As they led [Jesus] away [from Pilate], they seized one Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, and laid on him the cross, to carry it behind Jesus. And there followed him a great multitude of the people, and of women who bewailed and lamented him. … And when they came to the place which is called The Skull, there they crucified [Jesus], and the criminals, one on the right and one on the left. And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:26-34)
Good Friday is the most disturbing day of the Christian year. It is the day that takes the worst of who we are, and the best of who God is, and displays the consequences of that collision in the person of Jesus condemned to die upon the cross. We gather this afternoon for the same three hours that he hung upon the cross, and unlike a usual church service, where there is much to see and to do, our time on this occasion is to be spent more meditatively and reflectively as we keep watch with Jesus.
As we do so, we will tell the story of his death by focusing on the “seven words” he is reported to have said from the cross. I warn you in advance that the story is not entirely coherent or linear, for it consists of short excerpts taken from four different sources—the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John—and what we glean from them is like a journalist’s impressionistic reportage after interviewing four different witnesses to the same event. There is some consistency, but there is also divergence and contradiction.
What all four of the gospel writers do seem to agree upon, however, is that the events of Jesus’ death and resurrection turn our understanding of who we are and of who God is on its head. Much of what we thought we knew about the world is turned inside out, so in the hearing of the story we have to be prepared to rethink some of our most basic assumptions about life and death, good and evil, heaven and earth. That’s the reason we retell the story, year after year. Each time, it shakes up some idea or attitude we have taken for granted about God or ourselves, drawing us further toward seeing the world as it really is.
So in taking up each of the seven words of Jesus from the cross, I want to explore some these great reversals that Jesus makes in our self-perception. Some of us will be here throughout the three hours, others will be here only a short while, but each of us has the opportunity to ask the basic question of how the death of Jesus on a cross might reverse some part of our own understanding.
Interestingly, the church itself has never claimed to have a definitive answer to that question. You might think that on this, the holiest of days, you could turn to some page in the Prayer Book and find it written out for you, right there: the meaning of the crucifixion is … . Yet about this central event of the Christian faith, the church has wisely demurred in defining such a doctrine: the mystery is too profound, the meanings too deep. The truth of the matter is that the method of the transaction by which Jesus earns forgiveness of sin on the cross is far from self-evident. However many times we repeat the story, it never quite comes into sharp focus—and so we tell it again.
Perhaps you have at some point asked yourself the question: just how does Jesus’ death on the cross absolve me for what I have done? The Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe articulated what is perhaps the most familiar response to that question: “The idea is that our sin had offended God and since God is himself infinite such an offence has a kind of infinity about it.” He continues, “It was within the power of the human creature to offend by disobedience to God but it was not with within our power to restore the balance of justice by any recompense we could pay to God. So God the Son became man [Jesus] so that by his suffering and death he could pay the price of sin.”1 If you’re like me, though, you may not find it easy to connect existentially with that rather legalistic idea of a divinely orchestrated retributive justice. As McCabe himself goes on to point out, “If God will not forgive us until his son has been tortured to death for us, then God is a lot less forgiving than even we are sometimes.”
But before we look for other ways of understanding the cross, we need to take stock of two important guideposts that will point the way. First, we must remind ourselves that what we are not doing here today is pretending that Jesus is dying all over again, as if we are staging a kind of mock funeral for him. No, scripture tells the story of the crucifixion only in order to set the stage for the resurrection, and we must remember that historically we are already on the other side of Easter. The story we tell today is not a thriller: there is no suspense, no surprise ending. We know already that Jesus is risen, and that’s the only thing that makes it worth telling the story of how he died. For viewed through the lens of the resurrection, we know that his death is not the last word; that Easter is God’s answer to Good Friday; and that in Jesus God puts death to death. So whatever we may say about the meaning of the cross, it has to take into account that we are talking not just about the crucified Jesus, but the crucified and risen Lord. Indeed, in the very early church Jesus’ passion and resurrection were celebrated as a single unified drama rather than being spread out over several days as we do it now, and we would do well to remember that essential unity.
The second guidepost for us to be aware of is the focus of all four gospels on the sheer violence of Jesus’ crucifixion. The scriptures go into sometimes excruciating detail in describing the manner of his death—details like the anxiety that caused him to sweat blood, or the blood and water that ran from his side when it was pierced by a sword. Indeed the seven last words are themselves a part of the vivid recounting of his death. But we would make a great mistake to become fixated on the details of the violence itself, like Mel Gibson’s film of a few years ago, The Passion of Christ. We will not grasp the meaning of the crucifixion better by concentrating on the violence by which it was done, as if the gorier the story, the more convinced we will be of its significance.
