It’s hard to believe Psalm 22 was written a millennium before Jesus was nailed to the cross. This messianic psalm, which describes the travails of David, surely prefigures Christ.
In a way, it is reminiscent of Psalm 51 which opens our Lenten season with Ash Wednesday, just as Psalm 22 is sung on Palm Sunday, setting the stage for Holy Week.
In Psalm 51, David has sinned deeply. In his contrition, he promises God to redouble his efforts to “teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.”
In Psalm 22, he has been deeply persecuted by King Saul. He asks God to deliver him from death, and in return, he again promises to double down in his evangelization efforts by proclaiming God’s name in the assembly. “You who fear the Lord, praise him!”
David uses rich imagery in describing his plight, which eerily foretells the crucifixion:
“All who see me scoff at me.”
“They have pierced my hands and feet; I can count all my bones.”
“They cast lots to claim my clothes.”
So when Jesus cries out, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”, He has allowed Himself to experience the isolation of the sinner as He takes all the sins of the world … onto Himself.
Sin separates us from God.
That brings us to this musical setting, which is intentionally unsettling. It is written in a minor key and an uneven meter, 5/4, to create unease and tension. The remarkable text leads us on a journey, and the music simply follows.
Key signatures change. Extra beats show up, so this is a psalm setting that requires extra rehearsal time. As always, the text is paramount. David’s prophetic story must be clearly heard to propel us into Holy Week with a proper understanding of the drama that is about to unfold.
This setting calls for a cantor with courage, for he is asked to repeat the final phrase, solo, and hold the last note thirteen beats.
[Lenten psalms are powerful prayers. Tom Quiner, composer of THE FIRE AND THE MERCY, The Pentecost Musical, has set over 100 psalms to music, including all of the psalms included in the Catholic lectionary for this Lenten cycle. This blog will post his commentaries on each of these psalms throughout Lent.]