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The Death of Jesus in Matthew
By Brian Traynor, CP
THE PLACE OF LAMENT IN MATTHEW ‘S GOSPEL
In the Gospels there is very little emphasis on the physical sufferings of Jesus' Passion. The emphasis is more on the meaning of Jesus death and his suffering. The only mention of blood is in John's Gospel and there is mention in Luke's Gospel of Jesus’ sweat being ‘like blood’. There is no mention of blood in Matthew or Mark.
From people we know and the experiences they have had, death seems to be the event that triggers the most profound questions about life. John Denver wrote a song after his father died called "On the Wings of a Dream" which I have often passed on to people who have lost a parent. The song begins “Yesterday I had a dream about dying, about laying to rest and then flying , how the moment at hand is the only thing we really have, and I lay in my bed and I wonder, after all that's been said and is done for, why is it thus we are here, and so soon we are gone ? “
Death provides us with the opportunity to search for the deepest insights into life. Some people suggest that Psalm 22 was really the background or basis for the Passion story, or at least the early Passion story. Jesus died in Matthew's Gospel uttering the opening lines of that psalm "My God, my God why have you forsaken me"? Jesus did not die screaming as Mark recorded, instead He handed over his life spirit to God. Mark recorded the Centurion as saying “seeing the way Jesus died…”, but Matthew recorded the Centurion as saying “this is the Son of God” The Centurion was terrified by an earthquake and in awe of what he saw. This is what prompted him to respond with faith.
In order to appreciate the principal value of the Passion in Matthew, we need to reflect on 'the meaning of lament . We know it is not easy to let go of wholesome or beautiful things and there is a whole lesson in the Passion account of Matthew’s Gospel about the invitation to do this. ‘Lament’ is not bitterness and it is not criticism. It is an open expression of grief for what we have lost. A person cannot really lament unless he or she cares. It' is easy to let go of something that you don't care about, but it is not easy to let go of someone or something that you do care about.
Lament enables a person to wipe out bitterness and let go of the loss through an open expression of grief.. This can be seen clearly in Psalm 22. It is a prayer that leads Jesus to express absolute trust in God. The first part of the psalm is a real cry from the heart, and if one really listens to it carefully, there is no consolation – it is almost like a nightmare – empty and desolate. But in the second part there is a dramatic change vindicating what has occurred, and seeming to state that only in absolute emptiness can a person really discover God and truly find faith. The experience of the psalm seems to produce this effect and is an invitation to openly express grief.
It is interesting that Matthew dares to remember Jesus' Passion in this way, with Jesus lamenting, and intoning that particular psalm as he died. One could not imagine presenting the drams of the Passion of Jesus today, suggesting that Jesus died saying 'my God why have you deserted me' and that this is the prayer of the truly faithful man. Yet the Gospels made no apology for this.
In the Hebrew scriptures perhaps one of the classic examples of this experience is that time when the Israelites had gone to Babylon. Ezekiel spoke about the dry bones, asking if anything could be resurrected out of this absolute loss. Matthew wrote his Gospel soon after the temple has been destroyed (about 70AD) amid the feeling that all hope for a new Israel had been shattered. The past was crumbling and the future was uncertain. The questions being asked were "is it possible for us now to have a non-Jewish community, a Christian community that is based around non-Jews? Can we have unwashed Gentiles not only in the community but being the very basis of it?" Clearly such questions would have been very confusing.
We have seen something very similar in the post-Vatican II church. Some people have seen the whole background of what they thought was absolutely secure taken away and something new offered to them and we need to get in touch with the feelings that that brings. It's true too in religious life, I know that when I started with the Passionists we had things like public culpa when we had to kneel down in the dining room and confess some things that we had done, publicly. We had to get up at two o'clock in the morning for Matins and we also took the discipline (cord whip). This was less than forty years ago that we were doing that - and for some people to let go, of all that that represented was very painful. Some never had the opportunity to express it, to lament it, and I think it is particularly true that the average Catholic was never really given the opportunity to lament what was lost - they were just told "the Mass is now in English, we don't have Benediction, we don't have statues, we don't have Sodalities, get used to it" They didn't have an opportunity really to lament, but a lot of opportunities to be bitter and some people have never been healed of this bitterness.
