Scripture and the Liturgy

My God! Why Have You Forsaken Me? Readings for Passion Sunday

How could the Messiah die?

Despite a few mysterious prophetic texts that seemed to intimate this possibility, the idea that the Messiah could arrive and subsequently be killed was radically counter-intuitive to most first-century Jews. 

Yet the conviction of the early Christians, based on Jesus of Nazareth’s own teachings about himself, was that the radically counter-intuitive impossibility was actually prophesied, if one had the eyes to see and the ears to hear it in Israel’s Scriptures.

The Readings for this Mass offer us two of the most poignant prophecies of the suffering of the Messiah.

1. Isaiah 50:4-7, the First Reading, is part of one of the several enigmatic “servant songs” characteristic of the second part of Isaiah (Isaiah 40-66).  (I follow Benjamin Sommer in seeing Isa 40-66 as a literary unit.)  The subject of these “songs” or poems is a mysterious “servant” of the Lord, who is described variously in the first, second and third person:

The Lord GOD has given me
a well-trained tongue,
that I might know how to speak to the weary
a word that will rouse them.
Morning after morning
he opens my ear that I may hear;
and I have not rebelled,
have not turned back.
I gave my back to those who beat me,
my cheeks to those who plucked my beard;
my face I did not shield
from buffets and spitting.

The Lord GOD is my help,
therefore I am not disgraced;
I have set my face like flint,
knowing that I shall not be put to shame.

Isaiah 50:4-7 is a first-person account of the Servant.  He refers to his persecutions: “I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard.”  Yet he is confident of vindication: “I have set my face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame.”

This is the lesser of two passages in Isaiah that speak of the sufferings of the servant.  The other, more famous and longer, passage is Isaiah 52:13–53:12, which the Church saves for the Good Friday liturgy.

With respect to both passages, we may well take up the query of the Ethiopian Eunuch (Acts 8:34): “About whom does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?”

It is a puzzle.  Traditionally the passage has been understood as the writing of Isaiah the prophet of Jerusalem.  Yet we know of no physical persecution of Isaiah like this.  Modern critical scholarship divides Isaiah into at least three different main sections, with different authors and a multitude of anonymous “redactors” or editors.  Isaiah 50 might be attributed to an exilic “deutero-“ or “second Isaiah.”  Yet nothing is known about the personal life or ministry of this hypothetical prophet, aside from speculation based on the text of the oracles themselves.

The common conviction of the followers of Jesus of Nazareth is that these texts speak of Him; moreover, that the prophecies of the Scriptures of Israel only make sense and come into focus when seen in the light of the life, death, and resurrection of this Jesus, who was and is the anointed Servant.

So we can take the words of Isaiah 50 as the words of Jesus himself.  Although he submits to torture and death (“I gave my back to those who beat me …”) he knows that he will be vindicated (“knowing that I shall not be put to shame”).  This confidence in the midst of suffering is important for interpreting the Gospel for this Sunday.

2. The Responsorial Psalm—Psalm 22—is perhaps the most dramatic in the psalter, and has always been understood as a prophecy of the passion:

R. (2a) My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?
All who see me scoff at me;
they mock me with parted lips, they wag their heads:
“He relied on the LORD; let him deliver him,
let him rescue him, if he loves him.”
R. My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?
Indeed, many dogs surround me,
a pack of evildoers closes in upon me;
They have pierced my hands and my feet;
I can count all my bones.
R. My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?
They divide my garments among them,
and for my vesture they cast lots.
But you, O LORD, be not far from me;
O my help, hasten to aid me.
R. My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?
I will proclaim your name to my brethren;
in the midst of the assembly I will praise you:
“You who fear the LORD, praise him;
all you descendants of Jacob, give glory to him;
revere him, all you descendants of Israel!”
R. My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?

In Christian interpretation, we are used to thinking of the Old Testament as speaking literally (for example, of the “promised land”), but these literal statements receive a figurative fulfillment in the New Testament (the “promised land” = heaven).  In certain instances, however, this pattern is reversed.  Psalm 22 is an example. 

