Spirituality for Today – April 2014 – Volume 18, Issue 9

Reflections On The Last Words Of Christ On The Cross

Rev. Mark Connolly

A photo of a wooden cross in the sand against a vivid blue sky

Psalm 22
My God, My God, why have you forsaken me,
far from my prayer,
from the words of my cry?
O my God, I cry out by day,
and you answer not;
by night, and there is no relief for me.
Yet you are enthroned in the holy place,
O glory of Israel!
In you our fathers trusted;
they trusted,
and you delivered them.
To you they cried,
and they escaped;
in you they trusted,
and they were not put to shame.
But I am a worm,
not a man;
the scorn of men,
despised by the people.
All who see me scoff at me;
they mock me with parted lips;
they wag their heads:
"He relied on the Lord; let him deliver him,
let him rescue him, if he loves him."
You have been my guide
since I was first formed,
my security at my mother's breast.
To you I was committed at birth,
from my mothers womb you are my God.
Be not far from me,
for I am in distress; be near,
for I have no one to help me.

First Word

Father, forgive them for they know not what they do. (Luke 23,34)

Lesson: To teach us of God who went to his death carrying a cross rather than go throughout life carrying a grudge.

People who have been hurt many times try to get even, or pout, or sulk, or seek sympathy in some form or other. But with Christ it was different. His love for man was so intense that sulking or pouting, or grieving excessively had little influence in his conduct toward them. This love of Christ for man took its expression when he spoke his First Word from the Cross, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do." This forgiveness was offered to those present who had in any way taken part in the anatomy of a murder that was to be talked about for centuries. Forgiveness to the clever lawyers who wove the plot that brought him to bear a cross. Forgiveness to the authorities who were involved in duplicity and intrigue that saw him practically beaten to death. Forgiveness to those who spit on him, to the two High Priests who twisted the Scriptures to prove him blasphemous. Forgiveness to the teenage girl, the maid servant, who by the power of her words seduced one of his apostles to deny him. Forgiveness to the soldiers who were at that moment gambling for his garments. Forgiveness to the fickle who on Palm Sunday cried out, Hosanna to the Son of David, and were now crying out, Crucify Him.

This compassion of Christ for others, this willingness to forgive was not just the last display of a man who did not know what he was doing. This was not just a chance utterance that came to the lips of Christ. All throughout his public ministry Christ gave examples of forgiveness to others. He told his apostles that they must be willing to forgive no matter what was done to them. On one occasion Peter approached Christ and said to him, "Master, do you know what the Jewish law says about forgiveness? Do you know that it says we must be willing to forgive seven times a day?" Christ turned to Peter and said, "but Peter, the law that I am going to give to you is a more demanding one. You must be willing to forgive not only seven times a day, but seventy times seven times." In other words, there is to be no limit to the number of times you forgive those who hurt you. And it was this same apostle, Peter, who learned that Christ meant what he said. For after his denial of Christ, Peter received a glance of forgiveness from Christ. This forgiveness of Christ started Peter on the road to his own crucifixion and on the road to holiness.

Carrying a cross to Calvary was more compatible to Christ than carrying a grudge throughout life. Today we can unite ourselves in spirit with the God who died for us. Today we can become other Christs, offering absolution as Christ did from the Cross. All of us who have hurt Christ at some time in our lives have heard the consoling words of Christ in confession, I absolve you from your sins. Today Christ is asking you to become other Christs, who will repeat with Him the words, Forgive them for they know not what they do.

Second Word

Amen, Amen I say to you, this day thou shall be with me in Paradise. (Luke 23, 43)

Lesson: To teach us that the prayers we say for others might bring them to Paradise.

Often during the life of every priest, there comes a time in the confessional when he will hear the life story of a penitent who has been away from God for twenty or thirty years. When you ask him what prompted him to come to Church, what inspired him to go to confession, oftentimes he is unable to give an adequate and convincing answer. What is it that snaps a man out of his religious indifference? What prompts him to begin his search for God? The answer can only be given in the simple phrase, the power of prayer. All that you say to explain his desire for peace of soul is to attribute it to some member of his family or some friend who has been praying that he make a good confession. And his story is just a continuation of the life story of another man who was away from God for many years. His name is Dismas, the good thief.

