Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Seven Last Words

It is a 500-year-old tradition of the Church to reflect in Holy Week on the Seven Last Words of Jesus, the poignantly short utterances of Our Lord from the Cross. They were short utterances because they had to be gasped by a man dying of asphyxiation. It is difficult to consider these verses together because each of the four Gospel accounts of the Passion has its own special perspective. None of the accounts includes all seven utterances, so to pulling them together risks a certain blurring and incoherence. Still, considering the statements together is a spiritually important exercise since all of them are part of our tradition. My friend, Jocelyn, in the Episcopal Diocese of Santiago has asked me to write a brief reflection on the Seven Last Words, so this is my attempt.

1. Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.

This statement of forgiveness is found in Luke. In this Gospel, Jesus is a healer and a reconciler. In him, God becomes the archetypal victim of all human cruelty and sin for a special reason. Sin is committed against victims and only the victim has the moral right to forgive the wrong. God sitting serenely in heaven cannot morally forgive sins which God has not suffered. But without forgiveness, there is no way forward into new life. Without forgiveness, sinner and victim alike are ensnared forever, the sinner in guilt, the victim in grievance. In Jesus, God became the victim so that he could forgive. Injury gives rise to a claim, a right, to vengeance. But acts of vengeance are a new violence creating new victims and so the cycle of retribution continues. It can end only when a victim says “It stops here. I will forgive rather than perpetuate this.” Anwar Sadat going to Jerusalem after the death of his brother is a modern example. Antigone is an ancient one. Jesus is the archetype. God in Jesus took the wound of sin upon himself so he could forgive all sin and set us free from our guilt and our grievance alike, both prisons of the soul. But we can claim our freedom, live into our freedom, only when we follow the example of our way shower, our Savior and Liberator, Jesus who in his agony showed mercy to the merciless.

2. Truly, I say to you, this day you will be with me in Paradise.

These words are also in Luke, the Gospel of healing and reconciliation. The dying thief acknowledged his guilt and, offering no excuse or defense, asked for a small mercy. “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Simply to be remembered by a just person was all the immortality he hoped for. What has that to do with us? To live a human life is to incur guilt. To be human is to be fallible at every level, physical, moral, and spiritual. Moreover, to live a human life is to live in a network of relationships that constitute personal, moral obligation. Those obligations often conflict, so that to do what is right by one person is to hurt another. The moral philosopher Martha Nusbaum called such situations “tragic choices” in her book, The Fragility of Goodness. No one lives this life without guilt. It is hard to acknowledge our own sin. Our egos compel us to justify ourselves. But our desperate efforts to preserve our self-image as good people are at odds with what we know to be true. It is an agony to admit to ourselves and to others that we are guilty. The dying thief admitted his guilt. That is all he did. He had no opportunity to turn from his evil path and live a pure life. He had no chance to “go and sin no more.” He had no opportunity to earn his salvation with good works or piety. “Could my zeal no languor know, could my tears forever flow, these for sin would not atone. Thou must save and thou alone.” The dying thief simply asked for a crumb of mercy and Jesus promised him paradise. Salvation cannot be earned by fallible people such as ourselves. Salvation depends on grace alone, the infinite mercy of God revealed in Jesus. Many great spiritual teachers have said wise and helpful things that have helped me in my life challenges. But as the years have passed, as the weight of guilt has inevitably grown heavier and my efforts to justify myself have proven increasingly futile, I find nothing sufficient but this promise of Jesus to redeem me – not for the sake of any good thing I might ever do, but simply for the sake of his mercy.

