Today, rather than my own thoughts, I want to offer for your consideration the wonderful instruction on Psalm 21, the second psalm of Good Friday Tenebrae, offered by the now retired Pope Benedict XVI at a General Audience of 14 September 2011:
"In the Catechesis today I would like to apply myself to a Psalm with strong Christological implications which continually surface in accounts of Jesus' passion, with its twofold dimension of humiliation and glory, of death and life. It is Psalm 22 according to the Hebrew tradition and Psalm 21 according to the Graeco-Latin tradition, a heartfelt, moving prayer with a human density and theological richness that make it one of the most frequently prayed and studied Psalms in the entire Psalter. It is a long poetic composition and we shall reflect in particular on its first part, centred on the lament, in order to examine in depth certain important dimensions of the prayer of supplication to God.
This Psalm presents the figure of an innocent man, persecuted and surrounded by adversaries who clamour for his death; and he turns to God with a sorrowful lament which, in the certainty of his faith, opens mysteriously to praise. The anguishing reality of the present and the consoling memory of the past alternate in his prayer in an agonized awareness of his own desperate situation in which, however, he does not want to give up hope. His initial cry is an appeal addressed to a God who appears remote, who does not answer and seems to have abandoned him: “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” (vv. 3-4).
God is silent and this silence pierces the soul of the person praying, who ceaselessly calls but receives no answer. Day and night succeed one another in an unflagging quest for a word, for help that does not come, God seems so distant, so forgetful, so absent. The prayer asks to be heard, to be answered, it begs for contact, seeks a relationship that can give comfort and salvation. But if God fails to respond, the cry of help is lost in the void and loneliness becomes unbearable.
Yet, in his cry, the praying man of our Psalm calls the Lord “my” God at least three times, in an extreme act of trust and faith. In spite of all appearances, the Psalmist cannot believe that his link with the Lord is totally broken and while he asks the reason for a presumed incomprehensible abandonment, he says that “his” God cannot forsake him.
As is well known, the initial cry of the Psalm, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”, is recorded by the Gospels of Matthew and Mark as the cry uttered by Jesus dying on the Cross (cf. Mt 27:46, Mk 15:34). It expresses all the desolation of the Messiah, Son of God, who is facing the drama of death, a reality totally opposed to the Lord of life. Forsaken by almost all his followers, betrayed and denied by the disciples, surrounded by people who insult him, Jesus is under the crushing weight of a mission that was to pass through humiliation and annihilation. This is why he cried out to the Father, and his suffering took up the sorrowful words of the Psalm. But his is not a desperate cry, nor was that of the Psalmist who, in his supplication, takes a tormented path which nevertheless opens out at last into a perspective of praise, into trust in the divine victory.
And since in the Jewish custom citing the beginning of a Psalm implied a reference to the whole poem, although Jesus’ anguished prayer retains its burden of unspeakable suffering, it unfolds to the certainty of glory. “Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?”, the Risen Christ was to say to the disciples at Emmaus (Lk 24:26). In his passion, in obedience to the Father, the Lord Jesus passes through abandonment and death to reach life and to give it to all believers.
This initial cry of supplication in our Psalm 22 is followed in sorrowful contrast by the memory of the past, “In you our fathers trusted; they trusted, and you did deliver them. To you they cried, and were saved; in you they trusted, and were not disappointed” (vv. 5-6).
The God who appears today to be so remote to the Psalmist, is nonetheless the merciful Lord whom Israel experienced throughout its history. The People to whom the praying person belongs is the object of God’s love and can witness to his fidelity to him. Starting with the Patriarchs, then in Egypt and on the long pilgrimage through the wilderness, in the stay in the promised land in contact with aggressive and hostile peoples, to the night of the exile, the whole of biblical history is a history of a cry for help on the part of the People and of saving answers on the part of God.
And the Psalmist refers to the steadfast faith of his ancestors who “trusted” — this word is repeated three times — without ever being disappointed. Then, however, it seems that this chain of trusting invocations and divine answers has been broken; the Psalmist’s situation seems to deny the entire history of salvation, making the present reality even more painful.
God, however, cannot deny himself so here the prayer returns to describing the distressing plight of the praying person, to induce the Lord to have pity on him and to intervene, as he always had done in the past. The Psalmist describes himself as “a worm, and no man”, scorned by men, and despised by the people” (v. 7). He was mocked, people made grimaces at him, (cf. v. 8), and wounded in his faith itself. “He committed his cause to the Lord; let him deliver him, let him rescue him, for he delights in him!” (v. 9), they said.
