts of his passion.

And yet from the depth of Good Friday comes the seed of Easter Sunday.

Psalm 22 provides evidence of Jesus’s anguish … but it also provides hints of Jesus’s trust.

Christians believe that Jesus of Nazareth is God and man.  One hundred percent God; and one hundred percent man.

His cry of abandonment near the end of his life shows that there is no form of human suffering that Jesus did not experience.

It also shows that he understands – firsthand – the depths of the human experience.

But never in despair.  Through the gravest difficulties – and Jesus suffered through the gravest difficulties – hope and help are never far.

As the author of the Letter to the Hebrews puts it (in 2:18):  “Because he himself was tested through what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.”


Matt McDonald is the editor of New Boston Post.


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