Can God Really Abandon Us? Revisiting Psalm 22

My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? (Psalm 22:2)

This lament, the first line of Psalm 22, is a familiar one during Holy Week. The line is the refrain for the Responsorial Psalm on Palm Sunday and is uttered by Jesus on the cross in Matthew’s passion account, also heard on Palm Sunday. Unfortunately, that first line is the only thing most of us remember from Psalm

 The entire Psalm is a bit of a roller coaster, not unlike Holy Week itself. It begins with the familiar cry of abandonment, followed by a recitation of the psalmist’s unfortunate circumstances. Some of these directly foreshadow the events of Good Friday:

All who see me mock me;

they curl their lips and jeer;

they shake their heads at me:

He relied on the LORD—let him deliver him;

if he loves him, let him rescue him.” (Ps 22: 8-9)

and

As dry as a potsherd is my throat;

my tongue cleaves to my palate;

you lay me in the dust of death.

Dogs surround me;

a pack of evildoers closes in on me.

They have pierced my hands and my feet

I can count all my bones.

They stare at me and gloat;

they divide my garments among them;

for my clothing they cast lots. (Ps 22:16-19)

 

Even in the midst of distress, though, the psalmist has glimmers of hope:

Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One;

you are the glory of Israel (Ps 22:4)

For you drew me forth from the womb,

made me safe at my mother’s breasts. (Ps 22:10)

After recounting the psalmist’s woes, the psalm hits a hopeful note in verse 23

that continues until the end:

Then I will proclaim your name to my brethren;

in the assembly I will praise you (Ps 22:23)

The contrast between the beginning of the psalm, in the depths of woe, and the end, exuberant praise of God, is stark. It reflects what we experience as we move through Holy Week: the triumphant entry into Jerusalem and the first account of the Passion of our Lord on Palm Sunday, the special intimacy of the Last Supper on Holy Thursday, the shocking cruelty of the crucifixion and death of Jesus on Good Friday, the quiet of Holy Saturday, and the ultimate triumph of Easter.

My own experience of the richness of the entirety of Psalm 22 came when I was in my mid-30s, after many year of hearing only the first line of the psalm. I read the entire psalm as part of a Lenten day of reflection that took place just before my fourth child was born. As an expectant father, I was experiencing many of the emotions as the psalmist: fear of the unknown, uncertainty about the future, cautious hopefulness, irrational exuberance, knowledge that God was near but unclear where. When I read the final verses, however, I felt that the psalmist was speaking directly to me, and my heart soared:

I will live for the LORD;

my descendants will serve you.

The generation to come will be told of the Lord,

that they may proclaim to a people yet unborn

the deliverance you have brought. (Ps 22:31-32)

 

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How Are We Quenching our Thirst?

Jesus answered her, “You are right in saying, ‘I do not have a husband.’ For you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true.” (John 4:18)

Ouch.

Jesus’ words to the Samaritan woman must have stung. In this case, the truth literally hurts.

It’s unclear whether Jesus’ grasp of the woman’s situation was miraculous or the result of keen observation. Perhaps he had overheard some of the villagers gossiping about the woman who had been married five times, who drew water during the heat of the day because she was too embarrassed and ashamed to go with the rest of the village women at a time of day when it was cooler. Her lifestyle would have been a scandal for the rest of the village.

Even today, when half of marriages end in divorce, being married five times seems pretty extreme. In the culture of ancient Palestine, such behavior must have bordered on unimaginable.

Beyond cultural norms, consider the emotional toll. In modern terms, five marriages mean five courtships, five weddings, establishing five households, five experiences of disillusionment and alienation, five break ups. Five relationship arcs like that meant that the woman was carrying around some pretty heavy emotional baggage.

It’s obvious that she was seeking…something, that she was parched, trying to slake her thirst with increasing desperation in each of her five marriages, hoping as she entered each of these relationships that this new man would have what she was looking for. Each time, she was disappointed, until she encountered the man at the well.

We are all thirsting for a relationship with God. The psalmist says, “As the deer longs for streams of water,so my soul longs for you, O God.” (Psalm 42:2)

But how are we trying to quench our thirst? Do we turn to money, power, food, sex, or other illusory pleasures of this world rather than the source of living water? Are we gorging ourselves on junk food when we could be guests of honor at the banquet of the Lord?

Lent provides a time for us to reflect, to examine the ways that we are trying to quench our thirst, and then to turn to the Lord in prayer and sacrament. Let’s use these holiest days of the year to seek the living water that the Son of God freely offers us.