A series of meditations by the Rev. Marek Zabriskie For Good Friday, April 10, 2020.
The First Word from the Cross
Every Lent, a veritable shudder of anguish runs through Jewish groups and many Christians, who know how deep-seeded antisemitism is in Christianity, including the New Testament itself. Over the last few centuries, Christians have worked to address, redress and remove the stain of anti-Semitism from the fabric of Christianity. We are slowly making progress.
In her afterward to her book Jesus Wasn’t Killed by the Jews, Professor Amy-Jill Levine challenges readers to “face the textual problems” and to deal with the ongoing anti-Jewish bias in our theology, politics and human relationships. In no place is this more evident than in John’s Gospel, which for all its poetic, philosophical and mystical, qualities, stoops to demonize the Jews. When we’re hurt, we all seek someone to blame. But don’t blame the Jews. We must never forget that Jesus was Jewish, and it was Jesus’ Jewish flesh that God raised from the dead on the cross to save us.
Today, we gather to listen to music and offers prayers and to reflect upon the Last Seven Words that Jesus uttered from the cross. These words come from the four gospel accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion. The Church has traditionally used them as a devotional exercise on Good Friday. Each of our clergy, our youth minister and a church leader were scheduled to offer a meditation on one of the Last Seven Words today, but due to the pandemic, we decided that it was best for only one person to enter from the pulpit. I drew the short straw.
The Last Seven Words begin with Jesus’ words of absolution, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.” Forgiveness is something that we all struggle to bestow and receive. During this pandemic, where many of us have been quarantined with family, we have all said or done things or left things unsaid or undone for which we need forgiveness.
We are in the midst of what Christians call the Triduum Sacrum, three of the most sacred services of the Christian year – Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday. The Triduum focuses on a senseless killing that brought humanity to its senses. Perhaps it will bring us to our senses as well. We who are affluent Christians living in a world raging with inequalities can be blind to those struggling merely to survive. We are inconvenienced by this pandemic, while others are desperate.
This day is strangely called Good Friday. Palestinian Christians call it “Long Friday.” Others call is “Great Friday” or “Holy Friday.” Some scholars say that “Good Friday” comes from “God’s Friday,” in the same way that “God be with you” has been shortened to “good-bye.” But it’s odd to call this day Good Friday, when God’s Son dies and the Glory of God is extinguished.
“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.” These words are found only in Luke’s Gospel. The theme of reconciliation is woven throughout this gospel and the Book of Acts, which Luke also penned. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus instructs us, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” No other religion commands its followers to love their enemies. In the Book of Acts, Luke records Stephen praying to God to forgive his persecutors shortly before they stone him to death.
Forgiveness is at the heart of the cross. The Bible testifies that Jesus came to suffer and die so that we might be forgiven for our sins and for all the ways that we do exactly what God urges us not to do. What occurred on the cross proves to us with God all things are possible, enemies can become friends, love can overcome hate, light can shine in the darkness, and God can decimate death. The cross is the axis mundi – the hinge on which the world turned.
Luke’s Gospel alone hinges on a story found nowhere else in the Bible. It is a story about a son who deeply disappointed his father when he demanded his inheritance, then ran off to test his freedom and broke his father’s heart. The prodigal squandered his youth, his father’s money and his future in a distant land. When his funds ran out, he was forced to feed pigs and coveted the slop that he fed them. Then says Luke, “He came to his senses.” Some translations read, “He came to himself” as if he remembered the good person that God created him to be before he selfishly reached for the stars and forgot everyone else. So, he headed home.
His father, who had never given up on his son, saw him on the horizon and ran to forgive him. Good Friday brings us to our senses and helps us to see how at times we have broken God’s heart. In this one story is the story of all our lives – the axis mundi, the hinge of life.
St. Paul writes to the church in Corinth, “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” So, let us stand together at the foot of the cross, and marvel at the light that can only be appreciated after we have walked in the darkness.All of us have traveled to a distant country. We are saddled with baggage, failures that we have tried to forget, marriages that we have mismanaged, and dreams which we pursued while neglecting those we claim to love. “I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’”
Our hands are soiled. Soiled, like Pilate who did nothing to save Jesus and was forever wringing his hands. Soiled, like the soldiers who wielded the whip, cast lots for Jesus’ clothing, and drove spikes through his hands and feet. Don’t we all have to do things that we prefer not to do in order to earn a living?
On Palm Sunday, we joined the crowd that shouted the electrifying words, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” Then we sang the old spiritual, “Where you there when they crucified my Lord?” Yes, we were there. We drove the spikes. We spat, mocked and did nothing to help him. Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote, “The line between good and evil runs straight through every human heart.”