Under the jeering blows of irony and contempt, it almost seems as though the persecuted man loses his own human features, like the suffering servant outlined in the Book of Isaiah (cf. 52:14; 53:2b-3). And like the oppressed righteous man in the Book of Wisdom (cf. 2:12-20), like Jesus on Calvary (cf. Mt 27:39-43), the Psalmist saw his own relationship with the Lord called into question in the cruel and sarcastic emphasis of what is causing him to suffer: God’s silence, his apparent absence. And yet God was present with an indisputable tenderness in the life of the person praying. The Psalmist reminds the Lord of this: “Yet you are he who took me from the womb; you did keep me safe upon my mother’s breasts. Upon you was I cast from my birth” (vv. 10-11a).
The Lord is the God of life who brings the newborn child into the world and cares for him with a father’s affection. And though the memory of God’s fidelity in the history of the people has first been recalled, the praying person now re-evokes his own personal history of relations with the Lord, going back to the particularly significant moment of the beginning of his life. And here, despite the desolation of the present, the Psalmist recognizes a closeness and a divine love so radical that he can now exclaim, in a confession full of faith and generating hope: “and since my mother bore me you have been my God” (v. 11b).
The lament then becomes a heartfelt plea: “Be not far from me, for trouble is near and there is none to help” (v. 12). The only closeness that the Psalmist can perceive and that fills him with fear was that of his enemies. It is therefore necessary for God to make himself close and to help him, because enemies surround the praying man, they encircle him and were like strong bulls, like ravening and roaring lions (cf. vv. 13-14). Anguish alters his perception of the danger, magnifying it. The adversaries seem invincible, they become ferocious, dangerous animals, while the Psalmist is like a small worm, powerless and defenceless.
Yet these images used in the Psalm also serve to describe that when man becomes brutal and attacks his brother, something brutal within him takes the upper hand, he seems to lose any human likeness; violence always has something bestial about it and only God’s saving intervention can restore humanity to human beings.
Now, it seems to the Psalmist, the object of so much ferocious aggression, that he no longer has any way out and death begins to take possession of him: “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint… my strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue cleaves to my jaws… they divide my garments among them, and for my raiment they cast lots” (vv. 15, 16, 19).
The disintegration of the body of the condemned man is described with the dramatic images that we encounter in the accounts of Christ’s passion, the unbearable parching thirst that torments the dying man that is echoed in Jesus’ request “I thirst” (cf. Jn 19:28), until we reach the definitive act of his tormentors, who, like the soldiers at the foot of the cross divide the clothes of the victim whom they consider already dead (cf. Mt 27:35; Mk 15:24; Lk 23:34; Jn 19:23-24).
Here then, impelling, once again comes the request for help: “But you, O Lord, be not far off! O you my help, hasten to my aid!... Save me” (vv. 20; 22a). This is a cry that opens the Heavens, because it proclaims a faith, a certainty that goes beyond all doubt, all darkness and all desolation. And the lament is transformed, it gives way to praise in the acceptance of salvation: “He has heard... I will tell of your name to my brethren; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you” (vv. 22c-23).
In this way the Psalm opens to thanksgiving, to the great final hymn that sweeps up the whole people, the Lord’s faithful, the liturgical assembly, the generations to come (cf. vv. 24-32). The Lord went to the rescue, he saved the poor man and showed his merciful face. Death and life are interwoven in an inseparable mystery and life triumphs, the God of salvation shows himself to be the undisputed Lord whom all the ends of the earth will praise and before whom all the families of the nations will bow down. It is the victory of faith which can transform death into the gift of life, the abyss of sorrow into a source of hope.
Dear brothers and sisters, this Psalm has taken us to Golgotha, to the foot of the cross of Jesus, to relive his passion and to share the fruitful joy of the resurrection. Let us therefore allow ourselves to be invaded by the light of the paschal mystery even in God’s apparent absence, even in God’s silence, and, like the disciples of Emmaus, let us learn to discern the true reality beyond appearances, recognizing humiliation itself as the way to exaltation, and the cross as the full manifestation of life in earth. Thus, replacing in God the Father all our trust and hope, in every anxiety we will be able to pray to him with faith, and our cry of help will be transformed into a hymn of praise."
Deus, Deus meus, respice in me : quare me dereliquisti? longe a salute mea verba delictorum meorum.
Deus meus, clamabo per diem, et non exaudies; et nocte, et non ad insipientiam mihi.
Tu autem in sancto habitas, laus Israël.
In te speraverunt patres nostri; speraverunt, et liberasti eos.
Ad te clamaverunt, et salvi facti sunt; in te speraverunt, et non sunt confusi.
Ego autem sum vermis, et non homo; opprobrium hominum, et abjectio plebis.
Omnes videntes me deriserunt me; locuti sunt labiis, et moverunt caput.
Speravit in Domino, eripiat eum : salvum faciat eum, quoniam vult eum.
Quoniam tu es qui extraxisti me de ventre, spes mea ab uberibus matris meæ.
In te projectus sum ex utero; de ventre matris meæ Deus meus es tu: ne discesseris a me,
quoniam tribulatio proxima est, quoniam non est qui adjuvet.
