For millennia, the historical church has read and studied the “last words” of Yeshua’s crucifixion during lent and in preparation for the Easter Holy week. But I think this tradition has a very special and unique value for Messianic Jews and those who affiliate with us. In fact, I think it has the potential to help us contemplate anew that great sacrifice of the Messiah, but also to restore the Jewish context of the besorot (good news) and bring Yeshua into the preparation for the Jewish High Holidays.
Perhaps this needs a little more explanation. Between the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av (usually in July in North America), the Jewish calendar enters a period of mourning for the destruction of the temple, and three haftarot of admonition are read. Following the 9th of Av there is a cycle of seven haftarot of consolation from the Book of Isaiah leading up to Rosh Hashanah, acknowledging that G-d has promised to never leave nor forsake Israel. Many Messianic Jewish congregations have adopted a lectionary that correlates three besorot which commemorate Yeshua’s death and seven besorot that commemorate Yeshua’s resurrection during this last quarter of the Jewish calendar. This reading cycle points us to the truth that Yeshua, as the “one-man Israel”, embodies in his person the meaning of the temple, the holy city, and Jewish history as a whole. His suffering sums up and purifies Israel’s suffering, and his resurrection will bring about Israel’s ultimate restoration.
So why read and study Yeshua’s dibberot acharit (last words or statements)? Why should we prolong the agony of crucifixion when we can elaborate the glory of resurrection? I believe it is in the recognition and engagement with trauma, that we become liberated from it. In the darkest hours we must hold on to the light of promise. I think it axiomatic that which we choose to ignore maintains power over us. Yeshua’s suffering liberates us from the power of death, and his final dibberot give us the authority together to live life with hope.
Here are the seven statements that I have been contemplating during this period of consolation.
Week 1 – “Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” Luke 23:34
Week 2 – “Truly I tell you that you will be with me in Gan Edan.” Luke 23:43
Week 3 – “Woman behold your son…Behold your mother.” Yochanon 19:26-27
Week 4 – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Matthew 27:46
Week 5 – “I am thirsty” Yochanon 19: 28
Week 6 – “It is finished” Yochanon 19:30
Week 7 – “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Luke 23:46
This being the fourth week of consolation, let’s examine this horrific, yet familiar statement. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Matthew 27:46
These words draw us into the life and suffering of Israel, a life of trauma and humiliation. As those who have lived through ancient occupations and genocides, crusades, inquisitions, pogroms, and the European Holocaust, we should not be surprised by the words of Yeshua the Jew, Yeshua King of the Jews. But it cannot be ignored that for the last two millennia most of Israel’s suffering has been at the hands of those who claimed to march under the banner of Christ!
Sholem Asche the famous Yiddish playwright draws a compelling comparison in his controversial monogram One Destiny: An Epistle to the Gentiles,
Hemmed in by a ring of death with bayonets and rifles on the streets of the ghetto, huddled in burning synagogues along the crusaders paths, and on the way to the inquisitors’ stakes, Jewish martyrs prayed, sang and cried out to God. The same outcry that was heard on the cross from he who gave his life to save the world, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachtani?” – “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?
Marc Chagall also identifies the suffering of Yeshua with the suffering of Israel in the 1938 painting the White Crucifixion. The painting depicts a crucified Yeshua with a tallis girding his loins, towering over a horrified shtetl engulfed in flames. Yeshua does not replace the totality of Israel’s past, present and future, rather he gives amplified meaning to these. In these final dibberot he invites us into the life of marginalization but offers us the hope that comes with endurance, the endurance of Israel, the endurance of G-d’s only begotten Son.
Jewish theologian Michael Wyschogrod wrote in his seminal book Body of Faith,
The hope of Israel is in the deliverance of its Messiah, the hope that prevents the past from gaining complete hegemony over the present. Because there waits in the future a transformation of the human condition such as has never been known before. The saving acts of God will be unexpected, revising much of the previously held wisdom, bringing into being a new heaven and a new earth in which not only the body of Israel will be circumcised but also its heart. The circumcised body of Israel is the dark, carnal presence through which redemption makes its way in history. Salvation is of the Jews because the flesh of Israel is the abode of the divine presence in the world. It is the carnal anchor that God has sunk into the soil of creation.
Yeshua’s last words are often our own words. During life’s trials, we can call out with that same desperate echoing of Psalm 22. This has been a year of challenge. The pandemic which has already claimed over four million lives worldwide is now in an endemic state, but the fear and division still remains. Drought and wildfires engulf the pacific northeast and every quadrant of the planet. Nuclear proliferation and the threat of war is a reality. Too often we respond with anger and recrimination of ourselves, others and eventually even G-d. Yet we can choose to have confidence that the Holy One who was present with Yeshua is present with us through every challenge. His cry is not that of dereliction, rather it is the empathic voice of Israel’s long-awaited Messiah.
So as we contemplate this week the final dibberot of Yeshua we can also meditate the words of the shaliach,
Who, though existing in the form of God, did not consider being equal to God a thing to be grasped. But He emptied Himself— taking on the form of a slave, becoming the likeness of men and being found in appearance as a man. He humbled Himself— becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. For this reason, God highly exalted Him and gave Him the name that is above every name, that at the name every tongue profess that Yeshua the Messiah is Lord— to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:6-11 TLV)