The Seven Last Words are a harmonizing of sayings attributed to Jesus from the four canonical gospels. No one gospel contains all seven sayings, but the sayings give a picture of Jesus’ suffering and death.
The Cross describes the realities of human suffering, abandonment, and death, often at the hands of powerful governmental and religious institutions. The collection of Jesus’ final words gives voice to the experiences of persons in oncology wards, hospices, separated by COVID, and victims of torture and abuse. It gives voice to our experiences – and fears – in this time of protest and pandemic.
Let us hear the witness of our Savior on this Good Friday. WE WILL LISTEN TAKE A MOMENT FOR SILENCE BETWEEN EACH PHRASE….AND THEN I WILL SHARE A BRIEF REFLECTION ON EACH SAYING.
The First Saying: Father forgive them, for they know not what they do. (Luke 23:34).
Jesus forgives those who are torturing him. On the Cross, Jesus felt pain, and so did God! And God still feels the pain of the world. Spiritual maturity, growth, and illumination enhance our sensitivity to pain and injustice. Spiritual maturity increases the range of our empathy as we experience a “heart as big as the universe,” the sacred heart of Jesus….Spiritual stature enables us to balance compassion and justice-seeking so that no more crosses be erected in human experience, no more crosses burned, no more unjust killing.
Forgiveness allows for the possibility of healing and transformation. As the hymn “Amazing Grace” proclaims, grace teaches “our hearts to fear” and enables us to “see” when once we were blind to the impact of our actions. Forgiveness may mean more, rather than less, pain at first, but it is the pain of the “celestial surgeon,” whose spiritual interventions are intended to excise our hardheartedness, indifference, and sin, so that we might have a clean and empathetic hearts.
These words are a call to self-examination. Where do we need forgiveness? Where are we oblivious to God’s vision? Where are we apathetic about the pain of the world? Where are we asleep to the beauties of the earth or complacent in relationship to others’ suffering? Grounded in the awareness of our complicity in the evils of the world, we can accept God’s forgiveness and turn around toward a life of care for the least of these as well as those whom we encounter over the breakfast table.
The Second Saying: Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise. (Luke 23:43).
Jesus saw God’s presence as palpable and powerful within everyday life. The realm of God is not only near, but it is right here in healings, hospitality and welcome of outcasts and sinners, and spiritual and ethical transformation. Jesus prays that God’s realm will be embodied “on earth as it is in heaven.”
Jesus’ crucifixion is the antithesis of God’s vision for our world. Nothing good can come of the Cross apart from God’s love. We are left asking: Can we experience the hope of everlasting life in the shadows of Calvary?
“Today” means right now – in the moment of struggle and death, we are transformed fully into God’s realm of Shalom. Whatever transformation we can imagine must be, from a Hebraic-Christian point of view, a resurrection involving the whole person, not necessarily embodied in literal flesh and blood, but involving the energies of embodiment, personal history, spiritual orientation, and communal relatedness.
The Third Saying: Woman, behold your son: son, behold your mother. (John 19:26-27)
Dying does not excuse us from living by our ideals. Life goes on and how we respond to our dying process will shape those who survive us. On the Cross, Jesus still affirms the fabric of relatedness. He looks beyond his pain and death to the needs of others. He calls his mother to care for the beloved disciple, and he calls the beloved disciple to take responsibility for his mother’s well-being. Death does not end our relationships or our moral obligations; it transforms them. Jesus’ care for his mother serves as a model for our own legacy to future generations.
Perhaps, Jesus’ words to our generation, might be: Behold this good Earth; take care of your mother. Behold the children in pain; bless them with your love and justice-seeking. Beyond, the cries “I can’t breathe” and “say her name,” and affirm the solidarity of all persons. In this time of pandemic, Jesus says care for each other. Be safe, but also be compassionate.
The Fourth Saying: My God, My God, why have you forsaken me. (Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34).
These words, straight from Psalm 22, speak to Jesus’ and Psalmist’s experiences of abandonment. Like Jesus, many of us know feelings of utter abandonment as we drive to the hospital to go the bedside of a beloved relative or now wait at home unable to visit our dying loved ones, when we hear the words “your position has been eliminated” despite the highest quality of performance, in moments of agony following physical, emotional, or spiritual abuse, or when we can no longer conjure feelings of love for God or an intimate companion…there moments when the ever-present God seems utterly absent and we are lost in the abyss of isolation and unremitting pain.