3. Woman behold your son; behold your mother.

John’s Gospel alone relates that Mary and John stood at the foot of the cross. His mother and his best friend were there for him. They were drawn to this place of pain by their devotion to him. It is unlikely that they would have been close to each other before Good Friday. But Jesus redirected their mutual grief into a relationship. Tradition tells us that they remained close for the rest of their lives, that Mary spent her final years in Ephesus where John led the Church and wrote this Gospel. I have visited the house outside of Ephesus (Kusadasi) where tradition says that Mary lived. Who knows if that is historically true, but thousands of Christians, including Pope John Paul II, have visited that small shrine to remember the lasting bond John and Mary formed at Calvary and honored to the end. Whether it is vestiges of Mary’s presence or vestiges of the pilgrims’ presence, that spot is palpably sanctified by reflection on the tenderness of wounded healers, the bereaved living on with and for each other. But what does this say to us? Many Christians are devoted to Jesus. Their spirituality is a heart-felt longing for him. But in this moment Jesus actually redirected the attention of John and Mary away from himself and toward each other. Life is laced with grief and escape into otherworldly spirituality is a denial of life, a refusal to live the life we have been given because sometimes it hurts. Jesus did not invite Mary and John to escape. He did not say, “Don’t worry. This is really ok.” It was not ok. But he gave meaning to their grief by teaching them to console each other, to support and sustain each other. The spirituality Jesus taught from the cross was one of compassion, commitment, and personal engagement with each other. If we have grief, the way through it is to turn our grief into compassion for one another.

4. My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Mark and Matthew give the darkest versions of the Passion. For them, the Cross is a disaster. Redemption comes with the Resurrection, but the Cross itself is a horror. In their dark account, Jesus does not speak with confidence of being that day in Paradise. He feels abandoned and betrayed even by God. He cries out his complaint, but he does not curse God or abandon God, even though he believes he himself has been abandoned. This is the most profound expression in Scripture of obdurate, invincible love of God for God’s own sake. In Job there is a verse which is sometimes translated (perhaps not an accurate translation of the Hebrew but a spiritually profound one nonetheless) “Even though he slay me, I will trust in him.” Most of us love God for our blessings. We love God for what God has done for us or for what we hope God will do for us. In truth, this is loving ourselves and using God as a means to the higher end of our own well-being. But to love God without hope of our own gain would be another matter altogether. It would be to lose ourselves in the sublime light of a value supremely higher than ourselves. And that would be the ultimate liberation – the liberation from compulsive self-absorption. I am not capable of that kind of love for God, but I can aspire to it because Jesus revealed it. There is a second point in this utterance. Jesus was up against the experience of meaningless suffering. After the Resurrection, we see Jesus’ ordeal as the most meaningful suffering in history. But at the moment when Jesus felt forsaken, his suffering seemed altogether futile. Religious people are all to quick to tell the afflictedis that their suffering is actually ok because God doing something good in it. But suffering is often just suffering. Evil really is evil, not part of God’s plan. Jesus did not hang from the cross expounding platitudes about providence. He experienced disaster as disaster. It is only after we face that kind of despair head on as he did that we are able to rise from it as he did. The Cross alone is a catastrophe. God made meaning of it in the Resurrection. Instead of pretending that the horrors of life are not really horrors, we can call them what they are, and then make meaning out of them by rising from the grave of despair to live for others.

5. I thirst.

It is no surprise that Jesus said these words. Anyone who has sat at the bed of a dying person and put ice chips to their lips knows of the thirst of the dying. During crucifixion, Jesus would have been seriously dehydrated. It is no surprise that he said, “I thirst.” But it is surprising to me that John included this utterance. Johns is the spiritually lofty Gospel. Someone said that “In John, Jesus’ feet never seem to touch the ground.” In Mark’s earthy Gospel, these words would be natural; in John, they seem out of place. But there they are. I don’t know what possessed the spiritually minded John to include them. But this is what I make of it. When our mortal life does not satisfy, then we turn our eyes to the transcendent. The medieval theologian Boethius said that tragedy is where we find God. In the Jesus experience on the Cross, there is a spiritual thirst that John would have found worthy of his Gospel. “As the deer longs for the flowing steam, so longs my soul for you O God.” Psalm 22. But John knew that spiritual longing, like spiritual truth, were not free-floating in the clouds. Spiritual longing is enfleshed. “The Word became flesh . . . .” So there is a spiritual and a physical aspect to every longing. All desire, as St. Augustine taught us, is a partial expression of our ultimate desire – which whether we know it or not, is for the true end of all desires: God. When we hunger, thirst, or long for any earthly thing, it is an incarnate form of our longing for our Source and our Destiny, our Highest Good, the Ultimate Beauty. “O God you have made us for yourself,” Augustine wrote – but that is a misleading translation. It does not mean God made us for his own amusement or use. The word “for” means something more like “toward.” It means God has made us so that our longing is toward God. The “repining restlessness” (George Herbert) in our hearts, the perpetual dissatisfaction that keeps us uneasy, is the magnet and iron attraction drawing us toward God. That makes sense of the rest of the sentence. “O God you have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.” Jesus’ all too physical thirst and his longing for peace and consolation in the heart of God were one. It is the same for us in all our desires.

