(Holy Thursday, 5 April 2007; Canberra, ACT Australia)
(As the date indicates, I have written this short reflection in 2007, after attending the Mass of the Last Supper at the St. Joseph’s Parish in Turner and O’Connor).
Father, forgive them for they know not what they do. (Luke 23, 34)
Hanging on the Cross, Jesus was a figure of everything that is ugly, unpleasant and painful. His trial was so swift, so was His death. Crucifixion was the way the Romans implemented the death sentence to criminals and seditionists- those who tried to overthrow the Roman powers at the time. Therefore, crucifixion was a common sight. That is why the biblical accounts of Jesus’ death are so “matter-of-factly”. Surely there were some other ways to implement the death sentence. But it was crucifixion that was deemed the most horrible and painful.
By doing so, the Romans would send a very clear warning to those who were tempted to be adventurers and try to topple the government. That was why Jesus was to carry the Cross and be crucified. He was a criminal, accused not of any ordinary crime but the crime of trying to supplant the King of Rome by claiming to be the King of the Jews.
The idea was to have a long painful death, basically by suffocation. That was why the bones of those sentenced with such horrible death must be broken to ensure this suffocation effect, the loss of energy and reflex- coordination to lose the ability to breathe. But this never happened to Jesus for He died immediately. Yet, in spite of all these, we hear Jesus having His final words.
In a sense, technically and theologically, these are not the final and last words of Jesus. He spoke with His disciples after the Resurrection and He continues to speak to us now through the Scriptures and through the Holy Mother, the Church. But we must rather call them the Last Words of Jesus before His death on the Cross.
The marvel of these all is that Jesus was still able to utter these words despite all the pains He was undergoing. We must assume that His physical strength must have been consumed. But the spirit never was. First lesson, then. Human struggle is not only a physical struggle. The spirit is involved. Any ideals and aspirations can only be accomplished if we put our body and spirit into it. The total person is involved. There is no dichotomy.
Jesus gave us the example. Another and more communitarian one. Do we not observe anything unusual about Jesus’ first word? We must observe that His first word was a prayer. A prayer for what? Forgiveness. Forgiveness for whom? For His enemies and those who maltreated Him, those who inflicted Him and did so much harm, those who were in unison in shouting and asking for His crucifixion. Jesus did not pray for His family, His loved ones, His disciples, on the Cross.
He prayed for His enemies and His persecutors. In our daily life, we may be meeting people who displease us, who simply disgust us, people who blatantly discourage us. And it is not always the case of we being displeased. We might have offended other people and became “enemies” to them. Do we pray for them? Do we ask for forgiveness? I am aware that it is humanly difficult. But, our Master did it 2000 or so ago. There is no reason for us to do otherwise.
“Father, strengthen me to do what is asked of me with my whole self, spirit and body. Enlighten me to pray for my enemies, the people whom I find difficulty dealing with, and the people whom I displeased. Amen.”
Today, you shall be with me in paradise. (Luke 23, 43)
Let us begin by taking a look at the parallel of this scene in the Matthean text (Matthew 27, 44). The scene was Jesus hanging on the wooden Cross with the two criminals (thieves in some texts), one on His left, and the other one on His right. They were no ordinary thieves or criminals. They were “major delinquents or offenders”. But let us go back to the Matthean text.
On close examination of the text, we are told that two criminals were one with the crowd and the Roman soldiers taunting Jesus, mocking Him and challenging Him to save Himself and themselves as well. But in this Lucan text (Luke 23, 43) we are told that one of them rebuked the other telling him to stop insulting God. Do we see contradiction? No. I see conversion. And precisely because of this conversion that he changed his course, even at the time he was hanging on the cross. We must remember that this one criminal was a witness to Jesus’ prayer for His enemies. This must have amazed the man and caught him in and with awe. In seeing this, this thief or criminal must have realized that this Jesus was really a man of prayer and forgiveness. This brought about his conversion.