No, the point of the violence done to Jesus is that it points beyond him, to the violence we do to one another. The actors in the passion story are stand-ins for us; it is not they who are at fault, but we. We are the source of the violence for which we must be forgiven—and I don’t mean just the literal violence of torture and persecution (though that too), but also the daily violence that Archbishop Rowan Williams describes as “the complicated negotiations for living space that dominate the ‘ordinary’ human world, with its underlying assumption that we all live at each other’s expense.”2 In the experience of the cross, we should see not just the violence perpetrated long ago by an angry mob and the complicit soldiers, but the violence of today’s competitive marketplace; or the violence we do in betraying friends and family; or the violence worked by our exclusion of those who are different from us; or the violence done in society by those seeking political advantage at the expense of truth and honesty. The violence of the cross is the violence of the world we encounter every day in the morning newspaper; it is the violence we experience at work; the violence we perpetrate at home.
So let us come, then, to the first of Jesus’ words from the cross: “Father, forgive, for they know not what they do.” I have proposed that the importance of these words is that they suggest some reversal in our understanding of ourselves and of God. So wherein lies the reversal here? It calls to my mind an image I heard from a Good Friday preacher years ago, who asked us to picture D-Day on the beaches of Normandy, and the wave after wave of Allied soldiers who assaulted the beaches. If we were to imagine that the violence done by us to one another—and by extension to Christ on the cross— is like the horror on those beaches, then the unexpected and astonishing thing is that Jesus makes no resistance to it: he absorbs all that violence into himself, without returning any of it against us. Here the laws of human nature by which we normally live seem utterly confounded: instead of reaction and retaliation against violence, Jesus speaks words of reconciliation: “Father, forgive.” This is the essential and disarming reality of his death, and the first great reversal that flows from the crucifixion: violence is returned with forgiveness, rather than retribution.
Moreover, when we remember that these words are spoken by the one whose resurrected life also expresses the whole power of God, then the fact that there is no trace of power in Jesus’ helplessness on the cross identifies him in the closest possible way with our experience of human suffering. Suffering makes us to feel trapped and helpless. He, like we, can do nothing to escape it. Yet Jesus’ powerlessness in the face of suffering is freely chosen, because of his love: to identify with us, he will suffer for us. This is the context in which he begs forgiveness, and again it begins to turn our assumptions inside out by demonstrating that God’s love will not turn aside from suffering as we would expect, but rather accept it willingly in order to be with us in love. As we sang in the hymn a few moments ago:
Upon the cross of Jesus, mine eyes at times can see
The very dying form of one who suffered there for me;
And from my smitten heart with tears two wonders I confess:
The wonders of redeeming love, and my own worthlessness.3
One of the criminals who were hanged railed at [Jesus], saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And [Jesus] said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:39-43)
It was F. Scott Fitzgerald who observed in his essay, “The Crack-Up,” that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”4 God’s perception of us as human beings is like that: on one hand, God sees us as the criminal crucified with Jesus who was “receiving the due reward for [his] deeds”; yet at the same time God also looks upon as the beloved, like the other criminal whom Jesus promised would be with him in paradise. We are simultaneously both judged and beloved.
It was amazing to me when I was a seminary dean, to receive each week a letter or two complaining about someone we had invited to speak. “How dare you invite someone so liberal!” one letter will opine, while another would assert that we had violated all decency by inviting someone else who is so conservative. The drive among Christian people to divide themselves into opposing camps is extraordinary.
It really should come as no surprise, however. Consider who we are as a species: we know how to function only by drawing tribal distinctions among ourselves, always at some one else’s expense. We divide ourselves by class, by race, by nationality, by religion, by profession, by gender. Yet these divisions are forced upon us by the competitive environments which surround us on every side: schools, jobs, politics, economics, families, you name it. And once we have constructed such divisions, our sense of individual privilege takes over since we suppose that we have successfully distinguished ourselves from the great mass of humanity that surrounds us. At root, such a sectarian disregard for others is itself a form of violence; as the Roman Catholic theologian James Alison puts it, we do violence to others “whenever we behave as though some group to which we belong is self-evidently superior to, more truth-bearing, than, some other group.”5
God, however, is able to hold two seemingly contradictory thoughts in mind at the same time: that each of us individually is of infinite worth, and yet at the same time that each of us is part of the mass of humanity in which there are no distinctions or privileges, “neither slave nor free, male nor female, Jew nor Greek.” God, if you will, is able to love each of us best, so has no need of dividing us into competitive groups. So while we try in a self-deceptive way to justify ourselves by asserting our own superiority or giftedness against others, Jesus makes clear that God’s love cannot be so divided: his life is given for us all, his plea for forgiveness is extended to us all.
Think again of the two criminals who were crucified with Jesus. The first criminal is caught in the individualistic frame of mind: “if you are the Christ,” he taunts Jesus, “then save yourself and us.” Prove your uniqueness, defeat your enemies, show us what you’re good for. The second criminal, however, sees that Jesus’ purposes are not victory and division, but solidarity and unity. Jesus suffers with sinners not to have the opportunity to show his power or favoritism, but to reveal the faithfulness and fidelity of his love to the whole of humanity—his catholic, or universal love, you might say. Jesus, in other words, becomes on the cross a victim of the human drive toward segregation, so that he can be the one who shows us that the self-giving nature of God’s love shows neither partiality nor limitation. Not even against the criminal who taunts him does Jesus speak a word of judgment: he only points to the other criminal as the one who has begun to grasp the meaning of his death. Here, then, is the reversal of our assumptions contained in this second word: contrary to our frantic attempts to justify our own value as human beings, it is not in the end earned through our own effort, but given only by God.