St. Paul's letter to the Romans makes it clear that the early Church did not really fail out of a lack of pastoral planning but it actually grew out of failure. Paul gives a little description of all the things that were important to the Jews - the patriarchs, the Messiah himself, worship, their laws and customs - and yet all of these were gone and being taken over by Gentiles who actually became the foundation of the early community. So here we have the dying not of unpleasant things but of beautiful things and they are the most difficult things to let go. We need to understand the place of lament in that. We need to appreciate that for the Jews, their whole way of worship, their law, the temple, their language was all going to be lost forever. Unless we get into how that felt we can dismiss it fairly light hightedly.
There are some striking lessons that we can learn from their lament experience, The most obvious seems to be the way Jesus’ dying is presented in Matthew. It is his life breath that he hands over - his spirit - he gives back to God what God has given him. That' is raw trust amid all the darkness and all the uncertainty. The only thing that he's got is his trust in God. So this is not a faith based around security or if you make the parallel to the Jewish rules and regulations and promises, it's not a ‘pretty’ faith but a raw faith. I think too often in the past, we have presented people as being holy or as models of faith, who have been admired for their sense of control or their ability to maintain a strict morality or to adhere to all sorts of external rules and practices and that is far removed from biblical faith.
In Chapter 11 of the letter to the Hebrews there is mention of a number of people that we might regard as the heroes of faith, but they are very ordinary people. A lot of them are sinners or people who have failed, yet the phrase is used, "they are too good for this world". It is interesting that this litany finishes up saying that despite all these things that they did, these great heroes of faith, did not receive what was promised. We can read that and ask what is meant by "they didn't receive what was promised,?" These men and women of faith who acted in a certain way did not get what was promised to them. The chapter actually opens with a description of faith being 'the assurance of things that are hoped for'.
Often when we think of hope we hope for rain, or for pitifully ordinary things, but deep inside us we seek ‘the assurance of things that are hoped for’. That type of faith is quite different from ‘doing right things’ faith or ‘safe’ faith. In fact it's a security that comes from insecurity. This is quite the opposite of what many people understand faith to be, which is why many Catholics have said about post-Vatican II 'they have taken away our security'. The good news about is that they have got the opportunity perhaps for the first time to believe, to have faith - not in security, but in God!
The Old Testament faith was not one that was lived out for heavenly reward - they didn't have a common agreement that there was to be a heavenly reward. It was not a belief that "if I do this, good things will happen" or "I'll be rewarded" or that there is a particular heavenly ending. Rather, it was an honest expression of an individual's relationship with God. Their faith was not to get something. Abraham headed off into absolute uncertainty and insecurity, and he is regarded and tagged as the model of faith. This kind of faith expresses trust only in God not in all sorts of promises or securities. Abraham did not do the things that we have heard many people preach about as being necessary. Abraham didn't go to Mass on Sundays, he didn't refrain from eating meat on Fridays, he didn't get baptised, he didn't go through the Confirmation programme, nor did he live the faith the way it was presented to us in the past. So how could he have ‘made it’ because he didn't do the things that guarantee you heaven. Abraham put his faith in God. He responded to God's call not for heavenly reward but because he was responding to God..
We all have to face our own mortality and it gets a little bit easier to do this as you get a little bit older. Jesus himself said 'you can't add a centimetre of height for all the worrying that you do'. But as we age, or we see other people age, we realise that it's going to happen to all of us. It is said that our physical peak is somewhere between 22 and 24 years of age so we have to face reality when we are on the ‘downward’ slide. As we age, we recognise more clearly that we are not in control. There is nothing we can do to change that process despite all the artificial ways that people try to do it with dieting or medical procedures. We cannot change the fact that we are not in control of our life, that there is a process going on that is eventually going to lead to death and we see it most clearly I in the people that we love.
We see our parents and grandparents, aging, and not being able to do the things that they could. We come to realise that not only the outside but the inside too, is beyond our control. We can try to hide it from people, but when we come face to face with ourselves, we know are not in control of our life. Until we learn to let go and let God, until we learn to keep saying yes to the God in me and no to the me in me, we are fighting that reality or that truth that we are not in control. We are not living faith if we are doing. We are not putting our trust totally in God, what we are doing then is striving for security, for safety. That is not faith; faith is insecurity.