Circumdederunt me vituli multi; tauri pingues obsederunt me.
Aperuerunt super me os suum, sicut leo rapiens et rugiens.
Sicut aqua effusus sum, et dispersa sunt omnia ossa mea :
factum est cor meum tamquam cera liquescens in medio ventris mei.
Aruit tamquam testa virtus mea, et lingua mea adhæsit faucibus meis : et in pulverem mortis deduxisti me.
Quoniam circumdederunt me canes multi; concilium malignantium obsedit me. Foderunt manus meas et pedes meos; dinumeraverunt omnia ossa mea. Ipsi vero consideraverunt et inspexerunt me. Diviserunt sibi vestimenta mea, et super vestem meam miserunt sortem.
Tu autem, Domine, ne elongaveris auxilium tuum a me; ad defensionem meam conspice.
Erue a framea, Deus, animam meam, et de manu canis unicam meam.
Salva me ex ore leonis, et a cornibus unicornium humilitatem meam.
Narrabo nomen tuum fratribus meis; in medio ecclesiæ laudabo te.
Qui timetis Dominum, laudate eum; universum semen Jacob, glorificate eum.
Timeat eum omne semen Israël, quoniam non sprevit, neque despexit deprecationem pauperis,
nec avertit faciem suam a me : et cum clamarem ad eum, exaudivit me.
Apud te laus mea in ecclesia magna; vota mea reddam in conspectu timentium eum.
Edent pauperes, et saturabuntur, et laudabunt Dominum qui requirunt eum : vivent corda eorum in sæculum sæculi.
Reminiscentur et convertentur ad Dominum universi fines terræ;
et adorabunt in conspectu ejus universæ familiæ gentium:
quoniam Domini est regnum, et ipse dominabitur gentium.
Manducaverunt et adoraverunt omnes pingues terræ; in conspectu ejus cadent omnes qui descendunt in terram.
Et anima mea illi vivet; et semen meum serviet ipsi.
Annuntiabitur Domino generatio ventura; et annuntiabunt cæli justitiam ejus populo qui nascetur, quem fecit Dominus.
my God, look upon me: why have you forsaken me? Far from my salvation are the words of my sins.
O my God, I shall cry by day, and you will not hear: and by night, and it shall not be reputed as folly in me.
But you dwell in the holy place, the praise of Israel.
In you have our fathers hoped: they have hoped, and you have delivered them. They cried to you, and they were saved: they trusted in you, and were not confounded.
But I am a worm, and no man: the reproach of men, and the outcast of the people. All they that saw me have laughed me to scorn: they have spoken with the lips, and wagged the head.
He hoped in the Lord, let him deliver him: let him save him, seeing he delights in him.
For you are he that have drawn me out of the womb: my hope from the breasts of my mother.
I was cast upon you from the womb. From my mother's womb you are my God, depart not from me.
For tribulation is very near: for there is none to help me.
Many calves have surrounded me: fat bulls have besieged me.
They have opened their mouths against me, as a lion ravening and roaring.
I am poured out like water; and all my bones are scattered.
My heart has become like wax melting in the midst of my bowels.
My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue has cleaved to my jaws: and you have brought me down into the dust of death.
For many dogs have encompassed me: the council of the malignant has besieged me.
They have dug my hands and feet. They have numbered all my bones.
And they have looked and stared upon me. They parted my garments amongst them; and upon my vesture they cast lots.
But you, O Lord, remove not your help to a distance from me; look towards my defence.
Deliver, O God, my soul from the sword: my only one from the hand of the dog. Save me from the lion's mouth; and my lowness from the horns of the unicorns.
I will declare your name to my brethren: in the midst of the church will I praise you.
You that fear the Lord, praise him: all you the seed of Jacob, glorify him.
Let all the seed of Israel fear him: because he has not slighted nor despised the supplication of the poor man.
Neither has he turned away his face form me: and when I cried to him he heard me.
With you is my praise in a great church: I will pay my vows in the sight of them that fear him.
The poor shall eat and shall be filled: and they shall praise the Lord that seek him: their hearts shall live for ever and ever.
All the ends of the earth shall remember, and shall be converted to the Lord: And all the kindreds of the Gentiles shall adore in his sight.
For the kingdom is the Lord's; and he shall have dominion over the nations.
All the fat ones of the earth have eaten and have adored: all they that go down to the earth shall fall before him.
And to him my soul shall live: and my seed shall serve him.
There shall be declared to the Lord a generation to come: and the heavens shall show forth his justice to a people that shall be born, which the Lord has made.
Tenebrae of Good Friday
Nocturn I: Psalms 2, 21, 26
Nocturn II: Psalms 37, 39, 53*
Nocturn III: Psalms 58, 87*, 93
Lauds: 50*, 142, 84, [Hab], 147
And notes on the next psalm in the series can be found here.
And notes on the next psalm in the series can be found here.