It’s All True
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.
Once you’ve been betrayed by someone whom you’ve trusted, two things happen, and it’s hard to know which is most devastating.
First, you learn that this person, or relationship, or institution, or Way Things Have Always Been, render your investment of time, vulnerability, and faith as utterly dismissible, utterly misplaced, and utterly for naught.
Second, you learn that if it’s possible to be betrayed by this one whom you trusted with all your being, it is possible to be betrayed by anyone whom you trust.
With that in tow, you can never trust in the same way again.
You can lose faith in faith.
The two verses topping the blog come from Psalm 22.
It’s the psalm from which we hear these wrenching words on the dying Jesus’ lips, words lifted from the very first verse of what is nothing less than a hymn of betrayal:
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?”
In these three holy days, we tend to focus on this verse, and perhaps also on the writer’s words a bit further down the psalm’s pike, verses which describe not just the psalmist’s despair, but Jesus’ despair, anguish reflected centuries later in his torment on the cross too.
But this year, it’s the above passage, these two verses quoted at the very top, that won’t let my spirit go.
Look at them again: “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.”
First, God is identified as a midwife.
This God rendered almost exclusively in the Christian tradition as male, as father, as baptized omnipotent Zeus, here this God is the woman who ‘took’ (but all the more literally, in the Hebrew, ‘pulled’ or ‘yanked’) the child from the womb (belly [!] in Hebrew).
And—as midwives are wont to do—this God knew to bring the safely delivered infant safely to the mother’s breast to suckle.
In that move, God the Midwife provided milk, bonding, and oxytocin to shrink the uterus and calm the spirits of mother and child.
But, magically and suddenly, in the next verse, God the Midwife morphs into God the Mother.
God now becomes the breast-bearer, the life-giver, the embracer.
(And people say that God is male. Harrumph.)
I often draw people to scriptural references and to theological notions that God is a woman and mother, not because I feel God is female rather than male—God transcends gender—but rather because when one thinks of a woman and a mama one naturally conjures up images of tenderness, of suppleness, of softness, of fierce protection, of enveloping arms and hands that wipe tears and exclaim in joy.
It’s a stark welcome and faithful contrast to images of God the Father, which can be naturally associated with sternness, criticism, judgmentalism, power, authority, and evocable fear. To make the point, for a week—better more—pray to Heavenly Mother rather than Heavenly Father, or Mother God rather than Father God, and see if or how your perception of and relationship to God changes.
So how radical is this: the writer of Psalm 22 grounds their understanding of God as woman, first as midwife, and then as mother.
But how all the more disorienting, then, that it’s this God, this life-creator/life-bringer/life-sustainer/life-cherisher to whom the psalmist cries out for protection, who suddenly, no longer laying the psalmist on the mother’s breast, later lays the hymnist in the “dust of death!”
From life-giving breast to death-dealing dust.
That right there is a betrayal of archetypal power.
And that right there is precisely what Jesus felt on the cross.
For all the times that Jesus called God abba, ‘father,’ at his moment of death, he called to God as imma, as ’mother.’
That’s breathtaking, and breathtakingly tragic.
Reading the texts in these Holy Days, those who loved and followed him felt the same tragic betrayal too.
They knew the psalm.
They trusted Jesus.
They put their faith in them.
They gave their lives to him.
He’d given them new life.
But now, there they were, in the dust at the base of the cross, in the dust of the road bringing his limp body to the tomb, in the dust that swirled as the stone was rolled before the cave’s mouth.
Life to dust, the lot of them.
Holy Saturday is not Easter.
It’s not Good Friday either, of course.
On this day one enters this liminal space between experiencing the bewilderment of betrayal and the recognition that one must trust again to live again.
On this day we encounter the disorienting sensibility of knowing that one has good reason to have lost faith…
See, that’s it.
Holy Saturday is the day of ‘and yets’ and ‘still and even sos’ and ‘neverthelesses.’
It’s a day when, despite it all, one still feels the stirrings of faith pulling oneself into belief—dare we say trust?—that despair must be refused, cynicism must be quashed, hope must be given room to root.
Roman Catholic theologian Anthony Kelly writes:
“Optimism is no bad thing in itself. It is a kind of implicit confidence that things are going well in the present situation…Optimism is happy enough with the system. In contrast, genuine hope is always ‘against hope.’ It begins where optimism reaches the end of its tether. Hope stirs when the secure system shows signs of breaking down. Hope is at home in the world of the unpredictable where no human logic or expectation is in control…In this respect, it is never far from humility, for it acknowledges that in birth and in death…human existence is never a realm of total control. We are not the center of the universe that has brought us forth, and the ultimate.” (Anthony Kelly, Eschatology and Hope, Orbis Press, 2013. P. 5.
Holy Saturday is a day for honesty and for hope.
Optimism has reached the end of its tether.
Hope, like grace, is what comes about precisely when a very different response seems to be called for, reasonable responses like despair or fear.
But hope bridges the abyss of betrayal and begins to lead one to faith, maybe even joy, again.
Turns out that the psalmist discovers this truth too, even within the confines of the hymn.
This God “did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted,” but rather showed the divine face again, and heard the writer’s cries.
So not only does the psalmist wrap up the hymn by saying “I shall live for him,” but the author speaks of those who are not yet born, of “posterity” and “future generations.”
Betrayal be banished, despair be damned.
That psalmist is throwing his/her/their lot to life.
The truth is we want to rush to that sensation, that posture, that way of being.
We want to rush to Easter.
But the truth also is, the day-to-day truth is, there are good reasons to feel despair, to feel abandoned, to feel betrayed.
Whether we are talking the ravages of illness or of tyrants or of zealots or of capitalists or of victimizers or of cancer, brain injuries, ticks, the stomach flu, and unnecessarily complex tax forms, life is not what we want it to be, and is not what it should be.
I’ll be the first to tell you, no one has a good answer as to why these hardships exist, and if anyone says that they have it figured out, walk away.
There is good reason to feel betrayed by God.
If Jesus felt betrayed, as did the psalmist whose words were in Jesus’ mouth while dying, then so can we.
Though I won’t be the first to tell you—that would be the women on Easter morning, thank you very much, not the men, who skedaddled and were content with wallowing despair and self-imposed impotence—I will tell you this:
Brimming with the news that arrives with the dawn of Easter, we know that God is not a God of betrayal but of promise.
We know that God does not will or create suffering but calls life out of it.
We know—by faith and sometimes even by experience—that this is true not just by looking back at God’s intentions as seen in the first stories of creation, but by looking forward to, leaning in to, our own discovery of the empty tomb.
Today, it’s all true.
The disorienting betrayal.
The asphyxiating despair.
The defiant hope.
The anticipatory joy.
Today, and, in fact, every day, the whole lot of it is true.
Commentaries by Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney, a womanist theologian who studies the First (Old/Older) Testament; readings by Rev. Dr. Soon-Cha Rah, particularly his book Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times; insights from Second (New/Newer) Testament Theologian Esau McCaulley, Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope; and insights about the feminine metaphors of God in Psalm 22 as noted by Jonathan D. Parker in The Expository Times, October 19, 2019, in his article “‘My Mother, My God,’ ‘Why Have You Forsaken Me?’: An Exegetical Note on Psalm 22 as Christian Scripture,” were not only helpful for my reflection on these Holy Three Days, but also are worth the read—especially by white and white male Christians—to be all the more informed and enriched by womanist, black, Asian, and feminist theologians and theological perspectives.