The Seven Last Words from the Cross.
Preached at the Memorial Church, Good Friday, 2002
Good Friday is meant to be an interruption, to intrude upon our routine, and to transform that routine. Thus, from wherever we were and from whatever we were doing, we have come in the middle of the day, in the middle of the Yard, to this church to keep the holy Three Hours with our Savior on the cross. The image of the disciples falling asleep in the garden is compelling, as are Jesus’ poignant words to them, uttered not so much in rebuke but in sadness: “Could you not watch with me one brief hour?” We know that first the disciples will fall asleep, that then they will fall away and deny that they knew Jesus, and then run away in fear into the darkness and into the night; and why not? It is a fearsome thing to witness these things: the agony in the garden, the betrayal, the cross itself, and the grim business of execution. We should not be too hard on the disciples, although it is tempting for us to be so at this time of year. Who of us would have done better, would have been braver, would have stood the test, would have said, “I know that man.”? They stand in for us, and we should not condemn them.
The physical sufferings of our Lord upon the cross, so visible, graphic and grim as they are, are merely the outward symbols of the equally powerful interior struggles between God and all that conflicts with God, in that battle that we know only too well which rages both in the world and in ourselves. The struggle of these three hours is not just that of Jesus, long ago and far away, for we are not just voyeurs, bystanders, lookers-on from afar; that struggle, if we are really truthful, is really ours between the easy wrong and the difficult right. That struggle is ours between our own sense of good and the palpable sense of evil. That is our own personal battle between sacrifice and selfishness, between what we want to do and what we feel compelled to do, what we dare not do, and what we ought to do. On Good Friday we are meant to see in stark reality, stark relief, and in human form the great drama of our redemption played out in the Passion, with no punches pulled. The story is our story, the suffering is ours, it is done for us, it is done in us.
People will often ask, perhaps even some of you, what it is from which we are being saved, what is this ‘redemption’ all about, what struggle does the cross represent for ur? Couldn’t we have a nicer symbol, an easier one, a better one? The Muslims have the crescent, the Jews have the Star of David; why for us a cross, a sign of punishment and pain?
The cross is the place where our better nature struggles for a purchase against our lesser nature. By it we are reminded that goodness comes at a price, and that its price, like that of freedom, is eternal vigilance. We are saved in the struggle from ourselves, from that part of us that would make us less that God wants for us; we are saved in the struggle for that part of us that we truly want for ourselves because it is what God wants for us. On the cross we see Jesus make that struggle clear for us on our behalf. His death reminds us of our own death, for they both are inevitable. His struggle reminds us of our own, for they are both unavoidable. We watch not as disinterested spectators and not even as though we know how the story ends, but as self-interested parties for whom something great and good has been done. We stand in the presence of something awful—that is, full of awe—and of something terrible, something reverent, something powerful.
So, unlike the disciples we stay, and we stay awake. We do not sleep, for we know that in this is made life and made more of life than of death, more of hope than of fear. By this suffering we are saved to live a life beyond the cross, yet the only way beyond the cross is to go through the cross. That is what we do today; that is why we are here today.
In the cross of Christ I glory,
Towering o’er the wrecks of time;
All the light of sacred story
Gathers round its head sublime.
The First Word
“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. ” (Luke 23:32-38)
“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” This is the combination of ignorance and forgiveness, for Jesus asked his Father to forgive those who mocked them, who crucified him, who ridiculed him and humiliated him because they were ignorant. They did not know what they were doing, and the theory would be that if they did know what they were doing they wouldn’t do it; but they did not, and so they did it.
This is the context of this first word, this word of forgiveness. It is astonishing, this concept, this act of forgiveness, as astonishing now as it was then, that in the face of such violence, terror, and atrocity, in the face of something so ‘in-your-face’ as the crucifixion of another human being, we begin not with a word of condemnation or of judgment or of justice but with a word of forgiveness. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” This was an astonishing thing to say then, for why would one paint the suffering Jesus as a forgiving Jesus? Does it mean that we are to make light of the violence done to him? Does it mean that in forgiving we are also to forget? That really cannot be the case because we are here to remember, and what we remember first of all is this act of forgiveness. Was this violence just a matter of excessive or misplaced zeal on the part of those who did Jesus to death? Were they just trying to do the right thing to prevent heresy or treason, sedition or violence? We think of that ancient time as a living culture of justice, violence, and revenge. How then do we reconcile Jesus’s extraordinary act of forgiveness in the midst of such a culture?
What used to be an abstraction has become painfully real to us now, in contemporary times. We live in just such a climate of blame, guilt, and victimhood; and living in conversation with forgiveness appears to have added tensions to it. People say that if you forgive too quickly you have added violence to the victim and you absolve the perpetrator. Think of the current priest scandal among our brothers and sisters in the Roman church. There is a frenzied culture of accusation, blame, and guilt, the violence of which is almost equal to the enormity of the original crimes. There are sounds of Madame de Farge’s knitting needles, there are the voices of our ancestors in Salem, and nowhere has there yet been a word of forgiveness. We have accepted the culture of guilt and blame, villainhood and victimhood. Jesus’s words would be regarded by lawyers these days, rushing in to manage the show, as too little too late, inadequate and unacceptable. I can write the columns in the Boston Globe myself.