The businessman who padded his expense account, the man who cheated on his wife, the student who plagiarized on her essay, the nurse who failed to check on her patient in the middle of the night, each have their excuses. “It’s not my fault,” we say. “Others do it, too. God created this unfair world, not me.” So, we try God in court of our mind, and we become the judge, jury and executioner, weighing out the evidence against God. In theology, we call it “theodicy” – the attempt to square the love of God with the suffering found in life. How can God exist, if so much evil occurs? “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.”
After dinner with friends one night, Russell and Laurada Beyers stopped by a convenience store to buy a pint of ice cream. Laurada sat in the car while Russell went it. A young man robbed him, then shot and killed him. Russell died for a handful of dollars and a pint of ice cream. Laurada founded a charter school in Philadelphia his honor. Several years later, I asked her to speak at my church about how to rebuild one’s life after undergoing tragedy and great loss.
“I started the school,” said Laurada, “because I realized that if we didn’t care for these kids, they will be completely left behind, and eventually, they would kill all of us. Of course, I forgave the young man who shot my husband a long time ago,” she said matter-of-factly. “I worried for him. How was he doing in prison? So, I contacted the prison several times, and finally the young man gave me permission to visit him. I let him know that I forgave him and was concerned for how he was doing.” Our church members and I sat in silence. Most of us had recently had a spat with someone over something trivial, and we were still upset and hadn’t forgiven them. Her words still resound in my mind and pierce my heart, “Of course, I forgave the young man, who shot my husband….” “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they do.” Amen.
The Second Word from the Cross
“Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
The cross on which Jesus hung was probably no bigger than six to eight feet high. It was erected outside the walls of Jerusalem on what was the city dump, a trash pit. To understand the story of Jesus’ death and his final words is not like reading an historical account of a modern event.
What we know about Jesus’ death comes from the four gospels, which were written forty to seventy years after he had died. We are not positive as to which words were his and which belong to the evangelists. The gospels are not biographies. No biographer devotes a quarter of a biography to the last week or a person’s life, like Saint Mark did. The gospels are apologetic documents, composed to inspire and persuade potential believers to follow Jesus.
In 1618, the Italian Jesuit Saint Robert Bellarmine published The Last Seven Words from the Cross. To Bellarmine, the cross was “the pulpit of the Preacher….” Indeed, Jesus preached was his final sermon as he hung to die. He had preached on the Mount of Beatitudes, on a boat on the Sea of Galilee, in a synagogue in Nazareth and now while hanging from a cross.
His last seven words have inspired composers like Haydn and writers like Leo Tolstoy, James Joyce, Flannery O’Connor and countless others. We kneel before the cross to pay homage to the self-giving love poured out for our sakes.
But lest we get too poetic in contemplating the cross, we should remember that even by the standards of ancient Rome, crucifixion was brutal. The cross was an instrument of terror. It was used to instill fear in everyone who passed by. Crucifixion was the supreme punishment to discourage rebellions. For lesser crimes, Romans would burn their victims alive or behead them.
Now, there were two criminals crucified on either side of Jesus. We do not know what they might have stolen, but whatever they stole, the one who is called the “good thief” stole one more thing before dying. He stole the reward that he did not deserve.
Jesus said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” The word “Paradise” comes from a Persian word signifying a garden or an enclosed park. St. John, who wrote the Book of Revelation, used this same term, writing, “To everyone who conquers, I will give permission to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God.” (Rev. 2:7)
In fairness to the good thief, he did perform at least one good act. Before dying, he asked Jesus, “Save yourself and us.” He did not say, “Save yourself and me.” He was not selfish. He said, “Save yourself and us.” He cared for his fellow thief, who like him, did not deserve the reward that Jesus could dispense.
In her play The Man Born to be King, Dorothy Sayers portrays the good thief, who legend calls “Dysmas, as taking pity on Jesus. He’s not so sure that Jesus can bestow any gift upon him, but he tries to cheer up Jesus on the cross, by playing along with the notion that he is a king and has a kingdom. After all, the sign above Jesus’ head reads, “King of the Jews.” Dysmas says of Jesus:
He’s loony, that’s all. Let ‘im think he’s Goddamighty, if it makes him feel any better… You’re all right, mate, ain’t you? Of course you are. This ‘ere’s just a bad dream. One o’ these days you’ll come out in a cloud of glory and astonish them all… There! he’s smiling. He likes being talked to that way… Sir, you’ll remember me, won’t you, when you come into your kingdom?
