Van Gennep himself defined rites de passage as “rites which accompany every change of place, state, social position and age.” To point up the contrast between “state” and “transition,” I employ “state” to include all his other terms. It is a more inclusive concept than “status” or “office,” and refers to any type of stable or recurrent condition that is culturally recognized. Van Gennep has shown that all rites of passage or “transition” are marked by three phases: separation, margin (or limen, signifying ‘threshold’ in Latin), and aggregation. The first phase (of separation) comprises symbolic behavior signifying the detachment of the individual or group either from an earlier fixed point in the social structure, from a set of cultural conditions (a “state”), or from both. During the intervening “liminal” period, the characteristics of the ritual subject (the ‘passenger’) are ambiguous; he passes through a cultural realm that has few or none of the attributes of the past or coming state. In the third phase (reaggregation or reincorporation), the passage is consummated. The ritual subject, individual or corporate, is in a relatively stable state once more and, by virtue of this, has rights and obligations vis-à-vis others of a clearly defined and ‘structural’ type; he is expected to behave in accordance with certain customary norms and ethical standards binding on incumbents of social position in a system of such positions.[1]

Psalm 22:[2]

1My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? why art thou so far from helping me, and from the words of my roaring?
2O my God, I cry in the day time, but thou hearest not; and in the night season, and am not silent.
3But thou art holy, O thou that inhabitest the praises of Israel.
4Our fathers trusted in thee: they trusted, and thou didst deliver them.
5They cried unto thee, and were delivered: they trusted in thee, and were not confounded.
6But I am a worm, and no man; a reproach of men, and despised of the people.
7All they that see me laugh me to scorn: they shoot out the lip, they shake the head, saying,
8He trusted on the Lord that he would deliver him: let him deliver him, seeing he delighted in him.
9But thou art he that took me out of the womb: thou didst make me hope when I was upon my mother’s breasts.
10I was cast upon thee from the womb: thou art my God from my mother’s belly.
11Be not far from me; for trouble is near; for there is none to help.
12Many bulls have compassed me: strong bulls of Bashan have beset me round.
13They gaped upon me with their mouths, as a ravening and a roaring lion.
14I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint: my heart is like wax; it is melted in the midst of my bowels.
15My strength is dried up like a potsherd; and my tongue cleaveth to my jaws; and thou hast brought me into the dust of death.
16For dogs have compassed me: the assembly of the wicked have inclosed me: they pierced my hands and my feet.
17I may tell all my bones: they look and stare upon me.
18They part my garments among them, and cast lots upon my vesture.
19But be not thou far from me, O Lord: O my strength, haste thee to help me.
20Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog.
21Save me from the lion’s mouth: for thou hast heard me from the horns of the unicorns.
22I will declare thy name unto my brethren: in the midst of the congregation will I praise thee.
23Ye that fear the Lord, praise him; all ye the seed of Jacob, glorify him; and fear him, all ye the seed of Israel.
24For he hath not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; neither hath he hid his face from him; but when he cried unto him, he heard.
25My praise shall be of thee in the great congregation: I will pay my vows before them that fear him.
26The meek shall eat and be satisfied: they shall praise the Lord that seek him: your heart shall live for ever.
27All the ends of the world shall remember and turn unto the Lord: and all the kindreds of the nations shall worship before thee.
28For the kingdom is the Lord’s: and he is the governor among the nations.
29All they that be fat upon earth shall eat and worship: all they that go down to the dust shall bow before him: and none can keep alive his own soul.
30A seed shall serve him; it shall be accounted to the Lord for a generation.
31They shall come, and shall declare his righteousness unto a people that shall be born, that he hath done this.

I. The Biblical Tradition of Forsakenness

“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” To really get the richness of this question, we must look to other examples of forsakenness (in Hebrew, ‘âzab) in the Old Testament. We find after some reading that a tragic, but frequent, theme in the Old Testament writings is the people of Israel or the wicked in general forsaking YHWH by worshiping other gods or not following YHWH’s statutes. There are numerous passages but here are a poignant few:

Deuteronomy 31:16: “And the Lord said unto Moses, Behold, thou shalt sleep with thy fathers; and this people will rise up, and go a whoring after the gods of the strangers of the land, whither they go to be among them, and will forsake me, and break my covenant which I have made with them.”

Judges 10:10: “And the children of Israel cried unto the Lord, saying, We have sinned against thee, both because we have forsaken our God, and also served Baalim.”

1 Samuel 12:10: “And they cried unto the Lord, and said, We have sinned, because we have forsaken the Lord, and have served Baalim and Ashtaroth: but now deliver us out of the hand of our enemies, and we will serve thee.”

2 Kings 22:17: “Because they have forsaken me [YHWH], and have burned incense unto other gods, that they might provoke me to anger with all the works of their hands; therefore my wrath shall be kindled against this place, and shall not be quenched.”

