The 4th Sunday in Easter is always “Good Shepherd” Sunday, so called because the appointed Psalm is the 23rd – ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’.
Under normal circumstances, many churches underline the theme by choosing “shepherd” hymns for this Sunday’s worship -- often metrical versions of Psalm 23. In the three years of the lectionary cycle, the Gospel passage for Easter 4 is always from John. Each year differs slightly, but never fails to include Jesus’ application of the metaphor of the shepherd to himself. This year John tells us that “Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them”. If his hearers did not understand, how much harder must it be for us who live in a highly urbanized world? In New Testament times, shepherds were a familiar sight. Today, even in rural areas, shepherds are few and far between.
Despite this, thanks to the enduring popularity of the 23rd Psalm, the language of sheep and shepherd has remained familiar and comforting to many church people. Yet this very familiarity can prevent us from grasping its essential feature. Sheep have a poor image in the modern world -- foolish, easily frightened, inclined to bolt -- so that shepherds have to control them, assisted often by dogs nipping at the heels of the witless sheep. Shepherds in biblical times, however, did not drive their sheep; they led them, to sources of fresh water that they were unlikely to find for themselves. It was also the shepherd's job to protect them from hazards too great for the sheep to anticipate. It was the shepherd's superior wisdom and care that made this possible. Without it, the sheep could be expected to “go astray, each to his own way” (Isaiah 56:3).
The message is not an entirely easy one for a modern audience. We are resistant to being driven, and not much better disposed to being led. Yet, as the crisis of the corona virus has demonstrated, we are easily frightened into accepting instructions, and like sheep, following the crowd. The image of the Good Shepherd runs counter to all this. Like the shepherd, it is God who finds us, not we who find God. Our task is to be able to recognize His call, and then to follow the divine Word as it uniquely comes to us through Christ. Both ready acceptance of fashionable political ‘wisdom’ and individualistic attempts to pursue a spiritual path of our own devising, threaten a dangerous wandering from the will of God as revealed in Christ.
In this year of the Lectionary, the brief passage from Acts gives us a sense of the excitement and urgency with which the first converts heard this call. Two thousand years on, there can hardly be that same urgency. Yet the passage also gives us a clear indication of what has lain at the heart of Christian practice from the earliest times -- “teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread and prayers”. Under current restrictions we are forbidden to engage in Christian fellowship and the breaking of bread, and thus denied the age-old blessing of corporate worship. Of course, private prayer remains possible and important, but to follow the Good Shepherd at the present time means acknowledging that the absence of the Church’s corporate life is a huge loss, and praying that we may recover its importance when normality returns.
The episode is unique to Luke’s Gospel, and what makes it so intriguing is its ordinariness. Last week’s Gospel (from John) related Christ’s appearance in an upper room behind locked doors. There is mysteriousness about this that provides the context for Thomas’s understandable doubts. Luke’s account of the Emmaus appearance is quite different. To begin with, these ‘disciples’ were not among the twelve, and though their sadness and puzzlement about the death of Jesus is palpable, the journey they are on seems to be for some practical purpose of everyday life. Most striking of all, unlike the disciples in the upper room, they do not recognize Jesus straight away. Instead, they walk along the road with him for quite some time, engaging in conversation and assuming he is just another traveller. The moment of recognition only comes when the journey ends. Then, quite suddenly, they recognize him by the characteristic gesture with he breaks a loaf of bread for supper.
The story of Christ’s appearance to these unnamed disciples has particular appeal because it resonates so well with the vast majority of Christians. People who are neither saints nor mystics, will think and wonder about Jesus from time to time, but for the most part they are just getting on with the business of life. The Road to Emmaus alerts us to the possibility that, alongside special ‘upper room’ experiences, the presence of Christ in the world can also be experienced in ordinary life -- suddenly, and surprisingly. He is revealed in the people and events of everyday, and sometimes in the most unexpected places. As Mother Theresa memorably said, Christ was to be found among dying and degraded human beings on the streets of Calcutta, albeit in ‘his most distressing disguise’.
