For a few minutes, I sat in my car, parked in the ramp across from the hospital, staring at the car radio. From it was coming a strange piece of music, so very sad and yet so strangely beautiful. Remembering the soundtrack to a recent PBS series about the Holocaust, I recognized bits of what I was hearing. I would’ve listened to the rest of it but I needed to make a hospital call and I saw someone—I hoped he was a security guard—looking my direction. Upon returning to the church, I checked the radio station’s playlist. Very sad, indeed. What I was hearing is called the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. It was written by a Polish composer named Henryk Górecki. I ordered a copy.
These sorrowful songs are prayers. There are three of them. One of these prayers was scratched by a Polish woman into the wall of a Gestapo prison cell. As I listen to these songs, these sorrowful prayers, I cannot help but think of a few verses of Romans 8, verses that have fascinated me for decades.
I remember having read Romans when I was in high school. I had grown up hearing bits and pieces of Paul’s letter being used in various schemas of salvation. I had heard that “all had sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” and that “the wages of sin is death” but that “Christ had died for the ungodly.” I had heard that in his death on the cross Christ took upon himself the punishment I deserve for my sins so that I might have eternal life in heaven above rather than eternal life in the fires below. Thinking that the mystery of my salvation must be in there somewhere, I was determined to read Romans and understand how these bits and pieces all fit together. And so I read and studied as best I could. While I failed to understand how its parts followed one from the other, I did read it. And so it was when I was in high school that I first read these words of the eighth chapter: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly.” I read that the Spirit helps us to pray. Because we do not know exactly for what we should pray, the “Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.”
These verses fascinated me. They had a kind of power over me. As a religion major in college, I wrote about them for my senior paper. I wrote about the difference, the distance, between what now is and what surely ought to be, between what now is and what it is for which human beings hope. I mean the best and highest of human hopes and longings. I mean human desire purified into love. So high and fine are these hopes and longings—so high and fine is this desire, this love—that we cannot even say what it is exactly for which we are hoping, longing, and praying. These hopes and longings are so high and fine as to be divine, divinely inspired and given by God.
But the distance between what is and what ought to be is oftentimes great and the difference, painful. Caught between this difference, this distance causes a person to groan inwardly and to sigh. This groaning and these sighs too deep for words are prayers, prayers unto God. So says the Apostle Paul. And it is not just human beings that so pray, that groan and sigh, but all of creation, says Paul. All of creation is filled with this prayer. It is a sad prayer, even sorrowful. However, while sad and sorrowful, it is not an expression of despair, but of deep hope and longing, the expression of a deep love. It is this hope and longing—this love—that gives this prayer, sorrowful and wordless, its definite beauty.
It was during my divinity school years that I became very interested in the Gospel of Mark. Not a few scholars think that Mark was written some forty years after the death of Christ, soon after the year 70. It was written in dark and dangerous times. In the year 70, the Romans violently quelled a Jewish uprising and destroyed Jerusalem and its temple. They destroyed the very dwelling place of the presence of God. “Where is God now?” would have been the urgent question asked not only among Jews, but also among Christians, most of whom still considered themselves Jews or in some way “Jewish”. Indeed, it was at noon, according to Mark, as the sky darkened strangely, that Jesus cried out from his cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
These words of Jesus from his cross are the opening words of Psalm 22, which scholars classify as a lament, a lament being a sad and desperate prayer unto God. Reading the first half of Psalm 22 and Mark’s account of Jesus’ crucifixion, it seems that Mark structured his account of Jesus’ death with Psalm 22 before him. Now, whether Jesus, in fact, said these words just before his death and whether things, in fact, happened just as Mark has set them out, we can never know. But that is all entirely beside the point. What Mark wants to tell us is that Jesus’ death is, itself, a prayer.
Jesus’ death is a prayer offered on behalf of the entire world. The crossbeam of Jesus Christ’s cross extends in one direction into the past, to the time of the person who wrote Psalm 22 and beyond. In the other direction, it extends into the future, to the dark and dangerous time some forty years after the death of Jesus and beyond to the time of that woman who scratched her prayer into the wall of that Gestapo prison cell and beyond even that time. Through his cross, Jesus Christ fills the world.
Jesus’ death is a prayer offered unto God on behalf of the entire world. The upright of Jesus Christ’s cross extends from earth to heaven and reaches across that chasm—the distance and difference—between what is and what surely ought to be. From the darkest and furthest most point of this side of that chasm, which is the God forsaken-ness of the very Son of God, does it reach across to God. Through Jesus Christ, God fills the world.
And there is now nothing in all creation, says the Apostle, that “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”