On the Prayer of Psalm 22

«Death and Life Have Met in an Inseparable Mystery, and Life Has Triumphed»

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Share this Entry

VATICAN CITY, SEPT. 14, 2011 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the Italian-language catechesis Benedict XVI gave today during the general audience held in Paul VI Hall. The Pope continued his series of catecheses on prayer, with a reflection on Psalm 22.

* * *

Dear brothers and sisters,

In today’s catechesis I would like to talk about a psalm with strong Christological implications, which continually emerges in the accounts of the Passion of Jesus with its twofold dimension of humiliation and of glory, of death and of life. It is Psalm 22 according to the Hebrew tradition; [Psalm] 21 according to the Greek–Latin tradition. [It is] a heartfelt and touching prayer, of a human depth and theological richness that make it one of the most prayed and studied psalms in the Psalter. It is a lengthy poetic composition, and we will reflect in particular on its first part, which is focused on lament, in order to deepen our understanding of some of the significant dimensions of the prayer of supplication to God.

This psalm presents the figure of an innocent man who is persecuted and surrounded by enemies who want his death; and he turns to God in a painful lamentation, which in the certainty of faith opens mysteriously to praise. In his prayer, the distressing reality of the present and the consoling memory of the past alternate in an anguished awareness of his own desperate situation, yet this does not cause him to give up hope. His initial cry is an appeal addressed to an apparently distant God who does not respond and who seems to have abandoned him:

«My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?
Why art thou so far from helping me,
From the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but thou dost not answer;
and by night, but find no rest» (Verses 1-2).

God remains silent, and this silence pierces the heart of the man who prays, who incessantly calls out, but who finds no response. The days and nights pass in an unwearied search for a word, for help that does not come. God seems so distant, so unmindful, so absent. Prayer asks for listening and for a response; it invites contact; it seeks a relationship that can give comfort and salvation. But if God does not respond, the cry for help vanishes into the void, and the solitude becomes unbearable. And yet, the man praying our psalm three times cries out, calling the Lord «my» God in an extraordinary act of trust and of faith. Despite all appearances, the psalmist cannot believe that his bond with the Lord has been completely broken; and while he asks the reason for his present incomprehensible abandonment, he affirms that «his» God cannot abandon him.

It is well known that the psalm’s initial cry, «My God, my God, why hast thou abandoned me?» is reported in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark as the cry Jesus uttered as He was dying on the cross (cf. Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34). This [cry] expresses all the desolation of the Messiah, the Son of God, as He faces the drama of death — a reality utterly opposed to the Lord of life. Abandoned by nearly all those who were His own, betrayed and denied by His disciples, surrounded by those who insult Him, Jesus is placed under the crushing weight of a mission that must pass through humiliation and abnegation. He therefore cries out to the Father, and His suffering takes on the painful words of the psalm.

But His is not a desperate cry, nor was that of the psalmist, who in his supplication journeys along a path of torment that nonetheless opens to a vista of praise and trust in the divine victory. And since according to Jewish use, to cite the beginning of a psalm implied a reference to the whole poem, Jesus’ heartrending prayer — while full of unspeakable suffering — opens to the certainty of glory. «Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and enter into his glory?» (Luke 24:26) the Risen One will say to the disciples on the road to Emmaus. During His passion, in obedience to the Father, the Lord Jesus passes through abandonment and death in order to attain life and to grant it to those who believe.

In painful contrast, Psalm 22’s initial cry of supplication is followed by the memory of the past:

«In thee our fathers trusted;
They trusted, and thou didst deliver them.
To thee they cried, and were saved;
In thee they trusted, and were not disappointed» (Verses 4-5).

The God who today appears so distant to the psalmist, is nevertheless the merciful Lord who Israel knew and experienced throughout her history. The man praying belongs to a people that was the object of God’s love and that could witness to His fidelity to that love. Beginning with the patriarchs, then in Egypt and in their long sojourn in the desert, in their stay in the Promised Land in contact with aggressive and hostile peoples, to the darkness of exile, the whole of biblical history was a story of the people crying out for help, and of God’s saving responses. And the psalmist here makes reference to the unwavering faith of his fathers, who «trusted» — this word is repeated three times — without ever being disappointed. Now however, it appears that this chain of trustful invocation and divine response has been broken; the psalmist’s situation appears to contradict the whole history of salvation, making the present reality all the more painful.

But God cannot contradict Himself, and so the prayer returns to describing the painful situation of the man praying, in order to persuade God to have mercy and to intervene, as He had always done in times past. The psalmist calls himself «a worm and not a man; scorned by men, and despised by the people» (Verse 6); he is mocked and scoffed at (Verse 7) and wounded precisely for his faith: «He committed his cause to the Lord; let him deliver him, let him rescue him, for he delights in him!» (Verse 8), they say. Under the mocking blows of irony and contempt, it seems as though the persecuted one has lost all human semblance, like the suffering servant described in the Book of Isaiah (cf. Isaiah 52:14; 53:2b-3). And like the just one oppressed in the Book of Wisdom (cf. 2:12-20), like Jesus on Calvary (cf. Matthew 27:39-43), the psalmist sees his relationship with the Lord called into question, in the cruel and sarcastic emphasis on what is making him suffer: the silence of God, His apparent absence.

And yet, God was present in the life of the one praying with an undeniable closeness and tenderness. The psalmist reminds God of this: «Yet thou art He who took me from the womb; thou didst keep me safe upon my mother’s breasts. Upon thee was I cast from my birth, and since my mother bore me thou hast been my God» (Verses 9-10). The Lord is the God of life who brings to birth and welcomes the newborn, caring for him with a father’s love. And if he previously remembered God’s fidelity throughout the course of his people’s history, now the man praying calls to mind his own personal history and relationship with the Lord, tracing it back to the particularly significant moment of the beginning of his life. And there, despite his current desolation, the psalmist recognizes a closeness and a divine love so radical that he can now exclaim, in a confession full of faith and hope: «Since my mother bore me, thou hast been my God» (Verse 10b).

