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Taking to heart Psalm 22: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

(Article published in the April 1, 2002 issue of TODAY, Business Section)

No, this is not a piece that did not make it to the Good Friday press deadline. It is, instead, an ardent recommendation to read on Psalm 22 in this Easter season. Jesus’ citation of the first verse of the psalm is most likely one of, if not the oldest tradition of the Christ’s last words. If there was reason for putting it on His lips, there is reason to take it to heart now.

Although it is not unlikely that a dying tortured jew, who had lived his life obeying what he considered to be the will of his God, would give vent to his desperation by citing a well-remembered prayer of suffering, modern historical criticism of the Bible concedes that, at present, no one can say for certain that Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani was Jesus’ ipsisima verba. Regardless, however, Marc and Matthew and the early Christians must have seen in the Psalm significant insights that blended very well with their reflections on the Easter event. Unlocking those insights just might be useful for us now.

Psalm 22 belongs to the class called laments which, for obvious reasons, outnumber those of other types, such as hymns and Thanksgiving songs. It begins with the characteristic tone of boldness of tongue, a tenor of unabashed questioning, the seemingly irreverent use of "why" in addressing God. It is far from "Your Honor, Please" of lawyers or "Your Excellency" of diplomats - always deferential; very often not meant. It is a sincere cry for help directed to one considered an intimate friend.

Scholars detect, and it is easy to agree with them two major parts Psalm 22: an individual’s lament, articulated in the first twenty-two verses and then, for the remaining nine verses, a thanksgiving by the community. The lament contains the trust motif. In other words, the psalmist is not a mere complainant; he complains with confidence that in the end God will listen to his plea. The individual fades into the background after verse 22. And the lament is replaced by an exhortation to thanksgiving addressed to the congregation.

Our times make it easy for us to identify with lament. Do we not groan from the weight of our political and economic problems, crying for relief by day and crying by night and finding no answer? Our neighboring countries not so long ago sent their young to study in our schools and copy our skills; they are presently exporting back to us the produce we ourselves taught them to grow. They are mocking our wants with their surplus and are insulting us with admonitions on how not do what we do wrong. Our public officials act as if they are our masters. Our subordinates defy us. We are at the mercy of those who at the flick of a switch cause death and distruction or at the squeezing of a trigger sow terror in the streets where we long to walk secure. Trouble is always so near but help never at hand.

The psalmist, however, tells us to keep on hoping. As suddenly as the first shaft of light that tears the dark of midnight, he proclaims he had been heard and rescued from the horns of the wild oxen. His Lord has come in His own time and season, for his Lord does not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted.

Undoubtedly, it is most difficult now to heed the psalmist’s call for thanksgiving praise. But what Easter tells us is what the psalmist is singing of. There is deliverance from the depths of our desolation and the rising from the dead of one who was like us in all things, except sin, is our guarantee of it.