By Father Thomas Esposito
Special to The Texas Catholic
From the cross, Jesus gives his followers a final instruction on how to read both the Scriptures and his own sacrificial death. Only the Roman soldiers crucifying him and the small ensemble of his followers, St. John and his mother among them, hear his anguished cry moments before he expires: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The evangelists Matthew and Mark allow us to eavesdrop on our crucified Lord’s last words, recording them in his own Aramaic tongue: Eli, Eli, lema sabachtani? (Mt 27:46; Mk 15:34).
The phrase instinctively troubles believers. At his most tortured hour, has even Jesus experienced the total darkness of his Father’s absence? Has he yielded to ultimate despair of ever triumphing over the forces of chaos and destruction? Must his words mean that he regards his entire life as null, his whole ministry as vain?
For many an atheist, this piercing exclamation of Christ is a heart-gashing confession of grief that the Father has abandoned him, that God indeed continues to abandon each of us in this world of manifest darkness, sin, and apparently absurd death.
These words of Jesus, however, comprise his last lesson prior to the resurrection. The rabbi, condemned as the worst of criminals to a most ignoble death, quotes the first line of Psalm 22. This song begins as the lament of an innocent individual suffering terribly at the hands of unnamed ravenous persecutors. In the midst of his torment, he fails to find the God of Israel, the Lord whom he knows his ancestors trusted in days gone by. The evangelists mine this psalm for evidence that Jesus experiences the abandonment and agony endured by this anonymous Israelite writing centuries before that Friday on Calvary: “So wasted are my hands and feet; I can count all of my bones. They stare at me and gloat; they divide my garments among them; for my clothing, they cast lots” (Ps 22:17-19).
Jesus himself would have known the Psalms, would have memorized most (if not all) of them by heart. In uttering the first sentence of Psalm 22, he points us to this text as the key to understanding his seemingly definitive defeat. Perhaps a glance down at his mother, weeping at the foot of the cross, brought the psalm to mind: “Yet you [Lord] drew me forth from the womb, made me safe at my mother’s breast. Upon you I was thrust from the womb; from my birth, you are my God” (Ps 22:10-11).
If Jesus knows the beginning of this lament psalm, he also knows how it ends. The brutal pain of mockery and persecution, the lament of a life drained away at the hands of rabid brutes, yields after 22 awful verses to a sober note of triumph: “Then I will proclaim your name to the assembly; in the community I will praise you” (Ps 22:23). And why? “For God has not spurned or disdained the misery of this poor wretch, did not turn away from me, but heard me when I cried out” (Ps 22:25). The wretched sufferer of the first part of Psalm 22 now rejoices in the assembly of the Lord, exhorting everyone listening to him to celebrate the Lord’s victory of life over all forces of evil, a victory that will bring “all the families of nations” to “bow low before you. For kingship belongs to the Lord, the ruler over all nations” (Ps 22:28-29). The psalmist concludes with a jubilant note: “And my soul will live for the Lord, my descendants will serve you. The generation to come will be told of the Lord, that they may proclaim to a people yet unborn the redemption you have brought” (Ps 22:31-32).
From the cross, Jesus instructs us to read to the Psalm’s end. The relentless suffering he bore, the terrifying darkness surrounding the apparent triumph of Satan, gives way to the total victory of life, of love, of God over death. Christ does not bring us deliverance from suffering and death; he rather delivers himself into the realm of the “principalities and powers” of this mortal realm, destroying them once and for all, and teaching us how to share in his victory by our own embrace of the cross.
Father Thomas Esposito, O.Cist., is a theologian and monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas in Irving. His column appears occasionally in The Texas Catholic.