For some people there is no new journey; it is all done. These people have taken as many steps as they are going to take.. For example entering the seminary or committing to marriage is certainly a big journey, a big step, but it can't stop there. We can't say well I've taken this big step in faith and that's it. It is easy to get into some sort of secure lifestyle that suggests God will guarantee me that if I stay on the straight track then I've done all I need to do. Life and faith call us to consistent stepping out. The inner journey has to be continually repeated in our lives. The priest for example who won't risk a new ministry or a new parish, who won't accept change of any kind, may well teach profoundly about religion but what has he got to say about faith?
I know since my ordination in 1973 I've been asked several times to move interstate which has meant not only changing my ministry and my circle of friends, but also the community that I have lived in. Each time I have been sad to go, and certainly have never asked to move, but I've found each time new opportunities opened up that never could have had I stayed in what I thought was the better place.
Faith is always a journey to somewhere new. It is not staying still, it is letting go and sometimes it calls for letting go of what makes sense to us. It can hurt to leave and we can only do it if we've got full confidence that if we put our lives in God's hands everything will be ‘well’. We hear Peter in the Gospel at one stage saying to Jesus “everyone is looking for you”. Jesus had been out praying. Now he is told “everyone's looking for you” - there are so many needs here.
Jesus who has been praying says "we must go somewhere else'! If we just touch in on what was happening there, obviously there were needs in that town and Jesus was meeting some of them. He went away to think about where he should be going and what he should be doing and Peter tells him "the people want you to stay, there is work here for you to do". But Jesus’ prayer calls him on to somewhere else and he leaves those needs behind and goes somewhere new.
In the Book of Job one chapter after another is a litany of complaint against God and you don't hear anything from God. Just silence! There is complaint after complaint, question after question and then eventually when God does speak but doesn't give a single answer; just 85 questions! It seems if that has anything to teach us, it is that it is more important to ask the right questions than demand the right answers. Our journey of faith is giving over control and the Passion in Matthew particularly invites us to understand that.
There are all sorts of people who suffer grief and failure and they need to be allowed to lament. They need to be able to express how they feel and acknowledge the hurt. Matthew reminds us not to forget to lament in ourselves and within our community. In our Catholic community there are many things that people have not had had an opportunity to lament. For some it is their piety, their devotion or their way of understanding God, for others it is lack of lay involvement in decision making, the inferior role of women, or the misuse of authority. From true lament new things can come. People need to take the opportunity to name and to let out their sorrow and find there some new confidence, especially that they need to hand over to God as Psalm 22 expresses so clearly. We must remember however, that lament is not bitterness, it is not criticism, it is prayer.
My mother died of motor neurone disease and I was home visiting her on one occasion. She was going to the hairdresser and I noticed that she was a bit unsteady on her feet before she left and I was a worried about how she would go driving the car. Then I thought I'm not going to take any more of her dignity away. She had already lost the ability to speak, she used to slur her words a lot and dribble when she tried to speak or laugh, which she found difficult. I watched her as she got in the car and reverse out of the driveway. She crashed into the car that I had, the Passionist community car. I wasn't too impressed then. I thought I should have said something because she could have been injured.
I ran down to see her and she was alright. I drove her to the hairdresser and waited for her. She had obviously been thinking about the accident when she was at the hairdresser because when we came home we sat down and had a cup of tea and she wrote me a note which said "that's going to have to be the last time I drive the car - that's another thing that God's asking me to give up”. As we dialogued further by writing, she added “this is perhaps the biggest thing because I've lost my independence now; I can't go out anymore unless someone takes me.'
I sat with her and asked her to enlarge upon that, on the implications of that and how did she feel about it. She wrote about it and said “ knew it was going to have to come some time”. I played a song for her that I had been given not so long before. It is a hymn written by Chuck Gerardts called "Lay your Burden Down". I wasn't watching her at first but when I turned around, the tears were running down her face but she was smiling and she wrote, 'that song says to me what I have to do, I have to lay my burden down at the foot of the cross and let it go”. I think it was the opportunity for her to express how she felt rather than just say 'oh that's okay I can't drive the car anymore, that gave her peace. She never again found it difficult from that time on. This became one thing that she found easy to let go of once she had the opportunity to really reflect on the truth that it was going to cost her. She took the opportunity to express it and to lament about it and then hand it over to God.