Think back to the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus taught that blessedness is the fruit of those who hunger for righteousness, those who are poor in spirit. The blessedness of such humility flows out of the love which pulses through these instances of self-offering—love which is not moved or motivated by the drive toward a segregationist superiority, but which overcomes such differentiation by refusing to engage it.
The church recently observed the anniversary of the assassination of Oscar Romero, archbishop of El Salvador in the 1970s. You may remember that when he was appointed, he was expected to be a safe choice who would not challenge the economic privileges of the ruling oligarchy. As he became aware of the consequences of the segregation of society into rich and poor, however, he became more and more outspoken against the repressive regime which ignored the inherent, God-given dignity of rich and poor alike. For that witness, he was murdered while saying mass in the chapel of the hospital for the poor where he lived. But he remains to us an example of someone who understood that unlike us, God shows no partiality: we are all loved, best. There is no distinction or privilege in God’s reckoning of who we are.
The second criminal, the one who fears God, seems to intuit that in Jesus he has found the one who embodies this truth fully, for what he asks of Jesus is not that Jesus save him from the consequences of his own crime, but that Jesus remember him, that he value him as a human being. This word, “remember,” is significant, for it doesn’t just mean to think back to someone out of the past. The thief is not asking that when Jesus comes into his kingdom, he recall to mind that there was once a criminal crucified with him, and that he feel a kind of pity. No, the Greek verb “to remember” is anamimnēskesthai, which has a much stronger meaning of calling an event from the past into the present, making it part of contemporary experience. It’s the same word that Jesus used at the Last Supper, when he invited the disciples to break bread and drink wine in “remembrance” of him. Such an act of remembrance is not just retrospective reflection; it is a calling into our midst the presence of the crucified and risen Lord, so that we may share in his life.
So when the criminal asked, “Jesus, remember me,” it is his request to be brought along with Jesus as one of God’s beloved, to go where he goes, to share in what he is. These are the words that are meant to be upon our lips as well: not the self-justifying words of division and segregation, but the simple human desire to be remembered by Jesus when he comes into his kingdom.
Standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 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 house. (John 19:25-27)
We have been talking about the great reversals Jesus works from the cross of our assumptions about the world and about ourselves. Violence, we have seen, is absorbed rather than met by revenge, and the value of who we are is given in God’s unrestrained regard for us, rather than earned. We come now to a third reversal, where God returns memory to us as healed hope for the future, rather than a haunting disappointment from the past.
In his third word from the cross, Jesus asks of two individuals that they make a commitment to one another. As he gazes down he sees his mother, Mary, and with her is John, the beloved disciple. Jesus commends Mary into John’s keeping, and conversely, he also bids Mary to take John as her son, loving and caring for one another. This gentle gesture is often understood as a moment of touching filial compassion on the part of Jesus, and indeed it is.
Yet Jesus’ gesture is also far more than a simple familial concern, and we would miss the significance of his words were we to think of them as only a son’s concern for his mother. Jesus’ concern from the cross for the healing of his fractured family of origin is a harbinger of the larger restoration of community which he affects for all of the disciples after his resurrection.
Think ahead to Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances: when he first meets the disciples, they are hiding behind closed and locked doors, fearful, cut off from all human contact. So when Jesus, the one whom they betrayed, unexpectedly returns to their midst, what would be their first thought? That he was returning in anger at their betrayal and abandonment of him? That they were now to be shown up for the cowards that they were? That is the haunting memory that they carry: of their own failure in the moment of trial. Yet what does Jesus say instead: “Peace be with you.” Where their expectation is of judgment and retribution, Jesus comes to dismantle their fear and humiliation and to build instead a new community of reconciliation on the very foundation of their earlier betrayal.
So it seems that Jesus’ relationship to the memory of what happened on the cross is different from that of the disciples. Whereas they recall it as a debilitating experience of shame, Jesus—even as the one who was the victim of their betrayal—returns the memory of it to them stripped of judgment and wrapped instead with the promise of restoration and renewal. He is able to do this because, as God’s Son, he has been able to carry this memory into the inexhaustible love of the Father, where it is absorbed and put away without resentment. Only God’s love—perfect love, inexhaustible love—can affect such a transaction, because only God does not need to respond with the suspicion and anxiety for security that motivates our human response. Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams once put it this way: “God’s memory is the victims’ memory [God remembers the same event we do]: yet because the life of God is not a life with worldly limits, worldly constraints on its possibilities, the memory of suffering here is—we might say—embedded in an inexhaustible life. God receives the victim’s pain into an infinite selfhood and self-presence; and so when he returns to us the memory of what has been done, it is as a memory inseparably bound to a reality which guarantees the hope of healing because its resources and possibilities cannot be exhausted or extinguished by the world’s destructiveness.”6
In short, memory is restored to us by Jesus as hope—and here is the great reversal. We carry painful memories around with us as a great burden—“baggage,” we call it—and we don’t know what to do with it. But in Christ, painful memory can be returned to us as restorative hope, for the memory becomes woven into the very fabric of divine love through which Jesus takes our humanity into the heart of God. It is, as Rowan Williams calls it, “love’s comprehensive vision of all we are and have been” that offers to remake, without undoing, the core of our being.7 On the cross, Jesus gathers up every hurt and disappointment in human experience, and takes it to the Father to be returned through his love as hope.
