Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday

Psalm 22

by Daniel Harrell

Thanks for all who have followed Dawn’s cancer voyage on Caring Bridge—it means so much that you’re with us. In one the posts I wrote early on, I quoted poet Christian Wiman on Psalm 22. Wiman, who also has cancer, believes in God, but not because of the resurrection, he writes. “I am a Christian because of that moment on the cross when Jesus, drinking the very dregs of human bitterness, cries out, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ I am a Christian because I understand that moment of Christ’s passion to have meaning in my own life, and what it means is that the absolutely solitary and singular nature of extreme human pain is an illusion. I’m not suggesting that ministering angels are going to come down and comfort you as you die. I’m suggesting that Christ’s suffering shatters the iron walls around individual human suffering, that Christ’s compassion makes extreme human compassion—to the point of death, even—possible. Human love can reach right into death, then, but not if it is merely human love.”

Jesus’ cry from the cross derives from Psalm 22, and is typically reserved for Good Friday, but it also works for Ash Wednesday. Moreover, your pastors have devoted themselves to preach Psalm 22 for five Sundays in Lent—a morose decision made pre-diagnosis. I guess if it’s good enough for Jesus to quote from the cross, it’s good enough for us to preach from the pulpit. Hopefully we’ll make it to Easter.

Skeptics will always wonder what kind of God would ever forsake an only child to suffer in the first place. Some say that by citing Psalm 22 from the cross Jesus wondered the same. Both Matthew and Mark record Jesus’ dying last words as this cry of godforsakenness. Mark doesn’t have Jesus saying anything else. Luke substitutes “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit!” as Jesus’ very last words, which sound initially like a statement of calm resignation, putting God the Father in more favorable light. But like Jesus’ last words in Matthew and Mark, taken verbatim from Psalm 22, readers who dig a little deeper will recognize Jesus’ last words in Luke to be from Psalm 31, another desperate appeal for God’s intervention: “Be gracious to me, O LORD, for I am in distress; my eye wastes away from grief, my soul and body also. For my life is spent with sorrow,  and my years with sighing; my strength fails because of my misery, and my bones waste away. I am the scorn of all my adversaries, a horror to my neighbors, an object of dread to my acquaintances; those who see me in the street flee from me. I have passed out of mind like one who is dead; I have become like a broken vessel.”

My friend Deanna reminds us that there are sixty official Psalms of lament (that’s 40% of the Psalter). Throw in the laments of Job, Jeremiah and other weeping prophets (all good fodder for Lent), and Scripture becomes a safe harbor if not a last refuge, for those who feel acutely that a sense of hope and despair hang in the balance. Lamenting to God is a an act of true faith—and thus for the suffering a redemptive means of coping with pain, illness, trauma and trial. Well-meaning, lovely pray-ers will tell us they’re praying for a miracle, and we want one too. But we know more often than not that’s not what happens. Does this mean God has forsaken us too? No. “Christ’s suffering shatters the iron walls around our suffering. Christ’s compassion makes extreme human compassion possible.” Lament opens a way for the unendurable be endured. 

And so we read Psalm 22: “I am a worm, and not human; scorned by others, and despised by the people. I am poured out like water, my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; my mouth is dried up like a potsherd, you lay me in the dust of death”—it’s the kind of lament you hear from chemo patients. Deanna wonders whether those of us whose lives bear some degree of wellness will go so far as to experience hatred toward those who are seriously ill because of the threat they pose to our orderly lives.” “All who see me mock me; they sneer at me, they shake their heads.”

“Whoever humbles herself will be exalted,” Jesus promised, though here in Psalm 22, the reality is less about humbling yourself than being humbled by circumstances beyond your control. Nevertheless, Jesus called over a little child and told his congregation how unless they “become humble like children, they’d never enter God’s kingdom.” For people who spent their whole life trying to be mature and get their lives in order, this was a shocking statement. To lessen the blow, interpreters traditionally highlight childlike qualities of simplicity, innocence and trust as those intended by Jesus. But I’ve chaperoned kindergarten field trips. Kids punch and make fun, they cry and push and create a huge ruckus. They don’t do as their told and jump into mud. They stick their tongues out at their vegetables but will eat crayons and chalk. All our lives we’re told how we need to grow up and take pride in ourselves. But Jesus says grow down and lose the pride.

