On Christ’s Seven Last Words: “They offer one final sermon on a mount, a lasting message of forgiveness and mercy”

On Christ’s Seven Last Words: “They offer one final sermon on a mount, a lasting message of forgiveness and mercy” April 2, 2015


Friday night, my parish will have a performance of Thomas Dubois’ oratorio, “The Seven Last Words.” I’m preaching a reflection on it, below. 


Without question, it is the most infamous public execution of all time.

No death has been more depicted in art, in drama, in literature and, as we’ve just heard, in music.

On top of this, the one being put to death is the most quoted, cited, studied, revered person in human history—a solitary figure who literally changed the world. Jesus the Christ—Son of God and Son of Man. The Messiah.

Yet these, his last words, may strike us as shocking—shocking, because they are so simple.

In fact, they are so painfully human.

They are the words of an anguished man crying to his God.

They are the plea of a prisoner whose throat is parched.

They show the effort of a son trying to comfort his mother.

These are the words of a dying, broken, exhausted man, as his organs shut down and his body fails and his heart gives out.

At times this most extraordinary death is almost shockingly ordinary.

But, of course, it isn’t. Twice, during this agony, we realize that this is not just a criminal on a cross.

At the outset, Jesus pleads to God, his father, but not for himself. He asks forgiveness for the ones putting him to death. He sees beyond the blood and the thorns and the nails—beyond his own broken body, to the brokenness of those who do not understand, could not understand, what is taking place.

And then, he offers mercy and salvation to a bloodied criminal beside him, one who in his final moments of life has undergone conversion of heart—and to this man, Christ holds out the assurance and consolation of Paradise.

These are his parting gifts: forgiveness and mercy.

In those two moments on the cross, in the midst of a harrowing death, we find grace.

Here is love, the love that transformed the world.

The fact is: these seven last words sum up the life and ministry of Jesus Christ with breathtaking clarity.

This is what it was all about. We realize anew that God became one of us to struggle with us, to suffer with us, to agonize with us. He dwelt among us to see the world through our eyes—even when that vision is blurred by tears and blood. He came to show us what early Christians called The Way, The Way to our salvation.

And Jesus, with his dying breath, is still proclaiming the good news of salvation—news of redemption to those who have been condemned…of grace to those who have sinned…of consolation to those who mourn. We realize just what the Incarnation meant. We hear the words of one fully human, and fully divine, a man like us in all things but sin.

And suddenly, with that realization, the cross takes on a very different meaning.

Behold the wood of the cross—and behold something more than an instrument of death.

Behold the wood of the cross—and behold how two simple pieces of wood converge. See how those lines intersect. Not just a cross, it almost resembles a destination on a map, a crossroads, a place where points converge.

And in that astonishing convergence, the cross gives us Christ.

The horizontal beam is the earthly life of man of flesh and blood who lived with us, walked with us, struggled with us, ate with us, thirsted with us, suffered with us, wept with us. It spans the length and breadth of the world he knew.

The second beam, the vertical piece of wood, is directed from the earth to the heavens. It is grounded, literally, in the earth, the rock of Calvary. Yet it points up, to the divine—reminding us of the Son of God who forgave sinners, who offered sight to the blind and freedom to the captives and life to those who were dead. The one who was there at the beginning of time, and is here with us even now.

I submit to you: in the cross, those two beams of wood, we see in a powerful and tangible way the intersection of the human with the divine. The cross represents all Christ was, all he is, all he will always be.

Here is, quite literally, a crossing point of history.

Here is the Incarnation made manifest. Here is Emmanuel, God with us.

And of course, at the meeting point of the human and divine, where those two pieces of wood connect, in the middle see the bloodied, bruised body of Christ.

Here is our salvation—our brother and our God.

Behold the wood of the cross, on which hung the salvation of the world.

His seven last words stand as his final lesson.

They offer us one final sermon on the mount—not on a hillside, but on an elevation carved from a tree, imparting to a frightened and uncertain world a lasting message of forgiveness and mercy— and, incredibly, hope.

“I have been with you,” he says. “And you can be with me in Paradise.” There is something more to come.

At the end, Christ cries out that it is finished.

But what is finished?

A long chapter in human history…is finished.

Our old way of living…is finished.

Humanity’s wait for a savior…is finished.

Christ’s earthly life is finished.

But we rejoice in this overwhelming truth:

For all that has finished…the story isn’t over.

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