“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me and seem so far from my cry?” These are the opening words of Psalm 22 made familiar to us as the final words of the cross in the Gospels according to Matthew and Mark. Over the next two weeks we will hear t and recite these words many times as we make our final journey to the cross and to Easter.
I don’t know what it is about these particular words that allow them to penetrate so deeply into our hearts and minds. Yet, it seems every time I hear them, or recite them, my soul cringes at the sense of despair they invoke.
Perhaps these words invoke our greatest fear in life; to be plunged so deeply into the depths of human darkness and despair that we feel abandoned, or cut off from God.
Last year, during a meeting of the Nineteenth Annotation, Sr. Marise May shared her story of taking care of a fellow nun in her final days. Sister told us as her friend’s days grew short, her body began to give out and finally her mind began to fail. In one of their last conversations, Marise’s friend told her God could take away her ability to see, her ability to hear, her ability to care for herself, even her mental acuity, but what she could not bear was to lose her ability to know and be with God.
I cannot imagine how dark and how lonely a place could be without the assurance of God being present. As I have said many times over the years, faith in Christ does not equate to the easy button of life. And yet, faith makes bearing the hardships of life somehow easier. I suspect this is why Jesus says his heart is troubled as he contemplates the cross. So often we equate his statement with the fear of the pain he would have to endure. And this, I do not doubt troubled him greatly. But as we know from Matthew and Mark’s Gospels, the cross is not just a point of physical agony, it is also a point of complete spiritual desolation.
On the hill of Golgotha, there was no light of God, no hope glory, just the incarnate reality of evil and human despair. Golgotha is the site of total darkness and the site of total separation from God. And, it was into the abyss of despair that Jesus knew he faced. For this was the experience he needed to share with the Father.
As modern day Christians we are often uncomfortable with the crucifixion; we get so hyper-focused on the physicality and the suffering of the cross that we fail to understand the need for the experience the cross could bring.
The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews brings forth an alternative focus to the crucifixion. In this morning’s passage, he declares Christ to be the great high priest, a priest in the line of Melchizedek. Melchizedek is found in the book of Genesis, it is he who brings bread and wine to Abram after the defeat to the Chedorlaomer. Melchizedek was anointed, chosen by God as both King and Priest of the People of Salem. The issue however is not about who Melchizedek was. The issue is more about what his role of priest was.
In the days of temple worship, it was the job of the priest to enter into the inner most room of the temple, the room set aside as the space where the God of the people resided. Only the high priest could enter this space, and only the high priest could bring before God the needs and the intercessions of the people. In last week’s reading from the Book of Numbers, Moses serves as the high priest to the Israelites when he goes off into the mountain to share with God the complaints and the concerns of the Children of Israel. And, it is through Moses that God reveals the answer to venomous serpents which surrounded them.
It is Jesus, according to Hebrews, who God has anointed as our great high priest. It is Jesus who God now permits to enter the place where God resides. It is Jesus, who, through the experience of the cross, brings our worst fears and suffering to God’s attention. And it is through Jesus and the cross that God has demonstrates that there is no place we can go where God is not or has never been. The cross affirms what the writer of Psalm 139 embraced as the omnipresence of God;
Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night’, even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.
St. Paul Passionately proclaims God’s omnipresence to the Romans when he writes, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Yes, Christ’s priesthood and cross is, as the old Baptism Hymn proclaims, our “blessed assurance.” And Christ’s priesthood is the touchstone upon which the poem and story Footprints is based. I can think of no better way to end this homily on the Fifth Sunday of Lent but with Mary Stevenson’s famous poem.
One night I dreamed I was walking along the beach with the Lord.
Many scenes from my life flashed across the sky. In each scene I noticed footprints in the sand. Sometimes there were two sets of footprints, other times there were one set of footprints.
This bothered me because I noticed that during the low periods of my life, when I was suffering from anguish, sorrow or defeat, I could see only one set of footprints.
So I said to the Lord, “You promised me Lord, that if I followed you, you would walk with me always. But I have noticed that during the most trying periods of my life there have only been one set of footprints in the sand. Why, when I needed you most, you have not been there for me?”
The Lord replied, “The times when you have seen only one set of footprints, is when I carried you.”
No matter what path we may take, no matter what darkness or despair we may have to endure, we will never endure it alone because the cross assures us, God is already there and will never let us walk alone.