1 Chronicles 28:9: “And thou, Solomon my son, know thou the God of thy father, and serve him with a perfect heart and with a willing mind: for the Lord searcheth all hearts, and understandeth all the imaginations of the thoughts: if thou seek him, he will be found of thee; but if thou forsake him, he will cast thee off for ever.”

Psalm 119:53: “Horror hath taken hold upon me because of the wicked that forsake thy law.”

Proverbs 28:4: “They that forsake the law praise the wicked: but such as keep the law contend with them.”

Isaiah 1:4: “Ah sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, a seed of evildoers, children that are corrupters: they have forsaken the Lord, they have provoked the Holy One of Israel unto anger, they are gone away backward.”

Isaiah 65:11: “But ye are they that forsake the Lord, that forget my holy mountain, that prepare a table for that troop, and that furnish the drink offering unto that number.”

Jeremiah 17:13: “O Lord, the hope of Israel, all that forsake thee shall be ashamed, and they that depart from me shall be written in the earth, because they have forsaken the Lord, the fountain of living waters.”

One also finds in the Old Testament the situation where God promises to forsake or actually forsakes the people of Israel or the wicked in general in response to being first forsaken by them:

Deuteronomy 31:17: “Then my anger shall be kindled against them in that day, and I will forsake them, and I will hide my face from them, and they shall be devoured, and many evils and troubles shall befall them; so that they will say in that day, Are not these evils come upon us, because our God is not among us?”

2 Chronicles 24:20: “And the Spirit of God came upon Zechariah the son of Jehoiada the priest, which stood above the people, and said unto them, Thus saith God, Why transgress ye the commandments of the Lord, that ye cannot prosper? because ye have forsaken the Lord, he hath also forsaken you.”

Isaiah 49:14: “But Zion said, The Lord hath forsaken me, and my Lord hath forgotten me.”

Lamentations 5:20: “Wherefore dost thou forget us for ever, and forsake us so long time?”

In the Psalms there are powerfully moving petitions for God not to forsake the petitioner or God’s people:

Psalm 27:9: “Hide not thy face far from me; put not thy servant away in anger: thou hast been my help; leave me not, neither forsake me, O God of my salvation.”

Psalm 38:21: “Forsake me not, O Lord: O my God, be not far from me.”

Psalm 71:9: “Cast me not off in the time of old age; forsake me not when my strength faileth.”

Psalm 119:8: “I will keep thy statutes: O forsake me not utterly.”

Just as moving, there are the decisions or promises God makes not to leave his people, the marginalized, or the righteous to utter destruction by their enemies:

1 Kings 6:13: “I will dwell among the children of Israel, and will not forsake my people Israel.”

1 Chronicles 28:20: “David said further to his son Solomon, Be strong and of good courage, and act. Do not be afraid or dismayed; for the Lord God, my God, is with you. He will not fail you or forsake you, until all the work for the service of the house of the Lord is finished.”

Ezra 9:9: “For we were bondmen; yet our God hath not forsaken us in our bondage, but hath extended mercy unto us in the sight of the kings of Persia, to give us a reviving, to set up the house of our God, and to repair the desolations thereof, and to give us a wall in Judah and in Jerusalem.”

Nehemiah 9:31: “Nevertheless for thy great mercies’ sake thou didst not utterly consume them, nor forsake them; for thou art a gracious and merciful God.”

Psalm 9:10: “And they that know thy name will put their trust in thee: for thou, Lord, hast not forsaken them that seek thee.”

Psalm 37:25: “I have been young, and now am old; yet have I not seen the righteous forsaken, nor his seed begging bread.”

Psalm 37:28: “For the Lord loveth judgment, and forsaketh not his saints; they are preserved for ever: but the seed of the wicked shall be cut off.”

Psalm 94:14: “For the Lord will not cast off his people, neither will he forsake his inheritance.”

Isaiah 41:17: “When the poor and needy seek water, and there is none, and their tongue faileth for thirst, I the Lord will hear them, I the God of Israel will not forsake them.”

Isaiah 42:16: “And I will bring the blind by a way that they knew not; I will lead them in paths that they have not known: I will make darkness light before them, and crooked things straight. These things will I do unto them, and not forsake them.”

Isaiah 54:7: “For a small moment have I forsaken thee; but with great mercies will I gather thee.”

Isaiah 62:12: “And they shall call them, The holy people, The redeemed of the Lord: and thou shalt be called, Sought out, A city not forsaken.”

