April 2, 2010

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Did two psalms foretell Christ’s Passion?

John F. Fink(Eighth in a series of columns)

For this Good Friday column, let’s examine two of the messianic psalms that the Church sees as possibly foretelling the Passion and death of Christ. Both psalms are classified as individual laments.

Psalm 69 portrays vividly the suffering of an innocent person. The psalmist laments, “More numerous than the hairs of my head are those who hate me without cause” (Ps 69:5). In his Last Supper discourse, Jesus told the Apostles that he would be killed “in order that the word written in their law might be fulfilled, ‘They hated me without cause’ ” (Jn 15:25).

The psalm also says, “For my thirst they gave me vinegar” (Ps 69:22). Could this refer to the wine that the soldiers offered Jesus as he hung on the cross?

Psalm 22 is more closely identified with Jesus’ suffering. Jesus prayed its opening words, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” (Ps 22:1) while on the cross (Mk 15:34 and Mt 27:46). The Church assigns this psalm to the Office of Readings on Good Friday.

Several other verses are quoted or alluded to in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ death, including, in one translation, “They have pierced my hands and feet” (Ps 22:17).

Verse 9 says that those who mocked the psalmist said, “You relied on the Lord—let him deliver you; if he loves you, let him rescue you.” Similarly, those who mocked Jesus said, “He trusted in God; let him deliver him if he wants him” (Mt 27:43).

Verse 19 says, “They divide my garments among them; for my clothing they cast lots.” Matthew’s Gospel says, “After they had crucified him, they divided his garments by casting lots” (Mt 27:35). John’s Gospel is even more specific. It says that the soldiers cast lots “in order that the passage of scripture might be fulfilled: ‘They divided my garments among them, and for my vesture they cast lots’” (Jn 19:24).

The question is frequently debated: Was Jesus just praying Psalm 22 while he hung on the cross or did he believe that God had really abandoned him? I believe that he was praying the psalm because—in every other prayer the New Testament quotes Jesus as praying—he called God “Father.” If he really felt abandoned on the cross, wouldn’t he have prayed, “Father, why have you abandoned me?” Instead, he used the words of the psalm.

While thinking of Psalm 22 as a desperate lament, we should also note that the last third of it is an invitation to praise God: “You who fear the Lord, give praise! All descendants of Jacob, give honor; show reverence, all descendants of Israel! For God has not spurned or disdained the misery of this poor wretch, did not turn away from me, but heard me when I cried out” (Ps 22:24-25).

It then becomes a universal chorus of praise: “All the ends of the earth will worship and turn to the Lord; all the families of nations will bow low before you” (Ps 22:28). †

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