My Lent to Easter tradition is to listen to Bach’s magnificent Matthäus–Passion. It begins with the choral, “Come, you daughters, help me lament.” And lament is exactly where I was on Good Friday. Instead of reading the traditional passage from the Gospel of Matthew recounting the crucifixion, this year I read Psalm 22 with its most existential spiritual question, “Eli, Eli, lema sabacthani?” or “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” Jesus utters David’s words from the cross in the most haunting and heart-wrenching words for me in the entirety of scriptures. I shudder to think of Christ’s rasping, questioning voice of one who has been intimately connected to God before there was time and Creation and now that connection is split, gone, and in the absolute cry of abandonment, he cries out with the strained, broken voice of one who has suffered the unimaginable in body, mind, and spirit.
David’s question has been one that has driven deeply to my core whenever I read it. Having been at the edge of utter despair and destruction, I, too, once cried out in such a manner. I was asking, “Where are You? Why have You abandoned me?” Yet, as I read the opening line from Psalm 22, I found the question altered, my own spirit responding to a different question that was no less painful to ask, “My God, my God, why have I forsaken you?”
When I imagine the few of his faithful who had gathered at the foot of the cross, I understand that I would not have been one of them. Like most of the disciples, I would have scattered and fled for fear of my own safety and security. I would have hidden and startled at every sound, every movement for absolute terror that the Roman soldiers or the crowds who called for Christ to be crucified would be coming for me now. It’s a hard realization to face. We all would like to believe ourselves strong enough to stand and proclaim, even at the cost of our own lives. Yet as I sat in silent meditation, I knew I would not have.
How do I know this?
Because of the way that question came back on me, “My God, my God, why have I forsaken You?” I am all too ready to wander and question and struggle and fight and question and wrestle and blame and doubt and forget the One who came to me in the depths of my own hell and reminded me that, even when I was not faithful, He still was. Why then do I so often and so easily walk away? Why do I continually find myself asking, “Is any of this even real? Was all of this created to comfort us in our fear of death?”
In one of the recitatives, Bach has Jesus sing:
All ye shall be offended because of me this night; for
it is written, I will smite the shepherd, and the sheep
of the flock, shall be scattered abroad. But after I am
risen again. I will go before you into Galilee.
Then Bach has the Chorale reply:
Know me, my keeper,
my shepherd, take me to Thee.
By Thee, source of all good things,
much good has befallen me.
Thy mouth has refreshed me
with milk and sweetmeats
Thy spirit has favoured me
with many a heavenly longing.
I hear those words as a follow-up to what Christ has just told his followers and realize that, despite his being the “source of all good things,” I am still prone to abandon and deny him.
I see myself in the doubting of Thomas and the denying of Peter. It always moves me to tears when Peter’s aria comes on:
Have mercy, my God,
for my tears’ sake;
Look hither, heart and eyes
weep bitterly before Thee.
In the depths of darkness, I cried and wept bitterly myself and prayed just such words. Even after such a moment of utter brokenness, when God has pulled me out of the pit, out of a depression and woundedness that I was willing to end it all; even though light shone in that darkness, even though I heard His voice speak to me, “Look up!” I still find myself in times where I would as the hymn “Come Thy Fount of Every Blessing” states:
O to grace how great a debtor
Daily I’m constrained to be!
Let Thy goodness, like a fetter,
Bind my wandering heart to Thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it,
Seal it for Thy courts above.
Too often I turn from that divine grace, that utter overwhelming show of eternal mercy and endless love, and become prone to wander.
As it so often has in the past, poetry has been the guide that draws me back. This time it has been a poet who is new to me, Jane Tyson Clement. In a collection entitled The Heart’s Necessities: Life in Poetry. With any collection of poetry, I do not devour them in quick readings but read a poem and then reflect on it throughout my day. I let the words sink in, mull them over and consider and contemplate the poet’s imagery and meaning. On Good Friday, my poem by Clement entitled “The Sea is Dusk Now.” It was written when she was only 22 and in college. She had just come through a period of severe pneumonia (fevers, extremely painful coughs, fatigue, and unsure if she was even going to live). She begins the poem with the painful, “The sea is dusk now, and the wind is dying: / landward the last night-driven gull is flying.” I love this image of the seaside just after a violent storm. It is still dark but there is a calm returning.
The sea is dusk now, and the wind is dying;
landward the last night-driven gull is flying.
Give up your mind now to the destined dark
and under the wide sky arched and high with stars
seek not the daylight and the touch of the sun.
Accept the strong design – unlimited
by light, by dark, by wind and slow stars creeping:
there is a deep heart which is never sleeping.
That last line hit me as I read it: there is a deep heart which is never sleeping. God never sleeps. Even in the midst of the storms, the darkness, the crashing waves, the lighting and the thunder, God is awake and aware and present even when I cannot feel or imagine it is so. God is greater than the coming night and that He is “unlimited by light, by dark, by wind and slow stars creeping.” These are words that resounded from the page this Good Friday. It is a reminder of the truth of Good Friday and Easter. Neither darkness, nor the grave, nor death can overcome Him. This is a poem that moves from fear and doubt to acceptance and understanding. These words reminded me that He is the way back home again, He is the dawn after the darkest night, He is the arms that embrace and the lips that kiss every prodigal child with abandon and eternal love.