There are a few linguistic pitfalls inherent in the text of the Passion Narrative. Invariably, congregations say, “Prophecy!” where the text says, “Prophesy!” (Mk. 14:65) The first of those two words is a noun that can be used as a predicate or an exclamation; the second is a verb meant to be a taunt.
Later in the text, the priest has to read a tongue-twister, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani,” a slightly mangled bit of Hebrew. The Passion Narrative translates this Hebrew text for us; it says, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and adds that “Some of the bystanders who heard it said, ‘Look, he is calling Elijah’.” (Mk. 15:35)
At first glance, one might assume that Jesus was complaining because he felt abandoned by God. The bystanders seemed to think that Jesus was invoking the name of one of the great Hebrew Saints, perhaps as a plea for help.
In actual fact, Jesus was quoting the Scriptures. “Elee, Elee, lamah, azachtahnee” is the second line of Psalm 22. The Psalm begins with an instruction for the one who chants it, and then it says,
2 “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?
Why so far from my call for help,
from my cries of anguish?
3 My God, I call by day, but you do not answer;
by night, but I have no relief.
4 Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One;
you are the glory of Israel.
5 In you our fathers trusted;
they trusted and you rescued them.
6 To you they cried out and they escaped;
in you they trusted and were not disappointed.
7 But I am a worm, not a man,
scorned by men, despised by the people.
8 All who see me mock me;
they curl their lips and jeer;
they shake their heads at me:
9 “He relied on the Lord—let him deliver him;
if he loves him, let him rescue him.”
10 For you drew me forth from the womb,
made me safe at my mother’s breasts.
11 Upon you I was thrust from the womb;
since my mother bore me you are my God.
12 Do not stay far from me,
for trouble is near,
and there is no one to help.
13 Many bulls surround me;
fierce bulls of Bashan encircle me.
14 They open their mouths against me,
lions that rend and roar.
15 Like water my life drains away;
all my bones are disjointed.
My heart has become like wax,
it melts away within me.
16 As dry as a potsherd is my throat;
my tongue cleaves to my palate;
you lay me in the dust of death.
17 Dogs surround me;
a pack of evildoers closes in on me.
They have pierced my hands and my feet
18 I can count all my bones.
They stare at me and gloat;
19 they divide my garments among them;
for my clothing they cast lots.
20 But you, Lord, do not stay far off;
my strength, come quickly to help me.
21 Deliver my soul from the sword,
my life from the grip of the dog.
22 Save me from the lion’s mouth,
my poor life from the horns of wild bulls.
23 Then I will proclaim your name to my brethren;
in the assembly I will praise you:
24 “You who fear the Lord, give praise!
All descendants of Jacob, give honor;
show reverence, all descendants of Israel!
25 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.
26 I will offer praise in the great assembly;
my vows I will fulfill before those who fear him.
27 The poor] will eat their fill;
those who seek the Lord will offer praise.
May your hearts enjoy life forever!”
28 All the ends of the earth
will remember and turn to the Lord;
All the families of nations
will bow low before him.
29 For kingship belongs to the Lord,
the ruler over the nations.
30 All who sleep in the earth
will bow low before God;
All who have gone down into the dust
will kneel in homage.
31 And I will live for the Lord;
my descendants will serve you.
32 The generation to come will be told of the Lord,
that they may proclaim to a people yet unborn
the deliverance you have brought.” (1)
This Psalm is a type of Scriptural literature called “lamentation.” Lamentation, in the Scriptures, is an expression of grief or sorrow. It is a prayer of one afflicted, who does not lose faith, whose faithfulness becomes a saving example for others. Lamentation is prayer directed to God because God is the source of all consolation. Rather than a mere complaint, lamentation is an act of faith in God’s favor and providence. By quoting the beginning of this Psalm, Jesus was referring to the whole text, including the Psalm’s conclusion that expresses unwavering hope and faith in God.
The Passion Narrative uses this quote as a none too subtle statement about the various ways in which people view(ed) Jesus. The bystanders thought Jesus was crying out for help. People today are more likely to interpret Jesus’ words as despair. (This probably says something about our culture.)
These, and all the varied interpretations of Jesus, remind me of a famous quote by Jerome, the translator of the Latin Vulgate. In the Prologue of his Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, Jerome wrote that ignorance of the Scriptures equates to ignorance of Christ.(2) In his own inimitable way, Jerome was saying that authentic knowledge of Jesus comes only from the Scriptures and any interpretation of Jesus not based on the Scriptures is a choice to embrace falsehood.
One of the holy disciplines of Lent is to spend extra time daily in prayer with the Scriptures. This is more than a devotional act; it is the means by which we come to know Jesus. In the absence of daily prayer with the Scriptures we come to know falsehood rather than the Savior.
While you’re taking a moment’s rest from standing, reading, and speaking during the Passion Narrative, you might reflect on your understanding of Jesus. What comes to your mind when you think of the many things Jesus said? What do you see when you look upon the Crucified Christ? What thoughts are conjured up by the palm branches you hold in your hand? What is your response to the Passion reading that we experienced together a few minutes ago?
The response that God intends is the same response that the first disciples of Jesus made when they heard his preaching for the first time. We heard Mark’s account of the first disciples a couple months ago; they left their old lives immediately in order to be Jesus’ disciples. (Mk. 1:14-20)
There are a few challenges, linguistic and otherwise, contained in the Passion Narrative. The intent of the Passion Narrative, however, is not merely to challenge to our reading or comprehension skills. The primary intent of the Passion Narrative is to elicit a response from us.
There are many possible responses to the events recounted by the Passion Narrative. Some of the bystanders ridiculed Jesus; some people today repeat such ridicule with regard to belief in Jesus. After reading the Passion Narrative, we might respond with confusion over Jesus’ acquiescence to a death sentence. We might feel sympathy, curiosity, or even revulsion, over his great suffering.
Of the many possible responses to the Passion Narrative, only one is the appropriate response. The only appropriate response to the life and death of Jesus is to follow him, and the only way to be his follower is first to come to know him through the Scriptures.
If you spent some extra time during Lent reading, and praying with, the Scriptures, you’ve come to a deeper knowledge of who Jesus is. If you didn’t make time for Scripture reading during Lent, it’s not too late to begin. Prayer with the Scriptures must be a daily practice throughout the year. Otherwise, we live in ignorance of Christ Jesus.
(1) New American Bible Revised Edition (Washington, DC: Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, 1970, 1986, 1991, 2010), https://www.Biblegateway.com.
(2)Hieronymus Stridonensis, Prologus Commentariorum in Isaiam libri xviii, ed. Jacques-Paul Migne, vol. 24 of Patrologia Latina (Paris: Gariner Fratres, 1845), 17.