While I am reading Christ in the Psalms by Fr. Patrick Reardon, he is educating me as a life-long Protestant Christian of the two millennia of traditions, both Orthodox and Catholic, related to the regular praying of the Psalms and of their Christ-centered interpretation, in contrast with so much self-centered interpretation that we see today. Not that the Psalms do not speak to our individual and collective circumstances, but that we understand them more fully in light of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, especially the suffering aspects of the Psalms. When we consider that Jesus prayed the Psalms with the understanding that he was the designated Son of Psalm 2 in the voice he heard at his baptism, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am pleased,” then so many other Psalms take on a different flavor and meaning. The “lament” psalms become psalms of an innocent person (Jesus) under persecution from many enemies, while the psalmist (Jesus), instead of seeking retribution, turns toward God in pain and questioning, yet hope and trust. We see this pattern over and over again beginning in Psalm 3.
In the section of his two page reflection on Ps 22—the first verse of which Jesus quoted on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me”—Fr. Reardon said something that grabbed my attention (hold on a moment). So many modern interpreters take Jesus’s cry from the cross in isolation, as though he just quotes this first verse without any reference to what follows, or previous psalms for that matter. The resulting interpretation is the idea that God abandoned Jesus on the cross as the outpouring of his wrath on his Son rather than humanity. Fr. Reardon spoke of a tradition that Jesus was in the process of reciting the Psalms on the cross, beginning with Psalm 22 and ending with Psalm 31:5, “Into your hands I commit my spirit.” In between there are indeed expressions of despair, but also of supreme hope and trust. Take the succeeding Psalm 23 for instance. Consider Jesus reciting this Psalm as he is suffering and dying on the cross:
“Yahweh is my shepherd, I lack nothing … He restores my soul … I will not fear evil, for You are with me … surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of Yahweh forever.”
Or Psalm 27: “Yahweh, my light and my salvation! Whom shall I fear?” Later, Psalm 27 also has notes of perceived abandonment, “Hide not your face from me, turn not your servant away in anger” (v. 9), yet the Psalm begins and end with trust and hope in the salvation of Yahweh despite the ravenous enemies surrounding the psalmist. Even if Jesus was not reciting these on the cross, the words of the Psalms were already deeply embedded in his being through a life-time of recitation and meditation.
Psalm 22 itself, despite the severe persecution that is indicated in the first half, is a psalm of hope and trust in God who will redeem the sufferer in the end so he can praise God for his salvation. Jesus may indeed have felt abandoned, but continued to freely and trustingly follow the way of innocent suffering as his Father desired (“not my will but thine be done”) as the means of taking the sin of the world upon himself and in so doing defeating sin, Satan, and death. “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself,” the Apostle Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:19. God the Father was suffering right along with the Son as humanity poured out their hatred on the One who brought the good news of the Father’s love and the kingdom of a different kind that He would bring. All of it was in God’s plan.
Why would the Father allow the Son to experience abject abandonment in taking on all of the sin of the world? That is the question of the atonement proper with multi-faceted legitimate perspectives that cannot be adequately dealt with in this short post. One answer though has to do with the defeat of Satan. In the death of the only absolutely innocent person to ever live, acknowledged by the demons themselves to be Son of God, Satan was apparently victorious in his quest to take over the sovereign role of God in this world. Satan believed that through the Jews’ and Romans’ delivery of Jesus to the cross, he had engineered this victory. The culture of death that Satan began with Adam and continued through the ongoing violence of the ages, included so-called “legitimate violence,” was finally fully consummated in the death of Jesus. Satan had won, Sin and Death would reign forever. Only the perception that the Father had fully abandoned Jesus to death on the cross would make this apparent victory complete, as indeed it was to everyone who witnessed the event, both to those who were supremely troubled and sad, and especially to those who rejoiced that this troublesome teller of truth was finally gone and their lives of lies and corruption could proceed as before. Indeed the perception was real; Jesus did actually die as all four Gospels make abundantly clear. Satan and the demons, the principalities and powers, believed they had defeated the good purposes of God in Christ to remake the world as God intended. Unless Jesus were fully dead and Sin and Death and Satan believed they had won the day, would the apocalyptic and indeed cataclysmic event of the Resurrection be fully effective.
The Father of course did not abandon his beloved Son. In the eternal wisdom of the Godhead, Jesus had to die in order for Death and Sin and Satan to be defeated. In the Resurrection of Jesus, God rendered the cycle of death and sin that Satan used for his world-ruling ends to be rendered empty and void. Jesus had defeated Death, Jesus had defeated Sin, Jesus had defeated Satan, and in that train of defeat, he opened the way of life to all who would follow him in trust and devotion. That is one of the reasons Good Friday is good.