Consider the recently entered class-action suit for reparations for slavery, managed in large part by some of my close friends and colleagues in this University. The merits of the case notwithstanding, the notion of forgiveness as the moral response to an unpalatable situation is untenable by the prevailing standard of the modern world. Consider the climate of accusation against plagiarism in high places by historians well known and regarded by so many of us. The cry, as in the other two instances, is not, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” but rather, in the words of the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland, “Off with their heads!”
Now, every one of you here will be able to make an impassioned, airtight case as to why forgiveness in each of these current incidences that I have cited is inappropriate or premature or unacceptable. In any and all of the aforementioned cases, logic, law, and even the moral case will argue that forgiveness must be a secondary and not a primary enterprise. There must be, in the language of the Roman church, an “act of contrition;” there must be statements of confession. You will argue for justice, compensation, unfinished business, fairness, and it will all make sense. You will have no trouble squaring it, and yet, at the foot of the cross, those who do Jesus harm do not confess that they are doing the wrong thing. They have no doubts, they make no acts of contrition, they offer no apology, and yet in the absence of any and all of that, Jesus forgives them. Ignorance may be a mitigating factor, as they say in the law, but they also say that ignorance is no excuse. That is why today, as two thousand years ago, Jesus’s words of forgiveness in the face of enormous iniquity and violence are as extraordinary, confrontational, stunning, and inexplicable now as they were then.
It is not, however, the enormity of the crime or its stark ugliness that compels our attention; it is the enormity of the grace that allows for forgiveness as the first and not the last act of conscience, that allows for forgiveness and not vengeance. These become the first of the last words of Jesus. Thus his first word has as its focus not what is done to Jesus but rather what Jesus does to those who do him harm. It is because of who he is that allows him to do what he does from the throne of the cross, for to forgive is to exercise the power of love, and to exorcise the powers of evil. The image of the weak and the broken, helpless Jesus on the cross is confounded in this very first word by this act of power—the power to forgive, the power to love. That is what Jesus does today on the cross. It is the first word that we remember from his lips. It is the first of the lessons we are meant to learn, that the only power that we have, the only power that is real, the only power that endures, the only power that transforms and transcends is the power to love, and that power is made perfect in what and whom we forgive. This is the first word, and this is the chief lesson of the cross. If we take no other word from this Friday, and from that Friday so long ago, it is the word that the power to love is expressed in forgiveness. It cannot be taken away, and it lasts forever. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
The Second Word
“ Today thou shalt be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:39-43)
“Today thou shalt be with me in Paradise.” Promises, promises, promises; “I never promised you a rose garden…” goes the song, and yet, Jesus does. He promises Paradise. Paradise is a splendid garden. If the first word is a word of forgiveness, which is hard to hear, the second word is a word of promise, which is a delight to hear. “Today”—now, immediately—“thou shalt be with me in Paradise.”
Promise presupposes forgiveness. Jesus forgives as a principled action. It is in his nature to forgive; he has the authority and power to forgive; and forgiveness under these circumstances may seem almost an abstraction, but here, in the second work, we move from the principle to the practice, from the abstract to the real. The principle becomes concrete, up close, and personal, for here is a real sinner. There is no ambiguity about it. The thieves are both up there because they are receiving the due rewards of their sins, not as a miscarriage of justice, not as anything out of order. They acknowledge who they are and they are acknowledged for what they are, and so this is real sin, and real sinners, and a ‘real situation,’ as we might say today.
Jesus responds to that real situation not with an abstract dissertation on justice or with warm tender sympathy to the situation in which they find themselves; he responds to it with an immediacy that is stunning, refreshing, and unorthodox. Consider the scene. The criminals affirm their identity and even confirm it, at least in the face of the first criminal, who taunts Jesus. “If you’re so smart, how come you’re up here with us? If you are as powerful as they say you say you are, why don’t you get yourself and us out of this mess?” That is not a moment for existential doubt. That is the moment for assessing the real limits of the circumstances and seizing, as it were, for the last time, your best opportunity of taking your best shot.
