In a crisis, it is normal to feel perplexed in prayer. Someone wrote to me this week that he feels ‘discombobulated’ this Lent. We are in the midst of a health crisis and an economic crisis. How has the coronavirus affected your relationship with God? Is your prayer filled with trust and peace, or are you perplexed and anxious? Do you feel like you know how to pray right now, or are you lost in the desert?
Jesus’ plea from the cross is a beautiful prayer in crisis. He cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt. 27:46) That is the first verse of Psalm 22, but Jesus was praying the whole psalm that day, not just one verse. The psalm has such rich images, and his prayer was much more than a cry of anguish. Below I have cited the first five verses of Psalm 22. As you read these verses, imagine what Jesus was expressing to his Father in this prayer.
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why so far from my call for help, from my cries of anguish? My God, I call by day, but you do not answer; by night, but I have no relief. Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One; you are the glory of Israel. In you our fathers trusted; they trusted and you rescued them. To you they cried out and they escaped; in you they trusted and were not disappointed.” (Ps. 22:2-6)
Jesus prayed honestly. He candidly exposed his struggles and anguish. He speaks openly of feeling abandoned. “Why are you so far from my call for help, from my cries of anguish?” Although he cried out in distress, he did not despair. He still trusts because he knows that God has always been faithful over the years. “In you our fathers trusted; they trusted and you rescued them. To you they cried out and they escaped; in you they trusted and were not disappointed.”
Despite feeling forsaken, he trusts that the Father is faithful. He shares his feelings of being forsaken, but he knows that God hears and will never abandon him. In these days, we need to pray honestly and express any sense of fear or abandonment. Yet, we ought to trust. We trust in God because of his constant fidelity.
Psalm 22 is a lament. Psalms of lament express human suffering openly because of deep trust. A lament psalm expresses raw agony with steadfast faith. If you do not know how to pray right now, then go to the psalms. They have taught me so much about praying. Jesus often quoted from the psalms, and it seems that he had them memorized. During the passion, he quoted from Psalms 22, 31 and 42. If Jesus learned how to pray from the psalms, then we should use them too.
By the end of Psalm 22, the suffering person praises God for delivering him from suffering. Likewise, this praise of God was moving in Jesus’ heart on the cross. Listen to the praise of God in verses near the end of the psalm. “I will proclaim your name to my brethren; in the midst of the assembly I will praise you: ‘You who fear the Lord, praise him; all you descendants of Jacob, give glory to him; revere him, all you descendants of Israel!’ For he has not spurned or disdained the misery of this poor wretch, did not turn away from me, but heard me when I cried out. I will offer praise in the great assembly.” (Ps. 22:23-26) Jesus teaches us how to pray in agonizing suffering. He shows us what faith looks like in the midst of feeling abandoned.
Our prayer should be even more confident than the psalmist who wrote Psalm 22. Why? Because we know that God raised Jesus from the dead. We know that the Risen Lord is with us and accompanies us. He does not always keep us from suffering, but he empowers us in the midst of suffering. Through the Holy Spirit, he gives us his strength to never give up, to persevere in all things. He shares with us his immense trust in the Father’s love.
What a gift we have in Jesus’ prayer! He teaches us to cry out in distress, to be honest about our anguish and suffering. At the same time, he teaches us to never give up. To always trust in God’s love.
Sometime this Sunday, pray Psalm 22 mindful of the cross and resurrection. Pray it as a believer who knows the paschal mystery – that God raised Jesus from the dead. This is our mystery too. As St. Paul said, “Are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life.” (Rom. 6:3-4) Through Baptism, the mystery of his dying and rising is at work in us.
Then pray Psalm 22 a second time – for those suffering from COVID-19, healthcare workers, and all who find themselves perplexed. In crisis it is normal to feel perplexed, anxious, or distressed. Bring those feelings to prayer and speak about them openly, but with certain faith and perfect trust.