Text: Psalm 22
Some years ago,a man named Eddie Fogarty was riding his tractor in County Tipperary, Ireland, out to cut some peat to be used for fuel. When he noticed something sticking up out of the peat bog, he got down to see what it might be. Apparently, peat bogs are an environment which slows decomposition, and all sorts of things have been found well-preserved in them. At first, Eddie thought he’d found a purse or satchel, but it turned out to be a book, one of the oldest ever found, a 1200-year-old Christian psalter. When they pulled it out of the mud, the book fell open, and Latin words were visible: “in the valley of tears.”
In the valley of tears. Those words are not in the psalm we just read, but they could have been. Psalm 22 certainly voices the experience of walking such a valley: the anguish of pain in body and soul and the suffering of abandonment. Surrounded by enemies and mockers, at the edge of death, the psalmist cries out to God day and night, yet there seems to be no answer and no rest. On Good Friday, we are particularly mindful how Jesus the Christ also walked the valley of tears, and how, in his final hour on the cross, he prayed Psalm 22’s opening words: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
These words were already ancient when Jesus spoke them. Growing up as a faithful Jew, Jesus probably studied and memorized them, sung them in worship and recited them at synagogue. Now, dying in pain, mocked by enemies and strangers, abandoned by all his friends, these ancient words voice for Jesus the affliction of his own body and soul. For us, more than 2000 years later, hearing Jesus speak this Psalm makes clear the depths of Jesus’ humanity. That Jesus knew how it felt to be brought as low as a worm, that Jesus experienced true despair when even he wondered “Where are you, God?”
Because Jesus went to the cross, there is a mysterious and hard grace for us, for now, whenever we go through affliction, we have one answer that it seems he did not. We can point to the cross and say, “There is God, with us, right here in the valley of tears.” Because Jesus went to the cross, no matter what we must endure, we are never truly alone.
But there’s more. For while he is with us in that awful valley, Jesus is also showing us the way through. For, even as he spoke the opening words of Psalm 22, he must also have known how it ends. Even as the psalmist questions the seeming absence of God, he does not let go of hope. The psalmist remembers ancestors who trusted in God for deliverance and were not put to shame. The psalmist remembers God’s personal care for him since the day of his birth. Remembering and praying for rescue, the Psalmist is transformed, somehow moving from lament to praise. God did not despise his affliction, God did not hide God’s face; God heard his cry.
And so, when we hear Jesus pray Psalm 22 on the cross, in the hour of his death, we know he did not give up hope. Jesus trusted his prayer would be heard that suffering and death would not be the final word of his story. We know that even when God seemed most distant, Jesus trusted he was never truly alone.
When singer-songwriter Garrison Doles heard the story of the Faddan More Psalter with which I began today, he imagined the ancient monk who first carried that book. poring over its hand-copied pages, taking solace and courage from the still-more-ancient words it contained. And then he imagined Eddie, the modern-day peat-bogger who unearthed it, standing with the monk, one on either side of the psalter, holding it open. “In the mind of God,” Doles writes, “that 1200 years that stands between them, is nothing at all.”
I love that image, and I want us to hold onto it this day, comforted by the treasure of that psalter, the ancient language of prayer which even our Lord and Savior used in his greatest hour of need, which gave him words to voice his faith in God against the pressing darkness. May we also unearth again this treasure from the mud in the valley of tears, and join again the company of all the faithful who have gone before us, including the fully human, fully divine One, who went to the cross and beyond. Praying these very words, may we know as fully as Christ Jesus knew,that we never walk alone. Amen.