Today’s meditation reflects on the sixth of the Last Seven Words of Jesus. 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. This is the second of eight meditations.
Eschatology is the study of the end, of final things. It is as old as any other part of Christian theology, and it lies at the center of Christian doctrine.
But eschatology has become a trite, comic-book-like-thing at the hands of modern authors — a haunt for conspiracy theorists, crackpots, and people who are more anxious to learn who’s going to hell than anything else. The Left Behind series,[i] and before it, Hal Lindsey’s Late, Great Planet Earth,[ii] left people guessing who might be the anti-Christ and what the last of the signs of the end might be. For that reason, it might seem strange to claim that these are eschatological words, or that when Jesus says, “It is finished,” he is saying something not just about the moment, but about the future.
But these are, in fact, the most important eschatological words in the whole of Scripture, declaring not just how history has changed, but about where history is going. But to see that requires close attention to a handful of words:
“It is finished.”
Not “I” am finished. “It” is finished.
Not “done in,” “exhausted,” “spent” or “finished off.”
“Finished” — as in “completed,” “accomplished,” “fulfilled.”
What is accomplished here is the act that will spell the end of death’s claim on our lives, the performative words that capture the depth of God’s love for us. The living, healing purpose of life finally made possible.
Here, in three words Jesus announces the turning point in history that matters most. The place from which, going forward everything takes its meaning. History is not a long road into oblivion. It is not an endless cycle of death and decay. Our lives are not meaningless gestures in space.
“It” is finished…the bridge has been built and the way has been made. All that remains to happen is the vindication of Easter.
The eschatological message of Christianity, then, is not about something we are waiting for. Nor is it about sorting out when or where the world might end. It is about how we are meant to live — now.
Yet, it is rare that Christians live as if they knew this, in large part, because we don’t take death seriously. I am not talking about morbid preoccupation with death or fear-fraught obsession. But I am talking about the candid, clear-eyed contemplation of the fact that our lives do end and the inevitable questions that arise if we face that fact squarely and contemplate its significance.
Take, for example, when these seven words are read as part of a Good Friday liturgy. Its observance is largely confined to Episcopal and Roman churches. Even in those traditions an ever-smaller number of parishes observe this ritual and ever-smaller numbers of people attend them.
The complaints you hear typically have nothing to do with the length of the service, particularly since people are able to come and go as they please. The complaints revolve, instead, around what a “downer” the whole business of contemplating the suffering of Christ can be.
And therein lies our failure to appropriate the renewed life that this day of prayer offers us. We run from the death of Christ in the same way that we run from our own deaths and because we do, we run from the promise and transformation it can offer.
The really difficult challenge here is that if you are running headlong into life — and, therefore, headlong into your death — but you are unwilling to acknowledge the latter, then the words, “It is finished,” have nothing to offer you. If, on the other hand, you stop to ask yourself what the death of Jesus says to you about your own death, then everything changes.
We are no longer alone. We have a companion, who has been there, and who understands the fear and loss that death holds for us. We no longer face our death as powerless victims. The one who is our companion on this journey masters death but entering into it. Death itself is transformed. Death is no longer “just natural,” but neither is it “all powerful.” Its power is forever broken. And, against the backdrop of a world in which he has spoken the words, “It is finished,” we can learn to live for God with courage and resolve. We can pray with Thomas Merton:
“MY LORD GOD, I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”[iii]
“It is finished.”
In the certainty of that declaration,
Prompt us to live with new freedom,
Unfettered by fear,
Renewed in courage,
Confident that the last enemy
Has been subverted from within,
And robbed of its control.
[i] The Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins consists of 12 novels, now available as a set and is published by Tyndale Press. LaHaye is a dispensationalist and the novels function as a fictional vehicle for LaHaye’s theology. Using them in this fashion, LaHaye has played with the boundaries between fiction and theological conviction, arguing that they are – on the one hand – just a story, and at the same time arguing – but it could happen this way. Like other dispensationalists, LaHaye reads the Book of Revelation and other parts of Scripture as if they are a roadmap to our own future. On the problems with that approach to the visionary or apocalyptic literature of the Bible, see: Frederick W. Schmidt, Conversations with Scripture: Revelation, Conversations with Scripture, ed., Frederick W. Schmidt (Harrisburg: Morehouse Press, 2005):
[ii] Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1970) wed his notes on dispensationalist theology with speculation about the news events of the day. Wildly popular, it went through multiple editions and sold millions of copies. The problems with his approach are the same identified above, in note 29.
[iii] The prayer, adapted from Thomas Merton’s Thoughts in Solitude, Reflections on the Spiritual Life and the Love of Solitude (New York: Image Books, 1958): 81, appears in Suazanne G. Farnham, et al., Listening Hearst, Discerning Call in Community (rev. ed.; Harrisburg: Morehouse Publishing, 1991): 147.