Meditation Notes for the Seven Last Words, April 14, 2003

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Sebastian Church, Providence, RI
Priestly Day of Recollection
April 14, 2003

• At the beginning of this Lent, on Ash Wednesday and then again on the first Sunday of Lent, we listened to Jesus’ first homily, all 19 words of it, when he appeared in Galilee and said, ““The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

• Today as we near the culmination of this preparatory and penitential season, we will meditate on the Lord’s last homily, when he mounted the pulpit for the last time, and said seven words, seven expressions.

• Faith comes from hearing, so we will listen attentively to the Lord, to what poured forth from his heart as he heart was about to beat its last. As most of us know, crucifixion victims were nailed to the Cross with their arms stretched back in such a way that in order to breath, they would have to push up with legs in order to open up their diaphragm enough to inhale. When you had huge nails through the nerves of your feet, doing so would have been excruciatingly painful. Since we talk during exhalation, in order to say anything, Jesus would have had to have made extra effort. He not only was suffering, therefore, while he said these words, but he was suffering in order to say these words.

• Today let’s listen to the words, to get to know the thoughts of the Lord at his supreme hour, so that we might get to know the Lord himself better. Then, since he has called all of us to follow him all the way — picking up our Cross each day — first as disciples, then as priest-victims, we will ask him to help us to “put on the mind of Christ,” to make those last dying words our own.

1) “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” (Lk 23:24)

• Jesus said these first words as his executioners, the coarse Roman soldiers began to hammer him to his pulpit. They stretched out his arms, which so often would have been extended in prayer or in animated gesticulations during his sermons, and drove nails through his wrists. They then took his feet — the feet that had been washed and kissed by the woman from whom Jesus had driven out seven demons, the feet which had taken the greatest news ever up and down Judea, Samaria and Galilee — and drove a 5-7 inch nail through the tree. The likely 195 or more lacerations on his back would have been reopened as they stripped off his tunic and then would have irritated beyond belief as those wounds rubbed up and down against the grating uneven would of the vertical stipe.

• In the midst of all of this agony, Jesus didn’t cry out in pain, as likely the two thieves were doing at that instant. Instead he who had told everyone else to “love your enemies,” and to “do good to those who persecute and hate you,” cried out instead to His Father, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do!” This mercy in the midst of agony shows the depth and real meaning of divine love, which is always a merciful love. This merciful, or hesed love, was the greatest good that ever could have been done to those who were persecuting and hammering him at that moment.

• The last words of men who are being executed by capital punishment either insist on their innocence, condemn those who brought them to justice and sentenced them, or ask for forgiveness for their sins. But Jesus, condemned to a shameful death, asked the Father to pardon those who were doing him wrong. Jesus was not only asking the Father to pardon the soldiers who were manhandling him, he wasn’t only asking him to forgive Pilate, and Herod, and the fickle crowds who were clamoring “Crucify Him!” and “Give us Barabbas!” five days after they had shouted “Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord!,” but all of those who were responsible for his death, in other words, you and me and all sinners. “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing!”

• Echoes of this first word have been heard throughout the centuries. St. Stephen used the same words as he was being stoned in the presence of Saul. St. Thomas More forgave and encouraged his gaoler. Two weeks ago, Sr. Philomena, an Irish Sister who taught at Espirito Santo in the 1970s and who had been kidnapped by a 25 year old in Georgia who had just killed his father and robbed the sisters’ car for his getaway, was heard to say it as she was being dragged by her 25 year old kidnapper.

• “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” Love shows itself in mercy. It’s easy to love others when they love us, when they’re lovable. But it’s difficult, sometimes heroically difficult, when they’re not easy to love, when others really hurt us. But the Lord in his first word on the Cross preaches to us the necessity of this forgiveness. “Father, forgive them!” Every Our Father we pray, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who have trespassed against us.” Jesus forgave us as our sins were killing him on the Cross. And compared to that mercy, those ten talents that have been remitted, everything we need to forgive others is smaller than a few denarii. As disciples first, as we come before the altar of the Cross, we’re called to examine whether our brother has anything against us and, if so, to leave our gift before the altar, go reconcile with our brother, and then return to offer our gift.

