Q: How can I deepen my understanding of Holy Week and feel connected to Christ’s Passion?
Scholars understandably hold the Passion story to be the oldest “kerygma,” or public proclamation, of the Gospel. It presents the core of the Christian faith: the Son of God suffered death, the consequence of humanity’s sin and rebellion against divine love, to redeem us and restore the hope of eternal life.
Because it was at the heart of the Gospel, the Passion narrative was carefully crafted and densely rich with layered meanings, connecting with salvation history and the fulfillment of vague foreshadowings throughout the Hebrew Scriptures.
Of all the details of the Passion, the final words of Jesus from the cross naturally focus our attention, as they must have done for those at Golgotha.
In John, Jesus serenely declares: “It is finished” — “Consummatum est” — the work of redemption is complete with his sacrifice, the wedding of God and humanity hinted at Cana is finished in his total self-offering in the body that brings forth new and risen life.
In Luke, Jesus quotes a phrase from Psalm 31: “Into your hands I commend my spirit.” This psalm begins: “In you, O Lord, I take refuge … I had said in my alarm, ‘I am cut off from your eyes.’ Yet you heard my voice, my cry for mercy … you will redeem me.” The psalm speaks of a man surrounded by inescapable dangers, abandoned and shunned, who trusts in God’s help and commends his spirit, his life-breath, to the Lord.
Matthew and Mark record Jesus quoting a different psalm, similar in theme, but beginning with one of the most chilling passages of all of Scripture: “Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani?” or “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”
Psalm 22, of which this is the first verse, contains verses stunningly prophetic of the Passion: “All who see me mock me: ‘He relied on the LORD — let him deliver him; if he loves him,’ … they have pierced my hands and my feet … they divide my garments among them; … for my clothing they cast lots.”
Skeptics may say the Passion narrative simply borrowed the psalm’s details to contrive a dramatic story. Faith sees God’s fidelity to divine promises. As Pope Benedict XVI put it, it was not that the apostles concocted a fictional story from Scriptures they knew; rather, they re-read the Scriptures in light of what they experienced with Jesus and found a thread running through texts they had never traced before.
Psalm 22 ends with hints of the Resurrection: “All who sleep in the earth will bow low before God … And I will live for the LORD … The generation to come will be told, that they may proclaim to a people yet unborn the deliverance you have brought.”
Some hold that in quoting the first verse, as sometimes done by rabbis, Jesus alludes to the entire psalm with its reference to resurrection and redemption. The hearers would fill in the rest.
That may be true. I find another, deeper explanation more compelling. As then-Cardinal Wojtyla put it in preaching the Lenten retreat for Pope St. Paul VI in 1976: in those words, Jesus reveals how utterly he has united himself with all the sin, rejection and alienation from God in all of history. What began in the Agony of the Garden, embracing the suffering caused by sin of all time, is complete with this cry. If hell is rightly understood as the despair caused by the total absence of God’s joy and love, then Jesus here begins that descent into hell proclaimed in the Creed.
This consoles me. No matter what has happened or is yet to occur in all the long ages of history, there is nothing that was not embraced and redeemed by Jesus on the cross. No matter how wretched, alone or devastated we might feel due to evil and sin, none of it escapes the Passion of the Lord. These words reassure us that just when we might feel farthest from God and hope, we are closest to this saving mystery.
St. Paul expresses the same idea in Romans 8:38-39: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God.”
We cannot fully probe the depth of this cry from the cross, beyond our frail human understanding. But we can find refuge in what it proclaims: Jesus suffered this abandonment on Good Friday, so that we will never need to. In a deeply divided and suffering world, know that nothing can separate us from the love of God that comes to us in Christ Jesus, our Lord.
Father Tom Knoblach is pastor of Holy Spirit, St. Anthony and St. John Cantius parishes in St. Cloud.