Saint John-Paul II wrote: "The fact that one can die for the faith shows that other demands of the faith can also be met."                                                 Cardinal Müller says, “For the real danger to today’s humanity is the greenhouse gases of sin and the global warming of unbelief and the decay of morality when no one knows and teaches the difference between good and evil.”                                                  St Catherine of Siena said, “We've had enough exhortations to be silent. Cry out with a thousand tongues - I see the world is rotten because of silence.”                                                  Chesterton said, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”


This is the second of the Retreat Conferences by Fr John Hemer MHM.


The gardens at Douai Abbey
I’m sure many of us have seen Mel Gibson’s film “The Passion of the Christ.” It was I think profoundly moving and rather harrowing. Lots of Christian commentators criticized it for the extremely graphic display of violence and brutality. I personally think that there is room for a straightforward historical account of how awful crucifixion is and the film certainly achieves that. But of course the gospel writers are not nearly as gory, the say very little about the awful physical suffering, John hardly anything. There is a reason for this. People have always found the suffering of others a form of entertainment. In the Roman Empire it was gladiatorial contests, people being thrown to the lions. In modern times there are many films which for various reasons portray suffering and violence. Think of Papillon or midnight express, 12 years a slave. Think of roots, both the original and it’s recent remake. Think of Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs and the Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Goodfellas, Silence of the Lambs, the Godfather, Slumdog Millionaire and many more, and we haven’t even touched the genre known as the Horror Film. The gospels don’t go there because that’s not the point. The evangelists want us to not just to observe the event but understand the deeper significance, so for instance we get a glimpse into the heart of Jesus at the scene in Gethsemane. It would be easy to concentrate on the physical suffering – which was dreadful and ignore the mental and spiritual suffering, which for the Son of God, being victim of the most dreadful injustice, must have been worse. The passion is not just another story of an innocent man being brutalised.

Luke tells us how Jesus prayed in his agonia. This isn’t physical agony. A literal translation would be:
And being in great trouble of soul, he prayed more earnestly (Lk. 22:44)
This is a huge internal struggle. Certainly fear of what is to come but also seeking the strength not to become angry or bitter no matter what happened to him.
Ronald Rolheiser wrote a sort of obituary for Fr. Dan Berrigan. In 1968, along with his brother, Philip, he entered a federal building in Catonsville, Maryland, removed a number of draft records and burned them. For this, he was given three and a half years in prison. Father Larry Rosebaugh, an Oblate  priest who also went to prison for anti-war protests shares in his autobiography how, the night before he performed his first act of civil disobedience that landed him in prison, he spent the entire night in prayer with Daniel Berrigan. Berrigan’s advice to him then was this: If you can’t do this without becoming bitter and angry at those who arrest you, don’t do it! Prophecy is about making a vow of love, not of alienation. 
         I wonder if part of the prayer of Jesus in Gethsemane is something like this. Jesus knew he would be brutalised and killed. It’s humanly so hard not to react with violence or anger when this happens. That’s the test he’s talking about. He tells the disciples not to let what they are about to witness make them forget everything he’s told them about turning the other cheek. The reason he counsels his disciples to Offer the wicked man no resistance is not to turn his followers into wimps or door mats but because when we are faced with evil, violence or brutality it is extremely difficult not to get drawn into it ourselves. It’s difficult not to end up doing the very evil that we are resisting. We see Peter falling into the trap
John omits the agony in the garden For two reasons. In a sense Jesus has already undergone in a compressed for in Ch. 12. Jesus talks about his passion:
The hour has come for the Son of man to be glorified. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. (12:24-25)
And a few verses later says:
"Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? `Father, save me from this hour'? No, for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify thy name." Then a voice came from heaven, "I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again. ……………Now is the judgment of this world, now shall the ruler of this world be cast out; and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself." (12:27-32)
This short scene contains many of the elements of the agony in Gethsemane related in the Synoptic Gospels.
But very likely it’s left out because John wants us to see Jesus as the great high priest performing the act of atonement. This theme is very strong in John.
