Last evening, we celebrated the death of Jesus on the cross with a Tennebrae Service. Tennebrae is Latin for shadows. We had a Christ candle and eight small candles on the communion table that was draped in black. We read the scriptures from Matthew about the trial and crucifixion and death of Jesus. We jumped at the loud clash of pot lids used as cymbals, signifying the earthquake and rending of the curtain in the temple that separated the Holy of Holies. We ended in silence, carrying out the Christ Candle as the people left, leaving the sanctuary dark, with the cross draped with a long black cloth.
Such dramatic worship experiences, acted out with readings and candles, and sometimes music, help to transport me to a place where I can experience anew the holy mystery of the faith. I felt such a deep sadness as I listened to the soloist sing, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?”
We heard the words of Jesus read: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” which reminded me of Psalm 22 which many scholars believe he was quoting. Then, as now, people would reference a psalm with a quote. Others would respond with more of the quotation, much as we do today with certain psalms, such as saying, “This is the day the Lord has made,” and expecting the response, “Let us rejoice and be glad in it.” It is not only scripture we do this way, but also poetry, Shakespeare, or TV jingles. Sometimes, we can just hum a bit of a tune and transport people to a memory. Those words of Jesus did that for me.
Plea for Deliverance from Suffering and Hostility
To the leader: according to The Deer of the Dawn. A Psalm of David.
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
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.
Yet you are holy,
enthroned on the praises of Israel.
In you our ancestors trusted;
they trusted, and you delivered them.
To you they cried, and were saved;
in you they trusted, and were not put to shame.
But I am a worm, and not human;
scorned by others, and despised by the people.
All who see me mock at me;
they make mouths at me, they shake their heads;
‘Commit your cause to the Lord; let him deliver—
let him rescue the one in whom he delights!’
Yet it was you who took me from the womb;
you kept me safe on my mother’s breast.
On you I was cast from my birth,
and since my mother bore me you have been my God.
Do not be far from me,
for trouble is near
and there is no one to help.
Many bulls encircle me,
strong bulls of Bashan surround me;
they open wide their mouths at me,
like a ravening and roaring lion.
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;
my mouth is dried up like a potsherd,
and my tongue sticks to my jaws;
you lay me in the dust of death.
For dogs are all around me;
a company of evildoers encircles me.
My hands and feet have shrivelled;
I can count all my bones.
They stare and gloat over me;
they divide my clothes among themselves,
and for my clothing they cast lots.
But you, O Lord, do not be far away!
O my help, come quickly 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!
From the horns of the wild oxen you have rescued me.
I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters;
in the midst of the congregation I will praise you:
You who fear the Lord, praise him!
All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him;
stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!
For he did not despise or abhor
the affliction of the afflicted;
he did not hide his face from me,
but heard when I cried to him.
From you comes my praise in the great congregation;
my vows I will pay before those who fear him.
The poor shall eat and be satisfied;
those who seek him shall praise the Lord.
May your hearts live for ever!
All the ends of the earth shall remember
and turn to the Lord;
and all the families of the nations
shall worship before him.
For dominion belongs to the Lord,
and he rules over the nations.
To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down;
before him shall bow all who go down to the dust,
and I shall live for him.
Posterity will serve him;
future generations will be told about the Lord,
and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn,
saying that he has done it.
This ends as you see in a faith statement that worships God and what God is doing for God’s people even into the future generations. This is a psalm that can be used for people in such a deep grief that they need someone else to give them the words. I have ministered to such people. Even while they have deep faith, they protest the path before them.
In one case, the woman had ALS and has lost the ability to move or talk. She could only moan and cry out in a wordless horrific cry. She did this over and over again. It was breaking her daughter’s heart. As I explored with the daughter the life her mother had led, I found that the lady had been very physically active, especially loving to dance. I turned to the patient in the bed and told her that I could only imagine how difficult it could be for someone who was trapped inside her body and unable to do what she loved to do. The woman’s eyes were glued to my face as I spoke.
I knew that she was a woman of strong faith. I read the 22nd Psalm for her. She was quiet, with tears running out of the corners of her eyes. I spoke to her of God’s love for her and her love for God. And, then, her daughter and I sang hymns. I sang the melody. The daughter harmonized. We prayed and I blessed them. The periodic wailing had stopped.
The next day, the daughter called and said her sister and a friend came. The three of them spent the morning at her mother’s bedside singing hymns in three-part harmony. They told stories and talked to the patient about what she meant to them as they were growing up. It was a very special, holy time. Sometime later, the patient died, leaving behind beautiful memories of hymn singing and story telling.
There were other times that I used this psalm to help someone grieving their own death. Sometimes, we need the Psalms of Lament when our grief is so great that the words we have are not enough. Perhaps, as Jesus breathed his last, he, too, needed to lean heavily on David’s psalm. It begins with cry of abandonment, but ends in hope for the future, hope born of God’s love for God’s people.
Tomorrow, the sun will rise and we will sing Alleluias once more. Today, we remember the cry of forsakeness and the feeling of abandonment of the disciples as they mourned the death of the Son of God. They must have huddled together, afraid and confused, not understanding.
As Jesus died, God understood experientially what it meant to die. God experienced death. The decision that God made to become human carried that ramification. My theology professor, the late Alan Lewis wrote an entire book about this topic: Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday. The very thought of this boggles the mind. At least, it boggles my mind.
Jesus said, “No greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” John 15:13
This is the love God has for us – and for future generations.