You may recall a film that came out a number of years ago called The Mission. In it, Robert DeNiro plays Roberto Mendoza, a Spanish slave trader who is enslaving indigenous people from the forests of Brazil. In a fit of rage, he murders his brother, and then feels such remorse that he is paralyzed by the memory of it. Fr. Gabriel, a wise Jesuit priest played by Jeremy Irons, counsels him that he must make a penance proportionate to his crimes, so Mendoza bundles all of his armor and weapons into a net that he then drags painfully through the forest to the Indians. Seeing him, a leader of the tribe takes out a knife as if to kill his enemy, but instead, he cuts loose the awful burden and throws it over the edge of the cliff, releasing Mendoza from both the physical and spiritual burden he has been carrying. This is what Christ does for us: relieves us of the burden of our memory by converting it to hope.
So Jesus’ commendation of his mother to John, and of John to his mother, becomes a foretaste of the ecclesial nature of the church, which as the community of reconciliation is the place where we come to know the healing of memory. What else is the church’s celebration of the Eucharist, than a remembrance of the risen Lord’s presence with his disciples, speaking words of peace and reconciliation where they—and we—would expect judgment? Those words we exchange so lightly in the Eucharistic service, “The peace of the Lord be with you,” are therefore not just a polite greeting, but expressive of the great reversal and healing of memory that Jesus brings to us.
For the church, the climax of this healing of memory is Easter Morning, when the people of God gather for the Great Vigil of Easter which retrospectively rehearses the whole of God’s history with us. Beginning with creation and the fall, moving through Israel’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt, to the dark days of the valley of dry bones, the vigil recalls to our minds the whole memory of humankind. Everything that we are or have been is on full display.
Now this story could be told with a great sense of regret, like the stories of our own lives: so many opportunities lost, so many wrong turns taken. But instead, the story is told with great expectation, for this history is taken up in the vigil into Jesus’ resurrection where “all who believe are restored to grace,” “wickedness is put to flight,” and “sin is washed away.” This is the restoration of memory in hope, and it is this great reversal which is anticipated by the gentle care that Jesus takes of his own mother and beloved disciple from the cross: “Woman, behold your son. Son, behold your mother.”
Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour. And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eli, eli, la’ma sabach-tha’ni?” that is, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” And some of the bystanders hearing it said, “This man is calling Eli’jah.” And one of them at once ran and took a sponge, filled it with vinegar, and put it on a reed, and gave it to him to drink. But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Eli’jah will come to save him.” (Matthew 27:45-49)
One of the pleasures of being a seminary dean was to hear on an almost daily basis the preaching offered by the students in chapel. The sermons were lively, provocative, relevant, and full of fresh insights, and I nearly always came away having learned something new. One day at Morning Prayer, one of the students was recalling in her homily the scripture games she played as a child in a Baptist Sunday School. One of those games was to finish a Bible verse from memory, having been given only the first few words. If, for example, I were to throw out the line, “For God so loved the world,” you might know to finish it with “that he gave his only begotten son” (Jn 3:16). Jesus, she pointed out, played similar scripture games with his disciples, and if we don’t realize that when he quotes scripture it is often intended to evoke the longer passage from which it is taken, we may well miss his meaning.
This fourth word from the cross is a case in point. When we hear Jesus lament, quoting Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”, we are apt to hear only a cry of abandonment. Indeed, these words are often taken in meditations on the seven last words to be a kind of emotional climax, giving voice as they do to such profound anguish. This, we are told, is the beginning of the end, a transition toward death that will be the final closure to Jesus’ agony. Yet, I wonder if there is not more here. If we were to pay closer attention to the whole of the psalm which Jesus quotes, might we not find a more complicated meaning?
Indeed, Psalm 22 is not uniformly despairing. It begins with the verse Jesus quotes, “My God, why have you forsaken me?”, but almost immediately moves beyond despair to a recollection that God is the Holy One in whom the psalmist’s forebears put their trust. Many of the succeeding verses return to a graphic picture of hopelessness (“I am poured out like water; packs of dogs close me in; they stare and gloat over me”), yet these despondent verses are likewise tempered by calls for God’s assistance (“Be not far from me, for trouble is near; you are my strength; hasten to help me”). Thus, like the book of Job, the psalm interweaves despair with a deep reckoning of the purposes of God. So while Jesus appeals most obviously to the despairing first verse of the psalm, he uses that line with the expectation that we will hear the psalm’s deeper complexity of despair laced with longing, reaching cautiously toward hope.