Here was a man who had lived a life of sin for years. His practice of religion was negligible. His belief in God, up to the time of Good Friday, was little. For years he was accused of robbing and engaging in sinful and criminal practices. But within the space of a few hours this notorious criminal was given the gift of faith that was to change the whole course of his life. Before he met Christ he was a derelict and outcast of society. When he met Christ he became a convert and a saint.

The only thing that will explain this marvelous conversion is the power of prayer working in the soul of a sinner. This is the man in whose honor many of our prison chapels are named. And the whole idea is that just as Dismas was won back to Christ before he died, so those who are at this present moment enemies of Christ may have the hope that they will one day be won back to Christ. Dismas is the inspiration and the hope of every family that has its so-called "black sheep." He is a reminder to those who are in sorrow concerning the falling members of their family that God may give to them, as he did to Dismas, the grace of a good confession and the grace of a happy death.

Many times we are inclined to think that God has turned a deaf ear to us and that the walls of heaven are made of brass. No prayer goes unanswered. Each prayer is used for that which God thinks most beneficial to the soul, who is in need of them. Your prayers could have brought many people back to God whom you never met or knew. Your prayers can transform the hardened hearts of those in your own family or the family of friends who have become hardened and immune to the words and teachings of Christ. And one of the consoling points of this second word is that we know others are praying for us that Christ will one day say to us, "Amen, Amen I say to you, this day thou shall be with me in paradise."

Third Word

When, therefore, Jesus had seen his mother and the disciple standing whom he loved, he said to his mother; woman, behold thy son. After that the said to his disciple; behold thy mother and from that hour the disciple took her to his own. (John 19, 25-27)

Lesson: To teach us that he who goes throughout life ignoring the mother of God is imitating the conduct of Judas who knew Mary well, but tried to live without her.

Many people have often wondered why Christ did not address his first word from the cross to his mother. He spoke first to those who caused him to be placed on the cross and granted forgiveness. Then he spoke to a thief whom he scarcely knew and granted him paradise. Then he spoke to the mother who carried him in her womb, who nursed him as a child, who cared for him when he was lost and then gave her to us. One of the reasons given is that this third word, "woman, behold thy son", is the last word that Christ spoke to any human person before he died. Another reason given is that the next four words are all addressed to God, the Father. Whereas the first two words are addressed to God's creatures. The third word is that which signals Mary's rightful place in the mind of God, above all creatures and closest to God. Mary in this third word stands between both man and God.

On the first Good Friday, Mary, the mother of God, and John, his beloved apostle, became true godparents standing at the foot of the Cross to intercede for us before the Christ who was dying for us. Mary, on that day, was to experience the pangs of motherhood. At Bethlehem the miraculous birth of Christ brought no pain to her. But on Calvary Mary took upon herself the role of motherhood - her second motherhood in answer to her second Annunciation. Every suffering became hers. For she repeated the words she once spoke, "be it done unto me according to thy word." John, her faithful friend, the beloved apostle of Christ, stood with her as a representative who was to remind all men that just as they were given natural life through the womb of their mothers, so they are given supernatural life through the heart of Mary, the mother of God. But even with all this meticulous care taken by Christ in giving to the world a new mother and a new representative, Christ experienced a pain and anguish far greater than the crown of thorns that was stabbing his forehead, far more intense than the nails that were holding him to the cross. That pain and anguish was caused by the reception his mother and son would receive when they went into the world. For even on Calvary on that infamous Good Friday, men and women hovered around the cross insulting Christ and ignoring his mother. She was offered to the world and the world rejected her. She was offered to man, and man had no time for her.

There is a story that tells of the Mother of Judas meeting Mary on returning from Calvary. She pointed to the tree on which Judas was hanging and said, "look at what my son has done to yours." Mary, the mother of God, embraces the mother of Judas and says, pointing to the cross, "but look at why my son has done for us."

Fourth Word

My God! My God! Why hast thou forsaken me. (Mark 15, 34)

Lesson: To teach us that if we concentrate too much on the things of the world we might one day ask ourselves, "My God! My God! Why did I forsake you."