In certain places, the psalmist (David, according to tradition) describes his afflictions in a way that can only be figurative or hyperbolic: “I am poured out like water,” “all my bones are out of joint,” “they have pierced my hands and feet,” “I can count all my bones.”

We know of no instance where any of these things were true literally of David or any other Old Testament figure.  They seem to be emotive overstatements of the psalmist’s suffering.  Yet, they receive a literal fulfillment in Christ.  The literal fulfillment in Christ’s passion is a condescension of God to us.  It is God writing in big letters in order that we get the point.

Psalm 22 is one of the most complete Todah psalms in the entire psalter.

Todah means “thanks” or “praise,” and the Todah is the “sacrifice of thanksgiving” legislated by Moses in Leviticus 7:11ff.  It was a kind of animal sacrifice not offered in reparation for sin, but out of thanksgiving for some saving act that the LORD had done for the worshipper. 

Excellent work on the Todah and its significance for the psalms has been done by Hartmut Gese, followed by Joseph Ratzinger, and summarized superbly by our own Michael Barber.  I discuss it in Psalms Basics for Catholics, my new book which just rolled out about three weeks ago.

The Todah was a festive sacrifice offered as part of a lived cycle of experiences in which you (1) began in a situation of distress, (2) cried out to God, (3) made a vow to offer the Todah if God would save you, (4) God saved you, (5) you paid your vow by offering the Todah sacrifice in the temple, (6) you had a festive party as you and your family and friends ate the meat of the sacrifice and all the bread that was required (see Leviticus 7:11ff), and (7) you gave public testimony to all assembled in the Temple concerning how God saved you. 

Interestingly, the Passover, if categorized according to the genres of sacrifices in Leviticus 1-7, would fall under the category of the Todah sacrifice.

The Todah is significant to the Psalter, because it seems that a large number of Psalms were written for part or all of the Todah cycle described above.

Important Todah psalms include Psalm 116 (my personal favorite), Psalm 50, 56, 100, and several others, including perhaps the most complete, today’s Psalm 22.

Jesus cites Psalm 22 from the cross.  The so-called “Cry of Dereliction,” (“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”) is, of course, actually the first line of Psalm 22.

I think Jesus’ cry from the cross is over-read theologically sometimes, as if it indicated that Jesus felt utterly separated from the Father, and had lost the beatific vision. 

Of course, Our Lord’s sufferings were extreme, and difficult for us to comprehend, but the cry of dereliction is not proof that he lost the beatific vision or experienced radical separation from the Father.

The psalms in antiquity were not known by their present numberings, because the numbering systems varied according to different editions of the psalter (for example, Qumran’s 11QPalmsa).  The way to refer to a psalm was probably by its first line—a practice similar to the traditional Jewish naming of biblical books by their first words (also done in the Catholic tradition with Papal documents).

So when Jesus cites “My God, My God …” from the cross in today’s Gospel, he is really making a reference to all of Psalm 22, inviting the bystanders to interpret what is happening to him in light of this psalm.

With that in mind, fast forward to the end of Psalm 22.  How does the Psalm end?  Our Responsorial includes some of the end:

I will proclaim your name to my brethren;
in the midst of the assembly I will praise you:
“You who fear the LORD, praise him;
all you descendants of Jacob, give glory to him;
revere him, all you descendants of Israel!”

The “assembly” spoken of here is the qahal in Hebrew, the ekklesia in Greek, the Church in English.  It’s a mystical prophesy of the glorification of God in the Church, which will ever praise Him for the salvation he accomplished for his messianic servant.

Too bad our Responsorial only quotes part of the end of the Psalm, because many other things are mentioned in Ps 22:22-31, including the “poor” eating and being satisfied (v. 26; Eucharistic typology) and future generations praising God (vv. 30-31; the transmission of the faith through the generations).

Let’s ask ourselves the question, “Did Jesus knew how the Psalm ended?”

I suspect he did.  Though he was in agony on the cross, he also knew this was the path to triumph (see Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:34; 14:58; 15:29).  Psalm 22 begins in agony but ends with eternal victory.  Jesus knew he was currently going through the first part of the Psalm, the experience of suffering—but he also knew he would experience the triumph and vindication of the second part of the psalm.