Indeed, this man is a thief. Even at the hour of his impending and sure death he was able to steal heaven. He received the promise of paradise from Christ, the ruler of this Paradise. What does this show to us? That no one is always beyond the power of prayer. But really, there is a very serious lesson in here. But there is more to this criminal’s attitude than stealing that Paradise. It was his courage to acknowledge Jesus as the King and Ruler of the Kingdom. What an unusual courage and strength of character to acknowledge such belief publicly. We must remember that to acknowledge in public any other king aside from Caesar is an offense against the Roman law. Yet we see this criminal doing just that- public proclamation of Jesus as King.
I was reminded by one of the lines in the movie The 13th Warrior (with Antonio Banderas) which goes “Luck enough would save a man if his courage is whole for fear profits man nothing”. Do we acknowledge Christ to be our King even privately? And do we do it more courageously in public? Do our actions proclaim that there is still so much love and forgiveness in this world? I have asked this question myself and I am ashamed of and with myself. This is even in the midst of a very overwhelming reality- that Christ has given us so much to be happy with the world and the world has given us so much to be thankful to Christ. I am aptly reminded by C. S. Lewis when he said that Christ speaks to us in our joys and he shouts to us in our pains. Again, do our actions mirror this reality of Paradise? Do we sow love and forgiveness? Jesus did not only preach and teach this. He lived it.
“Father, let me, even in my most little ways, mirror the reality of love and forgiveness that Your Son once preached and lived. Amen.”
Woman, this is your son. This is your mother (John 19, 26)
In the first word, we see Jesus praying for and forgiving His enemies. In this third word, he neither prays nor intercedes for His disciples and his loved ones. Instead, we see Him giving missions to them. He was turning over His dearly beloved to one another. He must have been in immeasurable pain with the scourging He received, tired with the carrying of the Cross and badly hurt by the nails on His palm and feet. And that pain was intensified with the sight of His grieving Mother and his depressed and despaired disciple.
Jesus was so realistic that He could no longer console them in this trying time. When He was still with them, He was their constant source of encouragement and strength. And He was still so while hanging on the Cross. The only difference now is that Jesus was telling them to console one another. This is very poignant. This speaks about the human tendency to be overwhelmed by pain and suffering and Jesus’ contradictory belief in the loving capacity of the human spirit. The urgency and nobility of the command are so dramatic.
There is no greater time to tell His loved ones to fulfill this mission. In the Last Supper, he gave the commandment to His disciples to love one another. And moments before His final breath, he gave this same solemn command. Let us imagine that Jesus was speaking not only to His Mother and His Beloved Disciple. He was speaking to you, to me, to all of us. This must make us proud. But this must make us more humble. We know our human limitations.
But Jesus knows them more. Yet, He gave us the command to take care of one another. What last will he did leave us. He did give us not only a gift. He also gave us a challenge. Let not our limitations imperil us into not acting and fulfilling this mission, in our own little ways. Being a Christian may take diverse expressions. The only measure is- are we faithful to the solemn mission? Jesus does not act so much. He does not ask us of our grand plans, nor does He demand of us for things great. He just asks us to fulfill the mission He has entrusted to us. He does not call us to be effective. Rather, he calls us to be faithful.
“Jesus, make me a vessel and channel of Your generosity and love. May my actions tell of Your presence. Amen.”
My God, my God, why have you deserted me? (Mark 15, 34; Matthew 27, 47)
Echoing the psalmist (Psalm 22), Jesus was again praying. But let us go back to the previous three words. In the first word, Jesus was praying for His enemies. He promised Paradise to the repentant criminal in the second word. And on the third, we saw Jesus in His “traditioning” (turning over) his Mother and His Beloved Disciple to one another. (And by extension, we say that it was also addressed to us).
Now in this fourth word, we see Jesus examining His relationship with His father. And this takes a very dramatic turn. We might be wondering about this whole process, this whole sequence of event. In His last night of prayer at the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus was so sure of His Father’s love and presence.
