When Jesus had taken the wine, he said, “It is finished.” And bowing his head, he handed over the spirit.
It is finished. Of all Christ’s words from the cross, these move me most deeply. The words strike me as cryptic, charged with meaning. They trigger many questions in my mind. Jesus, what is finished? What exactly do you mean? What are you thinking as you speak?
Are you mourning that the golden days are over, the days when you were a baby and your mother Mary held you close to her heart while kings and shepherds arrived to adore you? Are you longing for your adolescence, when you ran free in the Galilean sun, practiced carpentry beside your father Joseph, and astounded Temple rabbis with your wit?
Are you nostalgic for your young adulthood, when people clamored to become your friend—Peter, Andrew, James, John, Magdalena, Thomas, Matthew, Philip, Mary, Martha, Lazarus—when men and women left their former lives to be with you, learn from you, delight in you, bask in the brilliance you possessed?
Yes, you had your detractors, but you always spoke the truth to them with love, whether or not they understood you. Multitudes viewed you as a star, yet now you hang dying on a cross.
Maybe, by saying it is finished, though, you are not mourning good times past at all. Perhaps you are feeling satisfaction that you’ve fulfilled God’s mission for your life. After your last supper with your confidants, you paused and prayed: “Father, here on earth I brought you glory by accomplishing all the work you gave me. Now, glorify me.”
Jesus, you did many things well. You taught the uninformed, praised the good, and chastised the wicked. You calmed the fearful, healed the sick, and raised the dead. You fed the crowds and stood by the disenfranchised. You found the lost and set them on the proper path.
Even as you writhe there on the cross, you model a life of faith and love, forgiving the accusers who have wronged you, assuring the condemned whose faith is weak, providing for your mother and your friends.
By doing all the things that you have done, you’ve actualized the forecasts of the prophets, ushering in God’s kingdom. You are the Anointed One, the Son of Man, the Seed who will crush the serpent’s head.
You are the Priest after the Order of Melchizedek, the Lamb without a Blemish, the Prince of Peace and Righteousness. You are the Emmanuel, the Christ, the Messiah, the Precious Cornerstone.
And now, enduring crucifixion, you are the despised, rejected, and afflicted, the Suffering Servant who bears the sin of humankind and is completing the salvation of the world.
But could it be when you say that it is finished, you are not tallying your triumphs, not in fact forming lucid thoughts? Perhaps your words are utterly reflexive, a reaction to the agony you bear, an agony that only death will end, a death that is just a breath away.
Oh, sweet, dear Jesus, picturing your Passion brings me tears. How have you abided the affronts of last night and today, the psychological damage inflicted by your enemies and allies? Soon after you stooped to wash their feet, Peter, James, and John failed to stay awake with you as you kneeled praying in the garden, sweating blood throughout night. God your Father refused to change your fate though you begged him to take away your cup.Judas, whom you counted as a colleague, betrayed you for some silver with a kiss upon your cheek. Temple soldiers, with their torches and their weapons, seized you, bound you, and dragged you off to court.
Peter, in defiance of your teachings, turned to violence and slashed the high priest’s slave. He denied that he ever knew you, though just last night he assured you of his love. He, whom you called your rock, your blessed one, refused to turn the other cheek for you, declined to walk the extra mile for you, neglected to offer you his cloak.
Then Caiaphas and Pontius Pilate tried you, trumping-up the charges and condemning you to death, as the Roman soldiers spat on you and pummeled you and the crowd, who’d once spread palms before your feet, shouted, “Crucify him!”
Added to these injuries to your spirit are the bodily abuses you’ve endured: The Roman soldiers relentlessly flogged you, cracking whips of leather thongs and iron balls. They pressed a crown of twisted, thorny brambles into your forehead and your scalp.
They forced you—hungry, thirsty, bleeding, weak—to drag your cross up the hill to Golgotha. There they stripped you and nailed you to the cross, pounding spikes through your ankles and your wrists, and when they hoisted the cross into position, your body swayed, jounced, contorted, tugged, and tore.
Now your weight strains your outstretched arms and shoulders, hampering your breathing, inflicting excruciating pain. Jesus, when you say that it is finished, are you pleading for your words to come to pass?
Jesus, I have never been as good as you, yet I’ve not endured the punishment you have. Still, I’ve oftentimes asserted, “It is finished” with grief and longing in my heart.
I said it when my obstetrician told me I would never give birth to a baby. I said it when my father and my mother died and my sister became estranged from me. I said it when I lost the job I loved, having worked a lifetime to secure it. I said it when my dear friend left me suddenly without explaining why.
Yet I survived all these losses—these crosses—because I knew the ending of your story. I knew although you claimed that it was finished, it wasn’t finished at all.
Instead, God resurrected you.
Likewise, every time that I thought my life was over, God resuscitated me, and I went on living, loving, even laughing, although doing so had seemed impossible.
Jesus, as you cry out “It is finished,” I think you’re giving us the words to pray in crisis. They mean: “God, I really need you now. I’ve done all that I can do. I don’t have strength to carry on alone. Now I trust that you will pull me through.”
Jan Vallone is the author of Pieces of Someday: One Woman’s Search for Meaning in Lawyering Family, Italy, Church, and a Tiny Jewish High School, which won the Reader Views Reviewers’ Choice Award. Her stories have appeared in The Seattle Times, Good Letters, Faith & Values in the Public Square, Catholic Digest, Guideposts Magazine, English Journal, Chicken Soup for the Soul, and Writing it Real. She lives and teaches writing in Seattle.
Painting above: Botticelli’s Lamentation over the Dead Christ.