So if we take into account this fuller landscape of Psalm 22, what we have is a prayer from Jesus that even in these nethermost depths into which he is falling, God will not forget him. Like us, Jesus needs reassurance, courage, hope.
Think of it in spatial terms: imagine that there is, in one direction, a place where God is and is fully known. Life however has a way of taking us away from that place in an opposite direction, sometimes leading us so far from God that we no longer see any sign of his presence nor know how to find our way back to it. We have all been in places like that—you may be there right now: times when loneliness overtakes us, or the tension of personal conflicts, or the worry of illness, or the disgrace of foolish mistakes. In those distant places, we truly feel that we are where God is not, and so like Jesus we cry, “why, why hast thou forsaken me.” But if there is a direction that leads us away from God, then there is also a direction that leads back to God. We know that, because that is the road that Jesus has traveled. On the cross, Jesus has gone with us to the remotest, most isolated corner of our existence, but then in his resurrected life he has shown us that with him there is a way back to God.
So here we come upon the great reversal toward which this fourth word from the cross points us. I spoke earlier of the reversal Jesus makes in our assumptions about violence, self-worth, and memory: here he reverses the despair that comes upon us in places of loneliness and disappointment. That despair comes from feeling that we are forsaken, isolated and alone. Yet calling out to God in his own despair, Jesus shows us that we are not alone in those places after all—he is there with us. And if he is with us, he can lead us home, for he alone knows the way.
I was trying to explain this idea once to a group of children, and asked them to imagine that God is in the direction of the altar here in church, and that the aisle leading out of the church is the direction away from God. One little girl raised her hand and said, “But I thought God was everywhere!” Well, yes, that’s true—and she proved herself a better theologian than I. But it doesn’t always feel that way, does it? We sometimes need reassurance to know that however far from God we have strayed, God will in Jesus come looking for us, seeking us out, calling us back.
In the second chapter of Philippians, we read last Sunday, Palm Sunday, that Jesus, “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave” (Phil 2:6-7). It is precisely this act of self-emptying which opens to us the possibility of hope in despair. Laying aside the privileges, as it were, of heaven, Jesus goes looking for us, ultimately showing us on the cross the full distance God is willing to go on our behalf: even to the point of death. As the old American folk hymn puts is, “What wondrous love is this, that caused the Lord of bliss, to lay aside his crown for my soul.”8
Again, this return home reaches its culmination on Easter Eve, when we gather in darkness—as if in those lonely places of despair—only to be called into new light and life, following the risen Lord one who will not give up on us, ever, no matter how far away we stray. The full self-emptying of Jesus is shown in this willingness to go after us, to follow us, to be with us, even in death. As George Herbert, expresses it in his poem “The Search”:
Thy will such a strange distance is …
Oh take these bars, these lengths away;
Turn, and restore me:
Be not Almighty, let me say,
Against, but for me. …
For as thy absence doth excel
All distance known:
So doth thy nearness bear the bell [burden],
Making two one.9
After this, knowing that all was now finished, Jesus said (to fulfill the scripture), “I thirst.” A bowl full of vinegar stood there; so they put a sponge full of vinegar on hyssop and held it to his mouth. (John 19:28-29)
We have thus far found in each of Jesus’ words from the cross some reversal of the assumptions and expectations we bring to life. This fifth word is no different: the fact that the gospel writer includes the detail of Jesus’ thirst is clearly intended to tell us something important about human need and desire, but the question is, what?
Some years back, the Metropolitan Museum of Art had an exhibition of Tiffany glass. Among the artifacts on display was a stained glass window taken from the baptistery of a church somewhere in upstate New York—Buffalo, I think it was. The window clearly depicted a deer drinking from a running stream of water, a beautiful and idyllic scene. The caption provided by the museum, taking a literal view, offered the observation that “it is strange that Tiffany would choose such a pastoral scene for the baptistery of a church.” A more allegorical reading of the window, however, would make reference to Psalm 42, which reads “As the deer longs for the water-brooks, so longs my soul for you, O God.” That psalm has often been read as an archetype of the longing for God which leads to baptism: our thirst for the water of life is like our thirst for the water that is life-giving.
Good Friday preachers seem similarly uncertain of whether to read Jesus’ fifth and shortest word from the cross, “I thirst,” literally or allegorically. On one hand, his request brings us back to the hard reality of what’s going on: a physical human body is being tortured to death, and the suffering is real, intense, and excruciating. Jesus’ thirst expresses a real human need for something to drink, and there is no way around that fact. Yet on the other hand, this is John’s gospel, where every detail has symbolic weight, so if we are going to find the meaning of Jesus’ thirst we need to attend to what other layers of meaning it might have.