The prayer of lament now becomes an anguished plea: «Be not far from me, for trouble is near and there is none to help» (Verse 11). The only closeness the psalmist perceives — and which frightens him — is that of his enemies. It is necessary, then, that God draw near and help, because the enemies of the man praying surround him, they encompass him like strong bulls that open wide their mouths to roar and tear him to pieces (cf. Verses 12-13). Anguish changes the perception of the danger, magnifying it. His adversaries seem invincible; they have become ferocious and dangerous animals, while the psalmist is like a little worm, powerless and utterly without defense.

But these images used by the psalmist also ser
ve to illustrate [the truth] that when man becomes brutal and attacks his brother, something animal-like takes over in him, and he seems to lose every human semblance; violence always carries within itself something beastly, and only God’s saving intervention can restore man to his humanity. For the psalmist, who has become the object of such fierce aggression, there now seems to be no escape, and death begins to take hold of him: «I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint […] my strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue cleaves to my jaws […] they divide my garments among them, and for my raiment they cast lots» (Verses 14-15; 18). With dramatic images that we find again in the accounts of Christ’s passion, the breaking of the body of the condemned is described, along with the unbearable burning thirst that torments the dying, and which is echoed in Jesus’ request «I thirst» (cf. John 19:28), culminating finally in the definitive gesture of the torturers who, like the soldiers beneath the cross, divide the garments of the victim, who is looked upon as already dead (Matthew 27:35; Mark 15:24; Luke 23:34; John 19:23-24).

Then once again, we hear an urgent cry for help: «But thou, O Lord, be not far off! O thou my help, hasten to my aid […] Save me» (Verses 19, 21a). This is a cry that opens the heavens, because it proclaims a faith and a certainty that surpasses every doubt, every darkness and every experience of desolation. And the lamentation is transformed; it gives way to praise in the welcoming of salvation: «You have answered me. I will tell of thy name to my brethren; in the midst of the congregation I will praise thee» (Verses 21c-22). Thus, the psalm breaks forth into thanksgiving, into the great final hymn that involves the whole people, the Lord’s faithful, the liturgical assembly, the future generations (cf. Verses 23-21). The Lord has come to his help. He has saved the poor one and has shown him His merciful Face. Death and life have met in an inseparable mystery, and life has triumphed. The God of salvation has shown Himself to be the uncontested Lord, whom all the ends of the earth will celebrate, and before whom all the families of peoples will bow down in worship. It is the victory of faith, which is able to transform death into a gift of life — the abyss of suffering into a source of hope.

Beloved brothers and sisters, this psalm has taken us to Golgotha, to the foot of Jesus’ cross, in order to relive His passion and to share the fruitful joy of the resurrection. Let us allow ourselves to be flooded by the light of the paschal mystery, even in [times] of God’s seeming absence, even in God’s silence, and like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, let us learn to discern the true reality that surpasses all appearances, by recognizing the path of exaltation precisely in humiliation and the full revelation of life in death, in the cross. By thus placing all of our trust and hope in God the Father, in every anxiety we too will be able to pray to Him in faith, and our cry for help will be transformed into a hymn of praise. Thank you.

[Translation by Diane Montagna] [The Holy Father then greeted pilgrims in several languages. In English, he said:]

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Today we reflect on Psalm Twenty-two, a heartfelt prayer of lamentation from one who feels abandoned by God. Surrounded by enemies who are persecuting him, the psalmist cries out by day and by night for help, and yet God seems to remain silent. In the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, the opening line of this psalm is placed on the lips of Jesus as he calls upon the Father from the Cross. He too seems to have been abandoned to a cruel fate, while his enemies mock him, attacking him like ravenous and roaring lions, dividing his clothing among them as if he were already dead. The psalmist recalls how, in the past, the people of Israel called trustingly upon the Lord in times of trial, and he answered their prayer. He remembers the tenderness with which the Lord cared for him personally in his earlier life, as a child in his mother’s womb, as an infant in his mother’s arms, and yet now God seems strangely distant. Despite such adverse circumstances, though, the psalmist’s faith and trust in the Lord remains. The psalm ends on a note of confidence, as God’s name is praised before all the nations. The shadow of the Cross gives way to the bright hope of the Resurrection. We too, when we call upon him in times of trial, must place our trust in the God who brings salvation, who conquers death with the gift of eternal life.

* * *

I am pleased to welcome the English-speaking visitors and pilgrims present at today’s Audience, including the groups from Great Britain, Scandinavia, Asia and North America. I extend a special greeting to the delegates of the International Catholic Charismatic Renewal Services and to the Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums. Upon all of you, and upon your families and loved ones, I invoke God’s abundant blessings.

© Copyright 2011 – Libreria Editrice Vaticana

[In Italian, he said:]

Lastly, my thoughts go to young people, to the sick and to newlyweds. Today, the liturgy allows us to meditate on the mystery of the Lord’s cross, and tomorrow on the sorrows of His Mother. May the cross of Christ and the example of Mary the Sorrowful Virgin illumine your lives, dear young people; may they sustain you in daily trials, dear sick; and may they urge you on, dear newlyweds, to live a courageous family life consistent with the principles of the Gospel.

[Translation by Diane Montagna]
Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Share this Entry


Support ZENIT

If you liked this article, support ZENIT now with a donation