The criminals know enough to know who Jesus is and what Jesus can do, and the second criminal is far more astute than his fellow convict, and certainly more astute than those who are putting Jesus to death. Think of that second criminal, who says, “We are here because we deserve to be, but this man has done nothing amiss.” In all of the gospel narrations he addresses Jesus as ‘Lord,’ not as ‘Hey, you!’ nor as ‘Jesus of Nazareth,’ nor as ‘Master,’ or ‘Teacher,’ but as ‘Lord.’ He knows who he is. “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
How do we know the second criminal knows who Jesus is? We know because he addresses Jesus by his title of sovereignty, and he asks of him what he knows Jesus can deliver. It is impossible to imagine Jesus overturning the forces of the law and of nature in the fashion of an American movie, summoning his strength, coming down from the cross, taking it as a weapon, destroying at several strokes the legions of people before him, rescuing the good prisoner, leaving the bad one up there, and going off into the western sunset. Clint Eastwood could do that, but not Jesus. Nor does the criminal ask him to do that; the criminal asks him to do what the criminal knows only he can do, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Another thing to focus our attention is that the criminal is facing in the right direction, which is to say that he is not obsessing about the past: “How did I get up here?” “My bad family,” “My unfortunate youth,” “The bad company I kept,” “The bad job I had…” He is not focusing on the past, and nor is he, like his friend, focusing on the moment: “It hurts up here,” “This is humiliating,” “This is embarrassing,” “This is likely to come to a bad end,” “How can we get out of this?” That is not where his attention is: his attention, and thus his words, are, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” His eyes are towards the future, and it that he becomes, in my opinion, an ensign for the church. He becomes our figure because he tells us what we ought to be doing and where we ought to be looking. The church loves to obsess about the past, for either we are overcome by it or seduced or enchanted by it, but we are very much people of the past. For those of us who aren’t people of the past, however, we choose to describe ourselves as being ‘relevant,’ ‘with it,’ and we’re obsessed with the moment, concerned about tomorrow’s headlines and today’s troubles and how we manage in the here and now. “Don’t give me any of that pie-in-the-sky stuff, give me what I need right now! Forget the past!”
The second criminal is rightly situated toward the future, where we ought to be. There is nothing in the past for any of us, nothing, and the present, as we all know, is miserable enough. The only hope there is for us is in the future, and this man kept it. “Remember me when you come into your kingdom… I know that there is more than these three grim hours up here on this hill; I know that there is something more than my present humiliation, my present degradation; I know that there is something more even than my death, which is just hours away, and I know you know it too, Jesus, so when you come to that place which is beyond all of this and towards which all of this has been leading, when you get there, Jesus, not on a cross but on a throne, remember me, bring me into your future.” That is an act of courageous faith, not only in Jesus but in the future that allows the thief to make his bold claim both on Jesus and on the future. It seems to me that of all the ideas communicated on this day, the notion that our future is destined to be better than our past because in the center of our future is Jesus, and that therefore we pray to him to remember us, is the word of courageous faith in the face of great difficulty, darkness, and doubt.
What does Jesus do? Jesus doesn’t say, “There, there, there, it will be all right, just hold on a little tighter.” He doesn’t say that; he says, “Today”—now, this instant, as soon as I’m there—“you will be there also.” Jesus also claims lordship of the future. Having trouble with the historical Jesus? That’s okay. Having a little trouble with Jesus right now? That’s understandable. Jesus is in the future waiting for us. His claim is on that time, and therefore if we claim him, we claim that time. “Lord, when you come into your kingdom…” When the world sees who you really are, and when the time is not simply time spend but time now enjoyed, when you get there, remember me. Find a place in your kingdom for me. Take me along with you; I can put up with anything if I have the promise of your presence in the future.
It’s all right to be forgiven, but it’s much better to be taken along into the land of light and promise. So, in this little dialogue we have almost all that we need to know. “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom;” and “Today you shall be with me in that kingdom, in Paradise.”
The Third Word
“Woman, behold thy son… Son, behold thy mother.” (John 19:23-27)
“Woman, behold they son… Son, behold thy mother.” If the first word is one of forgiveness and the second is about promises, the third must be about families, for families are full of the need of forgiveness and defined by promises. In certain Christian circles there is often a great deal of talk about what are called ‘family values,’ and most of us think that we know what that phrase means, for better or for worse. Usually it means the kind of family we are used to. If yours is a sweet, wonderful, loving family of sisters, cousins, aunts and uncles all happily gathered around the festive table, that is what ‘family values’ means to you. If yours, however, is like most families—slightly mixed-up—full of the ‘fun’ in ‘dysfunctional’—that is what ‘family values’ are to you. If you are in the process of creating a family out of the ruins of families and societies, that is what ‘family values’ are to you.
In our American experience, our idealized ‘Norman Rockwell’ experience, some version of the nuclear family, with Mum and Dad and the kids is what we have in mind; and for many the whole experience of Christianity is family-centered, family-oriented and driven, and at its best is a wonderful example of both the human and the divine family. Yet Jesus himself, if we read scripture without even a great deal of care, tends to be rather hard on the family into which he is born, and on the family as the basic unit of faith. He is very hard on his own parents. Remember, when he leaves them in the temple when he is twelve years old, because he can have far more interesting conversations with the doctors and theologians and philosophers than he could possibly have with old, boring Mum and Dad, and they get so upset, and send out a search party; and finally, when they find him, what is the exchange? Mary says, “You have worried your father and me to death.” She does not say, but comes pretty close to saying, “You wicked, naughty boy;” but Jesus replies, “Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s business?” Not about Joe’s business, but about “my Father’s business.” That is rather a dicey family dynamic.