The gospel writer signals the importance of these other dimensions for us, saying that Jesus’ thirst was “to fulfill the scripture.” That clue sends us back once again to the psalms, this time to Psalm 69 where we read, “They gave me gall to eat, and when I was thirsty, they gave me vinegar to drink.” (Ps 29:23) Just as we saw earlier in Psalm 22, to which Jesus made reference in his fourth word, the despairing lament of Psalm 69 is mingled with expectation for deliverance—or, in this case, we might say for the quenching of thirst. But here is the point: this thirst is more than a physical need—it is symbolic for what Jesus himself calls in the Beatitudes the thirst for righteousness, or for what he tells the woman at the well is the living water of eternal life which he himself will give, or for what he tells the disciples is the saving cup of salvation. Jesus’ thirst on the cross is all of these things: it is both bodily need and spiritual longing.
I am told that there is a sign posted at the chapel entrance in every house of Mother Theresa’s Missionaries of Charity. The sign has only four words, it says: “I thirst. I quench.” Now the Missionaries of Charity are no strangers to human thirst: their work as you know is to gather the dying poor from the streets of the world’s cities, and to bring them in to where they can be cared for, even with such a simple thing as offering a cup of water. The sign with the words, “I thirst, I quench,” is meant to remind the sisters that in doing something for the least of these, they are doing it also for Jesus. An amazed reporter once remarked to Mother Theresa about her work with the poorest of the poor, “I wouldn’t do that for a million dollars,” he said. She snapped back, “Neither would I. But I would do it for Jesus.” She understood that Jesus’ thirst is quenched by the relief the sisters offer to the poor, and that in doing something to relieve their suffering, the sisters relieve his.
Yet the sisters’ sign also implies something more. Jesus’ thirst is not just a physical need for something to drink, but also a longing to be in spiritual communion with our souls. From the cross, he thirsts not only for water, but for our passion, our love, and our commitment in place of what we so often give him instead: our refusal and indifference.
Now, I think it is important that we pay attention here to the intense element of desire and longing that thirst implies. Physical thirst is a strong metaphor for the variety of desires that drive our actions: the desire for intimacy, for friendship, for enjoyment, for comfort. Jesus’ thirst for communion with us, however, suggests that the fulfillment of these other desires will never be sufficient, if it is does not also include God. And here we come to the moment of reversal worked for us by Jesus’ thirst. We live as if we believe that if we have what we desire, then we will be satisfied. But all our other desires are surrogates for the one fundamental desire for the unconditional love that only God can give. We are hard-wired to need God, in other words, like we’re hard-wired to need food and water, and the only thing that can quench our thirst for God—is God. Harvard’s gret preacher, Peter Gomes, put it this way: “We thirst after God, because there is a thirst for God placed within us by God which only God can satisfy. Nothing and nobody else will do. Money won’t do—nice to have it, but it won’t do. Sex won’t do—nice to have it too if you can, but it won’t do. Even love is lovely to have, but it won’t do. Our soul is athirst for God.”10
We should, perhaps, recall that in John’s gospel, Mary Magdalene plays a special role. She is mentioned among those who stand near the cross, and (as in the other gospels) she is the first to see Jesus following his resurrection. She is, therefore, uniquely placed in the story to represent the desire, the thirst, that draws each of us toward Jesus. In an eighteenth-century Venetian oratorio by Antonio Caldara, La Maddalena, the composer imagines Mary Magdalene torn between the false allures of Earthly love and the lasting happiness of Celestial love (reverting perhaps to the inaccurate reading that she was a harlot). In the end, it is her thirst for Christ, her desire for union with him, that draws her in the direction of celestial love, and she finds in her devotion to his life the joy which earthly love could only fleetingly provide. Rejoicing in the final quenching of her thirst, she sings this song of self-commitment: “I now wish that the ardent zeal of Christ, who came to spread fire in every breast, may let my heart glow and melt so it will, changed from what it had been before, come to bear the imprint of His love.”11 To bear the imprint of God’s love: that is our deepest desire, and only when we have found it, will our own thirst be satisfied. Jesus thirsts; yet it is he also he who quenches our thirst with the living water of himself. As one of Fanny Crosby’s innumerable hymns puts it,
Jesus, keep me near the cross, there’s a precious fountain;
Free to all, a healing stream, flows from Calvr’y’s mountain.
In the cross, be my glory ever;
Till my raptured soul shall find rest beyond the river.12
When Jesus had received the vinegar, he said, “It is finished”; and he bowed his head and gave up the spirit. (John 19:30)
Whenever someone dies prematurely at a young age, we feel a great sense of regret that he or she did not live a full life. “He had so much potential,” we may say, or “she had so much of life still before her.” Our expectation is that the span of human life has a certain long arc stretching from birth to old age, and that dying short of that arc’s end is an abrupt and even unfair interruption of the natural pattern of life. Yet despite this expectation, most of us would be hard pressed ever to come to a point where we could simply declare that we had achieved everything we expected from life, and that our life was now complete. Death always seems like something of an interruption. How surprising, then, to hear Jesus say so definitively that the work of his life “is finished.”