One of the things that it seems some priests don’t seem to do so well, is to help people to pray. The prayer that ‘ordinary’ people need isn't a modality of prayer or a particular system. They need to be able to pray their own experience. I think unfortunately a lot of the prayer that has been passed on to lay people, has come from religious who try to put on to them religious styles of prayer - the prayer of the church for example, or scriptural based prayer that really they don't find immediately easy to identify with because it doesn't express where they're at. What they need is help to see that it's okay to express ordinary hurt and suffering, confusion, doubt, and their own experiences in ordinary everyday words. Many need to be able to lament because a lot of them are losing. They are losing children, they are losing relationships, they are losing security. It's a part of being married, part of being a family.s
Recently a woman with four children was telling me that, the first three children gave her a very harmonious little family but the fourth one has turned that family into chaos and she said 'I just can't cope anymore'. The parents are a beautiful couple, and in the opinion of other people would seem to have it all together. But she said 'we just can't cope anymore, I find myself bursting into tears because this little boy is wrecking our home” She said “everyone thinks we have got it all together”, but we’re drowning.
Another woman told me told me 'I find myself bursting into tears all the time now, trying to look after my teenage son who is having clashes with his Dad which results in clashes between my husband and I, between my son and I and then I’m impatient with our young baby when she cries'. These women don't need to pray with someone else’s words, unless they express their pain and hope. They need to lament. They need to say what's difficult and to find their own words to put their confidence in God. We need to encourage people like these women to appreciate the value of lament, Some people don't need counsellors, they just need a good friend or a good ear - someone who genuinely cares and listens to them name their pain, so that they can hand over to God.
If people can do that, then their genuine experience of suffering can be transformed into a life modelled on Jesus and seen in his Passion. More and more people are being encouraged, to express grief with the aid of methodologies such as Elizabeth Kubler-Ross offered, and it is possible to help people to recognise that through their grief they can let go. This is better than finding a pious or comfortable answer. We have to accept the inevitable end that it does hurt to step out in faith. It does hurt to let go and sometimes there is no answer to comfort us, as we see in times of tragedy and natural disasters.
The Passion highlights the contradiction that many people experience in everyday life. That title of the book "Why do Bad Things happen to Good People", is the experience of many people. They ask 'why is this happening to us?’, or 'how do we cope with this?’ The language we use and the issues that we pray about allow us to express open grief and move beyond it. The more we feel trapped by praying other people's words and not our own, the more possible it is to say very nice words but not pray with faith.
I visited a woman in hospital named Sheila, who later died of the same disease that my mother died from. She told me that when she found out that she had this disease she decided that she needed to have a good talk with God, so she drove out to a national park where there was nobody around . Sheila got out of the car and yelled at the top of her voice to God. She said "If you want me, you are going to have to fight bloody hard because my kids want me too". She said while she was expressing all this anger and yelling out at God she saw a snake go past and she was normally petrified of snakes but she was so angry that she looked down at the snake and said "and you can nick off too".!
I thought what great prayer it was for a person to be able to honestly say how she felt and tell God that “he was going to have a fight”. Sheila was at Mass one Sunday and she looked over at a statue of Jesus and it looked to her as if it had a smile on its face.
She prayed, "I don't know if anyone heard me, but I said, “You might be winning but you don't have to be smug about it." This was the way that she prayed and she asked me was that blasphemous? She did not pray with any pretence. She felt very reassured to know that someone else could encourage her to pray that way and to see how she moved into such an accepting death. Before Sheila died, she handed over her two children to be looked after, one to each of her two sisters. This was an indication that because she had been able to pray as she really was, and enter into a deep faith encounter with God, she was able to let go.
Matthew's Passion invites us to recognise the power of honest lament. The ultimate place of true faith is a journey into the unknown not into the known and the secure. That journey will lead us to join in the work of ultimate reconciliation. Then we can join those people listed in Hebrews Chapter 11 and all the great men and great women of faith that we have known or read about, who have gone before us and have brought God alive even though they themselves have died. This is the ultimate act of faith.
Brian Traynor CP