Once a year the high priest passed through the Temple veil into the Holy of Holies. He was clothed in pure white linen and so he became (at least symbolically) one of the sons of God, one of the angels. Having performed the atonement ritual he emerged from the veil dressed in a garment made of the same material as that veil, dressed in created matter. He represented God and was seen as God Coming into the world in a visible way, veiled or dressed in created matter. Whether this was understood literally or symbolically is hard to see. But the high priest at that moment was seen as God incarnate coming among his people to bless them. He then uttered the divine name (probably sang it or ululated it Jesus is using the same idea when he is disputing with the Jews in John ch. 10:
Jesus answered them, "Is it not written in your law, `I said, you are gods'? 35 If he called them gods to whom the word of God came (and scripture cannot be broken),  36 do you say of him whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world, `You are blaspheming,' because I said, `I am the Son of God'? (John 10:34-36)
As the high priest, having been consecrated or born again, moved back through the veil, vested in creation he was said to be “sent by God” in Hebrew Shaliych. In John’s gospel 28 times Jesus makes reference to the one who sent me, or in some way to his being sent by the Father. With that in mind look what happens here. In Ch. 17 Jesus prays the great high-priestly prayer consecrates himself and the disciples. The upper room becomes the place where the closest most intimate encounter with God takes place. It’s the place where the new priesthood begins. It becomes in a sense the Holy of Holies. He then emerges from that chamber and he utters the divine name ego eimi I am he.
What the High Priest did every year was believed to redeem the world, to restore creation. But did it really work? What Jesus does here is structurally similar and it really does redeem the world. The scene does seem to replicate exactly what happens on the Day of Atonement. The Mishna says:
When the priests and the people who stood in the temple court heard the spoken name come forth from the mouth of the high priest, they used to kneel and bow themselves and fall down on their faces.”[1]
Jesus uses this expression many times in John and in 8:58 it provokes a violent reaction. He says to the crowd: before Abraham was, I am. Immediately they pick up stones to kill him for blasphemy because they hear him deliberately echoing another “I am” from the Old Testament. In Exodus 3:14 when God appears to Moses at the burning bush, Moses asks him who he is. God mysteriously says: I am who I am. In  Hebrew the divine name which no one pronounces consisting of the letters YHWH is a form of the verb to be, and a Hebrew speaker would automatically hear the connection between the all-holy name of God and the statement I am.
         You may raise the objection that all this talk of Jesus as High Priest and the Day of Atonement is theology, rather than history.
But at the last supper in Matthew we read:
And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, "Drink of it, all of you;  28 for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. (MT 26:27-28)
If Jesus is doing this, and it’s for the forgiveness of sins, he must think of himself as a priest, indeed a high priest.
The Isaiah scroll from Qumran talks about how when the time is fulfilled Melchizedech will come and announce one more jubilee and that will be the definitive inauguration of God’s rule. When Jesus stands up for his first sermon in Nazareth he does just that;
And he stood up to read;  and there was given to him the book of the prophet Isaiah. He opened the book and found the place where it was written,  "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed,  to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord."  And he closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant, and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.  And he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."  (Luk 4:16-21 RSV)
Jesus is saying effectively “I am the Mechizedech you have been waiting for and I am now inaugurating that final Jubilee. My entire mission will be one of setting people free etc.” If Jesus sees himself as Melchizedech then a fortiori he sees himself as a priest, but not of the order of Levi.

So the idea of Jesus as a priest is in the ministry and self-consciousness of Jesus. There is priesthood, albeit of a very different kind.

Going back to the scene in Gethsemane, fine you may say, an interesting detail but no big deal. But it’s John trying to get through to us the momentous importance and newness of what’s happening here.
What’s happening at the burning bush is that God is revealing himself, showing himself to Moses for the first time. It’s the beginning of a huge adventure in which God shows that a) he’s not like any other God and that b) he is permanently committed to his people. John is trying to tell us here that it is precisely in the arrest of Jesus and all that follows, his humiliation, death and resurrection, that God is most clearly revealed. That doesn’t make sense in merely human terms. Surely God is revealed in strength and the signs of his presence in one’s life are prosperity and wellbeing? John, and indeed the whole New Testament tells us that he is most clearly revealed in Christ crucified. Paul puts it beautifully:
For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.  (1 Corinthians1:22-24)
This is an amazing statement for a first century Jew to make. People typically expect to encounter God in one of two ways: either through signs (some translate this as miracles) or through wisdom. Let’s put it another way. People expect religion either to give the possibility of change or transformation – miracles, or they expect it to teach them how to live – wisdom. If anyone goes about preaching religion, normally they would talk about one of those things. But says Paul, we are not doing anything like that. We are not offering any set of techniques or body of teaching that people would expect. Instead we are proclaiming the story of someone who was killed in such a way as to totally discredit him, yet we are totally convinced that precisely in this man God was at work in a completely unexpected way, but which makes him more available, and reveals him to be more powerful and wiser than anyone had ever thought possible.