These little ‘epiphanies’ in everyday life invite us to repeat the same ‘question and answer’ that we find in this week's reading from Acts. “What should we do?”, Peter’s hearers asked him. His answer was: “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven”. Those of us who were baptized long ago, often in infancy, obviously cannot respond in the same way as early converts. Yet as the practice of renewing baptismal vows implies, we can makes efforts to acknowledge again and again the reality of which this week's Epistle reminds us. We know that it is not by the ‘silver or gold’ we spend so much of our time securing that we ‘have been ransomed from futile ways of life’ inherited from our history, but by the ‘death of Jesus’. Fully grasping this deep truth requires regular spiritual renewal. The story of Emmaus provides a compelling model of how that can happen, how we can be spiritually surprised 'on the road'. With such renewal we are enabled once more to make the voice of this Sunday's Psalmist our own: “O LORD, I am your servant. You have loosed my bonds.”
Throughout the Easter season, the Sunday slot normally occupied by a reading from the Old Testament is filled by a passage from the Acts of the Apostles, recounting the post-Resurrection experiences of the first apostles. This week's lesson is a speech widely regarded as the earliest and definitive statement of the Christian ‘kerygma’ -- the essential Gospel, or Good News of redemption in Christ. Peter makes this speech in the market place shortly after the disciples’ explosive experience on the Day of Pentecost.
The point he is most concerned to highlight is that, while Jesus stood in King David’s line, he brought the Messiahship of God to a fulfilment far surpassing even David’s greatness. Since, as most in Peter's audience would have known, Jesus had recently been crucified as a criminal, this is an astonishing claim to make, and Peter’s making it is the most powerful evidence we have of the dramatic difference that the Resurrection brought about in the psychology of the disciples. In this way, the book of Acts enables us to encounter men and women transformed by new theological insight into the ways of the God in whom they had always believed.
The Epistle may or may not have been written by Peter himself, but it conveys the same vibrant message to a fledgling church, this time in the form of a song of praise rather than a sermon. In these few beautiful sentences we witness a transition from theology to liturgy – and indeed, thanks to the 19th century English cathedral composer S S Wesley, this text has become one of the most widely sung choral anthems for Easter.
The Gospel passage for this Sunday has also stimulated great art. Several famous paintings show ‘doubting’ Thomas examining the wound in Jesus’ side. Their slightly chilling realism is a powerful reminder of how, when it is taken past a certain point, understandable scepticism can make us incapable of wonder. While Thomas insists that he must see the bodily evidence with his own eyes, Jesus insists that believing without seeing is more blessed.
Thomas, nevertheless, is granted a post-Resurrection appearance of a bodily Jesus. Such experiences proved to be a short lived gift to just a few disciples. By contrast, the enduring truth of the Resurrection, and the significance of its redeeming power, is perpetually waiting to be experienced in the Body of Christ that is given to us in the sacrament of communion, available to all who will receive it in penitence, trust and adoration Sunday by Sunday. That is why Christians have a special reason to lament the constraints that we are currently obliged to observe.
CHRIST is RISEN
Most glorious Lord of life, that on this day
didst make thy triumph over death and sin,
and having harrowed hell, didst bring away
captivity thence captive, us to win:
This joyous day, dear Lord, with joy begin,
and grant that we for whom thou diddest die,
being with thy dear blood clean washed from sin,
may live for ever in felicity:
And that thy love we weighing worthily,
may likewise love thee for the same again;
and for thy sake, who dost all grace supply,
with love may one another entertain;
So let us love, dear Love, like as we ought;
love is the lesson which the Lord us taught.
Seven Stanzas at Easter
Make no mistake: if he rose at all
It was as His body;
If the cell’s dissolution did not reverse, the molecule reknit,
The amino acids rekindle,
The Church will fall.
It was not as the flowers,
Each soft spring recurrent;
It was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled eyes of the
It was as His flesh; ours.
The same hinged thumbs and toes
The same valved heart
That—pierced—died, withered, paused, and then regathered
Out of enduring Might
New strength to enclose.
Let us not mock God with metaphor,
Analogy, sidestepping, transcendence,
Making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded
Credulity of earlier ages:
Let us walk through the door.
The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,
Not a stone in a story,
But the vast rock of materiality that in the slow grinding of
Time will eclipse for each of us
The wide light of day.
And if we have an angel at the tomb,
Make it a real angel,
Weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair, opaque in
The dawn light, robed in real linen
Spun on a definite loom.
Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
For our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
Lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are embarrassed
By the miracle,
And crushed by remonstrance.
Yet, the proper liturgy for Holy Saturday has a valuable character of its own. It captures a spiritually significant pause between the intensity of Good Friday and the joyfulness of Easter Day. The set reading from Job, with its theme of mortality, is a fitting accompaniment for the Gospel, which recounts the removal of Jesus’ body from the shame of the Cross to the silence of the tomb.
