”Words have no power to impress the mind without the exquisite horror of their reality." ~ Edgar Allan Poe
The tradition of reflecting on the last words of Christ from the cross is a Good Friday practice popular in many places across the globe. Some sources trace the tradition back to Peruvian Jesuit priest Francisco del Castillo, who in 1660 preached for three hours on Good Friday, comparing the sufferings of Christ with the sufferings of the slaves and indigenous people. Since then, the “Sermon of the Seven Words” has been preached widely on Good Friday in Peru. Of this beautiful and heart-wrenching devotion, Father Donato Jiménez remarked “The final words of Christ represent the culmination of his redemptive work: Christ’s surrender.”
As someone who brokers in words, loves words really https://discover.hubpages.com/religion-philosophy/She-Will-Be-Great, it saddens me how cheap they have become. One need only watch the evening cable news channels, log onto Twitter, or pick up a newspaper, provided one can be readily found, to draw that grim conclusion. Oftentimes outlandish and largely fabricated headlines are splashed across their printed pages, and when the inevitable retraction is begrudgingly issued, it is nestled in the lower left hand corner of page 114 in puny print. Pointed insults such as “coward” and “racist” are tossed about, labels that used to be fighting words. Labels that used to destroy reputations. They still do. On the topic of words, it was Pearl Strachan Hurd who said “Handle them carefully, for words have more power than atom bombs."
But the words of Jesus are truth, for they were spoken by the Word made Flesh, truth personified. In fact this evening we will read John’s version of the Passion (John 18:1-19:42), wherein Jesus tells Pilate “For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” Every word was measured. Every word mattered, including those that weren’t spoken. Every word was perfection. So with that in mind let’s revisit Jesus’ seven last words, doing so through the lens of those who loved him the most, with purity and without hesitation, the beloved members of the Communion of Saints.
“Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”
This dialogue between God the Father and His Son offers a poignant glimpse into the inner machinations of their relationship. In them we learn that forgiveness is offered to us through this sacrifice on the cross, a gesture so profound that Jesus not only forgives his assassins, he makes excuses for them. Though this forgiveness and the act that spurred it, we are rescued from the snare of sin. It also provides us with the blueprint for how we too are called to forgive.
“How many times are we to forgive our brother,” Peter once asked Jesus, going on to hypothetically propose “Seven times?” Jesus replies “ I tell you, you must forgive 70×7 times.” This does not mean that the mindset shifts to payback mode on the 491st offense. It means stop counting As Saint Faustina once said, “He who knows how to forgive prepares for himself many graces from God. As often as I look upon the cross, so often will I forgive with all my heart.” The person who refuses to forgive is so unlike Jesus that he simply isn’t worthy to be in his presence. He certainly isn’t to be counted among his true disciples. . .
“Today you will be with me in paradise.”
In this scene, the remorseful and penitent thief acknowledges his guilt and wickedness and was in turn welcomed by Christ. The unrepentant thief on the other hand did not. With regard to the latter, I’m reminded of the words of Saint Paul who said “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:18).
This man stands in stark contrast to the good thief, who in looking past the folly of Christ’s Crucifixion, wherein an innocent man was being put to death by the very creatures he was giving breath to as they drove the nails, was in that very moment saved. He possessed a hunger for Heaven coupled with the self-awareness, remorse, and humility to acknowledge that he was not worthy of entering. But he had the courage to ask anyway, and faith in the man who he was in the process of watching die for his thievery.
It was Saint Terese of Lisieux who once said "Life is passing. Eternity draws closer; soon we will live the very life of God. After having drunk deep at the fountain of bitterness, our thirst will be quenched at the very source of all sweetness." For the good thief, his thirst for Heaven was satisfied by way of a direct, in-person petition from the very man who was moments away from opening its Gates.
“Woman, behold, thy son. Behold, thy mother.”
Here the scene shifts to the foot of the cross, a place that Saint Padre Pio points out “Is the gate to Heaven.” This moment establishes Mary as John’s mother, and our mother too. I recall the words of Saint Maximilian Kolbe, who once said "The Immaculate alone has from God the promise of victory over Satan. She seeks souls that will consecrate themselves entirely to her, that will become in her hands forceful instruments for the defeat of Satan and the spread of God's kingdom."
We must all consecrate ourselves to the Queen of Heaven. And lest you think Mary our Mother remains perched upon an airy, ethereal throne, detached and aloof, remember the words of Saint John Vianney, who explains that "Only after the Last Judgment will Mary get any rest; from now until then, she is much too busy with her children." The mere utterance of her name sends Satan scurrying away in terror. Speak it often.
“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”
In this very raw and guttural moment, Jesus evokes the words of Psalm 22 wherein He embraces His suffering by speaking to the Father with the Word. Psalm 22 ultimately resolves in triumph and hope, as will Christ’s suffering. The Father doesn’t abandon Christ; rather, Christ abandons himself to the Father.
This scene allows us to reflect upon how we cope with tragedy in our own lives. To once again quote the legendary Saint Padre Pio, “Everybody has his own Cross. We must be like the (previously aforementioned) good thief and not like the bad one."
It’s impossible not to think of Saint Teresa of Calcutta in this scenario, for at the beginning of her ministry, Jesus appeared to her and told her to form a community that would satisfy His thirst for souls https://catholic-link.org/quotes/i-thirst-letter-written-mother-teresa-quote/.. Similarly, at the cross we see Jesus’ thirst, not just on a physical level, but on a divine level, expressing His longing for us to come to know and love Him.
“It is finished.”
This isn’t merely Jesus on the Cross letting out a huge sigh and saying “Phew! I’m glad THAT’S over.” There’s something far deeper going on here. Jesus’ death wasn’t the only death that took place on that cross. With him, sin died as well. With these words, we see the healing of creation. Jesus announces and initiates the Kingdom of God. The Father’s compassion is delivered to His people and we are gifted with freedom, cleanliness and grace.
Of Jesus’ Passion and death on the Cross, Saint Augustine was quick to point out that “The death of the Lord our God should not be a cause of shame for us; rather, it should be our greatest hope, our greatest glory. In taking upon himself the death that he found in us, he has most faithfully promised to give us life in him, such as we cannot have of ourselves.”
In many respects, this horrible afternoon at Calvary is a paradox, for it is indeed our shame but our hope as well. And hope always trumps shame.
“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”
In the very last of the last words, Jesus bows His head and hands over His spirit to His Father for all of us. This moment proclaims that the past is finished, and a glorious future is open to all. The crucifixion points to a path of hope, taking the redeemed to a never-ending future with Jesus, His Father, and the Holy Spirit. It wasn’t the thick and ominous nails that held Jesus to the cross. It was his love for humanity.
I leave you with the words of one more Saint, perhaps one you are not quite as familiar with as those previously mentioned. I do so because it was Saint Theodore the Studite who perhaps said it best when he proclaimed “How precious the gift of the cross, how splendid to contemplate! In the cross there is no mingling of good and evil, as in the tree of paradise: it is wholly beautiful to behold and good to taste. The fruit of this tree is not death but life, not darkness but light. This tree does not cast us out of paradise, but opens the way for our return.”
Lift high the cross. For on it hung the Savior of the world.