When Jesus becomes a famous teacher and preacher, he tells people to leave family behind and follow him. A man says, “I must bury my father,” and Jesus says, “Leave your father; let the dead bury the dead.” When people ask him about his brothers and sisters, he says, “My brothers and sisters are those who do the will of my Father,” and so on and so forth. This is not a ‘sit-around-the-family-hearth’ kind of family image. Thus, what we find in this third word is Jesus redefining the concept of family: what it is, who belongs, and what it does. It should not surprise us that here on the cross, in this third word, having forgiven, having made an enormous promise, he now reorganizes human affections. He redefines human relationships, creates a new family, and in the center of it is to be the remembrance of him. This is a family that is made not by blood, not by the old way, but by love and care: that is the new way. “Woman, behold thy son… Son, behold thy mother.” Surely this is providing for the necessities of those who depended on him, the mother upon her eldest son, the beloved disciple upon his dearest friend on earth, both of whom are now deprived of the center of their lives. They are now encouraged out of that sorrow, out of that loss to do a new thing, to become the object of love each to the other. This is a new series of relationships into which those who love Jesus are now to enter. The best way to love Jesus, whom we cannot see, is to love those whom Jesus loves, whom we can see. That is not a difficult theological proposition, though it is very humanly difficult to achieve. It is so much easier to love in abstraction those who are far away and far removed than those who are at our own tables and doorsteps. The favorite child, it is said, is the child furthest away from home.
So, Mary, who loses her first-born son is given a new son, John. The love she would have lavished upon her own son, Jesus, she is now to lavish upon John. Her need to love is fulfilled in one who now needs her love. As a footnote, I would fathom that John would be easier to love than Jesus, an easier son to handle; and that John, the disciple whom Jesus loved and therefore the one likely to suffer most acutely the pain of his loss, is given Mary to love, to look after, someone on whom he can focus the reservoir of his affections. It is easy and tempting to sentimentalize these arrangements made at the foot of the cross, easy to think that this is just so much social engineering on Jesus’ part—one more act of interfering, creating new family dynamics—but I see it differently, for I recall, as you do, as I invite you to do, the new commandment that Jesus is recorded as giving on the night before he was given up for the cross, a new social order he introduces. “A new commandment give I unto you, that ye love one another as I have loved you; even so love ye one another.”
Could it be that the commandment of Thursday night is fulfilled in its first instance by this new arrangement of love and affection, where Mary and John are bidden to love one another as Jesus loved them? If that is the example given at the foot of the cross to those two who love Jesus and will see him no linger, then they become the example for the rest of us, that we are to love one another as Jesus loves us, and after the example of St. Mary and St. John, extend, reform, revise, and redefine our family so that within it and beyond it we may show the love which Christ commands on Thursday and commends on Friday. “Woman, behold thy son… Son, behold thy mother.” In this is the law of love fulfilled.
The Fourth Word
“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:45-49)
“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Those of you with an architectural eye and those of you with a sense of literary construction are aware that the fourth word is the keystone, or lynchstone, that holds together the whole arch of these seven words. One, two, three… five, six, seven: what holds them together is this fourth word. Remove the keystone from any architectural structure based upon an arch of this sort, and the whole thing comes tumbling down; and you cannot construct such an edifice without having a good, solid keystone in place. So, is it not something of a paradox that this keystone of faith, in this great arch of these seven words from the cross, is a word of doubt? These are not words of the strong hand of affirmation or the glue of conviction, nor of any of the other structures that we would expect for a credible God to make as a credible witness at a moment like this, but these words have been variously styled by the commentators and historians as a “cry of dereliction,” “the words of abandonment,” “the sense of loss,” “the words of doubt.” “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”
I think there is a good lesson for us to take from this, for this word reminds us that faith is not possible in the absence of doubt. Faith does not banish doubt, doubt is not the opposite of faith; and just as light makes sense only in the context of darkness and sound only makes sense in the context of silence, so too does faith express itself only in its relationship to doubt. Thus, in that upper room on the road to Emmaus, when Thomas says, “Lord, I believe; help thou my unbelief,” we tend to thing of poor Thomas as hedging his bets, trimming, being cautious, prudent, a thoughtful Yankee covering all possibilities. If we look at that more carefully, however, we get something of a hint of the sense of the relationship for which I am trying to speak in this fourth word, that it is the context of unbelief and uncertainty that provides for the reality of certainty.
All of us know, who have ever attended a Good Friday service here or elsewhere, that this fourth word does not appear out of nowhere. It comes from Psalm 22, and we all know that and we all know that Jesus knew that. Any good Jewish boy would have known his psalms, known that there is a psalm for every condition under the sun, for every conceivable human emotion from elation to depression, and that everything in between is contained in one or more of the psalms. Press ‘Grief’ and you get Psalm 22; press ‘Contentment’ and you get Psalm 23; press ‘Elation’ and you get Psalm 51. You can do the whole syllabus of the psalms, which are way ahead of us in pointing out what we need to press for our condition; and so if you are in extremis, as Jesus most certainly was, he would not have pressed the wrong button. He would not have pressed Psalm 150—“Hallelujah! Praise the Lord!” He pressed Psalm 22—“My God, if you’re anywhere, why are you not here, now?” This is where you are needed.