The main figure in this part of the story is Joseph of Arimathaea who secures permission to take the body of Jesus down from the cross, and provides a newly cut tomb as its temporary resting place. Joseph is mentioned in this one connection, and in this connection only, by all four Gospels. In John’s version (which the lectionary offers us as an alternative) he is accompanied by Nicodemus. Nicodemus appears three times in the life of Christ, though only in John’s Gospel. Neither Joseph nor Nicodemus was a follower of Christ. Joseph was a member of the Council of Jewish leaders, and Nicodemus an equally well-respected figure. Together they represent another side of the conflict between Jesus and the Jewish authorities – thoughtful and faithful people who dissented from his condemnation, but stopped short of professing any allegiance to him. Nicodemus kept his deep interest in Jesus carefully hidden by visiting him under the cover of darkness. Joseph reserved his service, and his gift, to Jesus until after his death. This uncertain position mid-way between the friends and the enemies of Jesus, makes them highly suitable people to figure in the space between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. They were drawn, and moved, by his life and death, but not yet persuaded of his Messiahship.
In thinking about them we are invited to dwell, if only for twenty four hours, on the fact of our mortality. In the light of the Resurrection, we can place our hopes in the transcendence of death offered to us by the saving work of Christ. But on Holy Saturday that moment of revelation has not yet arrived. That is why the liturgy for this day fills the space normally occupied by the Prayers of the People with the beautiful Funeral Sentences from the Book of Common Prayer.
Man that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery.
He cometh up, and is cut down like a flower; he fleeth as it were a shadow,
and never continueth in one stay.
In the midst of life we are in death: of whom may we seek for succour, but of thee, O Lord, who for our sins art justly displeased?
Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts; shut not thy merciful ears unto our prayers; but spare us, Lord most holy, O God most mighty. O holy and most merciful Saviour, thou most worthy Judge eternal, suffer us not, at our last hour, for any pains of death, to fall from thee. Amen.
Good Friday is the only day of the year in which the Church does not permit celebrations of the Eucharist. This prohibition serves to underline the unique sacrifice of Christ's body on the Cross and the blood that flowed from his wounds. All communion services take their meaning from this. They may replicate Christ’s sacrifice, but they can never replace it. It is quite a widespread practice, nowadays, for the Liturgy of Good Friday to end with people receiving communion from the elements consecrated on Maundy Thursday, before leaving the church in silence. But on this day the heart of the Liturgy is to be found elsewhere.
In line with a very ancient practice, the Maundy Thursday service ends with the ‘stripping of the altar’. Every item of furniture, and every hint of decoration --altar hangings, pulpit falls, candlesticks, reading stands, hassocks, flags, crosses and crucifixes -- are all removed, until the sanctuary is completely bare and the altar stands alone, in a sort of splendid isolation. This emptiness is how the church looks when the Good Friday liturgy begins. Then, as on a Sunday, a lesson from the Old Testament, a Psalm and an Epistle are read, followed by the story of the Passion, told this time in the version according to John. After priest and people join in a series of ‘solemn’ prayers and intercessions, a simple wooden cross is brought into church and placed where everyone can see it. There follows ‘The Veneration of the Cross’.
In some places, ‘The Veneration’ is conducted with great ceremony, in other places with much less, but at its centre lies this refrain: “By virtue of your cross, joy has come into the world”. This, when we think about it, contains a remarkable conjunction – on the one hand crucifixion, on the other hand joy. Surely it is Christmas when we sing ‘Joy to the World’. ‘Cross of Jesus, Cross of Sorrow’ seems much more in keeping with Good Friday. Yet it was indeed the cross, not the manger or the empty tomb, that became the universal symbol of the Good News that Christians felt compelled to preach.
It is worth observing straight away that this symbol is not a crucifix, on which the body of Christ still hangs, but an empty cross. Yet its emptiness does nothing to diminish its significance as one of the most cruel instruments of torture and death ever devised by human beings. Its meaning, then, is to be found at the intersection of sin and suffering. The Cross's emptiness, however, points beyond this, to Easter, and in this way conveys its further meaning as a source of joy. The empty cross is thus a threefold symbol. It expresses the reality of evil, it signals Christ’s victory over it, and it invites us to share in that victory.
