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Reflection for Holy Week

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A Reflection for Holy Week

by Dr Rachelle Gilmour | Bromby Senior Lecturer in Old Testament, Trinity College Theological School, Melbourne

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ Christ’s last words on the cross in the accounts of Matthew and Mark fuse a tender, intimate address, ‘my God’, with the deep despair of abandonment. The question is not, ‘have you forsaken me?’; nor is the question directed to a third party, ‘why has that God forsaken me’; instead the question speaks directly to God, simultaneously trusting and accusing, ‘you have forsaken me, why is this so?’ Paradoxically, the God who has abandoned is also near, able to hear the accusation and the cry of God’s beloved.

Image Dr Rachelle Gilmour

Psalm 22, from which Jesus quotes, is a psalm of individual lament from more than 500 years earlier. Although there are no concrete details about the situation causing the psalmist’s despair, some scholars have suggested that it is an illness of some kind, based on the effects on the psalmist’s body in vv 14-15:

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;

The psalm also gives hints of persecution, of opportunists preying upon the psalmist’s despair in vv 17-18:

They stare and gloat over me;
They divide my clothes among themselves,
And for my clothing they cast lots.

The psalm was taken up into the liturgy of ancient Israelites, probably as a song sung by those with illnesses travelling up to Jerusalem for healing. The psalm continued to be sung, even after the temple was destroyed, and the second temple rebuilt. And Jesus, upon the cross, took up the words of generations of Israelites who had cried out to the Lord. In the midst of physical exposure and violence at the cross, of onlookers gloating and dividing his clothing, Jesus took his accusation directly to God. God is still ‘my God’ for Jesus, even at the darkest moment.

This Holy Week, many of us will also feel the physical vulnerability of illness, or the weight of those who oppose us. Pandemic and the threat of illness still weigh heavily on our world. The words of Israelite liturgy are also for us, to cry to God with an intimate address, and have the courage to pray ‘why have you forsaken me’. In doing so, we contemplate the cross, joining our voice to that of Christ. And we do so, knowing that God is paradoxically near to hear us, even as we lament God’s abandonment.

The ancient Israelite pilgrims who sang this psalm in their liturgy were on a journey. They travelled to Jerusalem to pray for healing, on a journey of uncertainty and lament, but also a journey to a place where there might be hope. In Holy Week, we are on a journey towards Easter, towards the joy of resurrection, and the salvation that Jesus’ resurrection brings.

On this journey, the words of the psalm do not trivialise lament, or pretend that the pain and sin do not matter because healing may come. But the psalmist does make promises about the future, about what the psalmist will do when finally the destination is reached. In v 22, the Psalmist vows:

I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters;
In the midst of the congregation I will praise you

In fact, the psalmist’s view keeps expanding: in v 27, ‘all the ends of the earth’ will join in the worship; in v 29 those who have already died will join in bowing down; and in v 30, those in the future, posterity, will proclaim God’s deliverance. All the earth, past and future will join in the chorus.

Now may be the time for lament for our pain and for our sin, not rejoicing. But lament is also the time for making vows, affirming what we will do, and whom we will tell when hope arrives. We prepare for Easter, for the wonderful news of salvation and new life, with vows and determination to tell anyone and everyone willing to hear it of our praise and thankfulness.

Image: Psalm 22 in Hebrew by Alyse Radenovic 2017


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