The Good Friday Prayer
The most profound prayer of Holy Week, the one that stuns me every time, is the one Jesus prayed on the cross.
His last words were recorded in two of the Gospels, Mark and Matthew, first in the original Aramaic–Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?–and then translated, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”
Think about it. This is the son of God on the cross, the one who knows God because he is God, and yet, in the midst of his worst trial, abandoned by those who loved him, he cries out in desperation, “Why have you left me, God?”
It’s a prayer that breaks my heart and yet one, in my worst moments–which wouldn’t compare to the Lord’s–I have said: “Where are you, God? Why can’t you be here when I need you most? Why must I go through this mess?”
Many explain that Jesus was quoting the opening of Psalm 22 when he uttered these words, and by them he was implying that God indeed was present, is present, because at the end of that Psalm, after a long catalogue of miseries, there is the promise of deliverance.
I’ve sung Psalm 22 in enough Good Friday services to hardly be reassured, because even if you get to verse 31 with its promise, you have chanted such devastating lines as, “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…” (verse 14).
I tend to agree with Biblical scholar Geza Vermes, who points out that the psalms would have been recited in Hebrew in the synagogue in Jesus’ time, not Aramaic. If Jesus wanted to quote a psalm, the Hebrew would have been at his disposal. But he said this in Aramaic, his everyday tongue.
It’s hard not to believe that this phrase, sticking out in gospels recorded in Greek, was not the real thing. Of all Christ’s words that have come down to us, no one wanted these to be lost in translation.
I think of how Bach set it to music in the St. Matthew Passion. Usually in that sublime work, when the part of Jesus is sung, the soloist has a “halo” of music under him, created by the string section. But for this one phrase, the strings step out. Jesus is alone in more ways than one.
Loneliness is part of the human condition. When I think about dying, the loneliness of it is what terrifies me most. Pain, illness, depression, sorrow, all of these can be extraordinarily alienating. As a Christian I believe in the resurrection, the promise of renewed life that comes with Easter.
But on this one day, I am reminded that in my non-Easter moments, those times of hopelessness, to pray like Jesus is to cry out in despair, without any strings attached, “My God, why have you left me?”
Good Friday is only a few terrible hours and Easter is forever, but to pray in that moment is to be with Jesus in his desolation, as he is with us in ours.