According to Sayers, Dysmas turned to the light, but he did not believe in the light. His “Lord remember me” was not an act of faith but of charity. It was like playing along with someone who thinks that he’s George Washington trying to fight the British.
Almost dead, riddled with pain, half aware, half unaware, Jesus promises Dysmas, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Jesus never rejects anyone who turns to him. At times, we turn to him with great faith. At other times, we turn to him with more doubt than faith. He takes our faith we have more seriously than we do and multiplies our mustard seed of faith until it blossoms into a tree of eternal life in paradise.
That Friday afternoon in the city dump, outside the walls of Jerusalem, where dark shadows stretched under grey, foreboding skies, casting gloom on the Roman killing fields did not resemble paradise at all. St. Paul called Jesus the Second Adam. As he hung upon the cross, perhaps Jesus thought of the first Adam, who inhabited the Garden of Eden, a true paradise, and how Adam and Eve chose to ignore God and go their own way.
But there is no returning to our lost innocence. We cannot reclaim Eden. The past is gone. For thousands of years, Christians have sung Salve, Regina, mater misericordiae, “Hail, Holy Queen, Mother of Mercy.” The past is over. We read in Genesis that God set an angel with a flaming sword to guard the gate to the Garden of Eden. We cannot return to paradise.
Yet, the tree of death can become the tree of life. Dysmas teaches us as hung on the cross and called out, “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Whether an act of charity or an act of faith, his words brought God’s pardon and the promise of eternal life. We, too, just need to gaze at Jesus. Just look at him, and your faith will take care of itself. First Timothy declares that God “desires all to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”
When we draw our final breath, we know that we cannot depend on any works that we have done, any words that we have spoken or any deeds that we have performed. We can thank God that the Holy One has enabled us to do some good from time to time. As our life expires, all we can do is to say sotto voce, “Jesus, remember me.” Whatever little growth in holiness we have achieved, whatever small deeds we have done, there is nothing that we can do to earn our way into paradise. All that we can hope to do is what Dysmas did, and turn to Jesus and hope to hear him say, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.” Amen.
The Third Word from the Cross
When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.
Before Jesus was crucified, Roman soldiers scourged him using an unusual instrument, a short whip, made of several braided leather thongs of variable length with small iron balls and sharp pieces of bone tied at intervals along the whip. When a man was scourged, he was stripped naked, tied to an upright post with his back and buttocks exposed and his legs and back were flogged until he was a bloody mass of flesh with little skin still attached to his body.
The scourging was intended to weaken the victim, and it was stopped just before the victim died or collapsed. The condemned man was then made to carry a horizontal crossbar, which weighed as much as 125 pounds, to the site of his crucifixion, where spikes were driven not through his hands but more often through his wrists. He was then hoisted onto a vertical beam and similar 5 to 7 inch spikes were driven through his feet to secure him to the cross.
The crucified usually died of asphyxiation and blood loss. It is hard to conceive of a more painful way to die. Scholar Martin Hengel said crucifixion “satisfied the primitive lust for revenge and the sadistic cruelty of…. rulers…” Cicero called crucifixion “the cruelest and most disgusting penalty.” Who would disagree?
Throughout his arrest, mock trial, interrogation, whipping, crown of thorns, Passion and death, the only people who stood by Jesus to the end, were the women who loved him and the disciple John. At the foot of the cross stood his mother, his aunt, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. Legends abound about Mary Magdalene, because she came from the Roman city in Galilee called Magdala, a place reputed for its debauchery. Perhaps this is why she is identified with the sinful woman in Luke 7. For centuries, the word “Magdalen” meant a woman who had formerly worked as prostitute. But this is the stuff of legend.
There at the foot of the cross is Mary, the mother of Jesus, and John the disciple whom Jesus adored, all beholding the frightening site of what humanity at its worst is capable of doing. The eyes of Christians across the centuries have rested on Mary, Jesus’ mother, watching her son suffer and die. Stabat Mater dolorosa / Iuxta crucem lacrimosa, / Dum pendebat Filius. “At the cross her station keeping, / stood the mournful mother weeping/ close to Jesus to the last.” Perhaps you seen someone suffer and die, and you all too well know what this is like.
But did Mary not know that it would turn out like this? Recall when Joseph and she traveled to the temple to present Jesus after his birth and for Mary’s ritual of purification. No sooner had the young couple entered the dark, cavernous temple, than an old man named Simeon stepped out of the shadows and told Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
These were puzzling words, and Mary pondered them closely. Did she not have forebodings that it would come to this. That was her son, flesh of her flesh that emerged from her body, now a bloody, agonizing mass of humanity, nailed to the cross. Stabat Mater dolorosa. Did Mary have forebodings and had she held such fears for years in her sword-pierced heart?
