Did Jesus Experience Despair? Understanding The “Todah Sacrifice”

Did Jesus Experience Despair? Understanding The “Todah Sacrifice”

Every time Good Friday rolls round, I find myself feeling troubled. 

The gruesome details of Christ’s death and the awareness of my own participation in His suffering are not pleasant to think about. There is a somberness that comes with Good Friday, which often leaves me feeling as though I don’t know how to move on with the rest of my day. 

Am I supposed to sit in quiet penance all day? How will I eat that Reese’s Easter bunny just two days after remembering the grave evil that happened on Good Friday?

These words spoken by Christ on the cross haunt us:

“My God, my God. Why have you forsaken me?” 

At first glance, they appear to be words of utter abandonment and despair.

Crucifixion by Simon Vouet

How is it that Christ Himself seems to be overcome with the weight of His suffering? How could Jesus, who is God Himself, feel separated…from God?

But a deeper look at—and understanding of—Jewish tradition unveils a whole different meaning to these words. They ultimately lead to a prayer of thanksgiving. In fact, the words “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” are the opening words of Psalm 22.

Actually, Jesus referenced several Psalms while He hung on the cross.

The Jews who witnessed Christ’s crucifixion would have immediately been able to identify the Psalms that Jesus was quoting, for such Psalms were memorized by them.

Psalm 31:5

Into thy hand I commit my spirit;

    thou hast redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.

Psalm 69:21

…for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.

Psalm 22:1

My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?

    Why art thou so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?

Why Jesus Recited These Psalms

These psalms are packed with significance and Jewish tradition. Furthermore, these psalms are prayed during the todah sacrifice.

The word todah means “thanksgiving” or “praise.” The todah sacrifice was a thanksgiving sacrifice offered under the Mosaic law (Lev 7:11ff). 

This was a special animal sacrifice made in thanksgiving—and it included the offering of bread and wine.

Unlike other Old Testament animal sacrifices that were performed to make reparation for sin, the todah sacrifice was offered to thank God for deliverance from some sort of suffering or evil from which the Lord had rescued the worshipper. 

What Happens During a Todah Sacrifice?

During a todah sacrifice, a priest would sacrifice a lamb and consecrate unleavened bread in the Temple. The meat and bread would then be brought home for a celebratory meal with family and friends, where all gathered would pray in thanksgiving.

A person making a todah sacrifice underwent seven steps. All of these steps are present in Psalm 22, which Jesus referenced on the cross.

Let’s go through these steps and note the parts of Psalm 22 which reflect them:

1. An infliction of suffering

2. Man cries out to God

My God, my God! Why have you abandoned me?

Ps 22:1

3. Man makes a vow to offer the Todah if God saves him

I will tell of thy name to my brethren;

    in the midst of the congregation I will praise thee:

You who fear the Lord, praise him!

    all you sons of Jacob, glorify him,

    and stand in awe of him, all you sons of Israel!

For he has not despised or abhorred

    the affliction of the afflicted;

and he has not hid his face from him,

    but has heard, when he cried to him.

Ps 22:22-24

4. God rescues the man in distress

5. The man pays his vow by offering the todah sacrifice in the temple

From thee comes my praise in the great congregation;

    my vows I will pay before those who fear him.

The afflicted shall eat and be satisfied;

    those who seek him shall praise the Lord!

    May your hearts live forever!

Ps 22:25-26

6. A festive celebration is held, as the delivered man and his loved ones eat the meat of the sacrifice and the bread that is required

7. The man makes a public testimony to all assembled in the Temple, relaying how God saved him

All the ends of the earth shall remember

    and turn to the Lord;

and all the families of the nations

    shall worship before him.

For dominion belongs to the Lord,

    and he rules over the nations.

Yea, to him shall all the proud of the earth bow down;

    before him shall bow all who go down to the dust,

    and he who cannot keep himself alive.

Posterity shall serve him;

    men shall tell of the Lord to the coming generation,

and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn,

    that he has wrought it.

Psalm 22:27-31

Jesus Is Not Despairing—He’s Offering the Todah Sacrifice

Calvary with Carmelite by Fray Juan del Santísimo Sacramento

We can see this beautiful pattern unfold as Jesus endures His Passion. 

When He quotes the todah psalms on the cross, in particular Psalm 22, the Jews present would immediately have recalled the todah psalm. By quoting this todah psalm, Christ is telling us to interpret His Passion in light of Psalm 22 and to look forward to the hope that is to come: His victory over death.  

How does Psalm 22 end? With a celebration of the todah meal. The afflicted eat and are satisfied (Ps 22:26), God is praised in the midst of his congregation (Ps 22:25), and future generations praise God for his deliverance (Ps 22:30-31).  

The Todah Sacrifice and the Eucharist

Now, does any of this sound like something you participate in every week? That’s because it is!

We see this fulfilled in the celebration of the Eucharist (which means thanksgiving) today. We are the afflicted ones who are invited to partake in the todah sacrifice to thank God for delivering us from death and sin. 

Though Good Friday ends with Christ’s death, we know that death is not the end of the story. Christ resurrected from the dead, later sharing a meal with two of His disciples on the road to Emmaus. There we see Christ (the Lamb who was sacrificed) take bread, bless it, break it, and give it to His disciples (Lk 24:30). At that moment, the disciples recognize Jesus, recalling how He had done these very things at the Last Supper. Christ has just shared in the todah meal with two of His disciples, and later on, the Apostles continue to remember God’s saving act through the celebration of the Eucharist (Acts 2:42).

This celebration is continued in the Church today through the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. We gather each Sunday to worship God and to remember Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection. In the celebration of the Eucharist, we recall how Jesus has delivered us from sin and death. This celebration leads us to a deeper trust in God, and to thanksgiving. 

As we celebrate the Eucharist—whether it’s during the Easter season or at any time of the year, may we practice gratitude, recalling all of the ways in which God has delivered us from despair and filled us with hope!