So, it is that statement of abandonment that his people have always known that allows him ultimately to call upon the faith which his people have also always known. Jesus invokes Psalm 22 to ask the great question, “Where is God when I need him?” It is a natural thing to do, and we have all done it and do it all the time. We regard God, in many ways, as a spare battery. When we can function perfectly well on our own we do, but when we have need for extra resources, when we find our own resources thin, it is then that we say, “God, where are you?” Remember those questions on September 11th, this last fall, asking, in light of our great trauma and terror, “Where was God when so many innocent lives were lost and so much dreadful damage done?” The ‘cry of dereliction’ is the human response to the sense that God has left us to our own devices, thus making us the laughingstock of our enemies. When it appears that God is going to allow our enemies to laugh at us is when we become most angry at God. It does no good for me to know that God is real and present, for that little secret between God and me is all right, but why, God, don’t you tell them that you are real, and that I know it? That’s the transaction that leaves us feeling abandoned and neglected when it doesn’t take place.
If we want to know how it feels to be humiliated by an absent God, recall the experiences of the priests of Baal on Mount Carmel in their competition with Elijah and the God of Israel. All the priests dance around and cavort to get Baal’s attention, to get him to answer by fire, but nothing happens. “Call him louder,” says Elijah, taunting them; and to add insult to injury the Hebrew tells us that, “Peradventure he is sleeping, or else on a journey.” This last phrase, “or else on a journey,” in English doesn’t do justice to what the Hebrew says, because in Hebrew it is a great insult, saying in essence, “Perhaps he is on the john.” That is what it is saying—that your God is too busy on private business to come out and help you when you need it. The priests of Baal are embarrassed and humiliated, and their God fails to deliver.
So, too, are we embarrassed and humiliated when our God shows human weakness in asking the terrible question, “Where is God?” This is not how we imagine our heroes and mentors to behave. When Jesus cries out, however, as he does here, he is not simply quoting scripture, he is confirming for us that the struggle in which he is engaged is real. This is no pantomime, this is no tableau, no pageant; this is the reality of doubt contending with faith upon the cross. This is a real battle, not an imaginary or an ordinary battle; it is a kind of doubt that lives in a creative tension with faith, and it reminds us that we are alive. Like pain it reminds us that we are alive, both to God’s presence and to God’s absence. How can we miss that which we do not know or have? Louis Untermeyer, a generation ago, put it this way:
Ever insurgent let me be,
Make me more daring than devout:
From sleek contentment keep me free,
And fill me with a buoyant doubt.
It is the “buoyant doubt” if Psalm 22 and this fourth word that holds the great arch of faith together. This fourth word is a buoyant and not a despairing doubt, for in the absence of God we are reminded as never before of the reality of the presence of God. You cannot miss that which is not. You do not call for that which does not exist. “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”
The Fifth Word
“I thirst.” (John 19:28-29)
“I thirst.” When I was a boy and attended, as I did nearly every year, the three-hour Good Friday service that moved among our churches in Plymouth, Massachusetts, conducted by the local Council of Churches, I remember that the Order of Service carried for each word a description of that word for our focus. This was over fifty years ago, and I can still remember how the fifth word was listed: it was described as ‘human need.’ I think I understood that, I think that from the heights of theological abstraction we came to the moment where the crucified one and his needs were made real. It is not now the sovereign Christ who hangs on the tree, as it was in the first and second words; this is the human Jesus, whose needs we recognize and can identify, so I think I understood what they meant when they described this fifth word as ‘human need.’
As I have thought about it over the many intervening years since, I think that this word has a double meaning, almost like a two-sided mirror, for it is at the same time both the most physical word and the most spiritual. When we are tempted, as we frequently are on Good Friday, to tidy up the crucifixion because it is too unsightly a scene to view unaided, and when we try to make it bearable for our sensibilities; when we are inclined by allegory, symbol, and metaphor to spiritualize out of existence the cruelty and crudity of the cross, this fifth word comes to remind us of a real, profound, and physical need. Crucifixion is a terrible way to go, it exhausts all of the physical capacities of the body and it exaggerates the sense of thirst. “I thirst” reminds us of that physicality, the aggravated anxieties and tortures of an inhumane form of execution which, alas, in those days was not all that unusual.
