Beginning today, I will be offering eight meditations on what are often described as the Last Words of Jesus. Today’s meditation provides an introduction. The remaining seven focus on each of the seven “words”. All seven passages are from the Gospels, and they often serve as the focus of the church’s prayers on Good Friday. Given the length of each mediation, I have chosen to offer one a day, ending on Good Friday.
I can remember as a teenager, going through a phase when I was fascinated with the last words of famous human beings. What did they say, I wondered. Did their last words offer any insight into their lives? Did they choose to leave any final message? Did they leave some telling summary of their lives? How did they face death? Did the way in which they died offer any kind of wisdom for facing that terrifying and universal experience?
That might seem like a fairly morbid preoccupation for a teenager of any age, but by the time I was eighteen all four of my grandparents had died. I had been through three surgeries and two car accidents, both of which had long term effects. Those events and a fairly introspective personality made an obsession of that kind all but unavoidable.
Although I had fairly personal reasons for my interest in those stories, an interest in how people die is also a universal preoccupation. It is rare that life affords the chance to bring a lifetime of effort to the kind of tidy conclusion that I was probably looking for as a teenager, but our lives are bookended by birth and death, and it is natural to look for that kind of meaning in the way things end.
We live in stories. We live by stories. They begin somewhere, they end somewhere and the telling of the story gives our lives meaning. That is why the best of both spiritual direction and therapy invite the participants to tell their story and then imagine what the next chapter might contain. The words of Jesus that we focus on here belong to that quest.
That last day and those last words of Jesus have also served a deep spiritual purpose in the life of the church. For centuries Good Friday has served as an opportunity for Christians to contemplate the meaning of Jesus’ life, his death, and ours. On Good Friday we acknowledge the dark contradiction of death that is a part of our lives.[i] We explore the magnitude of the sacrifice that Jesus made, and we ponder the disturbing quandry that the Lord of life chose to die.
We move through those hours and the day that follows, that we now know as Holy Saturday, invited to meditate on the way in which the disciples experienced that , and that is no small challenge. We do it with the benefit of over two thousand years of reflection. They were confronted with the death of Jesus without the benefit of the Resurrection or the subsequent history of the church that lies between us and the cross.
It is that spiritual purpose that prompted the early church to memorialize the Via Dolorosa, or the “Way of Sorrows” in the city of Jerusalem. On that basis, the church around the world also observes the Stations of the Cross in their own sacred spaces. And it is the practice of praying the Stations that prompted the producer, Mel Gibson, to film “The Passion of the Christ.”[ii]
As controversial as the that movie and its producer may be, it participates in a mystical tradition of the church that is millennia old. Reflecting on the death of Jesus, Julian of Norwich observed,
And suddenly it came into my mind that I ought to wish for the second wound, that our Lord, of his gift and of his grace, would fill my body full with recollection and feeling of his blessed Passion, as I had prayed before, for I wished that his pains might be my pains, with compassion which would lead to longing for God. . . . And at this suddenly I saw the red blood trickling down from under the crown, all hot, flowing freely and copiously, a living stream, just as it seemed to me that it was at the time when the crown of thorns was thrust down upon his blessed head. . . . With this sight of his blessed Passion and with his divinity, I saw that this was strength enough for me, yes, and for all living creatures who will be protected from all the devils from hell and from all spiritual enemies.[iii]
So, in one way the richness of spiritual reflection on these words of Jesus as his last words cannot be discounted. They have fed and nurtured us. They have provided a window into the enormity of the sacrifice Jesus made on our behalf, and they have provided an opportunity to contemplate the challenges each of us face in coming to terms with our own mortality.
In another sense, however, the sentences on which we will be focusing are not really the last words of Jesus at all. The resurrected Jesus has a good deal more to say to Mary and his disciples after his crucifixion. He speaks to the women at the tomb[iv] and elsewhere.[v] He speaks to two of the disciples on the road to Emmaus[vi] and to all of them except for Thomas behind closed doors.[vii] Eight days later he speaks to all of them, including Thomas.[viii] Later, he takes them to task at a dinner,[ix] and he has subsequent conversations with his disciples, both in the mountains of Galilee[x] and on the shores of the Sear of Tiberias.[xi] On top of it all, according to the church, he continued to speak to a variety of others, including the Apostle Paul on the road to Damascus,[xii] and he still continues to speak to us.