And he even testified and pronounced this faith in His Father during His trial with the High Priests and the Governor. And precisely because of this faith in His Father that Jesus willingly embraced His death. However, we hear Jesus “accusing” His Father of abandoning Him. Or His Father really did? Or more particularly, does this cry of anguish by Jesus a cry of defeat or a cry of victory? The wonder of it all is that His Father, with all the dramatic tools that the Evangelists could think of, did not present any answer.
There is an unwritten reality in here. And this shall be laid down later. Again we go back to the physical reality that any dying man is so exhausted and weak that he can hardly utter a word. Yet, we are told by the biblical texts that Jesus shouted these words in a loud voice that even the soldiers and those witnessing Him die surmised that He was calling for Elijah, the greatest of the Prophets. In other words, Jesus was still in control of His life. He could live His life and he could give it up as He chose to. And where can this sense of strength, sense of control, and sense of victory come from but from the reality that His Father is constantly with Him. The presence of and His relationship with His Father was His constant source of strength.
To make a very limited attempt to unravel the mystery of this cry, it must be wise to go back to Psalm 22. Close reading of the text gives us a feeling of feebleness- and the reality that God has always been there to rescue us; the idea of persecution- and the reality of God us our shield; and the inescapable presence of tribulations- and the reality that those go through them end up praising God. And in the end, one thing is certain. Those who put their trust in the Lord will eat and be satisfied for dominion belongs to the Lord.
But the equally important, but unwritten, reality is this- God may sometimes be silent but He is never absent. Oftentimes, because of our spiritual blindness, we forget and are unaware of this reality.
“Father, help me to appreciate Your silent ways. Make us believe that even during those times, You are with us. Amen.”
I thirst. (John 19, 28)
Human tiredness, exhaustion and pain had engulfed the totality of Jesus’ body. The searing heat of the midday sun aggravated the agony and physical suffering of Jesus. Here we see a very human portrait of Jesus. We have always been conditioned that Jesus was God, and we often imagine Him as not one of us. He is the Great Other, far from us, and not one with us. Yet, this is contrary to what the Church teaches- that Jesus is Emmanuel, God-with-us. He was a human like us.
Hence, it must not make us wonder why Jesus felt thirsty while hanging on the Cross. In the texts, we are told that in response to this cry, the soldiers gave Jesus a sponge soaked in vinegar for Him to drink. This image augurs well for a very important reality of our faith- more particularly in the area of ecclesiology and missiology. To expound on this, taking a more theological examination of Jesus’ thirst is in place.
When Jesus cried I thirst, it was more spiritual than physical. We must remember that in His years of ministry that culminated in His passion and Death, Jesus had no other concern but to establish the Kingdom of God. He called his disciples, and made them apostles, He worked wonders and miracles, He healed the sick, He joined the company of the outcast and the sinners and brought them back to God’s fold, He challenged the status quo and He dared to go against the powers that be- all these things with one goal in mind- to establish the Kingdom and to set it going.
And now He ends up on the Cross. Yet, Jesus Himself saw some real misgivings and shortfalls- Judas betraying Him, Peter denying Him, and majority of His disciples and apostles ran away in face of real terror and death. In other words, Jesus was thirsting for this Kingdom to be really established.
Yes, He has started that great enterprise. But, it is not yet fully finished. This is a very important aspect of ecclesiology- that the Church is a Pilgrim Church, Ecclesia-in-via (Church on the Way or Church on Journey), and doing Christ’s mission is the sign post She follows. Jesus thirsts for selfless love from those who profess faith in Him and confess that He is the Lord. Are we one with Jesus in this ideal? Are we really journeying with this Church in her Mission? The Cross must serve as our question mark.
“Jesus, help me to be more faithful to the mission You have entrusted to Your Church. That I may not be left in this whole pilgrimage towards the Kingdom. Amen.”