3.  The Second Reading is the famous “Christ Hymn” of Philippians 2:

Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
something to be grasped.
Rather, he emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
coming in human likeness;
and found human in appearance,
he humbled himself,
becoming obedient to the point of death,
even death on a cross.
Because of this, God greatly exalted him
and bestowed on him the name
which is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that
Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

This famous passage—often thought to be an early Christian hymn or creed that St. Paul is quoting—gives an outline of the whole Gospel.  Jesus did not see “equality with God as something to be seized,” using the Greek word harpagmon, from a root harpazo, “to snatch or seize, often quickly or violently.”  Jesus is thus a contrast with the Greco-Roman mythical hero Prometheus, who ascended to the realm of the gods and “snatched” fire, bringing it back to man in an effort to attain equality with the divine.  So Prometheus has always stood as an icon of rebellion against God or the gods, and a worldview that imagines the divine as opposed to or limiting the human.  In this worldview, humanity is liberated and fulfilled at the expense of the divine; the realm of God must be rolled back to make way for the kingdom of man.  This spirit continues to animate the New Atheist movement in our own day (with their flagship publisher, Prometheus Books), which is more a miso-theistic (God-hating) cultural force than an a-theistic (no-God) one.

In contrast to Prometheus, Jesus does not conceive of the relationship between God and man as one of antagonism, in which the divine nature must be violently “snatched” from the Divinity.  Jesus empties himself of the glory of his divinity in order to descend to the status of creature, of “slave.”  Crucifixion was the form of execution mandated for slaves; citizens could not be crucified.  Having taken on human nature, he submits to the death of slaves: “even death on a cross.”  But paradoxically, this great act of self-giving love shows the glory of Jesus and the glory of God.  Truly, a God who would so empty himself out of love is greater, more lovable, more worthy of worship, than a God who will not give of himself.  The cross is the glory of our God.  So God the Father bestows on Jesus “the Name which is above every name”, so that at the Name of Jesus, “every knee should bend.”  St. Paul probably has in mind here the ancient ritual of the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), on which, according to the Mishnah, the High Priest would exit the Holy of Holies after making atonement for Israel and pronounce the priestly blessing of Numbers 6 upon the gathered worshipers.  This was the one day a year (apparently) when the Divine Name YHWH was pronounced audibly, and each time the assembly heard the name pronounced, they dropped to the ground in prostration.  The name of “Jesus” is now heir to the glory of the divine name YHWH.  In the Name of Jesus we now find salvation.  Thus, in the Catholic tradition we bow the head at the Name of Jesus and celebrate the Feast Day of the Most Holy Name of Jesus (Jan 3), for which our present text is an optional Second Reading.

Unlike the New Atheists, the Jesus and his disciples do not regard the divine-human relationship as one of antagonism where goods are “snatched” from each other, but a relationship of communion, love, and self-gift.  The human is not exalted at the expense of the divine; rather, human and divine are exalted together.  God and man are mutually glorified by loving each other.  Humanity becomes more human by becoming more divine.  Divinization also humanizes.

4.  Our Gospel Reading is one of the longest of the year: the whole Passion account according to Mark 14-15.  There is so much going on in this passage, it is impossible to comment on it all.  Just a few remarks:

