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Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Psalm 22 and God's Passion

It’s the question of rescue that keeps coming up for us since the Shoah. If God can deliver us from the suffering that is in the world, why doesn’t God do it? One might expect that, in keeping the promises made to Abraham, Moses, and David for the Chosen People, God would at least deliver them. In the context of the preaching of Jesus in the Christian scriptures, one might expect that God would deliver everyone from suffering, since the distinguishing ethical message of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount is that we should “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.” Surely if this radically anti-intuitive behavior is expected of people, then God must lead the way?

But what if God is “changing”? What if Jesus' baptism in the Jordan was, in point of story if not fact, a baptism of repentance, and God is changing the terms of the covenant and his image for the future? What if God is no longer going to be a god of war, with mighty hand and outstretched arm, delivering people from the powers of earth and other gods, but is going to be God of Life, winning the victory over death, a victory whose spoils will spread through the land of the living as people hear the gospel that death itself has been defeated and is no more to be feared?

These are the questions and insights of Jack Miles’ book Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God. They are both challenging and comforting. They bring up new questions as they begin to lay others to rest. The book certainly puts the question about the value of suffering front and center for us. It alleges, in a sense, that the crucifixion is the anti-exodus, that rather than delivering Jesus (and by extension, all Jews) from enemies by an act of power, God reveals that Jesus in fact has no enemies, and allows himself to be killed by the oppressing authority to show that he goes before his people, all people, in eschewing retribution and violence. God validates Jesus’ extraordinary preaching and living by raising him from the dead, the “first of many brothers and sisters.” The death and resurrection of Jesus are a witness to his enemies, as well as to his friends, that there’s a new sheriff in town, and the sheriff’s judgment upon everyone is mercy.

The words of Jesus on the cross in Mark, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me,” are from Psalm 22, which we sing every year on Passion/Palm Sunday. They articulate the cry of the suffering servant, of the ones whom God has promised to be-with in covenant, and who are on the verge of death. Seen as an isolated verse, the first verse, in fact, of the psalm proper, it seems to be a statement of despair and alienation from God. But when we look at the whole psalm, which we might well imagine was in the mind of the crucified Jesus, we get a different picture. It is a picture of someone who has a complaint against God, yes, for a betrayal of the covenant. It is a picture of someone who says, “Listen to my enemies, Lord, if you won’t listen to me. They may kill me, but look at what they’re saying about you. If you let me die, then they’ll be right: their god or their gods or their might and righteousness is mightier and stronger than yours. If you’re not a greater god than they, why didn’t you tell me before now? Are you some kind of liar?”

But the psalm only begins this way. As it makes its way through the list of grievances and agonies imposed on the singer, it moves through memory…
Yet you drew me forth from the womb, made me safe at my mother's breast. Upon you I was thrust from the womb; since birth you are my God...

to prayer, to hope, to assurance, and ultimately to renewed covenant and gratitude for safety.

You who fear the LORD, give praise! All descendants of Jacob, give honor; show reverence, all descendants of Israel! 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. I will offer praise in the great assembly; my vows I will fulfill before those who fear him. The poor will eat their fill; those who seek the LORD will offer praise. 

The way that Psalm 22 is sung in Catholic churches, or the way it is presented in the lectionary, both clarifies this and obfuscates it. It clarifies by using sections of the psalm from several of these movements of the heart; it obfuscates the psalms development of thought by having the assembly come back to the first line of the psalm, “why have you abandoned me?” The setting I wrote about ten years ago tries to get around the problem of the development of the thought by making the “responsorial” part of the psalm the repetition of a revelatory line in each stanza by the assembly, rather than going back to the beginning verse. In the fourth “movement,” the assembly sings an ostinato phrase, “You who fear the Lord, praise him,” while the cantor sings the vow of praise of thanksgiving over the assembly’s song.

I don’t really have a major problem with the lectionary layout, either. Certainly at any given moment, on any given Sunday or any day for that matter, members of every assembly, and certainly members of the extended body of Christ scattered in space and time, are in the throes of abandonment. And there is a sense I have, right or wrong, that the paschal mystery, the mystery of death and life in God, is not “solved” after life, that it’s not at all about getting through trouble and finding rescue after death, but that the paschal presence of the Lord is available and most active right in the midst of death itself, however that manifests itself to us. The call to “be not afraid” is not a way of saying “hang in there, there’s a new world after you die,” but that there is life in dying itself, and that God knows this, and has gone through it before us. In fact, what I want to believe is that this is just what John means when he says that “God is love,” and what Paul means by the kenosis of God. The very nature of divine life is love, and that love is self-emptying to the point of death, but it is nevertheless life, even though that seems invisible, even impossible, to us because of our fear of it.

Maybe this is the passion of God, which became (becomes) the passion of Christ, this self-emptying agape into which we are born again by water and the Holy Spirit. Maybe it is made most clearly manifest in that moment of apparent abandonment, when the comforts of other empires are stripped away, and life is as clear as a dream of water. If this grain-of-wheat love is what made the universe, then it is a discipline I ought to keep trying to learn. The message of Holy Week and Easter is that it is learned on the road to Jerusalem, through the gates of imperial judgment, and ultimately, and only, on the way of the cross.

Here’s the music we’re doing at St. Anne on Sunday:

Gathering: Psalm 122 - The Road to Jerusalem (Cooney-NALR/OCP, Palm Sunday verses)
Psalm 22 for Passion Sunday music by Rory Cooney
Gospel Response: We Remember (Haugen- GIA)

Preparation Rite: Faithful Cross (Kendzia, OCP)

Communion: Jerusalem, My Destiny (Cooney, GIA)

Recessional: Glory in the Cross (Schutte, OCP)

"He relied on the LORD;
let him deliver him,

let him rescue him, 
if he loves him."

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