Passion Sunday (Ages 9-12): The Prayer of Jesus
(full reading: Matthew 26.14 - 27.66)
(Begin by reading the portion of the Gospel provided. Sometimes it is good to have someone read it to you. The Word is meant to be heard.)
Listen to the Gospel and Reflection
This Sunday as Holy Week begins, the Church gives us two Gospel readings to consider: Jesus entering Jerusalem while the crowds wave palm branches, and St. Matthew's whole account of Jesus' Passion from the Last Supper to his death. We get a picture of almost the whole story—without the greatest event of all-—before we spend the week examining each moment.
The last words that Jesus speaks, the words he groans as he is about to die, the words the bystanders misunderstand, draw us in.
Jesus cried with a loud voice, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’
Why do the bystanders not know what he is saying? These are words that any devout person knows. These are the words that begin Psalm 22:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? (Psalm 22:1)
In Jesus' time, people understand that to say the first line of psalm is the same as praying the whole psalm. Saying the first line means the whole. (Even today, in moments of extreme stress, sometimes people will exclaim, "Hail Mary! Hail Mary!" over and over. In their fear or distress, they cannot think of all the words to the prayer, but that those first words mean the whole thing.)
So, when Jesus cries, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ he is praying Psalm 22. What can we learn from Jesus' prayer at the moment of his death?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest. (Psalm 22:2)
Jesus recalls all the moments he has been praying to God all this long day, and also, perhaps, the night he has just spent in the Garden of Olives, when the apostles slept while he prayed, finding no rest.
Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. (Psalm 22:3)
Even as he is dying, Jesus praises God. "You are holy," he prays. He knows that the prayers of praise of all the Jewish people have for centuries been making a throne for God who is the source of all goodness, of all holiness. He adds his praise to theirs.
In you our ancestors trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them.
To you they cried, and were saved; in you they trusted, and were not put to shame. (Psalm 22:4-5)
He reminds God of God's saving actions in the past. Jesus knows that God is the One to trust, even now as he is dying. Even now when it seems that all hope has died.
But I am a worm, and not human; scorned by others, and despised by the people.
All who see me mock at me; they make mouths at me, they shake their heads;
‘Commit your cause to the Lord; let him deliver—let him rescue the one in whom he delights!’ (Psalm 22:6-8)
He hears the scorn of the soldiers, of the bandits also crucified, of the people standing around waiting for him to die. He hears their taunts to save himself, those echoes of the devil's dares in the desert. In his prayer, he tells God of his situation, of the scorn that surrounds him.
Yet it was you who took me from the womb; you kept me safe on my mother’s breast.
On you I was cast from my birth, and since my mother bore me you have been my God.
Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help. (Psalm 22:9-11)
At the moment of his death, when everyone rejects him, Jesus recalls Mary his mother. In his prayer, he recalls how God kept his family safe from Herod as they fled to Egypt. His whole life has been devoted to God and even though all seems lost and there is no one to help him, he does not forget that. He knows who his God is. Jesus does not doubt. Instead, he calls on God to remain near.
my mouth is dried up like a potsherd, my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death. (Psalm 22:15)
He is thirsty, but he does not drink the wine offered to him. He knows it is God's will that he is doing. He knows he will die soon. He tells God of his thirst. God knows.
They stare and gloat over me; they divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots. (Psalm 22:17b-18)
He sees the soldiers greedily dividing up his clothes. He feels the delight of those who have condemned him to death. So who does he turn to? What does he ask?
But you, O Lord, do not be far away! O my help, come quickly to my aid! (Psalm 22:19)
Jesus asks God to be near. God is his help, and he is not afraid to ask God to help him quickly.
And then, Jesus' prayer takes an interesting turn:
From the horns of the wild oxen you have rescued me. (Psalm 22:21)
Jesus says he has already been rescued. What can he mean?
I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you:
You who fear the Lord, praise him! (Psalm 22:22-23)
Jesus tells God that he will tell others about God. When will he do this? After death? He will praise God still! Even to death? Yes! In his prayer, he tells others to praise God, too. Why? Why should we praise God?
For he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him. (Psalm 22:24)
Jesus has not yet died, he has not yet risen to new life, but already he knows that God has heard his cry.
The poor shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the Lord. May your hearts live for ever! (Psalm 22:26)
Even now, when it seems like he has failed, Jesus keeps before him the great Plan of God—an end to hunger and all to be satisfied, an end to death and all hearts to live for ever. Listen:
All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him. (Psalm 22:27)
This is Parousia, when all shall know, all shall remember, all families will worship. It is the promise made to Abraham fulfilled. Jesus sees it in the moment of his death.
To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, and I shall live for him. (Psalm 22:29)
He knows! He has not despaired, he knows! He knows that he will be raised to new life, and he knows that those who have died shall also live to bow before God.
and then in his dying breath, whom does he think of? Whom does he remember in his prayer?
Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord,
and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it. (Psalm 22:30-31)
A people yet unborn?
Jesus never loses sight of the whole picture. From his birth to his death to the resurrection to the Parousia, he holds the Plan of God in his vision. And at the moment of the great offering of his life, in his prayer to God, Jesus thinks of us.