John takes this incident from the arrest, assumes his readers will understand that when Jesus says I am he is doing far more than just putting up his hand and saying: “Present” and uses it to show us how God reveals who he truly is through these events.

For many years I lived at St. Joseph’s College Mill Hill, our former mother house. The quickest way into central London was via the northern line from Burnt Oak station. The northern Line as you know splits at Camden town, one branch carries on straight through Leicester Square, Charing Cross and Waterloo. The other branch veers east via Bank and London Bridge, and the two part meet again south of the river at Kennington. So It’s important to get on the right train and sometimes at Burnt Oak it isn’t always clear which branch this particular train is taking. And the way Londoners put the question is: “Does this go via the Bank or the Cross?” How’s that for a way to question ourselves during Holy week. Which way to we go, do we believe in the power the truth of the Cross, or do we actually rely on something more worldly?

The Passion. 18-19.
There is a marked difference between Catholic piety about the Passion and official liturgical texts. Piety concentrates on pain, sufferings and ignominy Jesus endured. Official liturgical texts concentrate on glory and triumph. Compare ancient hymns – All Glory Laud and Honour, The Royal Banners to more recent ones – O come and Mourn. If we compare John with synoptic accounts there is a similar difference. In Mark Jesus says: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? In John: It is fulfilled. In Mark Jesus becomes a passive subject – a victim. In John in many ways he remains in control. John is historical but the facts are presented in a particular way. Rather like the figure of Christ crucified wearing Mass vestments.

Our valiant MC preparing for Holy Mass
The Trial Before Pilate
This is about the confrontation between God’s power and worldly political power. The Praetorium is an archetype; it’s the place where two kingdoms collide, two world orders, two kinds of citizenship. Corrupt human power comes face to face with the rule of God himself.        
Josephus talks of how Pilate was brutal in the extreme. Once he appropriated temple money to build an aqueduct, people protested and seeing that they were unarmed, he slew them in great number. This is the man with whom the authorities are now conspiring to “Save the nation”. Although Jesus is on trial, it looks very much like he is trying Pilate.
Are you the king of the Jews?
is an expression of amazement that this man without guile or ambition or the slightest touch of pride in his eyes could claim to be a king, or that people could accuse him of sedition in this way. Jesus answers:
Do you ask this of your own accord or have others said it to you about me?
In other words, “You are playing the cool governor but you are not as much in control as you would seem. This whole business is not your doing, you are being manipulated by the people whom you claim to govern.” If Jesus seems evasive here it’s because we are also dealing with two very different types of kingship and Jesus will not let Pilate simply think that he is another political pretender. If he answers a simple “yes” at this stage he’s walking straight into the trap he avoided in Ch. 6 when the people want to make him king. Pilate answers:
Am I a Jew?
It is better here to translate Ioudaioj ioudaios as Judean. Some of the people in Galilee were called Judeans once it is clear that they do not believe in Jesus. (6:41, 51) To be a Judean in John is to align yourself with the prevailing system of Temple and Torah which is supposed to express perfectly the will of God, but is built now on something else and wants to destroy Jesus. So to the reader the answer to:
Am I a Judaean?
is probably ‘yes’.  Jesus does not deny his kingship, but it’s not kingship as Pilate will ever be able to understand it.
Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me; what have you done?
Well, what has he done? Healed the sick, cleansed lepers, raised the dead, preached the good news to the poor etc. He’s done nothing wrong. I can’t help thinking of the hatred for the Church we sometimes meet today -  remember the visit of Pope Benedict.
Jesus answer:
 My kingdom is not of this world
is not a reference to heaven. We should translate the Greek more literally here:
(the quotation given in Greek is omitted as it does not show correctly in HTML - Ed)
My kingdom is not out of this world.
It means it does not obey the standards of this world, nor can it be understood in terms of any worldly kingdom. By the time this gospel was written, Jewish revolutionary groups had brought about the insurrection which had led to the destruction of the Temple. Armed struggle had failed as a way of bringing about God’s kingdom. Earthly kingdoms may be very different in appearance and organisation but their source of power is always basically the same, it’s always the domination of one group by another. Hid Kingdom is of a completely different nature. He’s shown that during the washing of the feet at the last supper. Jesus bangs the contrast home by saying:
 if my kingdom were out of this world, my servants would fight, that I might not be handed over to the Jews.