The contrast drives us to look deeper. One of the most important insights of the early church was that in Jesus, God became human to take upon himself every aspect of who we are—flesh, gender, hunger, thirst, desire, pain, despair, even death. We human beings are a complex jumble of mental and physical elements that we struggle endlessly to hold in balance. The professions line up to assist us with this challenge: teachers for the mind; physicians for the body; psychologists for the emotions; lawyers and counselors for the relationships. The early Christians realized that if the gospel of Jesus Christ is to have any real value, he has to touch every part of this chaos to bring some sort of wholeness out of an otherwise disorderly confusion. Indeed, these first Christians came to be aware that scripture goes to great lengths to show us that Jesus did in fact take upon himself every part of human nature: this is the reason for the meticulous accounts of his human birth, or the story of his struggle with temptation in the desert, or the description of his mental anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus does not just have the appearance of being one of us; he truly suffers and struggles as one of us. And what the early Christians came to believe about Jesus, therefore, was that because he is also fully present to God the Father as the Son, he is able to present through himself the whole of our created humanity to God, shattered as it has become by the effects of sin, so that the Father can return it to us in a new creation restored to its original likeness to God.
Do you remember a number of years ago, when Michelangelo’s David in Florence’s Academia was attacked by a deranged man wielding a heavy hammer? Before the man could be restrained, he had knocked off several pieces of the statue, and seemed hell-bent on destroying as much of it as he could. Following the attack, the broken pieces were carefully gathered up, and with the intervention of master craftsmen the statue was restored to its original form. Our life is like that: inexplicable and unanticipated forces assault us, both within and without, and leave us stricken and disfigured. Yet Jesus does for us what the curators did for the David: he gathers the pieces of our life together in himself, to be healed and restored in the Father’s presence as the master craftsman of all creation.
Death can be no exception. If Jesus did not die as one of us, then neither can we live in him. Death is the ultimate and final part of our humanity that Jesus must take into his own life, if it is to be given over to the Father. As he gives up his spirit, he incorporates this last element of the human condition into himself, and in his death we can finally see everything that we are, gathered up into him. Here is God’s revelation to us of the reality of who we are and of who God is in relation to us: there is no part of ourselves that is outside of God’s love for us—no nagging, unredeemed pain or hurt that will fester and return to pain us, like a splinter under the skin. God touches every part of who we are and makes it whole; in Christ God follows us even into death to reclaim it as redeemable as well.
I once spent Holy Week at a Greek Orthodox monastery just outside of Athens. On Holy Saturday, I awoke to a loud and frightening racket that sent me running outside to see what was happening. What I saw stopped me in my tracks: monks were standing on the rooftops, lighting firecrackers and throwing clay pots off the edge to shatter on the pavement below. The cooks were in the courtyard outside the kitchen, banging pots and pans with metal spoons to create as loud a noise as possible. Chasing down Fr. Athanasios, my guide, I asked him what in the world was going on. “Victory!” he shouted. “Today Christ is among the dead, and so the dead shall live!” The chaos, it turns out, was a staged mockery of death, and to make the point still stronger, the monks had covered the chapel floor with fresh laurel leaves (a symbol of victory) even before the celebration of Easter itself.
Think for a moment in a literal way about the place of the dead. When Jesus says his work is finished, and bows his head to give up his spirit, where does he go? The creedal affirmation is that he descended to the dead, or hell as the older version put it, and the early Christians imagined that there he broke down the very gates of hell because he was life itself, come into its midst. This is the “harrowing of hell,” as it is sometimes called, when Jesus storms hell itself like an invading warrior, reaching out his hand to all those who are trapped therein—including Adam and Eve—and literally pulling them out of the captivity of death into the freedom of life. So Jesus’ death becomes good news even in hell, for as darkness cannot resist light, neither can death resist his life. St. John Chrysostom, the fourth century bishop of Constantinople, imagined it this way in his Easter homily (which we will read in its entirety on Easter morning at the Vigil):
[Christ] destroyed Hades when he descended into it.
He put it into an uproar even as it tasted of his flesh.
Hell was in an uproar, because it was done away with.
It was in an uproar, because it was mocked.
It was in an uproar, for it was destroyed.
It is in an uproar, for it is annihilated.
It is in a tumult, for it is now made captive.
Hell took a body, and discovered God.
It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see.
O death, where now is thy sting?
O Hades, where is thy victory?13
In Christ, Chrysostom tells us, death has been destroyed, because it has been routed by the Lord of life. Then having put death to flight, Jesus will be raised by God to the life that knows no end, for he is life itself.
And this, this is the ultimate reversal toward which we have been working our way throughout these meditations: contrary to all expectation, in Christ death leads to life, and not the other way around. The end of life is life, so although in death we all go down to the dust; yet even at the grave as Christian people we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!
It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit!” And having said this, he breathed his last. Now when the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God, and said, “Certainly this man was innocent!” And all the multitudes who assembled to see the sight, when they saw what had taken place, returned home beating their breasts. And all his acquaintances and the women who had followed him from Galilee stood at a distance and saw these things. (Luke 23:44-49)
Do any of us choose willingly to die? Perhaps some, either those with a great sense of peace, or at the other extreme those with a great sense of despair. In these cases death may come either as a capstone to a fulfilled life, or as a welcome escape from its burdens. But more typically, I think, we regard death as a threat, stalking surreptitiously at our heels, and personified in our thoughts as the “grim reaper,” or as a shadowy figure like the ephemeral chess-player in Bergman’s film, The Seventh Seal.