It is finished. (John 19, 30)
Or is it really? We are now towards the end of this short reflection on the last words of Jesus on the Cross. And Jesus was really feeling that the end to His earthly life is near. He did not deny it. Rather, He confronted it. Jesus drank the cup of sorrow, pain, humiliation and isolation to the last drop. Let us bear in mind that the Cross was the pinnacle of the “economy of salvation”.
The two criminals who received the same sentence with Jesus were there because of their personal sins. Jesus was crucified because of the sin of the whole humanity- my sins, your sins, our sins brought Him there. The Cross was put by the Father in Jesus’ hands to put a definitive point on the division that has been separating humankind from God. The Cross was put by the Father in Jesus’ hands to convince us that Jesus is the definitive and universal Savior. Therefore, the work of the Son Jesus was to restore that broken relationship.
Somewhere in the gospels we are told that when Jesus breathed His last and died, the curtain of the Temple was torn in two(more dramatic in the Matthean text). This specific imagery goes back to the Old Testament where the Most High God keeps Himself from people, that even catching a glimpse of the face of God would mean death to the human who sees Him. Another image of the Temple is one related to the privilege given to the high priests of the time. In the Jewish temple, there is a place called Holy of Holies where only the high priest can enter once every year to offer the sacrifice on behalf of the people. With the death of Jesus, and the Temple curtain being torn in two, relationship with the Loving Father was restored and this relationship is not a matter of privilege but a free gift bought by the precious blood of Jesus.
While on earth, Jesus- by means of many wonders, signs, miracles, going with the outcast, seeking the last, the least, and the lost- tried to establish the Kingdom of God. He never had any other concern save this one- that God wants to establish His Kingdom here on earth- a kingdom ruled by love and service. The work of the Son Jesus which was nothing less than the new creation of humanity is accomplished. The seed planted on the Cross shall come forth as the tree of New Creation.
And we are called to continue nurturing this tree so that when Christ returns He may find it filled with fruit. It is finished. Yes, Jesus started it by doing His most precious part. And we are called to do our part. In one sense, the work is finished. In another sense, it is a work in progress.
“Jesus, help me to be courageous to do my part to participate in nurturing the Tree of the New Creation. Amen.”
Jesus knew that He was dying. He surrendered Himself to this certainty with strong faith and trust in His Father. The Cross of Calvary is the crowning glory of all the labors He has done in the three years of His ministry. And He was aware of and convinced by it. Jesus knew that He was returning to the Father.
So there is nothing more fitting end to this whole exchange but to say that “Father, I have done what You have commanded and wanted me to do. Now, I am returning to You”. Jesus was like a loyal soldier, a very responsible one, accounting Himself to His commander. We must note that Jesus did His accounting with conviction. He was convinced that He lost nothing and that he never failed the Father up to the very end. Faithfulness to the Father’s will was the hallmark of Jesus’ life and ministry, and His consequent death. Jesus was convinced that He was victorious. Hence, He is surrendering His spirit to His Father. And this surrendering is an act both of faithfulness and victory. Let us ask ourselves, then. When our hour comes to bid farewell to this world and return to our Father, can we say convincingly, like Jesus did, that “Father, into Your hands, I commend my spirit”? Or even uttering such words would mean shame to us? Would it be surrender with pride of being faithful to the little things God has entrusted to us?
In another respect, this final word of Jesus is an echo of Psalm 31. In this specific psalm, the psalmist (we are told that it is David who wrote the psalms) exults God for He has been the refuge of the psalmist. The psalmist acknowledges the pains and grief he experiences in the world. And in the midst of this painful reality, the psalmist finds his refuge and consolation in the Lord. More importantly, the psalmist proclaims that the thought of God assuring him of His presence eases all the pains. It is because of this assurance that the psalmist would surrender himself and his spirit to the Lord. It is a good question to ask ourselves: “In our moments of afflictions, to whom or to what do we commend our spirits”? Or do we even have the time to commend our spirit to the Father in our everyday lives? If not, we can see some danger signs.
“Father, grant me the spirit of fidelity to the little things You give me to do everyday. Amen.”