• As priests, we are called to be icons of this merciful love of the Lord, preaching by our own words and by our own reactions Jesus’ own mortified, dying thoughts, “Father, Forgive them for they know not what they do.” Of course, we share in the extension of this forgiveness in the Sacrament of Penance, but in order to be effective apostles of that Sacrament, we have to be men who live these words of Christ, who don’t hold grudges, who don’t scare people away from the sacrament by our own palpable lack of forgiveness for those parishioners, or priests or prelates who have wronged us. In the involuntary crosses the Lord sends us each day in our priestly work through those who “sanctify” rather than “mortify” us, we’re called to die to ourselves on those Crosses with these sentiments on our lips.

2) “I tell you this today: you shall be with me in Paradise.” (Lk 23:43)

• In his second word, as Jesus continued to bleed from the Cross, Jesus puts into practice this mission of the forgiveness of sins through the new and eternal covenant in that same blood. When the Good Thief turned to him and asked him with faith to remember him when he came into his kingdom, the Lord replied with words he wishes to say to every believer, “Today I tell you: you will be with me in Paradise.”

• The context of this dialogue was unforgettable. Jesus had said in St. Matthew’s Gospel, that when he came in his kingdom, surrounded by the hosts of heaven, he would sit upon his glorious throne, all nations would be separated before him, and he would separate them as a shepherd separates sheep from goats. Those who are saved, those who cared for him while he appeared under various disguises, would hear the words for which human ears are formed in the wombs of their mothers, “Come, O you blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you since the beginning of the world.” Those who are condemned, those who failed to care for him when he was sick, naked, hungry, thirsty, in prison or a stranger, would hear, “Depart from me, you accursed, into the everlasting fire!”

• This scene plays itself out when he mounted his glorious throne upon entering into his kingdom. The one on his left, who saw the Lord there personally suffering, mocked Jesus out of selfish interest, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” The one on his right, who, despite his own physical sufferings and the difficulty there would have been to enunciate anything, did not think of himself, but seeing Jesus there naked, hungry, thirst, sick and imprisoned to the Cross, did his one deed that brought him salvation, rebuking his fellow thief and saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Jesus did not give us an exhaustive list of charitable deeds, but said that any action done out of love for another he would take personally. And he turned to the good thief and promised to take him personally to heaven with him.

• Sheen: “A dying man asked a dying man for eternal life; a man without possessions asked a poor man for a Kingdom; a thief at the door of death asked to die like a thief and steal Paradise.”

• The first person promised the kingdom was not a saint, but a sinner, purchased with Jesus’ own currency of blood.

• It was the thief’s last prayer, and perhaps even the first. He asked, and he received. He knocked once and the door to heaven was immediately opened. He sought and was found. Heaven rejoiced more for that one repentant sinner than for 99 who didn’t need to repent and that repentant thief would soon share in that celebration.

• 12th Station, Way of the Cross: “Many times have I repeated that verse of the Eucharistic hymn: Peto quod petivit latro poenitens, and it always fills me with emotion: to ask like the penitent thief did! He recognised that he himself deserved that awful punishment… And with a word he stole Christ ‘s heart and opened up for himself the gates of heaven.”

• In our work as priests, we have the incredible privilege to be at the bedside of many who are dying, including those who have been distanced from the Church for quite some time, when the Anointed One, in his love and mercy, uses us to anoint them, to save them and raise them up. What a consolation in those times is the Crucifix shown to them, especially to those who are agonizing over the mistakes and sins of their lives almost to the point of despairing for their salvation. The reminder of the good thief, stealing life at the end, by one deed of love for the Lord, fills them with great hope. The Lord spoke this word from the Cross not just to the repentant thief, but to all those who in dying turn to him with repentant and prayerful hearts. Of course, some of us die suddenly, without the opportunity to form these words on our dying lips. That is why the Lord, out of love, in teaching us how to pray, put on our living lips, “Thy kingdom come!,” directed toward the Father, rich in mercy, whom he beseeches to forgive us for we know not what we do when we sin.

3) “Woman, behold thy son.” “Behold thy mother.” (Jn 19:26-27)

• “Having love those who were his own in the world, Jesus loved them to the end.” In the first two parts of his last homily, Jesus showed his love for all sinners in general and then for repentant sinners in particular. In his third word, Jesus shows his love to the end for saints.

