Just before Jesus died, according to Matthew and Mark, he cried out in a loud voice, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" It's a question that has rung out ever since, as Jesus' followers continue to wonder exactly why he uttered this "cry of dereliction" among his final words.
It could be that he was expressing the agony of his physical suffering. It could be that the agony of emotional and spiritual separation from God had pressed in upon him so severely that he needed to cry out. It could be the ultimate indication of his humanity, and of his willingness to bear the sin of the world on our behalf.
Or it could be that he was singing.
For Jewish people like Jesus, who knew the Hebrew Scriptures and who used the Psalms as a songbook, the opening line of any Psalm served as a reference to the whole. "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" is the opening line of Psalm 22.
Imagine for a moment, if I were to walk into almost any room in America and sing out, "Let it go!" Those three words alone would probably conjure up the rest of the chorus of this banner anthem from Disney's Frozen, but certainly, "Let it go, let it go, I can't hold back any more," would get every small child and most of their parents singing. Whether those lines provoke a roll of the eyes (as they do with my son William) or a heartfelt declaration (as they do with my daughters Penny and Marilee), all it takes is the initial line for people to receive the message. Those three words signal much more than the words themselves-- the scenes and images that accompany this song in the movie, and perhaps even the larger context of the song within the film itself.
Similarly, when Jesus cries out using the initial line of Psalm 22, he is referring his listeners to the entirety of the Psalm. The Psalm begins with a description of a man on display for his physical suffering, mocked by those around him, and this section concludes with the words:
Dogs surround me, a pack of villains encircles me;
They pierce my hands and my feet.
All my bones are on display; people stare and gloat over me.
They divide my clothes among them and cast lots for my garment.
The Gospel writers weave this Psalm into their descriptions of Jesus—the one who suffers publicly, who endures the humiliation of public mockery, the one whose clothes are divvied up, the one pierced with nails in his hands and his feet.
But the Psalm does not end with this desolate portrait.
From here, it becomes a plea to God for rescue, and then a declaration of what God will do:
The poor will eat and be satisfied . . .
All the rich of the earth will feast and worship;
all who go down to the dust will kneel before him— those who cannot keep themselves alive.
Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord.
They will proclaim his righteousness, declaring to a people yet unborn: He has done it!
As we enter into the sorrow of Good Friday, let us remember Jesus' cry, Jesus' song. A cry of desolation that ends with a promise, with a declaration of God's goodness and faithfulness.
It is a cry that many of us have offered in the midst of our own moments of desolation, a reminder that God himself experienced suffering and sorrow. And in these desolate times, may we remember that Jesus' cry of desolation points us back to the God who does not forget us, the God who rescues and redeems and always, always, points us toward hope. The crucified God who always anticipates resurrection.
As we head towards Easter, let us join Jesus in his song that holds both the despair we all experience and the hope we all need.
For further commentary on this Psalm and Jesus' cry, see Al Hsu's piece for CT: He's Calling Elijah! Why We Still Mishear Jesus