That’s the way the world defends its values and systems. This is a rejection of Peter’s earlier attempts to establish the kingdom by force. Jesus comes to bear witness to the truth, to show things the way they are, rooted in violence, as opposed to the way they seem to be, the Pax Romana.  The subjects of the kingdom are
All who are on the side of truth (who) listen to my voice.
With both types of kingship we are talking about sovereignty, but God-given sovereignty never expresses itself with forcer but with the sheer power of the truth. In the synoptic Gospels Jesus is asked:
Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?
He replies:
Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's. (Mark 12:14, 17)
This is all about loyalties, and what we have now before Pilate is the Johannine version of the same debate. In a way this allows Pilate to relax. If Jesus has no political pretensions then as governor he does not have too much responsibility here. Yet it makes him uncomfortable in challenging him to think about truth. From now on the trial is not about whether Jesus is innocent or guilty – that he is innocent is now clear, but how will Pilate respond to the truth? Pilate tries to stay neutral but that will get him into trouble. His retort:
What is truth?
Implies: “Look, I’ve got a province to run here, do you think I have the time to worry about such niceties?” Or “I’ve got power so I don’t need to worry about truth.” The excuse used by so many pragmatists since, even pragmatists in the Church. Pilate sits on the fence. He will not accept the charges of the Jews, neither will he listen to the voice of truth. This sort of speculation is sometimes not just useless; it puts people on the side of un-truth. Pilate does know what the truth is in this matter, but he won’t act on it. Truth demands a response, often an action, not speculation. This kind of philosophising is a way to avoid the truth.
Realising this man is harmless, Pilate taunts the crowd once more, and intentionally or not, shows that these holy men are screaming for the death of an innocent. To see holy people, God’s representatives, incandescent with rage and violent fury is not a pleasant spectacle. By directly calling Jesus ‘King of the Jews’ he is showing the people how ridiculous they are. “Are you really suggesting that this man is looking for political power and is a threat to the Roman state? He makes a last ditch effort, hoping that they will agree to release him on the Passover, but not willing to make that decision himself. By not actively following the truth he lets loose a real criminal. When asked to choose for the truth, sitting on the fence always puts people on the side of evil. “All that is needed for evil to triumph is for good men to keep silent.”
Truth here is much more than the usual philosophical definitions of it ‘that which corresponds to reality.’ It’s the nature of God. Perhaps those who are converts to the Church recognise in her a quality of truth which isn’t present to the same degree elsewhere. It’s something that seizes us and attracts us and delights us all at the same time. In many ways Pilates words are the mantra of postmodernism. What is truth? Our age has espoused the cynical belief that there is really no such thing as ultimate truth or absolute truth. That belief (and it is a belief) means that even when the truth is staring you in the face, when it’s screaming at you for attention, you will ignore it, because you don’t believe it can possibly exist. Pilate here is the archetypal fence-sitter. How many people in our times unwittingly make him their role modern when it comes to Christ?
         He tries to keep the crowd happy by having Jesus scourged and mocked and bringing him out dressed thus. He hopes that this humiliation will be enough for them. He says famously:
Behold the man. Ecce Homo.  
(the quotation given in Greek is omitted as it does not show correctly in HTML - Ed)
Lots of suggestions of deep meaning are made here. Probably what he says is just consistent with his purpose. He wants the crowd to leave him alone, so maybe it’s something like: “look at the poor fellow” or “look, he’s just a man, not a political threat.” Whatever Pilate’s intentions, it’s hard not to see more here. Jesus truly is THE man, the one true totally authentic human being without pretence or distortion. Remember we were told in Genesis that Adam – literally ‘The Man’ was made in God’s image. Well here Pilate presents Jesus as the true image of God. So just as Caiaphas unwittingly makes a prophecy, Pilate unwittingly makes a sort of Christological statement. The soldiers no doubt were mocking Jesus by dressing him in a purple robe. In presenting him to the crowd in this robe maybe Pilate is making fun of the Jewish authorities, trying to show them how ridiculous the charges that they make are. Surely when they see him now, in this pitiful state they will drop the whole thing and go home. But instead we read:
When the chief priests and the officers saw him, they cried out, "Crucify him, crucify him!" Pilate said to them, "Take him yourselves and crucify him, for I find no crime in him."