So, this word of suffering is meant to drive home to us that the suffering is real, and what is even more cruel is that it is used as an occasion to add to the torment of the one dying. The vinegar on the stick is used not to slake the thirst of the one being crucified; we are told by the commentaries that it is a form of perverse smelling-salts, a stimulant to keep the crucified one awake and not to allow him the dignity of losing consciousness—to keep him awake so that he can experience and suffer pain. To offer the vinegar, therefore, as a palliative to thirst, is literally to add insult to injury. It is meant also for us, strangely enough, to have the same effect. It is meant to keep us conscious and awake and on edge, feeling what is going on, keeping us acute, alert, alive—a kind of unguent designed to hold our attention. When Jesus says, “I thirst,” we are reminded that he is deprived of the dignity of human kindness. He is deprived of the humanity that has been taken from him be degrees, and by implication what is taken from him is also taken from us. We too are deprived and dehumanized by even our historical participation in this spectacle. One cannot watch violence and not become violated and a part of the violence. Once we observe the violence and attempt to do something about it we are violated and part of the violence, the problem and not the solution. This is why so many of us are opposed to capital punishment, for it not only dehumanizes the victim, no matter how sanitary and salutary the means of taking another life, but it dehumanizes and punishes all of us who take part in it, in whose name it is done. The cries for justice and revenge are not worth the price we pay for participation in our own dehumanization and that of our state, our culture, and our society. What is denied Jesus is also denied us: it is real and material depravation.
Then, just as we revel in the physical and material nature of it all, that which is really real, we are reminded that to thirst, biblically, is to yearn, to long for, to seek after that which truly satisfies that which we truly need and truly lack. We recall where the psalm reads, “My soul is a-thirst for God;” we remember where Jesus, in his teaching on the Mount, says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled”—‘blessed,’ properly translated, meaning ‘happy,’ and therefore it is good and happy and joyous to thirst after righteousness. “Shall be filled” sounds as though one is sated, but what it means is that one is satisfied, has a sufficiency, has all that one requires and could want. To thirst, therefore, is to long for the only one thing that can satisfy our thirst. No substitute will do, nothing else will do. You know what it is to thirst for a glass of lemonade on a hot summer day in the country. You can taste the thirst: a Coke won’t do, iced tea won’t do, ginger-ale won’t do, even cranberry juice won’t do. The only thing that can satisfy the thirst is the thing that you thirst for, and it is better to go without than to have anything other than that which satisfies.
We thirst after God because there is a thirst for God, a desire 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 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. It is best put by St. Augustine in his famous prayer, “Thou hast made us for thyself and our hearts are restless”—thirsty—“until they find their rest”—thirst quenched—“in thee.” It is in this sense of thirsting—thirsting for the goodness of God’s people, thirsting for the love of God’s people, thirsting for the desire of God’s people—that this fifth word is also to be seen. There is the real physical thirst which reminds us that this is not a pageant, and there is also the longing, this sense that Jesus expresses on our behalf, that he too thirsts for the living God. In that sense we look forward to the satisfaction, the quenching, the filling of our thirst not with vinegar on a stick but with a cup of salvation.
The Sixth Word
“It is finished.” (John 19:30)
“It is finished.” This sixth word is a word of achievement. One traditional way of reading it is as a moment of surrender and capitulation. Surrender, as we know, is not necessarily the same thing as defeat, and some defeats could be avoided if a surrender took place in a timely fashion; and the difference between a good general and a bad general is the one who knows that. Surrender may be just the most appropriate strategy which avoids a defeat; we are defeated by others, defeat is an external, overwhelming, compelling enterprise, but in exercising our final sovereignty, surrender, we offer up ourselves. To know when to surrender, when to give up, is a moment of mature wisdom, a moment of insight, one might say a moment of grace. As the old song goes, in another, quite ungraceful setting, “You’ve got to know when to hold, you’ve got to know when to fold.” In evangelical piety there is much talk about the moment of surrender, the moment when you realize that the time has come to yield all that you have and all that you owe to Christ. It is time to give up fighting against him, to stop being Jacob wrestling with God. It is time to give up rebellion against his love, time to give up resistance to God’s appeal, time to say, “Here I am, I surrender all, take me, I’m yours.” That spiritual moment of surrender when it comes is anything but defeat, and can be seen as a sense of victory. Think of the young man pressing his suit to the young woman of his dreams. She rebuts him, she repels him, she plays him along, she ignores him, she plays with him until finally not able to resist him any longer, she surrenders and accepts his proposition. That is not defeat, that is victory, at least for him!
So, in the sense of giving up, we offer this not as a words of defeat but as a word of achievement; and in the religious tradition, when that moment of surrender comes you literally feel all of the burdens, all of the inhibitions, all of the things that have been weighing you down, leaving you: you surrender, and all of the chains are dropped. In one sense, when you surrender you expect to be locked up, but here when you surrender you are liberated, you are free, and everything falls and disappears. Everything that held you back, inhibited you, is removed, that which hung like a cloud over you is dissipated, and all is gone in the moment of surrender. It is not that you can finally relax; it is that you are finally embraced, and are free to embrace.