Yet we can only do so if first, and repeatedly, we grasp just what was involved in Christ’s sacrifice. The Good Friday lesson from Isaiah speaks powerfully to this point, so powerfully that four verses were chosen for incorporation in Handel’s great choral work Messiah.
He was despised and rejected of men;
a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief:
Surely he hath borne our griefs,
and carried our sorrows:
He was wounded for our transgressions,
he was bruised for our iniquities:
the chastisement of our peace was upon him;
and with his stripes we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned every one to his own way;
and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.
The Veneration of the Cross, as the focal point of the Good Friday liturgy, encourages us to look on the Cross at its starkest, and at the same time to anticipate the joy that is about to break out from it at Easter.
Reunion: Luke 23:46: Father, into your hands I commit my spirit
In the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel the angel of the Annunciation says to Mary “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; for that reason the holy child to be born will be called Son of God” (Luke 1: 35). Twenty-two chapters later, the story that began with an announcement of incarnation in advance of Jesus’ birth, is now brought full circle by the prayer he utters moments before his dies. “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit”, and with these words, Luke tells us, he died.
Jesus’s final Word from the Cross adds an additional dimension to his murmured declaration a short time before, ‘It is finished’. With his earthly mission complete, he returns to the source from which he came. Yet it is easy to misunderstand this moment that tradition labels ‘re-union’. The early Christians soon began to think that Jesus was not a messenger sent by God, as the prophets had been. His relationship to God was much more intimate than this. With hindsight they came to see that his life and death had a unique authority. His words and deeds were not simply a revelation FROM God, but more dramatically a revelation OF God. Subsequent attempts to grasp this truth, and express it more adequately, led them first to the perplexing doctrine of the Incarnation of God in Christ, and then to the even more perplexing doctrine of the Trinity – Jesus is not simply Son of God, but God the Son, the second person of the Trinity.
These are doctrines with which Christian thinkers and theologians have struggled ever since, and though the technicality of their debates makes them a closed book to many wayfaring Christians, the two doctrines nevertheless lie at the heart of the Creeds that Christians all over the world have affirmed repeatedly for almost two thousand years. Why? Why struggle in this way? Why can’t Jesus simply be a prophet and a teacher, like Moses or Muhammad?
The answer lies in the Resurrection. It was not the agonized body on the Cross that replaced Peter’s fear with faith, or that moved the first Christians to spread the Good News at the risk of persecution. The driving force, rather, was their belief that the Crucifixion had been a victory of Good over Evil, a triumph of Love’s redeeming work, even in the face of the very worst that human beings can do to each other. The proof of this belief, though it took some time to sink in, was to be found in the empty tomb, and the Risen Christ. So the final words with which Jesus died are an act of commitment that gives expression to the most profound trust. It is the union with God constituted by that trust from which, strangely, new life springs.
‘In God we Trust’ has been used quite widely as a motto, most famously by the United States, but by other countries and communities also. No doubt it has been proposed and adopted in all sincerity. Still, set alongside the last Word from the Cross, these affirmations can hardly fail to sound shallow. That is why there is a perpetual need to turn to Christ on the Cross, and seek to discover afresh what a spirit of trust in God truly means.
Triumph: John 19:30: It is finished
The word ‘finished’ is ambivalent. It can mean simply ‘has come to an end’, or more positively, it can mean ‘has brought to completion’. The difference is key to understanding Jesus’ sixth Word from the Cross. His cry -- ‘It is finished’ – does not merely signal the end of his suffering. The Greek word usually translated ‘finished’ is one that would have been used on legal documents to confirm the completion of a business deal, something like the exchange of ‘missives’ in Scots law. So when Jesus cries ‘It is finished’ this is not to be understood as an expression of relief that his agony is over, but as an affirmation that his divine mission has been completed.
The completion of his mission through his sacrifice on the Cross has been the focal point of intense theological debate. It underlay the 16th century Protestant reformers rejection of Catholic teaching on the Eucharist which held that Christ’s sacrifice was repeated every time the priest said mass. This implied, the reformers thought, that Christ’s work on the Cross was not complete. The authors of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer shared this view, and the words they wrote for its communion service, hammer home the point: “Jesus Christ . . . upon the cross . . . made there, by his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction . . .”, words that are still used in the 1970 Scottish liturgy.