Jesus’ own death is a striking contrast. He seems to come to the final moments with a sense of deliberate intentionality: it is not death that overtakes him, but it is he who willingly embraces death, committing his spirit to God. As the early church bishop Hilary of Poitiers said, “to accomplish in himself the mystery of death, … he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.”14 When Jesus thus hands his spirit back to the Father, from whence he received it, this act is the completion of Jesus’ obedient response to the Father’s love. What’s at stake is that in following this path of self-giving to the end, Jesus shows to us the full measure of God’s love for us by being a perfect imitator of it. That is, he shows us that there is no limit to the love God extends to us: it will endure anything for us, it will follow us wherever we go, it will wait patiently for our return. Through Jesus, we see the Father—pleading, loving, coaching, drawing us toward himself. As the theologian James Alison puts it, “the imitation reveals the one imitated.”15
Now because of what Jesus shows us of the Father’s love, there are certain things that we as Christians should refuse to believe despite the fact that they accepted by the world.16 Christians cannot believe, for example, that violence ever has the last word. As Rowan Williams puts it, God shows through the crucified and risen one that “violence cannot fill up the whole space of the world.”17 However large a portion of human experience is overtaken by violence—whether of the massive kind like war or murder, or the more interpersonal kind like competition and division—Jesus’ resurrection reveals that there is a larger reality (what he calls the kingdom of heaven) that contains and ultimately limits all violence. To use a word in much contemporary use, God puts boundaries around violence. We as Christians therefore simply cannot believe that it has the last word on human life, any more than the crucifixion had the last word on Jesus.
Moreover, Christians also refuse to believe that death is ever meaningless. It was the American Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel who once said that for the pious man (or the pious person) it is a privilege to die.18 Such an enigmatic statement reflects the kind of reciprocal giving and receiving to which Jesus bears witness in the manner of his own death: God gives us life, so that we may receive it with gratitude, so that we may live it fruitfully, so that we may return it to God as the offering of our own life and labor. Death is the climactic moment of this pattern of reciprocity: it the ultimate and fullest gift we have to give to God, life itself. We might note that this pattern of reciprocal giving and receiving is the essential shape of the Eucharist itself: God gives us gifts of bread and wine, which we present to God in thanksgiving, which God in turn receives and then returns to us as the gift of Christ’s presence among us, so that we may be sanctified through him and offer ourselves in return as Christ’s body to the world. God’s relationship to us through Christ is a circle of mutual giving and receiving, and the Eucharist is the place where we are drawn into that circle most completely. It sets the pattern, therefore, that shows how death is our own eucharistic offering of ourselves to God.
Through these seven last words from the cross, we have tried to grasp the great reversals Jesus makes in our ordinary way of thinking about ourselves and God—reversals that lead to these refusals to believe in the ultimate power of violence or finality of death. We have seen that whereas we regard violence and retribution as the governing forces in our relationships with one another, God contains that violence through God’s own absorption of it, responding with forgiveness where we would expect judgment. We have also been reminded that despite our desperate attempts to prove ourselves, inevitably at the expense of other people, our value as human beings is God-given, not earned, so that there is no justification for the patterns of exclusion we construct. We have glimpsed through the mystery of the resurrection, how it might be possible for the painful memories of our lives to be returned to us by God, stripped of their awful tenacity and presented instead with the hope of restoration. Through Jesus’ crucifixion, we have also imagined that there is no place God is not willing to go, even into death, to seek after us and find us. Chasing death into hell itself, Christ put death to death, so that our life no longer ends in it but in the resurrected life of the new creation. Our deepest desire, then, the desire for God, will not be left unrequited at the last.
By these reversals, God does not eliminate our sufferings. Human life remains a mixture of deep pain and joyful exhilaration. But God does make our suffering and anxiety bearable, by sharing their pain and fear with us. This is the strange alchemy of Jesus’ emptying of himself to become one of us: by placing our sufferings alongside his own, they are not in any way minimized, but they are given a redemptive quality that ennobles us, within his humility.
After so radical a project, Jesus’ passion ends with a remarkable calm. At the conclusion of all the mockery and torture, death comes quietly and Jesus receives it reverently as he returns his life—commends his spirit—to God. In Bach’s Passiontide oratorios, the composer seems deeply aware of this hushed atmosphere, choosing to close these magisterial works with quiet meditations on Jesus’ death as a sleep into which he quietly slips. In the St. Matthew Passion, for instance, the chorus sings at its end,
In tears of grief, dear Lord, we leave Thee,
Hearts cry to Thee, O Savior dear.
Lie Thou softly, softly here.
Rest Thy worn and bruised body,
At Thy grave, O Jesus blest,
May the sinner, worn with weeping,
And the weary soul find rest.
Sleep in peace, sleep Thou in the Father’s breast.19
Let us pray:
O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look favorably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry out in tranquility the plan of salvation; let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.20