Friday, April 22, 2011

Good Friday: Day of despair, day when it is hard to see the "good"

The words of Jesus on Good Friday are haunting and inescapably imbedded onto our collective memory of two-thousand years:
"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"
(Matthew 27:46)
Why, we ask, is this day called good?

Those are the words of despair, desolation, agony, isolation and death. Yet there are more words beyond those.

The words are intended by the gospel writer to point us to Psalm 22. Those familiar words about being forsaken come the start of the psalm, but that is only the starting point. The psalm represents a journey, an agonizing journey to be sure, and at the end there are words of hope.

Psalm 22 is assigned for today in our lectionary, but maybe it is too familiar. Instead, I turn today to Robert Alter's masterful translation that begins this way:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Far from my rescue are the words that I roar.
My God, I call out by day and You do not answer.
by night--not stillness for me.
Those are the words of the condemned, the lonely, the dying. The psalm continues with cries about being betrayed, using "curs" (dogs) as a metaphor for evil circling the condemned. But then the psalm emerges from the darkness, declaring how the LORD finds even those who are dead in the depths of the earth. Listen to how Alter translates these final verses, for they speak of salvation across time and space:

For the LORD's is the kingship--
and He rules over the nations.
Yes to Him will bow down
all the netherworld's sleepers.
Before Him will kneel
all who go down to the dust
whose life is undone.
My seed will serve Him.
It will be told to generations to come.
They will proclaim His bounty to a people aborning,
for He has done.
Please join us today at St. Paul's. Beginning at noon, we will read the passion of St. John, and then we will hear the story from seven scenes on the path of the passion, with reflections from seven people from our congregation.

Then at 7 pm, we will pray the solemn collects for Good Friday and distribute the reserved sacrament from the night before. At 8 pm, we will have the haunting medieval service of Tenebrae, with chants, psalms and readings from Lamentations.

Book notes: The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary, by Robert Alter, 2007, W.W. Norton & Co.

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