This emphasis on the one, perfect sacrifice, however, leaves a question about what it is we are doing when we celebrate Holy Communion time and again. Some of the reformers were content to say that the communion service is simply a memorial, a way of remembering what Christ did, like the commemoration of a great military victory. Others, though, and with them many Anglican reformers, were reluctant to say that taking communion is just a way of remembering, and accomplishes nothing in itself. For a start, Christ speaks the words of institution at the Last Supper, the night before the Crucifixion, and invites his followers to eat the bread and drink the wine as the Body and Blood that will be broken and shed next day, on the Cross. How could they have been remembering something that had not yet happened?
The issue, of course, is far too large and complex to be settled in a few paragraphs. One thought is this, though. In Jesus’ cry “It is finished” we might hear an echo of the Book of Genesis – “On the seventh day God finished the work that he had done”. God’s completion of Creation did not bring things to an end. On the contrary, with Creation’s ‘completion’ the unfolding life of the cosmos began, an unfolding life that is cyclical. It is within the cycles of night and day, summer and winter, birth and death, seed time and harvest, that human beings fashion their lives. Viewed in this way, ‘completion’ is the beginning of existence not the end, and repetition is renewal not recollection. Life always traces a pattern, and follows a path. This does not mean, plainly, that all lives and times are the same. Rather, individuality is realized again and again within the patterns God has ordained, and within the families and communities that sustain those patterns.
What is true of God’s creation is true of all creativity. The artist completes a ‘finished’ work – a poem, a play, a novel, a song. This act of completion is the start, not the end, of a work of art and it brings into existence something that enriches our lives precisely because it can be said, or acted, or read, or sung, again and again. So too with Christ’s redemptive work on the Cross. The completion of his mission inaugurates a renewed Creation within which we are offered redeeming life. This life also has, and needs, its pattern, the pattern being Christ. To pattern our lives on Christ as the incarnation of God requires repeated acts of prayer and praise, returning again and again for the spiritual nourishment that is to be found in the sacrament of the altar.
Unbeknownst to Pilate, though perceived by the penitent thief, the Cross’s mocking notice ‘King of the Jews’ contains a great insight. Contrary to common sense, the Cross truly is a throne, and the thorns really are a crown, because God has chosen to make them so. Paradoxically, it is with the cry “It is finished” that the Reign of Christ begins.
Distress: John 19:28: I am thirsty.
Jesus’ fifth Word from the Cross is brief and simple, -- ‘I am thirsty’. Only John’s Gospel records these words, but all the gospel Passion narratives recount Christ’s being offered vinegar or sour wine to drink. John (like Matthew) picks up on the resonance between this brief episode and Psalm 69 - “They put gall in my food and gave me vinegar for my thirst”., Luke makes the offer of sour wine part of the soldiers’ mockery. In Mark’s account it looks more like a fleeting, if ineffectual, act of kindness on ‘someone’s’ part. Which is it? There is no answer, and the fact that it is sour wine or vinegar that Jesus is offered doesn’t settle the matter. Probably, this was the only thing available and in any case soldiers, like the poor in general, would not have had anything better to drink themselves. Mockery or kindness? We can take the actions of the by-standers either way.
Is there a deeper meaning to be read into the words themselves? Any attempt to find one runs the risk of side-lining the reality of Jesus’ physical distress, and thus failing to appreciate the profound sense of his humanity that this desperate cry conveys. Taken simply as an expression of thirst, it is a further sign of God’s incarnation, which is to say, the full biological embodiment of the divine in the human on the Cross. Viewed as a statement of physical distress, this fifth Word provides an essential corrective to the heresy known as ‘Docetism’ – the tendency to think that since it makes no sense to suppose that an almighty and everlasting God can suffer, the sufferings of the earthly Jesus must have been apparent rather than real. Docetism appealed to some newly converted Christians very early on, as several of the Epistles suggest. But it strikes so radically at the doctrine of the Incarnation, it has long been condemned as heretical.
Behind Docetism lies the still greater heresy of Gnosticism, the belief that reality is made up of two separate worlds – the physical and the spiritual. For Gnostics, the physical is inferior to the spiritual, and so truly religious people must spurn the physical in order to embrace the spiritual. Against this, orthodox Christianity has always held that through God’s unique presence in the Man Jesus, the material world is sanctified, made holy. Nor is this sanctification confined to the biological person of Jesus. Through him, water becomes a means of spiritual cleansing in baptism, bread and wine become the means of communion with God by spiritually incorporating the faithful into the body of Christ. The fifth Word from the Cross should serve as a reminder of these truths. Jesus himself, at the crisis of his Crucifixion, has a compelling desire to drink. He shares our need for physical things like water and wine.
