Wednesday, September 30, 2015

My God, my God, why have thou forsaken me?

Reading sacred scripture without a guide is the equivalent of touring a foreign country you have never been to before in your life alone. You can hit the main attractions just fine but you will always miss the hidden gems only the locals know about. Reading the scriptures without knowing who wrote them, to whom they were written, the style of writing, and the reason they were written leaves the reader to interpret the actual meaning of the writing for themselves. More often than not this will lead one to an improper or wrong interpretation and a misunderstanding of what the passage was meant to convey.

There are many people who believe that they do not need any instruction when they read sacred scripture. They believe that the Holy Spirit will inspire them to the correct and intended meaning. While this can happen if it happened in every occasion we would have only one Church unified in the meaning of scripture. Instead, we have over 40,000 different flavors of Christianity all divided based upon their interpretation of scripture and the doctrine it teaches.

Most sacred scripture is polyvalent, meaning it is deep with meaning and has a number of different aspects or principles that can be learned by it. There are some that, for a Catholic, only has one specific meaning or interpretation. We rely on the magisterium to teach us the true meaning of sacred scripture so that all Catholics everywhere hold the same meaning and truth in their hearts. We are the Universal Church. The word catholic comes from the Latin word catholicus which comes from the Greek word καθολικός (katholikos), which means “Universal”. This comes from the Greek phrase καθόλου (katholou), which combines the words “about” and “whole” and means “according to the whole”. This is straight out of sacred scripture, but that is a discussion for another day.

When one does not know the author, the reason, and the culture behind the text the real meaning of the scripture is often missed or misunderstood. Take for example sacred scripture readings about Jesus’ crucifixion. There is a common belief that Jesus, in a moment of his full human nature, felt totally abandoned by our Father because he utters the words, “My God, my God, why have thou forsaken me?” If all you knew were the words of this text you would naturally come to this conclusion. You could not be further from the truth behind this scripture with that conclusion.

Jesus was a rabbi (a word that actually means “doctor” when translated to Latin). He was a devout Jew who both obeyed and fulfilled the Law. Jews of Jesus’ time (and many still today) prayed the Psalms. Indeed, they had them memorized to the point of knowing them forwards and backwards without thought. If you are Christian and I started, “Our Father, who art in heaven…” you could join in and continue the prayer with me without thinking about it. If you belong to any of the main stream Christian religions and I started with, “I believe in one God….” You could join in and finish the creed with me without thought. This is how the Psalms were and are to the Jews.

Like with our Liturgy of the Hours Jews prayed these Psalms at set periods throughout the day. One of these set periods was the ninth hour or 3:00 in the afternoon. Sacred scripture tells us that at about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken me?” Jesus was not crying out from abandonment. As a devout Jew he was crying out in prayer. What did the Jews pray at the set points in the day? They prayed the Psalms.

Psalm 22

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
    Why are you so far from saving me,
    so far from my cries of anguish?
My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
    by night, but I find no rest.

Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One;
    you are the one Israel praises.
In you our ancestors put their trust;
    they trusted and you delivered them.
To you they cried out and were saved;
    in you they trusted and were not put to shame.

But I am a worm and not a man,
    scorned by everyone, despised by the people.
All who see me mock me;
    they hurl insults, shaking their heads.
“He trusts in the Lord,” they say,
    “let the Lord rescue him.
Let him deliver him,
    since he delights in him.”

Yet you brought me out of the womb;
    you made me trust in you, even at my mother’s breast.
10 From birth I was cast on you;
    from my mother’s womb you have been my God.

11 Do not be far from me,
    for trouble is near
    and there is no one to help.

12 Many bulls surround me;
    strong bulls of Bashan encircle me.
13 Roaring lions that tear their prey
    open their mouths wide against me.
14 I am poured out like water,
    and all my bones are out of joint.
My heart has turned to wax;
    it has melted within me.
15 My mouth is dried up like a potsherd,
    and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth;
    you lay me in the dust of death.

16 Dogs surround me,
    a pack of villains encircles me;
    they pierce my hands and my feet.
17 All my bones are on display;
    people stare and gloat over me.
18 They divide my clothes among them
    and cast lots for my garment.

19 But you, Lord, do not be far from me.
    You are my strength; come quickly to help me.
20 Deliver me from the sword,
    my precious life from the power of the dogs.
21 Rescue me from the mouth of the lions;
    save me from the horns of the wild oxen.

22 I will declare your name to my people;
    in the assembly I will praise you.
23 You who fear the Lord, praise him!
    All you descendants of Jacob, honor him!
    Revere him, all you descendants of Israel!
24 For he has not despised or scorned
    the suffering of the afflicted one;
he has not hidden his face from him
    but has listened to his cry for help.

25 From you comes the theme of my praise in the great assembly;
    before those who fear you I will fulfill my vows.
26 The poor will eat and be satisfied;
    those who seek the Lord will praise him—
    may your hearts live forever!

27 All the ends of the earth
    will remember and turn to the Lord,
and all the families of the nations
    will bow down before him,
28 for dominion belongs to the Lord
    and he rules over the nations.

29 All the rich of the earth will feast and worship;
    all who go down to the dust will kneel before him—
    those who cannot keep themselves alive.
30 Posterity will serve him;
    future generations will be told about the Lord.
31 They will proclaim his righteousness,
    declaring to a people yet unborn:
    He has done it

Jesus was not only praying at the ninth hour but he was praying the Psalm that foretold of the crucifixion and resurrection. For the Jews present they would have immediately recognized this Psalm and had been able to recite it with him. And then, while looking up at him on the cross and reciting the words of the Psalm they would have seen the Psalm fulfilled as they prayed and many of them would have realized then and there exactly what they had just done.

I believe the word of this would have spread like wild fire and was the driving factor behind the conversion of thousands at a time after the Church was established at Pentecost.

But if you just read this passage in scripture with no instruction on the background on the culture at the time it was written you would have come away seeing a broken Jesus feeling left and abandon by the very person who asked him to go through with this to begin with. How can anyone be filled with anything but sadness when left with this interpretation? How can anyone be anything but profoundly moved and filled with love and hope when you learn the true meaning behind the text?

Ignorance of scripture is ignorance of Christ – Saint Jerome.

Knowing scripture means knowing more than just the text as it is written. To know scripture is to know the world behind the text, the world of the text, and the world in front of the text. Any less and scripture is nothing more than a great collection of stories.

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