Ancient Christian tradition teaches pride to be chief of the seven deadly sins. Modern Christian tradition teaches this too. CS Lewis famously labeled pride as “spiritual cancer: it eats up the very possibility of love, or contentment, or even common sense.” The Bible labels followers of Christ children of God and not grownups on purpose. In Jewish culture, children were loved, but they had no status apart from that love, no power or privilege apart from what they gained from being totally dependent. As Christians, our entire identity derives from being loved by God, and yet we struggle with this, especially when love doesn’t square with how we think it should look and feel. The cross persists as the supreme expression of God’s love, and yet it’s a very hard kind of love to accept. It’s almost too much for grownups to bear.

Thus we must become humble as children, dependent and receptive, and we must let God and other people to love us. Humility grounds us, literally, in the material from which we were made. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” God created us out of the dust of the ground, so in one sense, you might say to be humble is to be who you were made to be. In another sense, given how we’re all made from the same material, being humble indelibly ties us to one other. But finally, given Jesus’ own humility, being humble connects us to Christ. The good news, I guess, is that we really have no choice in the matter. One way or another we all end up humble like children again. The unavoidable course of human life remains ashes to ashes, dust to dust, diapers to diapers—like it or not. 

On the day of Dawn’s diagnosis I quoted theologian Willie James Jennings about what it meant for Jesus to humble himself and suffer the humiliation: “Jesus descended into hell, … to the bottom, where there is no possibility of digging a deeper hole or of grasping even more nothingness. Jesus descended to that place and he will meet us there with the power of a God who will not let the descending be the last action. Being there with Jesus is the beginning of our resurrection. This will be the first action of a new life—life eternal. The body will be redone. And even in the depths of despair with him, we can glimpse what is to come.”

The good news, I guess, is that we really have no choice in the matter. Note in your bulletin the liturgical term for donning ashes is “imposition.” Humility is always an imposition. We have little choice when it comes to humiliation—be it due to aging or hardship or wrongdoing or brokenness or cancer—but we can choose what to do in it. The Greek verb to humble means to bend down. But to bend down is also an act of worship. Dawn often quotes Molly Rouner who speaks of hardship as another opportunity to bend the knee and bow down. Lamenting to God is an act of true faith—bowing to God is an act of surrender. That so many hundreds have thrust prayers toward heaven on Dawn’s behalf testifies to the power of helplessness. “All who go down to the dust will kneel before God,” says Psalm 22. When you have no words to say you cry out to God.

From the Puritans: “I am nothing but that thou makest me, I have nothing but that I receive from thee, I can be nothing but that grace adorns me. Quarry me deep, dear Lord, and then fill me to overflowing with living water.”

There is a beauty in this, a solidarity of identity and a joy and freedom that humility engenders. Watch children play. They seek out and eagerly strike up friendships with other kids they’ve never met. They cooperate on playground adventures without ever bothering to learn each other’s name. They fall down and get up, take turns and make fun, run around and build castles with strangers who aren’t strange because they’re kids too. Once we grow up, we grow suspicious of strangers, suspicious of collaboration and sharing for fear we may lose what is ours. The Christians who first labeled pride as the chief deadly sin did so after living together in monasteries. Stay strangers and pride is a virtue—but become friends pride is a cancer.

As Christians, our entire identity derives from being loved by God, and yet we struggle with this, especially when love doesn’t square with how we think it should look and feel. The cross persists as the supreme expression of God’s love, and yet it’s a very hard kind of love to accept.

But when we cannot resist—when the imposition of disease or trouble or sin or loss or humiliation proves too powerful to withstand—when we are undone and broken and hung to die—all we have left is to be loved, by God and each other. While I’d give it all back in a minute for Dawn to be well, we have experienced an immeasurable joy by having to depend on you as our church, a joy we may never have otherwise known. As the apostle Paul writes, “If one member suffers, all suffer together with her…” Perhaps you’re heard the one about the difference between heaven and hell as the difference between two groups of people each gathered around identical soup pots with the same kind of long spoons. The only difference is that those in hell starve because they cannot reach their own mouths while those in heaven feed each other and are full. 

Psalm 22 declares, “The oppressed will eat and be satisfied. All who seek the LORD will praise him. Their hearts will rejoice with everlasting joy.”