II. Forsakenness as Separation

From these examples we can begin to recognize the historical or at least biblical context for the theme of forsakenness in Psalm 22. Most importantly, we see that the “act” of forsaking in the Old Testament has theological significance. It implies a real or felt separation of the individual or people as a whole and God. This separation would seem to threaten the hope of peace that comes from communion with God and between persons. Forsakenness also seems ambiguous as to its cause, in that while frequently humanity is apparently the guilty party for the separation, still there are cases (Psalm 22 for instance) where it is unclear why the sufferer experiences what seems to be forsakenness by God. In other words, to be forsaken by God is, like God’s mercy, mysteriously perplexing. With respect to Psalm 22, Old Testament scholar James L. Mays says, “The first part is as a whole an elaboration of the opening cry, an exposition of the misery and mystery contained in ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’”[3] Brueggemann and Bellinger point out that until verse 11, the “psalm has delayed this long in asking anything specific of YHWH. The petition is only one brief phrase: ‘Do not be far from me.’ The remainder of the verse is an additional reinforcing motivation that underscores the urgency of the request.” Most significant, they say “the petition [of Psalm 22] for nearness suggests that it is YHWH’s remoteness and detachment that have permitted the trouble to occupy the void left by divine absence.”[4]

“What it means to say ‘my God,’” Mays writes, “comes clear in verses 3-5 and verses 9-10.” Moreover, “having God as ‘my God’ rests first of all on belonging to a community for whom the center of all reality is ‘the holy one’ who is enthroned as king in heavenly and earthly temple (see Psalm 99) and whose acts of salvation are the content of Israel’s hymns of praise.”[5] McCann affirms the recognition of a communal dimension to this psalm. This communal dimension “is present from almost the beginning of the psalm (vv. 3-5), even when it seems to be a meager source of comfort and hope. But immediately upon being answered by God (v. 21 b), the psalmist turns to the congregation, praising God and inviting their participation (vv. 22-23).”[6]

Separation from God and from community can lead to actual death, but is also already a kind of “death.” Mays writes, “Paradoxically, [the speaker of Psalm 22] experiences the activity of this distant God in his descent into the realm of death (v. 15); God’s sovereign power is mysteriously mingled with the forces that drive him from the sphere of the living.”[7] Also, Mays observes, “Verse 19 repeats the thematic petition for God to end his absence and pleads for deliverance from the surrounding powers, listing them in reverse order—hunters, hounds, lion, and ox (vv. 20-21). The effect of the whole is to create a shifting montage of images evoking violence and dying that never comes into focus so that the horror could be identified and confined to some specific kind of suffering. Instead, one is given the impression of the terror of cosmic anarchy brought to bear on one figure, a vision of what happens when evil breaks through the normal restraints of humanity because the restraining, correcting salvation and providence of God are absent.”[8] It is important to note the connection between the experience of separation in forsakenness and “cosmic anarchy.”

Mays suggests that Psalm 22, cited and alluded to by the Gospel writers, serves as a “hermeneutical context” for reading the narrative of Christ’s Passion. It is one of the readings for Good Friday in the Revised Common Lectionary, joining John’s account of the Passion and Isaiah 52-53 and selections from Hebrews. Mays says, “What one hears through it is not the voice of a particular historical person at a certain time but one individual case of the typical. Its language was designed to give individuals a poetic and liturgical location, to provide a prayer that is paradigmatic for particular suffering and needs. To use it was to set oneself in its paradigm.”[9] The Gospel writers’ use of Psalm 22 allows the reader to see clearly Jesus’ joining the “multitudinous company of the afflicted”; Jesus “becomes one with them in their suffering.”[10] Thus, keeping also in mind the narrative of John 18:1-19:42, I would argue, we can identify in his Passion Jesus’ separation in forsakenness (from his disciples, the larger Jewish communion, the living, from justice itself, and from the Father (?), without introducing ontological separation into the Godhead).

Could it not also be possible that all instances throughout human history of separation, in van Gennep’s sense, are taken up by Christ’s separation in his Passion? This connection of the Passion, of Jesus to ritualized separation is probably not by now a new idea, given the growing importance of cultural anthropology for Christian theology and the lengthy historical existence of Christian baptism, a rite of passage that explicitly claims to imitate Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection, by mysterious participation in that event. I only hope that contemplating the significance of Christ’s Passion as separation offers a helpful reminder of the richness of the Christ event for all kinds of devotion to God during this especially sacred time.

[1] This quotation is from Victor Turner, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (New Brunswick: AldineTransaction, 2008), 94-95.

[2] All Scripture citations are from the King James Version.

[3] James L. Mays, Psalms, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 108.

[4] Walter Brueggemann and William H. Bellinger, Jr., Psalms, New Cambridge Bible Commentary (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 115.

[5] Mays, Psalms, 108-109.

[6] J. Clinton McCann, Jr., The Book of Psalms, The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996), 765.

[7] Mays, Psalms, 110.

[8] Mays, Psalms, 110.

[9] Mays, Psalms, 106.

[10] Mays, Psalms, 106.

Photo by Gianna Bonello on Unsplash

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s