A short reflection on a cry of desolation.
Mark 15:34 and Psalm 22
I’m not qualified by expertise or experience to comment on what’s unfolding around the world. I’m generally healthy, currently well, and not in any of the at-risk groups. Unlike expert medics, researchers and others serving the wider community, I’m safely ‘locked down’ in a comfortable home, resident in a country with good resources and excellent healthcare. There is inconvenience and, as more and more acquaintances become seriously ill, some anxiety. But nothing compared to what others are facing. Nonetheless, even in my relatively secure position, I have found myself reflecting on a few words from the Bible – a cry of desolation:
‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’
Most will recognise this phrase from the Gospel of Mark where it is the final utterance of Jesus Christ as he hung, dying on the cross (15:34). Many will know that the same words open Psalm 22, traditionally a Psalm of David.
The author of Psalm 22 is, like Jesus, in a terrible situation, in extremis – scorned, tortured, feeling himself a worm more than a man. And the Psalm contains descriptions of torment that fit the experience of crucifixion surprisingly well – ‘all my bones are out of joint’, ‘my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth’, ‘villains … pierce my hands and feet’, ‘people stare and gloat over me’.
Perhaps Jesus meditated on this Psalm in the final months of his life, as the authorities became increasingly wary of his revolutionary teaching and his growing popularity, as he began to see his arrest as inevitable, and his execution by the terrible method of crucifixion as ever more probable.
With a cry of anguish and desolation that also referenced a Psalm, Jesus achieved something remarkable and powerful. He gave full, honest, open expression to the reality and the horror of his situation, including his own feelings of abandonment and despair, yet managed, simultaneously, to hint, to gesture towards hope.
Because Psalm 22 isn’t only about suffering and abandonment. It closes with confidence in God’s eventual deliverance and, indeed, in an atmosphere of celebration. God has not, in fact, ‘despised or scorned’ the suffering, ‘he has not hidden his face’ from the sufferer. In the end, ‘the poor will eat and be satisfied’ all ‘will feast and worship’, ‘they will proclaim [God’s] righteousness, declaring to a people as yet unborn, “He has done it!”’
What can we learn from reflecting once again on the faithful obedience of the Son of God on the cross?
As we face a global pandemic of as yet unknown and unquantified devastating power, faith in God does not require us to pass over the full horror of the situation. Even if we ourselves are spared the worst, it would be a travesty to ignore or gloss over the suffering of others and the potential of this virus to further devastate the lives of millions who are already in dire circumstances. What is disorienting and frightening for those of us in relatively wealthy nations is as nothing compared to the challenges that may face our sisters and brothers in other parts of the world. Like Jesus on the cross, we can give voice to our confusion, even our despair and sense of abandonment, without denying God . If not ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ perhaps ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken us?’
But our cry of desolation doesn’t have to be the end of the story. If, like Jesus, we are willing to place our lives in our Father’s hands and be indwelled by the Spirit, then even our clear-eyed acknowledgement of the anguish around us will not be devoid of hope. If, like Jesus, we immerse ourselves in Scripture, even our honest expressions of fear and pain can be shaped by the Word of God into something more. The Spirit can and will use us to hint, to gesture towards a brighter day when God’s face is seen again. By the grace of God, this pandemic, like the cross, is not necessarily the end of the story but can be another beginning
Revd Dr Jonathan Brant
Oxford Pastorate Chaplain