The crowd asking for crucifixion is like a group of Afro-Americans in Alabama asking the town sheriff to have one of their own people lynched. Here the chief priests lay their cards on the table.
The Jews answered him, "We have a law, and by that law he ought to die, because he has made himself the Son of God."
What angers them is not the claim to be King of the Jews, but the claim to be Son of God. This is no more a criminal offence in Roman law than it is in ours. He may be mad, he’s certainly not criminal. This is the first time the crowd mentions this to Pilate. Strangely the effect on him is:
When Pilate heard them say this his fears increased.
Pilate is at home in the world of power politics. He is completely out of his depth here. He gets the creeps. For Romans the phrase Son of God meant nothing messianic but the idea of his being a ‘divine man, a theios aner with special powers is a possibility. So maybe Pilate has a good pagan sense of dread and fear in the presence of anything divine. Jesus remains silent at Pilate’s question:
Where do you come from?
This is probably recognition that Pilate, no more than the Jewish authorities will never be able to understand the answer.  And Jesus will not answer a question that comes from a position of unbelief. Sometimes unbelievers might ask us why we became priests. Unles they are somehow open to the possibility that God might enter someone’s life, it’s highly unlikely they will be able to understand the answer. Threatening Jesus with crucifixion if he is silent is like threatening him with contempt of court. Jesus says:
You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above; therefore he who delivered me to you has the greater sin."
Jesus is not saying that God is the source of Roman authority, but “the only reason you have power over me at this moment is that God has allowed you to.” Pilate will understand Jesus’ talk of power from above as Caesar, not God. The crowd get the better of Pilate, they play on his fears. They say:
If you set him free you are no friend of Caesar’s
This probably alludes to the title ‘Friend of Caesar’ which was like a knighthood or OBE and given to people who for some reason enjoyed the favour of the despotic Tiberius. They are saying “If you let him go and Rome gets to hear of this, you will lose your title. You will no longer be ‘The Right Honourable Sir Pontius Pilate’, but just plain ‘Mister Pontius Pilate’ and quite possibly ‘Mister Pontius Pilate, unemployed’”. Of course he’s already let one brigand go; he must avoid the possibility of his work being inspected. In trying to be neutral to the truth, Pilate has become slave of his own fears. Josephus depicts him as very cruel, so cruel that he was later removed from office. Is it that on this one occasion he allowed the crowd and circumstance to get the better of him, and he vowed never to be seen to be so weak again? Pilate is a man who comes face to face with the truth and realises it, but it’s too much for him, so he walks away from it. Pilate is now at the end of his tether and deliberately antagonises the Jews.
Now it was the day of Preparation of the Passover; it was about the sixth hour. He said to the Jews, "Behold your King!" They cried out, "Away with him, away with him, crucify him!" Pilate said to them, "Shall I crucify your King?" The chief priests answered, "We have no king but Caesar." Then he handed him over to them to be crucified.
This is the ultimate judgement upon themselves and the sign that they are no longer the people of God. (Those particular Jews that is, the religious authorities) The OT is full of reference to the Lord as king, and even when there was actually a king on the throne, it was understood that he was really only God’s viceroy. The people who shout this of course hate Caesar and all he stands for. For hundreds of years they have been waiting for a good king – a messiah. All that is now cast aside and they acclaim the half-mad Tiberius as their king. So effectively they are saying that they have given up hoping for a messiah. From the point of view of the author, what they say is true. Their king is not the loving forgiving God, they constantly disobey him. They are much more at home as subjects of the brutal Roman Empire. By their behaviour they show themselves to be perfect subjects of Caesar. The empire enforces its will through force and killing if necessary. So do they.
The time of day matters. The sixth hour is noon, the time when the slaughter of the Passover lambs could begin. Jesus handing over to be slaughtered takes place at the same time.
Matthew 27:37 And over his head they put the charge against him, which read, "This is Jesus the King of the Jews."
Mark 15: 26 And the inscription of the charge against him read, "The King of the Jews."
Luke 23:38 There was also an inscription over him, "This is the King of the Jews."
John 19:19-20 Pilate also wrote a title and put it on the cross; it read, "Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews." Many of the Jews read this title, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek.
The title king of the Jews is used 17 times in the gospel passion accounts. Only John tells us that it was written in Hebrew Latin and Greek. Two of these were world languages at the time of Jesus. If today you wanted to get a message to as many people as possible in the world and you had three languages I suppose English would be the first choice and then Spanish and probably Chinese. Unwittingly Pilate is signalling to the whole of the known world the truth about this man’s identity. In 12:32 Jesus says:
and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself."