This is perhaps the most mysterious sentence that was ever uttered by Christ on Good Friday. Does it mean that the Son of God was abandoned by his father in heaven? No, it does not. Does it mean that Christ was so helpless that he lost confidence in himself? No, it does not. What it does mean is this - that the sins of the world had hurt Christ so much that they gave him the sensation of being abandoned by God. In other words, the number of men's sins had made him feel as if he were forsaken. Since his own soul was all pure and all innocence, it was impossible for him to be forsaken by his father in heaven. But since Christ willed to feel the effect of sin, a terrible period of loneliness crept over him, one that gave him an impression the same as if he were losing the protection of his father, one that gave him the sensation of loneliness without God.

The best way to understand this fourth word from the cross is to recall the notion that these words, "My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me", were part of a Jewish poem or psalm. Christ was reciting and repeating these words for the benefit of the Jewish people. Each one of them knew this verse, knew this psalm. So it had an added meaning when they heard it being recited from the cross. Almost 1000 years before this time, King David had written this psalm. It was as well known to every Jewish boy in much the same way that our pledge to the flag of our country is known to the boys and girls of today. The Jews knew that this psalm ended on a note of hope. And hearing these words coming from the lips of a man who was just about to die, they wondered if this could be the Messiah they were looking for and wondered if they had made the mistake of a lifetime in dealing with him the way they did. Their whole race hoped for a Messiah who would save them. And now they wondered if this man who was reciting this psalm of victory could have been the one intended to save them. And Christ continued speaking of the psalm and the Jewish people became panic stricken over the mistake that they made. The blindness of their hearts had prevented them from seeing the Christ, the Messiah, in the form of a human person. As close as they were to Christ during his public ministry, as attentive as they were to the miracles that he performed, they still failed to see him as the son of God. And Christ and his reciting of this psalm reminded them of the mistake they had made. "There shall be declared to the Lord a generation to come and the heavens shall show forth his justice to a people that shall be born which the Lord had made."

Unless we concentrate our thoughts and desires on the kingdom that Christ had gone to prepare for us, we will become blind to the meaning of the suffering of Christ on Good Friday. And because of our blindness, we might one day ask ourselves, My God! My God! Why did I forsake you.

Fifth Word

Afterwards, Jesus knowing that all things were now accomplished that the scriptures might be fulfilled said, I thirst. (John 19, 28)

Lesson: To teach us that the thirst of Christ will only be quenched when each one walks worthily of the vocation to which he has been called.

Usually when a sick person undergoes some serious operation he loses a quantity of blood. It produces a desert-like thirst that is sometimes more painful than the operation itself. Christ, for almost eighteen hours, was the victim of a group of men who delighted in seeing his precious blood wasted and squandered. They knew that he had shed blood in the Garden of Olives. They saw his blood pouring out when he was scourged and whipped. Traces appeared on the floor of Herod's Palace when he was brought to trial. And that loss of blood created a bodily craving that was summed up in the words, "I thirst."

But the last thing that Christ expected to receive from these men was a cool, refreshing glass of water. These men were sent to torture and crucify him, not to offer him help and sympathy. Christ knew this when he said, I thirst. The soldiers were well aware that if Christ were given a cool refreshing cup of water his death might have been hastened. Men who were sentenced to die by crucifixion experienced bodily changes that seemed to be aggravated by the drinking of water. It was for this reason as a refinement of cruelty that they habitually refused to give the condemned and dying man water to drink. Another reason for refusing him water to drink was that the thirst of those who were crucified was a horrible and painful one. And this is what the soldiers wanted from Christ - more pain and suffering.

Christ knew that the soldiers wanted to see him endure more suffering. And so when they took a reed and soaked it with vinegar and common wine it was done so with the intention of intensifying his agony. Christ expected no mercy or sympathy from them. He was not exclusively thirsting for the water which they could have given. His greater thirst was for the love and affection that they should have given.