Jesus’ God-forsakenness is real and so is ours. This is especially true for those who affirm that God is involved in our lives and the world. We can easily ask ourselves, “Where is this universal and graceful God? How can I feel the absence of omnipresence? If God is present everywhere, then why did Jesus feel so alone?”
Jesus’ prayer of abandonment is a prayer of faith. He is not hiding from God or his feelings. He addresses his pain to God and he calls upon God to respond. In the time between moments of revelation and presence, we too can bring our own “cries of absence” to the One to whom all hearts are open and all desires known.” Can we hold faith and doubt, presence and absence, elation and desolation in contrast with no guarantees of a felicitous outcome?
The Fifth Saying: I thirst. (John 19:28).
Jesus’ death was horrific, but no more horrific than many other deaths throughout history, perhaps some occurring today. As painful as Jesus’ death was to him, it took just a few hours. It was not drawn out like the dying process of certain incurable cancers, ALS, or torture and starvation, or even COVID-19.
Being crucified is painful enough. Seeing your cause apparently defeated is emotionally devastating enough. Being abandoned by those who pledged loyalty is spiritually overwhelming enough
Still, like millions before and after, Jesus thirsted. He felt the pain of dying in its fullness. He died as many of us do, vulnerable, powerless, and tortured. If Jesus is truly God’s messenger, then God too must feel our pain – God thirsts for our salvation, God passionately seeks to heal the earth, and God experiences the pain of every dying patient. Calvary points us to a thirsting God, the fellow sufferer who understands, as Alfred North Whitehead observed. God is with us in our pain and suffering.
The Sixth Saying: It is finished. (John 19:30)
Luther asserted that in the midst of life, we are surrounded by death. Death punctuates embodied existence. Each moment is perpetually perishing, dying that new experiences may emerge. As we reflect on Jesus’ sufferings, we might ask: What is finished? What ends on Calvary?
At first glance, it is obvious. Jesus’ work is done; he will be dead; he is now history. But our personal history is always unfinished and subject to transformation at the hands of others.
Jesus’ ministry lives on in resurrection moments when the words and wisdom he spoke transform us and when his Spirit moves through our spirits, initiating a new creation and making a pathway within the wilderness of experience.
The words “it is finished” can be a relief. They can suggest that our suffering has finally ended and we will now enter the rest of the saints. Even here, our death remains unfinished for we live on in memory, DNA, spiritual impact, and grief. Our lives may perish but they live forever more in God’s memory and the ongoing history of the universe.
The Seventh Saying: Father, into your hands I commit my spirit. (Luke 23:46)
I must confess that I say this prayer, this final “word” of Jesus, as a talisman on nights when I go to bed, painfully aware of my finitude and mortality. As I close my eyes, hoping to awaken but more importantly trusting that in life and death, I am in God’s care, I whisper, “Into your hands I commit my spirit.” We all live we a sense of mortality, and it surfaces at moments when we let go of control – at bedtime, and throughout the day.
Jesus’ words come from the recognition that our existence from moment to moment is contingent on forces beyond ourselves. They also reveal a trust in a power within and beyond us that brought us into life and will receive us upon our deaths. This is an act of trust, and not a description of everlasting life….We are not alone; we belong to God and nothing – abandonment, thirst, or death – can separate us from the love of God.
Let us go in peace, companioned by the suffering-rising God, feeling the pain of others and seeking to respond with love and wisdom, and let us practice resurrection, hope in the future, in the midst of death and destruction. Not denying pain, but living with hope in the moral and spiritual arcs of history and the resurrection power in the growing seed, the healing touch, and the promise that God is with us, giving us vision, energy, and an everlasting adventure ahead. Amen.
Bruce Epperly is a pastor, professor, and author of over sixty books, including the Pandemic Trilogy: FAITH IN A TIME OF PANDEMIC, HOPE BEYOND PANDEMIC, LOVE IN A TIME OF CRISIS AND PANDEMIC; WALKING WITH FRANCIS OF ASSISI: FROM PRIVILEGE TO ACTIVISM; PROPHETIC HEALING: HOWARD THURMAN’S VISION OF PROPHETICC ACTIVISM; MYSTICS IN ACTION: 12 SAINTS FOR TODAY; and GOD ONLINE: A MYSTIC’S GUIDE TO THE INTERNET.