Psalm 22 and the crucifixion are deeply interlinked. Christ quotes from it during His Passion and the accounts of the gospels make several other allusions to it. Yet one line of the psalm doesn’t sit well with us:
But I am a worm, not a man,
scorned by men, despised by the people.
As Christians we instinctively cringe at the association made here between Christ and a worm. The overwhelming sense of dejection and the feeling of total ostracism certainly apply to what Christ experienced on the cross. However, calling Christ a ‘worm’ seems to go too far.
Nonetheless, that’s exactly what the deep symbolism of the worm in the Old Testament compels us to do.
In Isaiah, worms are linked to decay. For example, in Isaiah 14:11 worms are an image of bodily decay for those who have died and gone to Sheol, the Hebrew term for the underworld:
Down to Sheol your pomp is brought,
the sound of your harps.
Maggots are the couch beneath you,
worms your blanket.
In Isaiah 66:24 those in Gehenna—the Hebrew term for the hell of the damned—are eaten by worms for eternity:
They shall go out and see the corpses
of the people who rebelled against me;
For their worm shall not die,
their fire shall not be extinguished;
and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.
As uncomfortable as it might make us, we can now see why Christ identified Himself with the worm on the cross. For, on the cross, He confronted the reality of our death and everything that it entails. So total is this identification that Christ is compared to the very worms that consume the flesh of the dead. The worm then represents the final humiliation of the Incarnation. The Book of Job illustrates how the worm can be a symbol of humility:
How can anyone be in the right against God,
or how can any born of woman be innocent?
Even the moon is not bright
and the stars are not clean in his eyes.
How much less a human being, who is but a worm,
a mortal, who is only a maggot? (Job 26:4-6).
There is an implicit analogy in these lines. Just as a worm appears lowly and insignificant to us so also are we as sinners in God’s eyes.
But the worm has another purpose in the Old Testament that is completely different. The species of worm to which the Hebrew word in Psalm 22 refers was an important source of scarlet dye in the Middle East—so much so that the word for worm was used as a term for that color.
In scanning the Old Testament one finds that scarlet was the color of the curtains for the tabernacle and, later, the temple. This is particularly significant because both the tabernacle and the temple housed the ark of the covenant, which, in turn, contained the Ten Commandments and manna—both symbols of Christ. Here is one example of typical reference to this color:
You shall make a veil woven of violet, purple, and scarlet yarn, and of fine linen twined, with cherubim embroidered on it (Exodus 26:31).
Except where there is the word scarlet, we could technically translate the Hebrew as worm. (In Hebrew the word is towla`, pronounced as tō·lä’.) The worm of the Old Testament then encompasses two polar opposites of human existence. It is present at the lowest point in the life of a human being—the corruption of his body. But as a source of scarlet dye, it also has a role to play at the summit of human existence, where man meets God, first in the tabernacle and later in the temple.
There is yet a further connection with Christ that stems from an extraordinary resemblance between the story of the Passion and the biological details of how this particular species of worm dies. When it is ready to lay eggs, the worm climbs a tree, fastening itself to the wood. When the eggs hatch the larvae feed on the living flesh three days. When she finally dies, she secretes a crimson dye and contorts her body into a heart shape. At the end of the fourth day, the color turns from red to white. (I’m indebted to these sources here, here, here for this information.)
The transformation of the worm in its final moments recalls the words of Isaiah, as this source points out:
Come now, let us set
says the LORD:
Though your sins be like scarlet,
they may become white as snow;
Though they be red like crimson,
they may become white as wool (Isaiah 1:18).
The image of the worm also points forward to the Eucharist. Both are scandalous. In the case of the worm we wonder how such a small creature could represent God. And, with the Eucharist we ask how God could be fully present in bread—a small piece at that!
There is a kind of interplay between the two: Christ became like the worm that breaks down bodies so that He could become a source of Eucharistic food for us, building us up into new men and women in the image of Christ.
Ultimately, then, the worm drives home the uncomfortable realities of the crucifixion—the final humiliation of Christ, His experience of an authentic death, and His Eucharistic offering on our behalf. Christ’s cry—through the words of the psalm—that He was no man but a worm should convict all of us, calling us to both radical humility and hope.