Well those the Latin and Greek inscriptions on the cross are like beacons to the whole of the pagan world. And did Pilate – or John for that matter – have any idea how important those two languages would be in drawing all people to Jesus? Greek, the language of the NT which would enable the Gospel message to spread around the entire Mediterranean with a generation. People still learn Greek in great numbers but since classical education has waned in the west, the majority of people who still learn Greek do so to understand the gospels better. And Latin, the language which the Church born out of his pierced side, would use to worship him for most of her history. And dare I say it, but when we celebrate the traditional Latin liturgy in all its solemnity, and its elaborate ritual it becomes crystal clear that Jesus is being worshipped as king. The same is true in all the eastern rites. So those two languages, each in their own way, continue to proclaim to the world that Jesus is king not only of the Jews but of all people, because he promise that from the cross he would draw them all to himself. And if we really hold Jesus to be King of Kings and Lord of Lords (Rev. 19:16) is it so strange that our worship of him reflects that – or should at least.
In one of Fra Angelico’s paintings of the crucifixion the inscription on the cross in Hebrew reads: Yeshua Hanatsri Wemelech Hajehudim - Jesus of Nazareth and King of the Jews. If you take the four initial letters there you get YHWH. It is perfectly possible that this is the way it was written, another mute witness to the true identity of this man.
We’ve said that John presents much more the triumph of the cross than the pain. Jesus’ last words are not
My God my God why have you forsaken me?
But rather:
 It is consummated.
But note how john tells us that they divided his garments and cast lots for his tunic and then comments:
This was to fulfil the scripture, "They parted my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots." (19:24)
A moment later John tells us that to complete the scripture Jesus said I thirst, the scripture being:
For food they gave me poison; in my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink. (Ps. 68:22)
So although there is no great cry of anguish from Jesus in John those two great psalms of lament are present here also. And perhaps it’s worth pausing to reflect a moment on what that psalm is doing on Jesus’ lips in Matthew and Mark.
Devout believers are often surprised, baffled and even scandalised by the last words of Jesus on the cross in Matthew and Mark: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Mt. 27:46, Mk. 15:34.)
How can Jesus think God is forsaking him if he really is divine himself? Does his divinity slip for a minute? Some quite influential scholars have claimed that Jesus ended his life in despair.
         What those scholars miss is the fact that when the New Testament quotes what seems to be an isolated phrase from the Old Testament, the author intends the reader to presume the whole context, the entire passage from which the short quote comes. Here Jesus quotes the opening lines of Psalm 21 (22), he intends the meaning of the entire psalm. We do something similar with well-known texts and songs. If someone says: “I love ‘Danny Boy’” you can be pretty sure they mean the entire song of that name, not a young man called Danny. When as Catholics we talk about Church documents we use the first few Latin words to indicate the whole document, so we talk about the encyclical ‘Lumen Fidei’ or the exhortation ‘Amoris Laetitia’ meaning the entire documents and all they contain, not just the first lines.
         What’s important about this psalm is that although the opening line seems to express despair, it is in fact a great prayer of trust and hope in God. And Jesus intends the whole psalm or the meaning of the whole psalm. So in the middle of the psalm we find these words.
23 You who fear the LORD, praise him! All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him; stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!  24 For he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him.
         This is no way a cry of despair on the part of Jesus; it’s a statement of faith that God will indeed make good his promises. But the psalms are always honest and the original author (most likely David) doesn’t mince his words. He feels desperate and terrified and says so, but nevertheless continues to trust in God. The psalm affirms that God does not turn his back on the one who is suffering, even though it seems that he does. Indeed the people who mock Jesus quote a verse of the same psalm, wrench it out of context and use it against Jesus:
He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him. (Mt. 27:43)
And as a missionary it’s important for me to see how the psalm finishes.
27 All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him. 28 For dominion belongs to the LORD, and he rules over the nations…….30 Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord, 31 and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it.
This prophesy, that pagans would come to worship the God of Israel started to come true when Cornelius was baptised and the mission to the gentiles kicked in which has continued ever since. It was precisely the death and resurrection of Jesus that set all this in motion, and had Jesus never died, none of it would have happened.
when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.
So far from being a cry of despair, these last words of Jesus, read properly in context, constitute one of the most powerful missionary statements in the Bible.