There is nothing of that kind in the biographies of great women and men that I read as teenager, where last words really were the last to be spoken. But there is even more by way of beginnings at the end than this. Jesus does not just continue to speak. In an important sense the events and words of Good Friday are also the enactment of a new beginning. Regarding the events at the end of that day, Mark’s Gospel records that:
…Jesus uttered a loud cry, and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that he thus breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God.”[xiii]
In that brief paragraph, the Evangelist notes beginning after beginning. The fabric of the Temple is torn in two. The earth is exposed in a radically new way to the presence of God. Jesus is recognized as the Son of God. The saving order of things changes. God’s claims, embodied in the life and ministry of Jesus, are vindicated. And the stage is set for the work of God that is done in and through the church, bringing forgiveness, reconciliation, healing, and a new way of living and being. For a Gospel that began with the words, “The beginning of the Gospel,” there are a lot of beginnings at the end of the story.[xiv]
For the reader hoping to meditate on these stories, in search of fresh insight into the ways of God, or the “human condition”, there is more here than meets the eye. These are not just the artifacts of the past and the last words that Jesus uttered. There are better questions to ask than the ones I asked as I read the end of childhood biographies. The question is not just, “What did Jesus say or do in those last moments?”, but “What did Jesus start?”
For those looking for spiritual direction from these words, our attention is also drawn to what God is doing and enacting through the Son. When we ask questions about the will of God, our culture hardwires us to ask questions in the first person singular: “What is God’s will for me?” “What does God want me to do?” “What has God done for me?”[xv] But if – as the Evangelist clearly suggests – in these last-first words, God has started something much larger, addressing questions that implicate God and stretch across the millenia, then there is good reason to believe that our first-person orientation is wide of the mark. The prior and more important question is “What is God doing?”
Now some would argue that we cannot possibly read the words of Jesus in both ways. We must choose between reading them as a record of the past and as the initiation of the future. And, for many, if not most contemporary readers, the insistence is that we must read them as windows into the past, and only the past. Having begun my academic life as a student of the New Testament, I understand the logic of that argument.
Centuries of research has provided us with a window into the varied settings in which the Gospel was proclaimed, the issues to which the literature of the New Testament was addressed, and the subtleties that shaped the environment in which those books were written. With good reason, contemporary biblical scholarship has also emphasized the context in which words appear as a key to the task of interpretation.
That was certainly the conviction that shaped my own education in biblical studies. One of my professors was famous among his students for the acronym, CIE, “context is everything,” and “context” in most cases meant first the historical context; and then in the context of literature we were reading.[xvi] Focusing on context can shed light on passages that may be difficult to understand. It can keep us from reading our circumstances back into the biblical text, and it can provide us with a way of adjudicating multiple interpretations of a passage.
But granted the real advantages of that method, another and equally valid approach to Scripture holds that the content of the Bible represents a “God-breathed” word to us.[xvii] According to this second way of reading the Bible, Scripture is not just a collection of historical documents, it is a revelation, a window into the redemptive work of God.
Understood in this way, we are invited to read the biblical story from within, seeing it as a reliable invitation to learn what it is that God has done for us. We are invited to trust that gift, to receive it, and to let it change us. And, perhaps most daunting of all, we are invited not just to read the words of Scripture but let the words of Scripture read us.[xviii]
That approach to the Bible stood right alongside the acknowledgement of Scripture’s historical and literary contexts from the very beginning. Indeed, the church inherited that sensibility from Jewish interpreters of Scripture who read the Hebrew Bible on more than one level.
Read from that perspective, the words that are so often described as the last seven words of Jesus can also be read as the first seven words of Jesus, because they are the words of the Savior who is about to be resurrected and will ascend into heaven. To be sure, Christian theology has understood the birth of Christ as the inauguration of the Kingdom. But here in these last words that are also the first words of Jesus, that inaugural period comes to a close and the saving work of Jesus is set in place.
God’s claim to be God is vindicated. Jesus is resurrected and ascends. The church becomes the body of Christ on earth, and the inaugurated Kingdom spreads its influence to the four corners of the earth.
This way of reading Scripture is not at odds with historical readings of that day, but it does rescue those readings from a dead historicism that can only think of God’s work as something confined to the past. Instead, it leans heavily into the conviction that if God was at work in history, then God is at work in history. And, critically – for the contemporary reader, it affirms that if God was active in the lives of Mary and the Beloved Disciple, then God can be active in our lives as well.
What I am proposing, then, is that we recover the way in which the church read Scripture for roughly sixteen hundred years, as a trustworthy window into God’s redemptive love and work. Applied to the seven words of Jesus from the cross, this approach offers rich spiritual possibilities. From the historical point of view, we Christians are not reflecting on poetry that floats, disconnected from the past or history. We reflect on those seven words as words of enactment in history, with the potential to shape everything that follows, including our own lives. At the same time, because these are words that shape everything that follows, they are also windows into the redemptive work of God, work on which we depend and divine work to which we can respond.
