Give ear to my prayer, O God; do not hide yourself from my supplication. My heart is in anguish within me, the terrors of death have fallen upon me. Fear and trembling come upon me, and horror overwhelms me. —Psalm 55:4-5
About a year ago, I stood by the bed of a church member on one of her last days. In her moments of consciousness she recited poem after poem: “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan, A stately pleasure dome decree” in one breath, and in the next, “James James/ Morrison Morrison/ Weatherby George Dupree/ Took great Care of his Mother / Though he was only three.”
Many years earlier, my family members sat with my maternal grandmother as she was dying. As her mind wandered to places we couldn’t follow, words fluttered out of her mouth, beautiful fragments of sentences whose source we could never identify, though we knew it was poetry.
My paternal grandmother died of Alzheimer’s. When almost all other memories had left her, songs of her childhood remained, and she could join my young children in singing, “Mary had a little lamb, little lamb, little lamb, Mary had a little lamb, its fleece was white as snow.”
Familiar words, memorized, engraved on the heart, words passed on through a beloved book or at an elder’s knee, songs sung in childhood, with family, at school, in church, in the car: we all have songs, poems, nursery rhymes, hymns imprinted somewhere in the depths of our being.
So did Jesus. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.”
As a practicing Jew, Jesus would have sung or chanted Psalm 22, in his individual or communal worship, throughout his life. He likely knew this psalm by heart. In his last moments, these are the words that rose to his lips, giving voice to anguish and despair and a terrifying sense of abandonment by God in his moment of greatest need.
What must it have cost God the Creator to hear this desperate plea from God’s own beloved child, and say nothing? What must it have cost the Holy Spirit to hear this anguished cry and offer no breath of comfort, no promise of peace? What did it cost Jesus to end his life, knowing the worst that humanity can inflict and fearing the worst about God?
Today, on Good Friday, I ponder this mystery: God’s choice to experience death on a cross, God’s choice to be a helpless witness to a beloved child’s anguish and death, God’s choice to be in absolute solidarity with the depth of human suffering.
“What wondrous love is this, O my soul, O my soul?”
Gracious and loving God, on this day we remember that you chose to experience humanity’s greatest fear, as voiced by the psalmist: a terrifying death, and abandonment by you at the time we need you most. We thank you for the knowledge that, wherever your children know terror, suffering, loss or death, you are fully present with them in their suffering, having been there yourself. Amen.
The Rev. Kate Dunn is the Associate Pastor for Congregational Care and Outreach at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church.