Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Gospel of the God-Abandoned

"The Psalms make it possible to say things that are otherwise unsayable. In church, they have the capacity to free us to talk about things that we cannot talk about anywhere else." - John Goldingay

"Most of Scripture speaks to us; the Psalms speak for us." - Athanasius

"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"  - Psalm 22:1

If the Psalms are prayers to be prayed, then Psalm 22 is a prayer for those who like getting right to the point.  The Psalmist doesn't mince words.  Right from the beginning: "God?  Where are you?  Why have you given up on me?".

But is this really a prayer meant to be prayed?  Are these really words we are meant to speak to God?  It seems a little impious and disrespectful - accusing the benevolent and almighty deity of abandoning us - doesn't it?  Perhaps the Psalmist is not expressing reality but simply how he felt.  Surely this is the prayer of an immature faith.  We would never pray this prayer because we know that God would never abandon us.

And yet, here are these words on the lips of the Psalmist.  These are the words that all of Israel uses to describe its life with God.  These are words that we find on the lips of Jesus as he hangs on the cross.

Perhaps this Psalm makes it possible for us to say what is otherwise unsayable - life with God includes abandonment by God.  

In the gospel reading for this Sunday, Jesus tells his disciples that he must suffer and be rejected.  Upon hearing this, Peter takes Jesus aside and begins to rebuke him for these words.  Why?  Because just moments earlier Peter has confessed that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, God's anointed sent to deliver Israel.  For Peter, these categories - Messiah and suffering - are mutually exclusive.  One can not be both.  If Jesus is truly the Messiah, truly God's chosen as Peter has just confessed then he can not suffer.  This is unthinkable, unsayable.  In response to Peter's categories, Jesus does nothing less than to call Peter "Satan".  

I imagine we have trouble making Psalm 22 our own prayer because at some level we still make Peter's same equation: chosen = not suffering.  We are God's chosen people so we will not face any real suffering.  Or if we do then there is some explanation for it: God has a plan, teaching us a lesson, greater good, etc.  There may be some bumps along the road but God abandonment?  Surely this is hyperbole.  This is unthinkable, unsayable.

Yet the central image of our faith - the one that adorns our sanctuaries and our necks - is a symbol of God abandonment.  We forget that because for us the cross has become a symbol of hope and eternal life, if not merely a religious trinket.  So its easy for us to pass over its original significance - an instrument of torture and death, a reminder that the Romans, not Yahweh, were really in charge, a tool of oppression, a sure sign of God's having cursed and abandoned you.

A few verses later in that same passage in Mark, Jesus says these well known words:
"If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.  For whoever would save his life will lose it but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it."  
This is the tension/paradox/inherent contradiction of Psalm 22 (which ultimately ends in praise) and of any follower of Jesus.  To know salvation is to know abandonment.  To be a chosen follower of the chosen one is to know God-forsakeness.  To journey with Jesus is to say "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?".

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