In our piety we may express it differently, but I suspect that we pray for that moment in our lives when we feel sufficiently serene, calm, and perhaps even enough in control to let it all go, and “let God,” as they say. Let him in, get it out, give it up, let him have you, and when you have that moment, that experience when you feel that all of this stuff that has clung so closely to you like sin, and as Paul describes it, you feel it moving away and you suddenly recognize that you have won, you have been claimed, you have been brought back, brought home. This is another way of reading this word, “It is finished.” I have finished what I have begun, I have done what I was meant to do, I have done the task. We all know what a wonderful sense of achievement there is when we have a list of things to do and check them off and look at the list as done. One of the cheapest and greatest thrills in life is to have a list of things done. “I did that, I accomplished that, I achieved that!” It doesn’t matter that there will be another list tomorrow or that there will be some lists which will be impossible to achieve—this I have done!
What was it that Jesus was meant to do that is now done that he can now say, “It is finished.”? Was it simply to endure the cross and the suffering and to say, “I’ve done it, I’m about dead, it’s over”? Surely there must be more to it than that. Part of the answer comes in the hymn by Mrs. Alexander that we’ve just sung, “There is a green hill far away, without a city wall…” It was written for children in a book of her hymns that put the Christian doctrines into language that children could understand. As a child I couldn’t understand it, it wasn’t that clear to me, and still to this day I see a green hill far away that does not have a city wall. That’s what I thought it meant, and perhaps you think that that’s what it means. That is not what it means. It means that there is a green hill far away outside a city wall. On one thing she is perfectly clear, and I understood it, thank God: “There was no other good enough to pay the price of sin/ He could only unlock the gate of heaven, and let us in.” This is the doctrine of atonement, this is what Jesus did, this is why Jesus died, only he could do it and he did it for us. The doctrine of the atonement is a little heavy to take up at this hour of the day but we cannot neglect it for it describes what it is that Jesus has finished on the cross, his work on our behalf. Its purpose is meant to explain that Jesus’s death is not an accident without meaning, it is not a tragic miscarriage of justice, he is not an unwilling victim picked up along the side of the road. Rather, just as our creation is a mysterious but purposeful manifestation of the love of God, so is the atonement, and so is the death of Jesus on our behalf on equally mysterious manifestation of God’s love for us. “There was no other good enough to pay the price of sin/ He only could unlock the gate of heaven, and let us in.”
This is the point that St. Paul makes when he writes that God commended his love for us while we were yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly. While we were yet estranged from God, Christ died for us; while he was being nailed to the tree by the very hands of those who nailed him, he was dying for them, and for us. Could it be that what Jesus was meant to demonstrate for us, and achieved or finished on the cross, was not the act of his death along, but the manifestation of God’s love? What is finished here is not the death of Jesus, but the mission, the enterprise of life and love which he was sent to accomplish. He has, in Paul’s words, “fought the good fight,” he has finished the fight of faith, he has finished what only he could do. It is an achievement, and like the great achievement which preceded it, when God saw all that he had done, he rested, and said, “This is good.”
The Seventh Word
“Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” (Luke 23:46-49)
“Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” At the end of this long day, this ordeal at noon, how strange it is to speak at the end of confidence, but I am persuaded that that is exactly the sense in which we are meant to understand this seventh word. “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit” is an act of confidence, a summing-up. True, Jesus doesn’t use the word ‘confidence,’ the word is not recorded in any of the synoptic gospels, but the word he does use expresses confidence. “Father, into they hands I commend my spirit.” Remember at the fourth word, when all was dark and drear, and Psalm 22 kicked in with all of its pity and pathos, we spoke of “My God, my God!” as invoking the psalm in formal speech addressed to the great and absent one. Notice here, however, a slight change in nomenclature. As the end comes in sight he addresses the great one as “Father,” a term of intimacy. That is how he taught us to pray, “Our Father…” It is a term of proximity and familiarity. So the first sign of confidence, I argue, is the very word with which he begins this final sentence. “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” He has confidence in the one who holds his life, past, present, and future, and he knows that one not as the unmoved mover, not as the ground of being, not as the author of our past, present, and future design, but as “Father.” We should never fear to say that word, nor should we ever be inhibited by addressing God as Father, for it is that address of confidence with which Jesus concludes his earthly ministry.
Not only is the use of the title “Father” a sign of confidence, but it is what that sign conveys: it tells us that these are words of trust. He trusts the Father sufficiently to say to him, “I give you my most precious possession, me, my life. Father, into your hands I commend my spirit. I give you myself, and I do so because I trust you, and I trust that you will know what to do with me.” Think again of the symmetry. The penitent thief trusted Jesus, gave himself into Jesus’s care, and Jesus commended him into Paradise. Now, five words later, it is Jesus who trusts the Father and entrusts himself into his father’s love and care. I trust you, and I trust you will know what to do with me.
Who of us, when we come to the end of the road, would not be grateful to be able to say that? “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit. I do this because I trust you and I trust you will know what to do with me.”
