Friday, March 21, 2008

Amid his crucifixion, Jesus dies and lives by the Word of God

JESUS EMBODIES PSALM 22. In our Tenebrae Service earlier this evening, as the last of seven candles on the altar was extinguished and the sound of a door slammed, I stood in the dark sanctuary and read Psalm 22 to the congregation. The opening words in this Psalm are in Jesus' mouth as he draws his last fleeting breaths: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" The first half of the Psalm so closely silhouettes what eyewitnesses to Jesus' crucifixion convey in the Gospels, it would seem that only Calvary could be its prophetic fulfillment:

Verses 7-8:
"All who see me mock me;
they hurl insults, shaking their heads:
'He trusts in the LORD;
let the LORD rescue him.
Let him deliver him,
since he delights in him.'"

Verses 14-16:
"I am poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint.
My heart has turned to wax;
it has melted away within me.
My strength is dried up like a potsherd,
and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth;
you lay me in the dust of death.
Dogs have surrounded me;
a band of evil men has encircled me,
they have pierced
my hands and my feet."

Verse 18:
"They divide my garments among them
and cast lots for my clothing."

LIVING & DYING BY THE WORD OF GOD. It would seem that Jesus is reciting the Word of God in this Psalm--at least--in his agonizing death. This practice of calling forth the Word of God at the threshold of death was echoed in the stoning of Stephen. It is now a longstanding tradition of martyred saints across two millenia. Those who live by the Word of God find in it their comfort, counsel and hope in the midst of death's final assault on human and all created life.

ON THE CROSS, JESUS EMBODIES ISRAEL. William Stringfellow points out that in his Passion and with the utterance of Psalm 22, Jesus radically identifies with the plight of Israel. "Jesus, crying aloud from the cross, speaks as Israel," he writes. "He is...the embodiment of the whole people of God, and he alone, then and there, assumes and exemplifies the generic vocation of Israel to trust and celebrate the redemptive work of the Word of God in history. In the drama of the Crucifixion, Jesus' invoking the 22nd Psalm signifies that the cross is the historic event in which Jesus Christ becomes Israel."

STARK, DARK, SCATTERED. For the sake of embracing the impact of Jesus' death on Good Friday, in our Tenebrae Service we stop reading Psalm 22 at verse 21. This is the point of death. A great shadow envelopes the community of faith and we walk from the Sanctuary in darkness, we scatter in silence. We will not gather again until we hear, hopefully, an astounding report at daybreak on the first day of the week.

BEYOND THE POINT OF DEATH. The Psalm moves beyond verse 21, as does Jesus' action in behalf of human and all created life, into death and the place of the dead (Hades). A Psalm which initially appears to be a song of despair, reveals itself and the One who embodies it to be a song of Easter (more on that portion of the Psalm in a couple of days). We may see despair in Jesus' death, but the Psalmist sees intentional mission and a ministry even unto those who have died and a redemptive testimony to life. It is not, as Stringfellow puts it, "a dirge of ultimate despair," but "a hymn of eschatological hope."

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