Of course, this way of reading Scripture has obvious implications for the way in which we understand Jesus. Trapped, as he has been, in our historical approach to reading the biblical text, even the church tends to treat him, the things that he said, and the things that he did as strangely impotent. As a result Jesus ends up being little more an object of study or historical curiosity.
Without suggesting that such studies cannot be of value, clearly treating Jesus as an object of study alone, is far from adequate from a Christian point of view. If Jesus is reduced to an historical figure with a body of particular thoughts and convictions, there is little of life-changing character to justify lingering any longer on his words than those of anyone else.
By contrast, the approach that I take here suggests that he can and does still talk to us. He can and still confronts us (probably to our frustration!), and he can and still does draw us into his will for us (for which we can be thankful!).
But this is not just an “added benefit” to life “in Christ,” as Paul described it. This is the whole point of life “in Christ.” It is this approach that our worship presupposes. It is the approach that makes us vulnerable to his living presence as the One who not only enacted the realities described in what follows, but who continues to enact those realities in our own lives.
Alexander Schmemann trenchantly observes that secularism is not the obstacle to this experience. The church’s great enemy is the fact that we do not believe in the reality of what we preach. He is right. But elements of secularism – in particular, the pragmatic and materialist assumptions that govern it – have seduced us into living our faith in a way that breeds disaffection.
So, the apparent impotence of what we believe about the work of Christ that I cited above should not surprise us. Whether as an artifact of the past or simply an admirable model for behavior, a Jesus of that kind is incapable of changing us, never mind history.
If you are wondering how one gets there, I can tell you with confidence that it can’t be done by waiting for proof and certainty. Our unbelief cannot be wished away or talked away. It isn’t even enough to adopt alternative understandings of Jesus. That is why the church has lived into a “dead orthodoxy” so often.
It can only be surmounted through contemplation and an open, active willingness to live into the work that Christ longs to do in our lives.
Nor is seeing believing. To the contrary, as the apostle Thomas discovered seeing is the beginning of believing.[xix] It is openness and confidence that alerts us to the voice of Jesus, just as an appreciation of music alerts us to the talent of a jazz musician. It is about affinity, openness, the ability to hear.
For that reason, I hope you will do more than read these meditations, I hope you will pray with them. The beginnings are God’s gift to us. These are, after all, Christ’s first words to us, not just his last.
Gracious God, we hold your word to us at arm’s length —
out of habit, out of disposition, out of unbelief.
Forgive us, free us, that we might hear your word,
not as the last words of your Son,
but as first words, words of hope and re-creation.
[i] Cf. Henri Nouwen, Letter of Consolation (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1982): 75-76. For the full text of his reflection, see Nouwen’s words quoted later here.
[ii] The Passion of the Christ, Directed by Mel Gibson, Los Angeles: Newmarket Films, 2004.
[iii] Julian of Norwich, Showings , trans., Edmund Colledge and James Walsh, The Classics of Western Spirituality, Richard J. Payne, et al., eds. (Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1978):129.
[iv] Mt 26: 1-8, Mk 16.1-8, Lk 24:1-12, Jn 20:1-13.
[v] Mt 28:9-10, Mk 16:9-11; Lk 24:10-11, Jn 20:14-18.
[vi] Mk 16:12-13, Lk 24:13-35.
[vii] Lk 24:36-43 and Jn 20:19-23.
[viii] Jn 20:24-29.
[ix] Mk 16:14-18.
[x] Mt 28:16-20 and Mk 16:14-18.
[xi] Jn 21:1-14.
[xii] Acts 9:1-9.
[xiii] Mk 15:37-39.
[xiv] Cf. Mk 1:1.
[xv] This is a point that I was at pains to make some years ago and which my dear friend, Marcus Borg, helped to underline in its foreward: Cf. Frederick W. Schmidt, What God Wants for Your Life (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005).
[xvi] The words are those of Robert W. Lyon, mentor, friend and Professor of New Testament interpretation at Asbury Theological Seminary.
[xvii] 2 Ti 3: 16-17. The Greek here is theopneustos and appears only once in the Bible. I prefer the phrased “God-breathed” to the phrase, “divinely inspired”, because the latter suggests that the word is conceptual, rather than metaphorical and evocative. The result is that some scholars have been tempted to generate “theories” of inspiration, with all the attendant implications of such theories, pressing into a far more narrow space than I think the writer had in mind.
[xviii] This understanding of Scripture’s purpose is not original with me, but over the years it has become so much a part of my view of Scripture, that I can no longer remember where I was first introduced to the idea.
[xix] Cross reference article on Thomas.