At the cross Mary kept her station. There was nothing else to do except stay with her son as he suffered. Sometimes that’s all any of us can do when someone we love is in pain. We stay at their side and accompany them in their suffering. That is what com-passion literally means.
St. Bonaventure was said to have written the Stabat Mater in their thirteenth century. This ten three-line verse immediately became immensely popular. It is a prayer that speaks of Mary’s suffering and Jesus’ anguish. A friend tells me, “You’re only as happy as your least happy child.”
The Stabat Mater is a prayer poem set to music by some of the greatest composers of all time: Palestrina, Rossini, Verdi, Dvorák and Poulenc to name a few. For some, it was a way of processing their personal pain. Antonin Dvorák composed his Stabat Mater in 1878, after losing three children in three years. His work is a painfully intense piece of music, a large, romantic composition, filled with darkness, like a heart pierced by grief. Like the Passion itself, it moves from the suffering of Mary and the agony of Jesus to the saving grace of God.
When Jesus commends his mother to the care of his disciple John, he is taking care of family matters while modeling for us how to be the Church and how to enact God’s love in the world. Can we love radically, sacrificially and beyond boundaries? Can we adopt each other in love and care for one another in the most powerful and profound ways possible?
To do so is to move from looking inward to outward. There is no smaller package than a human being self-consumed. Augustine famously called sin homo curvatas – a human turned in on himself. The call to live boldly and powerfully is a call to look outwardly and to live for others. It is a call to look at the cross, to live for the cross and to live for others and not dwell on ourselves or merely on what we can get and what we can spend. To live simply as a consumer is to cut ourselves off from what Good Friday teaches us and how Easter transforms us.
As the author of the Epistle to the Philippians notes, “Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about all these things.” Think of John, who took care of Jesus’ Mary until her dying breath.
John reportedly died in Ephesus, where pilgrims can visit his grave. He is the only disciple who died of old age. Judas hung himself, and ten disciples were martyred. John was said to have taken Mary to the Greek island of Patmos, where he wrote the Fourth Gospel, before moving to Ephesus, where some say the Virgin Mary lived in a house nearby. The location where she reportedly lived is as serene a place as I have ever visited. When we care for others with Christ-like love, we glimpse the divine, touch Christ’s cross and experience serenity and peace. Amen.
The Fourth Word from the Cross
“And at the ninth hour Jesus screamed with a loud cry, ‘Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?’ ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’”
The Bible says the Jesus “cried out” from the cross. He “cried out” like one who had been abandoned. The Greek actually states that he “screamed with a loud cry.” This poses all sorts of theological questions. Had something gone horribly awry? Where was God? Why did God do nothing to help? How can we trust a God who let his own son be crucified?
Crucifixion is unbearably grim. But not all gospels paint such a horrific scene. Luke’s version is far tamer. He writes, “And having cried out with a loud cry, Jesus said, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’ Having said this, he expired.” Like a good physician, Luke tries to anesthetize Jesus’ final suffering and we who witness it.
Only Mark and Matthew vividly report Jesus’ cry of dereliction. John strikes a calmer note. “Jesus said, ‘It is finished’, and having bowed his head, he gave up the spirit.” It sounds like something Michelangelo might have said after dedicating four years of his life had paint the Sistine Chapel in Rome. “It is finished,” and he bowed his head.
John has other intentions. He wants to focus us on resurrection victory and glory – Christus victor. It’s not that John’s Gospel denies the pain and suffering, but it looks to the far side of Jesus’ abandonment on the cross and to capture the glory of God found in the resurrection.
Each of the gospels is like a facet of a diamond. All four facets are needed to comprehend the glory of the cross and the greatest mystery of our faith. And even then, it remains a mystery. Christ’s death is not a syllogism to be recited to convince others of the truth of Christianity unless we want to imply that our faith is shallow as a puddle.
Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? Jesus is, of course, quoting Psalm 22, speaking in his native Aramaic, not Hebrew or Greek. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” begins this psalm. These are the Bible’s nine most disturbing words. They speak of complete dereliction, as if God had left Jesus to die like roadkill on a Palestinian road to nowhere.