  • The account begins with the anointing of Jesus at Bethany, which is dated at two days before the Passover according to Mark but six days before the Passover according to John.  I think this is because John follows the liturgical calender used by the Temple, whereas Mark follows the Essene calendar, according to which Passover would have fallen on a Tuesday (four days before Saturday).  This makes sense of a whole host of data, including the “man carrying a jar of water” who leads the apostles to the Upper Room.  Water-carrying was usually women’s work, but many Essenes lived in celibate male community where they did their own “women’s work.”  So I think the unnamed man was an Essene, and indeed the traditional site of the Upper Room is known to be in the first-century Essene quarter of Jerusalem.  I’m personally convinced of this hypothesis but there is no dogmatic issue involved. (My good friend Brant Pitre disagrees with me about this theory.)
  • Jesus speaks over the cup: “This is my blood of the covenant,” making a slight adaptation of Mose’s words at Sinai: “This is the blood of the covenant.”  The phrase “blood of the covenant” is very rare in the OT.  The allusion here seems to be directly to Exodus 24:8 and the solemnization of the divine covenant with Israel through Moses on Sinai.  But now Jesus re-makes the covenant over “better blood,” his own blood.  What he is doing in the Upper Room with the Twelve Apostles is as earth-shaking as what Moses did at Sinai with the Twelve Tribes.  Jesus is re-establishing, re-forming the people of God around twelve new patriarchs, establishing the “Israel of God” (Gal 6:16). 
  • The young man who flees naked is probably a reference to John Mark himself, the author.  There is no other really plausible explanation for the inclusion of this outlying remark.  John Mark’s mother owned the house of the Upper Room, so it is plausible that he accompanied the Twelve and Jesus when they left the Last Supper.
  • Jesus identifies himself as “The Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming with the clouds of heaven.”  To “come with the clouds of heaven” is a divine prerogative, as it was usually the head of the pantheon (Zeus, Jupiter, Thor, Ba’al, etc.) who rode on the clouds.  This is a reference to Daniel 7:13, in which there appear to be two divine persons: the Ancient of Days and the Son of Man, as Daniel Boyarin has argued some time ago (“The Gospel of the Memra: Jewish Binitarianism and the Prologue to John,” The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 94, No. 3 [July 2001] pp. 243-284).  This is one of the clearest claims of Our Lord to divinity, and it comes in what scholars consider the earliest of the Gospels.  Brant Pitre has developed this point in opposition to Bart Ehrman (who thinks Jesus never claimed to be divine) in his book, The Case for Jesus. 
  • Simon of Cyrene is noted in the Passion narrative because his sons, Alexander and Rufus, later converted to Christianity and became important members of the first generation of the Church. We quote the climax of the passage, which interacts with our Responsorial Psalm:

 At noon darkness came over the whole land
until three in the afternoon.
And at three o’clock Jesus cried out in a loud voice,
“Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?”
which is translated,
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Some of the bystanders who heard it said,
“Look, he is calling Elijah.”
One of them ran, soaked a sponge with wine, put it on a reed
and gave it to him to drink saying,
“Wait, let us see if Elijah comes to take him down.”
Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last.

The reason the bystanders think he is calling for Elijah is that they do not understand Aramaic (Syriac), the spoken language of Judea in the time of Our Lord.  They hear “ehl-wee-le-ma” and it sounds like “ehl-ee-ya-ma”; and “ehl-ee-ya” is “Elijah” in Greek, for in Greek the “j” has the value of “y.”  So the Greek-speaking bystanders can only make out what they think are the phonetics of “Elijah” in Jesus quotation of Ps 22:1. They then give him a drink of wine—the English leaves unclear whether Jesus drank, but the Greek verb (potizo, “to water something, to hydrate, as in ‘to water the horses’”) implies that he did, which is confirmed in John 19:30.  It is significant that at the Last Supper he said he would not drink again of the fruit of the wine until he drank it in the Kingdom; and then he prays in the Garden for the “cup” to pass from him.  There is reason to believe this drinking of the “fruit of the vine” at the cross is in fact ushering in the kingdom, as paradoxical as that may seem.  Yet the whole crucifixion can be seen as an inverted enthronement ceremony, in which the king is “washed” (in his own blood through scourging), crowned, vested in robes, led in procession to the high point of the city, and “enthroned” on the cross. 

So we behold Jesus at the point of his greatest suffering.  At the same time, even at this point of his agony, Jesus knew that the triumph prophesied at the end of Psalm 22 would be fulfilled.  That is why our Catholic faith is not a faith of pessimism and despair but of hope and joy, even in the midst of what seem to be impossible and even lethal circumstances. 

In the meantime, let’s be like Joseph of Arimathea, who is not ashamed to be associated with Jesus even at the worst point of Jesus absolute rejection and apparent discrediting.  In the midst of a society that rejects Jesus and what Jesus stands for, let’s not be afraid to be “seen with Jesus” in public, even if he is bad for our social acceptance and “upward mobility.”

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