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All of the words spoken by the Word made flesh and recorded in the gospels are worth our close attention. But the words spoken by Christ as he hung on the cross—the words gasped out with such great effort in the midst of his agony—deserve our special attention. Among these last sayings of our Lord, known as the Seven Last Words, the quotation of Psalm 22:1 stands out and raises some questions.
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” —Mark 15:34
These words, taken at face value, seem to be a cry of despair from our Savior. By all appearances, Jesus does seem to be rejected by God. He has been stripped of his clothes, revealing the wounds of the tortuous scourging and beatings that he endured leading up to his crucifixion. He still bears the crown of thorns. He is mocked by both the crowd and the criminals crucified alongside him. Is this the picture of one who clearly has God at his side? Did Jesus really think that God had abandoned him?
To answer this question let us place ourselves among those who heard Jesus’ words that day. Standing at the foot of the cross alongside the Blessed Mother, John the Beloved, and several of the women who followed Jesus, we need to hear his words as they would have heard them. That is, as faithful Jews who knew and cherished the Scriptures. These listeners would have immediately recognized in Jesus’ cry the opening line of Psalm 22, and they would have understood that Jesus intended to invoke the whole psalm by quoting its first words (a common rabbinic teaching method).
The whole story
This is how the psalm continues:
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
and by night, but find no rest (vv. 1-2).
But next the Psalmist proclaims God’s great power to save:
Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel.
In you our fathers trusted;
they trusted, and you delivered them.
To you they cried, and were saved;
in you they trusted, and were not disappointed (vv. 3–5).
Then the psalm returns to lines of hardship:
But I am a worm, and no man;
scorned by men, and despised by the people.
All who see me mock at me,
they make mouths at me, they wag their heads;
“He committed his cause to the Lord; let him deliver him,
let him rescue him, for he delights in him!” (vv. 6-8)
Back and forth the Psalmist goes, sorrowing over his situation and undoubtedly feeling that God is far off, but still proclaiming his faith in the saving power of God. We may liken this to the experience St. Ignatius of Loyola calls “desolation”: a feeling of separation from God, spiritual darkness, and sadness. When experiencing desolation, Ignatius advises us to act against it and cling to what we know to be true by intensifying our prayer and persevering in patience that the desolation will not last.
We should highlight Ignatius’ point that desolation is an emotion or feeling, and feelings may or may not correspond to the truth. In fact, feelings are often fickle and fleeting. In the case of desolation, feeling distant from God is an attack of the evil spirit which we are called to resist. Psalm 22 does precisely this. It acknowledges the feeling of being forsaken, but it ultimately proclaims that, despite appearances, God is in fact present and active.
In light of the whole context of Psalm 22, we can surmise that during his Passion Jesus, in his humanity, feels abandoned by God, but he never allows his intellect or will to give in to despair. In his divinity he cannot be separated from the Father, and he doesn’t think or believe that he is. Rather he cries out with the opening of Psalm 22, expecting his audience to be able to fill in the rest—a prophecy of his intense suffering, yes, but ultimately his victory as well:
Yes, dogs are round about me;
a company of evildoers encircle me;
they have pierced my hands and feet—
I can count all my bones—
they stare and gloat over me;
they divide my garments among them,
and for my clothing they cast lots (vv.16-18).
In the midst of this suffering, there is a cry of hope and confidence in God to save:
But you, O Lord, be not far off!
O my help, hasten to my aid!
Deliver my soul from the sword,
my life from the power of the dog.
Save me from the mouth of the lion,
my afflicted soul from the horns of the wild oxen! (vv. 19-21)
Then the Psalmist proclaims God’s ultimate faithfulness and deliverance:
You who fear the Lord, praise him!
all you sons of Jacob, glorify him,
and stand in awe of him, all you sons of Israel!
For he has not despised or abhorred
the affliction of the afflicted;
and he has not hidden his face from him,
but has heard, when he cried to him (vv. 22-23).
A light shines in the darkness
The notion of Jesus’ words is not one of despair but one of overwhelming victory. When he quotes Psalm 22:1, he is referencing not only his present suffering but his imminent vindication by the Father in the Resurrection. This theme of victory continues in the following Psalm. It is no coincidence that it “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” is followed by “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” I’ll follow the example of a good Rabbi and leave you to remember (or look up) the rest.
As we commemorate the Lord’s Passion today, meditating on Psalm 22 provides not only a window into the darkness of his suffering, but also a bright beam of hope pointing forward to the Resurrection. And when we experience our own moments of desolation—feeling far away from God, and perhaps even forsaken—we are invited to imitate our Lord’s model of confident hope and trust.