I remember my first agonizing loss. I was a teenager. We were taking a family walk around a neighborhood outside Boston with our beloved dog, Pepper, an aging, half-blind English Cocker Spaniel. As a boy, I confided my secrets to him. He was my best friend. My parents walked ahead while my brothers and I trailed behind and Pepper dawdled in the distance. Suddenly, we heard a car’s tires screech. I ran back and found Pepper in the road and held him as he lay dying. How can God let the things we treasure die? Why did God let Jesus die in agony?
Liberal professors and many folks dismiss Christianity as a crutch for the weak. They don’t seem to mind Buddhism, Hinduism or Islam, but God forbid the Christian faith. But what do they have to offer as substitutes? From where are we to get our morality and our hope that we will be reunited with those who we have loved and lost? What is the greater purpose of this life? Science tells us how, but religion answers why. The real myth is the belief that this complex, amazing, fathomless universe is mere happenstance, an accidentally coincidence. I have never heard an atheist make truly a compelling, attractive argument.
Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? It is the cry humans have uttered throughout the centuries. It was heard on the battle fields of France, whose centennials we celebrated not long ago and whose senseless pain was depicted in the recent film 1917. The “War to End All Wars” as they called it, where countless young men died in dismal trenches, slaughtered to gain a few yards of French soil.
Perhaps the world is improving, we’re becoming more moral and we no longer need a savior. But if so, why was the last century the bloodiest century of all. The victims of Stalin, Hitler and Mao alone were said to have numbered close to 200 million. In Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the cries went up, “My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?”
If the melancholy, long, withdrawing roar of faith has ebbed back to sea, as the poet Matthew Arnold writes in his “Dover Beach,” then we are truly on our own. But long before the killing fields of the last century’s wars, Christians contemplated what it meant for God to be dead. Before the Black Plague or the First or Second World War, Christians pondered what happened on a certain Friday afternoon outside the walls of Jerusalem when he who said, “I am the light of the world,” was brutally killed and the flame of God’s love was extinguished. Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?
In his memoir Night, Elie Wiesel tells the story of a young Dutch boy, who was hanged for collaborating against the Nazis. Wiesel writes:
‘Where is God? Where is he?’ someone behind me asked. For more than half an hour [the child in the noose] stayed there, struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony under our eyes…. Behind me, I heard the same man asking, ‘Where is God now?’ And I heard a voice within me answer him: ‘Where is He? Here He is – He is hanging here on this gallows….”
They mocked Jesus as he hung on the cross, saying, “You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself by coming down from the cross!” “He saved others, but he cannot save himself.” “Let God deliver him if he cares for him for he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’” Everything in this story occurs in threes. Three times Jesus prays that he will be spared a violent death. Three times he returns and finds his disciples asleep while he anguishes alone. Three times Peter denies him. Three times Jesus is mocked on the cross mirroring the three times that Satan tempted him in the wilderness, “If you are the Son of God…” Yes, “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” Three times Jesus prayed, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” Three times there was silence after he prayed.
But note that even in Jesus’ great lament, God is still sovereign, not absent. God is real. Jesus turns to God. “My God, my God.” Psalm 22 ends not in desolation, but on a note of solace.
Posterity will serve him,
Future generations will be told about the Lord,
and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn,
saying that he has done it.
Even in Mark, which offers the starkest depiction of the crucifixion, after Jesus had cried out that God had abandoned him and died, the pagan centurion, who witnessed Jesus suffer, immediately offers the affirmation, “Truly this man was the Son of God!” Amen.
The Fifth Word from the Cross
We thirst for this pandemic to end. We thirst to embrace and move about freely, to see friends from school, return to work and enjoy dinner parties and sports, plan vacations and have life return to normal. What do you most thirst for now?
The Fifth Word is only two words. “I thirst.” Recall when Jesus learned that Lazarus had died, “Jesus wept.” It is the Bible’s shortest verse. Jesus was both human and divine. He could thirst, and also weep. Our Lord embodied the strength and tenderness of God.
Instead of theorizing about the crucifixion from afar, Ignatius of Loyola offered spiritual exercises that develop our capacities for empathy and help us to enter more fully into the events of our redemption.
A priest I know took an Ignatian retreat, and his Jesuit guide instructed him to spend an hour in his spartan room, strip naked and sitting on his bed meditating on the naked figure of Christ hanging on the crucifix over his bed. In so doing, we enter into the vulnerability of Jesus, God stretched naked before on the cross.
