Psalm 22 and Beethoven’s Ninth

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A friend sent me the text of a sermon he delivered on Good Friday. It was a powerful sermon, painting a vivid picture of Jesus’s physical, emotional, and spiritual suffering in Gethsemane and on the Cross. It was a message about abandonment and finding the everlasting arms to lean on again. And I was moved, not only because of its eloquence but also because I have some sense of the personal challenges my friend is facing right now as he looks toward a difficult future.

As I thought about my friend’s life and the sermon he delivered out of it, I was humbled by a new awareness of how Jesus meets us exactly where we are, offering us exactly what we need.

Where I am in recent weeks is engaged in musing on whether Jesus was taking a nazirite vow when he said at the Last Supper that he wouldn’t touch any more wine until he’d completed his task. He keeps his word and also refuses vinegar–equally a product of the grape. I don’t know what I’m to do with that musing, other than to share it here, but I’m sure I’ll know by and by.

For me, right now in my life, I have the luxury of not identifying with those last words as a cry of abandonment. Today I can hear “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” as, at one and the same time, a statement of what looks like fact to the eyes of others, an act of self-comfort in quoting Scripture to himself, and Jesus’s final message to the world as he speaks aloud for all to hear, despite the terrible physical state he is in, the first words of Psalm 22.

It’s a psalm that fascinates me. The first twenty-one verses describe both Jesus’s Crucifixion and our own mundane times of crisis and suffering. But then, with no transition whatsoever, verse 21 switches in midstream and flat-out states that rescue has happened. Period. No explanation.

Save me from the mouth of the lion! From the horns of the wild oxen you have rescued me. (NRSV)

In the King James Bible the transition is so abrupt as to require mythical beasts:

Save me from the lion’s mouth: for thou hast heard me from the horns of the unicorns. (AV)

It reminds me of the place in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony where the brooding, mournful instrumental music is stopped dead by a human voice singing, “O friends, not these tones!” and then the astounding, irresistible Ode to Joy chorale begins.

That’s what happens in Psalm 22. Both Psalm 22 and Beethoven’s Ninth give me a model of faith as a choice. Turn around and face the other way. Sing another song. Just do it!

Here is the new song of verse 22:

I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you. (NRSV)

I will declare thy name unto my brethren: in the midst of the congregation will I praise thee. (AV)

And I’m fascinated by verse 29, which seems to be saying that even the dead will worship Yahweh. It’s a wonderful comfort to me to think that I can go to Meeting for Worship from the grave.

To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, and I shall live for him. (NRSV)

All they that be fat upon earth shall eat and worship: all they that go down to the dust shall bow before him: and none can keep alive his own soul. (AV)

From where I am in early April 2008, I can experience those last words of Jesus as his last teaching to me. “Pay attention,” he’s telling me. “I’m leaving you with this psalm. Go look it up. (Study Torah.) It’s all in there.”

My friend, who began my consideration of Jesus’s last words with his Good Friday message, can find a personal companion to be with him as he faces his physical and spiritual challenges.

Both of us have found our shepherd. We shall not want.

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