Welcome to our Good Friday worship. Tonight, we enter into the story of Jesus’ last hours. This is both a particular story about a particular person in history, and a universal story about our human condition.
Our service tonight will include a series of paintings by Barnett Newman. This work is titled: The Stations of the Cross: Lema Sabachtani. “Lema Sabachtani” is the question that Jesus asks from the cross, with his final breaths: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” In real life, the paintings are black and white, roughly human-sized. They are abstract. They don’t correspond to the traditional stations of the cross in a literal way. According to Valerie Hellstein, a postdoctoral fellow and art scholar, Newman himself was “not religious in any traditional sense and railed against dogma of any kind.” This piece; however, expresses a powerful spiritual and political point of view. Hellman explains that, “In his catalog statement, Newman wrote, ‘Lema Sabachtani—why? Why did you forsake me? Why forsake me? To what purpose? Why?’ This is the Passion. This outcry of Jesus. Not the terrible walk up the Via Dolorosa (the way of sorrows), but the question that has no answer.” Hellman further explains that Newman uses Jesus’ particular experience “to call attention to the fact that every person will suffer and die… The traditional ritualistic nature of The Stations underscores this connectedness…. In the midst of the Cold War, when individuality and collectivity were made to do ideological battle, Newman’s art modeled the mutuality that he saw to be the most politically viable premise.” Jesus’ cry from the cross is actually the first verse of Psalm 22:
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer and by night, but find no rest.” As the psalm unfolds, the situation grows more and more dire: “But I am a worm, and not human; scorned by others, and despised by the people.… I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast; my mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death.” (verses 6; 14-15)
Woven into this this sense of utter abandonment; however, is another current of thought: “Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. In you our ancestors trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them. To you they cried, and were saved; in you they trusted, and were not put to shame.” (verses 3-5) The Psalm ends on a note of trust and even triumph: “From the horns of the wild oxen you have rescued me. I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.” (verse 22)
Jesus, in his weakest hour, short of breath, and time, uttered only the first verse of Psalm 22 but perhaps he meant to point us toward its entirety. Maybe this was his final way of holding together, with his one particular, yet universal life, two truths about God that seem contradictory. On the one hand, Jesus cries out from the cross that God’s absence, silence, and abandonment is agony, agony which sharpens the anguish inflicted by human evils. At the same time, Jesus clings to the hope of God’s presence, trustworthiness, and capacity to redeem. He cries out in praise and thanksgiving in his moment of deepest despair.
Our pattern for worship tonight is simple: we will hear the story, and then we will come together at the cross for sung prayer and silence. When you hear the drumbeat, later in the service, please take that as an invitation to come forward, to kneel or sit around the cross.
Let us pray.
Holy God, tonight, we enter the story of Jesus, your Word made flesh: betrayed, denied, abandoned, mocked and crucified. Have mercy, O God, on us, and on our world. Be present to us, be faithful to us. Even as we walk this path of suffering and death, deliver us from evil. Show us the way through the cross, the way that leads to resurrection, to life, abundant, eternal, and whole. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.