St. Paul’s makes the astonishing assertion, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” The first-century theologian Irenaeus notes a fabricated tale circulating in his time that Simon of Cyrene, the man who was compelled by the Romans to carry Jesus’ cross, was the one who ended up on it. Likewise, a movement called Gnosticism arose, which denied that Jesus really died. By the second century, the heresy of Docetism claimed that Jesus only appeared to be flesh and blood. His body was a mere phantasm. Hence, Jesus did not physically suffer. He said, “I thirst,” but he did not.
There were scurrilous reports that Jesus did not die, but ran off instead with Mary Magdalene to India – sort of like an ancient version of Eat, Pray, Love meets The Da Vinci Code. The Qur’an also denies that Jesus was crucified, claiming that it was a double who died in Jesus’ place on the cross. Countless books have proposed similar bizarre theories over the centuries.
Alfred North Whitehead, Harvard’s great philosopher, said that the only simplicity to be trusted is the simplicity found on the far side of complexity. Perhaps the only forms of hope to be trusted is that which is found on the other side of adversity, suffering and loss.
Traditionally, there was a merciful custom that victims of crucifixion had their pain eased by wealthy women from Jerusalem, who brought bowls of drugged wine to anaesthetize the victims hanging hideously on crosses at the site of crucifixions. Jesus refused this drink. He prayed three times in the Garden of Gethsemane that the cup of sorrow might pass him by, but his prayer went unanswered. So, Jesus steeled himself for an agonizing death. He wanted to have a clear head to battle Satan one final time.
Below his cross, soldiers sipped cheap wine, like vinegar, as the afternoon wore on, waiting for him to die. One of them tipped his flask of wine onto a sponge and hoisted it on a branch of hyssop to Jesus’ mouth. Our Lord sucked the sour wine to comfort his parched tongue and to fulfill the Scriptures. But nothing in John’s Gospel is simple. Everything functions on multiple levels.
While Jesus quotes Psalm 22 as he dies, but he may have recited other psalms as he lingered in agony. Psalm 69 reads, “They gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.” Psalm 42 begins, “As the deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.” Or Psalm 63, “O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there no water is.” The Scriptures filled Jesus mind, and he said, “I thirst.”
Have you ever experienced a holy thirst? Have you wandered into an empty church with something heavy on your heart and sensed a transforming presence as if you were not alone in the sacred, empty building? Have you come to a clearing atop a mountain and looked down below and realized that the “world is charged with the grandeur of God,” as Gerald Manley Hopkins wrote? Have you had that fleeting feeling or brief intuition as you thirst for God?
Even the Roman soldiers known for their rudeness and rough manners were taken by Jesus’ strength and tenderness and stunned by the impact that he had upon them. Even they, who rarely dispensed grace, found themselves surprised by a sudden longing for God.
In Exodus, hyssop was used to sprinkle the blood of the Passover lamb on the Jewish doorposts to ensure God’s protection. At the cross, hyssop was used to assuage Jesus’ thirst. His blood sealed the New Covenant just as the lamb’s blood sealed the Old Covenant.
In this time of pandemic, when our churches are closed, we find ourselves thirsting for the Eucharist, the cup of wine, the drink of salvation, which quenches our spiritual thirst. No matter how our week has been, how many trials or challenges we have faced, we receive the bread and drink the cup to restore whatever is broken in our lives and to quench our spiritual thirst and assuage our longing for God.
Early in John’s Gospel, Jesus met a Samaritan woman by Jacob’s well and asked her for a drink. She replied, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” Jesus said, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you the living water.” Likewise, at the Feast of Booths, which commemorated the Israelites hungering and thirsting in the wilderness, Jesus said, “If any one thirst, let him come to me and drink.”
Traditionally, the Fifth Word, “I thirst,” has been interpreted to focus on the Church’s missionary activity, to reach out to thirsting souls for Jesus’ sake. In Matthew 25, Jesus says, “…. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” (Matt. 25:35-36)
When in Rome, I have stay at San Gregorio al Magno, a fifth century villa owned Pope Gregory the Great, who transformed it into a Benedictine monastery across from the Palatine Hill and near the Coliseum and Circus Maximus. Adjacent is a Missionaries of Charity residence and a sign that reads, “I Thirst, I Quench.” These words are at the entrance of the community’s chapels all around the world.
“We want,” said Mother Teresa, who founded the Missionaries of Charity, “to satiate the thirst of Jesus on the cross for the love of souls.” As we care for each in need, a drink of love and hope is offered that quenches another’s thirst and the person who offered it as well. Amen.
The Sixth Word from the Cross
When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.” (John 19:30) This is the Sixth Word. “It is finished.”