6. It is finished.

In John, these are Jesus’ last words. When I was a parish priest, my congregation observed Holy Week devoutly. The stripping of the altar was the most solemn ritual of the year. We then sat in one hour shifts with the reserved sacrament in a Gethsemane Garden though the night. At 9 in the morning, the hour of the crucifixion, a small group gathered around the altar in silence and slowly, reverently consumed the reserved sacrament. All year long, the sanctuary light burned beside the reserved sacrament, representing Christ’s presence. But now his sacramental presence was gone – the light extinguished. I placed the chalice on its side and said “It is finished.” We left in silence. Ending is tragic. But there is a beauty hidden in the tragedy. There is another meaning in these words. Sometimes they are translated, “It is accomplished.” You might say, “It is complete.” “It is perfect.” “It is made whole.” In his death, Jesus set something right. He brought a broken world together. The word “salvation” is often confused with pardon. It is actually much more than that. It is to be made whole, to have the fragments of our lives drawn together. It is to have the random joys and sorrow, the triumphs and the tragedies, the incidents and accidents which are like the scattered pieces of a puzzle assembled into a picture we can understand. When the final chapter in our meta-narrative has been written, everything that came before makes sense. Everything falls into place. In this moment of supreme sacrifice, meaning was restored to life. The chaos became a cosmos once more as God intended. The evil, the violence, the pettiness and greed -- all that makes a mess of life was swallowed up in that sacrifice. At the cost of the life of humanity and God, the fragmented universe was made whole.

7. Into your hands I commend my spirit.

These are Jesus’ last words in Luke, a final expression of faith. Jesus has completed his mission of healing and reconciliation. His purpose has been fulfilled. That is “a consummation devoutly to be wished” -- to have accomplished all one has been given to do. But it is a terrible moment too because one no longer has a purpose. One no longer has a claim of right to exist. One no longer has anything with which to bargain with reality, nothing left to offer. Jesus was at that moment empty, as it says in Philippians. Having nothing left in himself, he entrusted himself to God. Most of my life, I have thought I had something to offer the world, even something to offer God. But there came a time when I felt I had nothing left to give, that my continued presence on the earth would probably do no good. Like the dying thief, I had no justification. That’s when I prayed the words of Jesus, “Into your hands I commend my spirit.” It seems God had a few more things for me to do and I am doing them as I am able, “with God’s help.” But from that time, I have known that it’s all grace. Every day is God’s gift. My spirit is in God’s hands, dependent on his mercy and his will. Each of us comes to the end of our rope from time to time – sometimes in big ways, other times in small ways. That is when we can pray these words of Jesus; these “Turn it over. Turn it all over” words – a prayer that is not so much spoken as exhaled into God. There is a peace in that surrender like no other. It is a letting go and floating in God. Dying to self is the only way to live in the Spirit. That is the message Jesus taught us with his last breath.


Ann Whitfield said...

A wonder mediation to begin my day. Thank you Bishop.

Bishop Dan said...

Thank you.

Anonymous said...

PROFOUND POST, DAN! Reminder: "Forward Day by Day" daily devotional has our NV DIOCESE on prayers from Episcopalians world-wide the end of April!