Gospel "Variations" on Psalm 22
By Paul Zilonka, C.P.
Few words of Jesus puzzle Christians as much as his terrifying words from the cross:
My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?
(Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34). Their ominous tone pervades the presentation of Jesus in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew, which stress that Jesus was abandoned by his closest disciples, betrayed by one who shared his friendship, and surrounded on Calvary by those who mocked him.
People unfamiliar with the Bible are often surprised to discover that this prayer of Jesus is actually the opening words of Psalm 22. The psalm itself, with its disturbing sentiment of distance from God, is one of several dozen laments that enabled the people of Israel to voice their anguish of body, mind and spirit. In the psalm, images of vulnerability mingle with descriptions of inhuman threat: "I am a worm, hardly human...Bulls surround me...lions that rend and roar" (Ps 22:7, 13, 14).
Despite their excruciating cries, the laments are characteristically confident in God's help, no matter how grave the present circumstances. "God has not spurned or disdained the misery of this poor wretch, did not turn away from me, but heard me when I cried out." (Ps 22:25) This balance of honesty about suffering along with persistent faith in a silent God made Psalm 22 influential in the evolution of the Passion Narratives in all four Gospels.
Old themes made new
An example from classical music may help us appreciate what role Psalm 22 played in the composition of the Passion Narratives. Classical musicians often compose new arrangements of well-known musical themes. The new musical piece -- the genre is called "variations" -- includes the original brief theme in some way, but allows the composer wide latitude in reinterpretation of the mood, speed and overall style of the original musical statement. This gesture reveals both esteem for the original composer, and the creative imagination and ingenuity of the imitator.
Indeed, it is quite an art for the avid listener to detect the original theme in its new context. For example, Beethoven in a piano concerto celebrated a theme of Paisiello in six different ways, leading the listener on a merry chase as the original theme jumps from the right hand to the left hand or moves beneath the surface of many other notes, only occasionally becoming audible in all its pristine clarity.