When this wretched pandemic is over, we will surely be glad to say, “It is finished. It is over.” “It is finished” – tetelestai in the perfect tense in ancient Greek, means it is completed, accomplished or brought to perfection. It is not a sad, wistful word, but rather a shout of victory. One German theologian wrote, “At these words you hear fetters burst, and prison walls falling down; barriers as high as heaven are overthrown, and gates which had been closed for thousands of years again move on their hinges.” Axis mundi – the hinge of the world.
From the cross, Jesus tells us that he has borne witness to the truth, to the very end. “What is truth?” asks Pilate. Truth is not whatever we manufacture or make up. It is not a hoax, but reality. Truth is evident facts. Former CEO and leadership author Max DePree has famously written, “the first responsibility of a leader is to define reality.”
We need the truth about the truth. Jesus said, “It is finished.” He told the truth to the very end. In John’s Gospel we read, “Jesus said to them, ‘My food is to do the will of him who sent me, and to accomplish his work.’” (John 4:34) Now, his mission is accomplished and completed.
“It is finished,” is what an artist might say after penning the final words of a book or placing the last note in a musical composition. J.M.W. Turner was known to make final touches on his paintings while they hung in the exhibitions as viewers stood aghast. Then he would say, “It is finished.”
When Jesus said, “It is finished”, it must have looked anything but finished. He began his ministry by preaching repentance, calling listeners to “turn around,” and “change direction” for the kingdom of God was coming. But he ended up a tortured king of a failed kingdom. Those who mocked him at the cross had the last laugh. “Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are you who mourn. Blessed are the meek. Now, his followers were meek, mourning and poor in spirit.
But what could not be seen by even the most insightful person witnessing his crucifixion is that what began in Genesis was being finished and brought to its perfection. Humans would never need to atone for their sins again. God’s only begotten Son had paid the price for the wayward human behavior, a price that no amount of sacrificial lambs could purchase.
Novelist Peter De Vries wrote a book called The Blood of the Lamb about the death of his eleven-year-old daughter, Carol. She died of leukemia. The main character is Wanderhope, who gets to know other parents at the hospital with critically ill children.
Each day on the way to the hospital, Wanderhope stops by the Church of St. Catherine to steel himself for whatever the day will bring. Another father, named Stein, despises religion and refuses to join him. De Vries writes of Stein, “In his exile from peace of mind to which his reason doomed him, he was like an insomniac driven to awaken sleepers from dreams….by….shouting, ‘Don’t you realize it was a placebo!’”, adding, “He could not forgive God for not existing.”
Weeks come and go and Carol hovers near death. Wanderhope tries to pray, but praying for a miracle seems too ambitious. So, he prays for just one more year with Carol, imagining how they will spend it. Miraculously, the bone marrow report is down to 6 percent, practically normal. Carol is in remission, and she can go home tomorrow.
The following day, Wanderhope buys a cake to celebrate and stops by St. Catherine’s to offer a prayer of thanks before heading to the hospital. Mrs. Morano, one of Carol’s nurses, is praying inside the church. She sees Wanderhope and tells him that an infection has broken out and is spreading through the hospital ward like wildfire. De Vries writes:
I hurried to the hospital. One look at Carol and I knew it was time to say good-bye. The invading germ, or germs, had not only ravaged her blood-stream by now, but had broken out on her body surface… One of the blotches covered where they were trying to insert a catheter, and spread down along a thigh. By afternoon it had traveled to the knee, and by the next, gangrened.
The nurse whispered to Carol that in just a few hours all her dreams would be pleasant. Wanderhope thought of Carol on her bicycle with the sun in her hair and at the piano practicing with a smile of satisfaction that he would never see again. When the nurse left, her father moved to the side of her bed and whispered rapidly in their moment alone:
‘The Lord bless thee and keep thee, the Lord make his face shine upon thee and be gracious unto thee; the Lord lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.’ Then I touched the stigmata one by one: the prints of the needles, the wound in the breast that had for so many months now scarcely ever closed. I caressed the perfectly shaped head. I bent to kiss the cheeks, the breasts that would now never be fulfilled, that no youth would ever touch. ‘Oh my lamb.’
When Carol died, Wanderhope looked up and saw that it was three o’clock. The same hour that Jesus had said, “It is finished” and died. He headed to a bar and had a drink, and then six drinks, and then another. Then Wanderhipe remembered that he had left the cake that he bought in the church. As he left St. Catherine’s, he saw the crucifix over the central doorway. He hurled it at the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross with all the strength left in him.
