Minutes before he died on the cross, Jesus cried out in a loud voice: “Eli, Eli, la’ma sabach-tha’ni?”—“My God, my God, why have you abandoned me!” (Matthew 27:46, Mark 15:34).
This lament, considered Jesus’ fourth last word before he died, is one of the Seven Last Words, compiled from the passion and death narratives of the four evangelists, which are reflected on in live broadcasts and in face-to-face sharing in various churches on Good Friday.
It has perplexed and confused even believers. Did Jesus reproach God and surrender to despair before he died? And the big question: Isn’t this a sin?
The answer is no, according to Pope Francis II. In a homily during a morning Mass early on in his papacy, the Holy Father said a priest he knew once told a woman who was complaining to God about her misfortune: “But, madam, that is a form of prayer. Go ahead with it.”
The Pope agreed with the priest and added, “To lament before God is not a sin.”
Commenting on her forthcoming book, “Redeeming Jesus’ Name,” Sr. Maureena Fritz told the alumni of Bat Kol Institute for Jewish Studies during a Zoom meeting held to celebrate the institute’s 40th anniversary that Jesus lived and died a Jew.
Minutes before he died, Jesus uttered a Jewish prayer of lament. His cry to his Father on being abandoned is the opening verse of Psalm 22, one of the most popular psalms in the Hebrew Scriptures.
The Book of Psalms 1-72 states that the cry of Jesus is “important because it validates the cry of lament. Lament is not just an Old Testament thing; it is also part of the New Testament.”
The complaint or lament is a most common type of prayer among Jews. A study says that of the 150 psalms (in their present form) in the Old Testament, about 70% are psalms of lament, either communal or individual
Scholars have pointed out that Psalm 22 is a model on how believers are to pray before God—that is, with truth and full honesty. It is good to share with God what hurts us, and not just keep it inside us.
In his book, ”It’s OK to be NOT OK,” Pastor Rico Villanueva, a Filipino Bible scholar, says that many Christians today do not know how to lament. “Sunday after Sunday, I watched the growing rift between what we were experiencing and what we were declaring through our songs and testimonies,” he says.
He remembers that even a week after the terrible storm “Ondoy” struck, the Sunday worship did not mention anything about the devastation, loss and suffering experienced: ”Even when our homes and villages get flooded, we continue to sing happy songs!”
Villanueva also notes that in the sharing session during Church gatherings, the emphasis is on positive testimonies only, and that negative emotions like despair, sadness and loneliness, negative actions like struggling, mourning, weeping, and questioning God, and negative situations like failure, accidents and calamities are often discouraged and deleted.
Thus, he says, “Because there is no room in the Church for our negative experiences, we do not know how to respond when tragic events occur.” Worse, he adds, “people also learn to deny their true feelings” and “feel obliged to create their own ‘virtual identity’—the ‘always OK’ image.”
For Villanueva, the message of the lament psalms can be summed up into: “It’s OK to be NOT OK.” That is, it’s OK to be down, sad, afraid, and angry, and it’s OK to struggle, to weep, to question God, and to fail.
In Psalm 22, the shame, pain, fear and brutality suffered are told in detail. There is no sugar-coating, no coverup.
Brugggermann and Bellinger Jr., in their 2014 book on the Psalms, say Jesus’ cry likewise concerns real suffering, real abandonment and real death. They note that as in the cry of the innocent psalmist, Jesus begins with a statement of intimacy: “My God, my God” is a Jewish prayer of complaint and petition often prayed, not by strangers, but by those with “a long history of positive interaction with Adonai.”
So, did Jesus despair before God before he died? Perhaps, for a moment. The opening lines of Psalm 22 begin as a lament, but it concludes on a note of triumphant joy and confidence. Likewise, Jesus’ last words, the seventh Last Word, was a prayer of full confidence and trust: “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.”
The big lesson? Jesus, praying like a Jew, has taught us to build an intimate relationship with God, to call out to God and trust him in good and bad times. Jesus teaches us to be honest with our thoughts and feelings, even the unhappy and complicated ones, before God.
And yes, it is OK to lament.
This report contains excerpts from the teaching commentary written by Minerva Generalao in https://www.ratisbonne.org.il/blog/sunday-readings-commentaries/palm-sunday-a/ The author is an alumna of the Bat Kol Institute for Christian Studies, now the Jerusalem-based ISPS Ratisbonne Bat Kol-Christian Centre for Jewish Studies. —Ed.