There is a moment of calm serenity and confidence breaking in here. All of the noise, all the confusion, all of the palpable, visible agony, all of the sense of dreadful occasion that has consumed our attention for the last two hours and six words is now dissipating, and there arises like a bright light shining through the clouds of the perfect storm this eye of serenity and confidence. That’s what this seventh word is—quiet, calm, confident, and the climax of a great and terrifying drama. It is like that moment at the end of a great piece of music, at the end of a magnificent blending of sound and passion and energy when the last note from the chorus and orchestra has sounded, the conductor has brought his hands down, and there follows a moment of utter silence in the hall. You know what that moment is in Sanders Theatre or in Symphony Hall, when the absence of sound between the end of what is and what is about to be is poignant and poised—before some idiot in the third balcony loudly yells “Bravo!” too soon and ruins it all. We recognize that moment; and that is the seventh word.
Those of us privileged to be in Holy Orders have seen it in other places as well. I have seen it at the bedsides of the dying, both of those dear to me and of those whom I hardly knew. There is, attending the dying, around the bed for a while, whether at home or in the hospital, a great flurry of activity. The medical people, the nurses, the doctors, the friends, and the family are all there hoping, urging, hoping against hope, until it becomes clear that this is one battle that we are not going to win, in the conventional terms of winning. First the doctors leave, for they have other battles to fight, then the nurses go to help, then the technicians make the final adjustments and off they do. The rest of us are left standing there. There is the heavy breathing, the restlessness, the turning, the anxiety of the onlookers, the panic, in some cases, of the dying; and then, usually in the dying themselves, there comes an imperceptible moment of resignation, surrender, even of confidence—that still small voice of calm in the middle, where the center is now in the breath, the life, the heartbeat of our dying friend in the bed. More often than not I have seen the dying somehow compose themselves, although not verbally, in such a way that in their confident going they give confidence to those who came to give confidence to them. We think we are ministering to them, but at what was once upon a time called a ‘good death,’ it is their confidence in releasing themselves from the claims of life that ministers to us, that allows us confidence to let them go. “I am willing to commend my soul to the Father because I trust the Father and I trust that he will know what to do with me.” It is an act of autonomous, confident dignity; and such is how I imagine the impact of the seventh word of Jesus from the cross, and such is how I pray I may go when my time comes.
We know what is to follow, we have read it, we know the script, we have seen the play before, with the earthquake, the rending of the veil of the temple in twain, the harrowing of hell, all the phenomena of nature upside-down and in an outrage. We know that that is about to happen; but for this moment, at the eye of the perfect storm there is Jesus, who concludes in confidence. Could it be that it was this seventh word, this sensation, this extraordinary juxtaposition of serenity in the midst of all the violence that perhaps inspired the Quaker poet Whittier to write the lines we all love so well?
Drop thy still dews of quietness
Till all our strivings cease;
Take from our souls the strain and stress,
And let our ordered lives confess
The beauty of thy peace.
Perhaps this is the seventh word.
Breathe through the heats of our desire
Thy coolness and thy balm;
Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;
Speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire
O still small voice of calm!
“Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit…” because I trust you; and because I trust you will know what to do with me.
The language of Good Friday is borrowed language, for our own language is inadequate. Our words are inadequate to describe what God has done for us in the full and sufficient sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, or to describe or understand what it is that we know to be so. That is why theology, unlike science, is filled with metaphors, symbols, poetry, music, art, and illusions that point to a reality beyond what we can see, and to a truth beyond our powers to prove. We will never be able to explain the mystery of the cross either to ourselves or to those who neither know nor believe. The normal persuasive powers of language that work their effects in the courts and lecture halls, and on the political platforms, and the logic that goes with them, do not work here. You know that if you have ever tired to explain to someone the mysteries of our faith; and that is why, when all is said and done, Good Friday is not an explanation or a phenomenon to be fully understood—which would be like asking someone to explain the Grand Canyon or to understand a glorious sunset. Those can perhaps be described or analyzed in terms of their technical truths or constituent parts, but their essence is to be experienced, admired, and enjoyed, not explained or understood.
Thus, today, at the foot of the cross, at the end of the day, the end of the week, the end of the passion, and the end of this service, we stand in silence. There is no language left, only gratitude that God should care enough to send the very best for our poor sakes. We pray on Good Friday for everyone, for our brothers and sisters in the world, whom God loves and whom we must love. We pray for the Jews, that they might forgive our harm to them in God’s name, and we pray for ourselves, that we might remember them as yet God’s chosen and beloved people. We pray for the Muslims and all others who are one with us in God’s creation, though separated from us in practice and experience by the divisions of this sadly divided world. On this day we pray for all Christians, but most especially today we pray for our Catholic brothers and sisters around the world and in this archdiocese: for the pope, for the cardinals, bishops, priests, deacons, and people, and most especially we pray for our cardinal, Bernard. We pray for healing, for forgiveness, and for the renewal of the spirit of Christ in the service of his church. We pray not least of all for ourselves that, unworthy as we are, we may receive generously and gladly God’s gift of himself to us in Jesus Christ, to whom be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and merit now, and for all eternity. Amen.
The Reverend Professor Peter J. Gomes is the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church.