We can safely say that Christ was not merely thirsting for water when he spoke from the cross. Christ's thirst was for the honor that was due him as God. Christ wanted men and women of all times to honor him in the vocation in which they were called. Christ's thirst was for men and women to walk worthily in the vocation in which they have been called. Men who are shipwrecked or stranded in the desert suffer terrible thirst, but these cannot compare with the sufferings of thirst that Christ experienced. That thirst will only be quenched when every man and woman falls in love with Christ. Unless they thirst for the things of God, the thirst of Christ will never be quenched.

Sixth Word

Jesus, therefore, when he had taken the sour wine said, "it is finished". (John 19, 30)

Lesson: To teach us that there is a reason for every tragedy that we meet in life and that in the plan of God there is no such thing as an accident.

From the last Good Friday until this present day, tragedies have hit the homes and families of many people. A teenage boy is killed by an automobile. A high school student dies of some unknown disease. A young man and young woman are involved in a traffic accident that takes their lives. These seem to be untimely. They seem to be so unnecessary. But in the plan of God there is no disease, no accident that takes place without his permission. And so when God decides that the life of a person is finished at 6 years or 60, there is no reason for doubting that God knows what he is doing.

All you have to do to verify this is to remember that Christ in the prime of his life was called back to his father in heaven. He was a humble hardworking carpenter who died in his thirties. He never left the eastern shores of the Mediterranean, never knew the grandeur of Greece, never wrote any books, had for his companions a few fishermen, was victimized by a crowd and sentenced to death by envious men. You might say that his life was finished before he had actually begun to live. This is the God whom we adore today.

But what does the expression, it is finished, mean? It means that physical sufferings of Christ are finished, that the physical sufferings of his mystical body are beginning. And we are the members of his mystical body, the Church. Christ on Calvary experienced a baptism of blood. We of this earth, who want to return to him, have to expect the same. There is no substitute for suffering. It is the ingredient of sanctity. And we are all called to be saints. Each one has a work to finish. You must be like Christ who on the day before he was stretched on a cross reminded his apostles, "I have finished the work which you, my father, have given me to do" (John 17:4). This is what you must say in your own lives and like Christ at the moment of your death, you have offered the sacrifices that came into your life, the work of childbearing, the role of mother and father that had been assigned to you has been a success, when you can say at the end of life, my work for God, like that of his son, is finished. I have filled up in my body those things that were lacking in the Passion of his Son.

Seventh Word

And Jesus, crying out with a loud voice, said, "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit." (Luke 23, 46)

Lesson: To teach us that perfect conformity to the Will of God brings us the peace of Christ amid suffering.

The first recorded word spoken by Christ as a teenager and the last recorded word spoken by Christ before he died have the same theme. When he was lost for a period of three days, his mother and foster father found him teaching in the Temple and reminded him of the anxiety they experienced at his loss. And all that Christ answered was, but did you now know that I was about the business of my father. This doing the business or the work of his father is the last theme that Christ invoked when he said, Father, into your hands I commend my spirit. From the first moments on the cross doing the will of his father in heaven was uppermost in his mind.

We can never forget that it was not the knowledge of Christ that saved us. It was his perfect submission and obedience. He became obedient, wherefore God has exalted him and given him a name which is above all other names. This obedience demanded hardship. But the willing endurance of this hardship brought peace. And it is the same road that we must follow if we want the same peace. Cardinal Newman once wrote that the longer we are in this world the more we come to realize that there are but two realities in life - man himself and the God who made him. As long as we resist the workings of God, as long as we refuse to conform our thinking with his, we will never be at peace with ourselves or with others. Conformity has for its reward peace of mind. There is no substitute.

There will never be peace for those who oppose the will of God. If you go throughout life thinking that God has a grudge or an axe to grind because of something you have done, you are missing the opportunity of a lifetime. Suffering and conformity were never intended to be easy. Even Christ at one time asked the chalice of suffering to be taken from him. Yet, he knew that the will of his father remained to be done. Our lives have to be made mindful of the fact that all we have is from God, all that we do is for God and everything we say or do should lead us to God. Doing the will of God in the commandments, the circumstances of your life, the conditions of your home, these are all in the plan of God. The greatest thing that can be said about you after death is that while living you were always ready to commend your soul back to God.