The issue at stake here is not a matter of arcane theology. Indeed, it has particular relevance this Holy Week and Easter when gathering together for holy communion through bread and wine, even on Maundy Thursday, has been forbidden. Almost every church is offering some form of worship online, and encouraging congregations to ‘tune in’, or simply ‘prayer along’ at home. The hope, of course, is that even in these difficult times of enforced isolation, intending to share -- without actually sharing – the bread, the wine, the peace, the responses, can sustain the spiritual community that is the Church. The danger, though, is that we fail to remember, even perhaps to see, that this is no minor adjustment in difficult circumstances. Christians can indeed be united at a distance in time and space through prayer, but the essence of the Eucharist lies in its being shared, as Jesus first shared it with his disciples. To think otherwise, to think that purely ‘spiritual’ or ‘intentional’ communion is an adequate substitute, is to drift into Gnosticism.
Even when it comes to prayer, the communal seems essential. Every soul can reach out to God, of course, but Jesus’ own words reveal the spiritual limitations of social isolation. His explicit promise has an essentially communal dimension: “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst” (Matthew 18:20).
Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34: My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?
The fourth Word from the Cross is the only one recorded in two Gospels. Like the first and the last, it is addressed to God, and dramatically so. ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?’ This intense cry of abandonment has often been found troubling. Does it mean that, in the depth of his suffering Jesus thought he had been abandoned? If so, doesn't this imply that at the climax of his mission, he himself lost faith in God? Many persecuted Christians have felt this sense of abandonment, but could Christ himself have done so? And if he did, what are we to make of it? Does it show that, ultimately, even the most profound trust in God is mistaken?
It is helpful to remember that in this agonized cry, Jesus is using the opening words of Psalm 22. Perhaps because of his failing strength, the most he can do is repeat the first verse. Yet we can nevertheless have confidence that he was thoroughly familiar with the whole psalm. It is a psalm that the Prayer Book uses on several occasions because it resonates so closely and powerfully with the Passion narrative: “My strength drains away like water and all my bones are racked . . . my mouth is as dry as a potsherd and my tongue sticks to my gums . . . a band of ruffians rings me round and they have bound me hand and foot . . . they share out my clothes among them and cast lots for my garments”. Small wonder then that Jesus turns to this psalm in his agony as a way of drawing strength from the Jewish scriptures in which he was immersed. Verses 3 and 4 expressly affirm the attitude of faithful Jews: “In you our fathers put their trust; they trusted, and you rescued them. To you they cried and were delivered; in you they trusted and were not discomfited”.
Of course, as the opening verse that Jesus repeats makes plain, the psalmist himself despairs that the help God has given to others in times past will come to him. “My God, by day I cry to you, but there is no answer; in the night I cry with no respite”. As we read through it, though, the tone changes until the psalmist arrives at the point where he is able to say “You that fear the Lord, praise him, hold him in honour . . . revere him . . . for he has not scorned him who is downtrodden, nor shrunk in loathing from his plight, nor hidden his face from him”. A tormented cry of despair is the Psalmist’s first word, but not his last. It is in his agony that he comes to see more clearly that God “has listened to his cry for help”.
The closing verses of Psalm 22 then strike out in a new and remarkable direction.
How can those who sleep in the earth do him homage,
how can those who go down to the grave do obeisance?
. . .
The coming generation will be told of the Lord;
They will make known his righteous deeds, declaring to a people yet unborn:
The Lord has acted.
These, then, are the words that conclude the Psalm that provides the dying Jesus with his fourth Word from the Cross. Given the context of the Crucifixion, they are especially salient. In a short time Jesus will breathe his last, he will be taken down from the Cross, and laid in a tomb. He will, in the words of the Psalm, “go down to the grave” and “sleep in the earth”. How then will “the coming generation”, and even more “a people yet unborn”, be told that “the Lord has acted”? The answer is that the one who went down to the grave will rise from it. It is not on the cross, but in Christ’s glorious Resurrection that the Lord will be seen to have acted. And this action, by declaring a decisive victory over both sin and mortality, will reverberate on and on for countless generations ‘yet unborn’.
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