It hit the crucifix. Icing splattered everywhere, scattered on the floor like a crown of thorns. He could almost hear a voice saying, “Suffer the little children to come upon me, for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” Wanderhope collapsed on the worn steps of the church at the foot of the cross, where we gather on Good Friday. The desolate cry, “Oh, my lamb,” is the cry of every person who has watched a loved one take a final breath. “It is finished.”
This cry occurs at the Eucharist when pilgrims chant, “Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis….dona nobis pacem.” Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us….give us peace.” Early in the Fourth Gospel, John the Baptist points to Jesus and tells two men, “Behold, the lamb of God.” It is he, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us….give us peace.” Amen.
The Seventh Word of Christ from the Cross
In Shusako Endo’s powerful novel Silence, the seventeenth century Jesuits of Nagasaki and their converts can avoid crucifixion by stepping on the crucifix. “It is such a little thing to require,” their tormentors say enticingly, and so apostates came to agree. But those who became martyrs knew that the little thing was everything. It was the absolute antithesis of Good Friday’s veneration of the cross.
“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”
Luke alone offers the Seventh Word from the cross. Mark says, “Jesus uttered a loud cry, and breathed his last.” Matthew reports, “And Jesus cried again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit.” In John Gospel, after the soldier gave Jesus sour wine, Jesus said, “’It is finished’, and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.” Matthew and Mark note that Jesus made a loud cry, but only Luke tells us what that loud cry was. Luke notes that Jesus said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”
Early in my tenure at my last church, we invited Presiding Bishop Edmund Browning to visit our parish. It was a great honor to host him. In one of his talks he told us that many Coptic Christians in Egypt and Ethiopia place a little bowl of water by their bedside. When they arise each morning, they dip their fingers in it and trace that sign of the cross on their forehead and say, “Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit this day.” This words come from Psalm 31, and they are Jesus’ final words spoken on the cross.
Ever since Bishop Browning’s visit some 23 years ago, I have traced the sign of the cross on my forehead each morning and quietly said, “Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.” I wake up a pagan, believing that the day belongs to me, but in tracing the sign of the cross and reciting Jesus’ final words, I remember that I belong to God and each day is for serving him.
Jesus quotes the psalms more than any other book of the Bible. The psalms were always on his mind. Jesus knew that he was departing from this earth and returning to God. One journey was ending and another was about to begin. So, he quoted Psalm 31. As a child, my mother taught me to say a little prayer before going to bed. Perhaps you recited it as well.
Now I lay me down to sleep.
I pray the Lord my soul to keep,
If I should die before I wake,
I pray thee Lord my soul to take.
Looking back on it, it sounds grim. Few parents teach this prayer to their children anymore. Surely, there are more palatable prayers to recite before sleeping. What matters is that we commend ourselves to God just Jesus did before taking his final breath.
Our Lord spoke in Arabic, saying Abba, a term of endearment, like “Daddy.” This is the word that Jesus called God, when three times in the Garden of Gethsemane praying, “Abba, Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” (Luke 22:42) Jesus used the same word for God, Abba, when he taught his disciples to pray, saying, “Our Father” It conveyed a sense that God is far closer to us than we can imagine.
For some, “Father,” however has negative connotations. The truth is that God has no gender. God is neither male nor female. “If God is male,” notes one feminist theologian, “the male is God,” which is hardly the case. Rather, God embodies aspects of both male and female. All humans are created in God’s image. Of course, some say that religion is a crutch for the weak.
One Catholic theologian notes that he once asked an old priest, who was a famous spiritual director, what he had learned from hearing thousands of confessions, the old priest replied, “There are no grown-ups.” There are only grown-ups who pretend to be independent and strong, and then there are those who stop pretending and admit that they need help.
After confronting enough life on our own, trying to make life work our way, we experience what some call a “second naïveté” and recognize our utter dependence on God, which is not a crutch to lean on, but rather a cross to die on. Jesus calls out to us, “Take up your cross and follow me.” It’s much easier pretending to be a grown-up and being independent than to have to take up your cross and follow Jesus. “Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.”
One of the earliest known accounts of Christian martyrdom is that of Polycarp, Bishop of ancient Smyrna, in the second century, found in modern Turkey and known today as Izmir. After his arrest, the Roman proconsul told Polycarp, “Take the oath to Caesar and I shall release you. Curse Christ.” Polycarp answers, “Eighty-six years I have served him, and he never did me any wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” Polycarp refused to bend for he knew that if he bent he would no longer be Polycarp, but a fraud. Polycarp was not being just true to himself, he was being true to God. St. Paul writes, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” It’s as if Polycarp were so in Christ that to curse Christ would be for Christ to curse Christ, which is impossible.