• Jesus had come from heaven to earth to found a new family. He described what constituted that family when someone said that his mother and relatives were standing outside where Jesus was. Jesus responded, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.” In every family, there is a Father and a mother. God the Eternal Father of the only begotten Son was that Father. For those who become members of the body of the Son, they become God’s own children. Moved by the Holy Spirit, they call out “Abba, Father!,” and “Our Father, who art in heaven!” Jesus will have more to say this incredible gift of divine filiation in his last word. For now, Jesus turns to his mother. “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.” Mary heard the Word of God and kept and treasured it so much that the Word literally took her flesh and dwelled in her among us. Just as she by her yes in Nazareth three and a half decades earlier had become the mother of God by giving the Lord his human body, so she she would at the foot of the Cross would now become the mother of that Son’s mystical body.

• As she beheld the Son to whom she had given her flesh now pinned to the Cross and dripping the blood she had bequeathed to him, that same Son motioned to his beloved disciple and pointed him out as her Son. Jesus in the second word had shown the principle that any good deed of love even of a great sinner done for another he would take personally, so now he turns to his mother and beckons her to love us as she loved him, with the same maternal, immaculate faithful love. That mother who was faithful to our son until death will be faithful to us until death. And so that we might become other Christ’s, the Lord knew we needed more than a magistra, but a mater. And so turning to his beloved disciple, he did not call him John, because he was referring not just to him but to every beloved disciple down through time — including you right now — he says, “behold thy mother.”

• Jesus called her “woman,” because, as we read in the book of Genesis, she was to be the “mother of all the living.” God had already put enmity between her, the woman, and the serpent, and in the formation of the new family of God as the new Eve was about to be born from pierced side of a sleeping New Adam, she, who had given that new Adam his human body, would become the model and exemplar of the Bride who will be one united in one flesh with him.

• Mary had laid her first born in the manger. Now she would gather all her subsequent children “according to the Spirit” under the Cross. She would teach them how to be faithful, she would teach them how to pray, she would teach them how to be receptive to the Holy Spirit, she would teach them to say “fiat!” She does this still.

• Way 506: The Virgin of Sorrows. When you contemplate her, look into her Heart; she is a Mother with two sons, face to face: He… and you.

• Way 507: The humility of my holy Mother Mary! She is not to be seen amid the palms of Jerusalem, nor at the hour of the great miracles — except at that first one at Cana. But she doesn’t escape from the contempt at Golgotha; there she stands, juxta crucem Jesu, the Mother of Jesus, beside his Cross.

• Way 508: Marvel at Mary’s courage: at the foot of the Cross, with the greatest of human sorrows — there is no sorrow like her sorrow — filled with fortitude. And ask her for that same strength, so that you too can remain beside the Cross.

• Way 144: The spotless purity of John’s whole life makes him strong before the Cross. The other apostles fly from Golgotha: he, with the Mother of Christ, remains. Don’t forget that purity strengthens and invigorates the character.

• JP II, 4/13/03: “Ecco la tua madre!” (Gv 19,27). Accettando questo testamento d’amore, Giovanni aprì a Maria la sua casa (cfr Gv 19,27), l’accolse cioè nella sua vita, condividendo con Lei una vicinanza spirituale completamente nuova. L’intimo legame con la Madre del Signore porterà il “discepolo amato” a diventare l’apostolo di quell’Amore che egli aveva attinto dal Cuore di Cristo attraverso il Cuore immacolato di Maria. 5. “Ecco la tua madre!” Gesù rivolge queste parole a ciascuno di voi, cari amici. Anche a voi chiede di prendere Maria come madre “nella vostra casa”, di accoglierla “tra i vostri beni”, perché “è Lei che, svolgendo il suo ministero materno, vi educa e vi modella fino a che Cristo non sia formato in voi pienamente” Maria faccia sì che rispondiate generosamente alla chiamata del Signore, e perseveriate con gioia e fedeltà nella missione cristiana!

• JP II, 3/8: At the foot of the Cross on which was dying the One whom she had conceived at the moment of her “yes” at the Annunciation, Mary received, as it were, a “second annunciation”: “Woman, behold, your son!” (Jn 19,26).

• JP II, 3/8: Know that in difficult times, which everyone experiences, you are not alone: like John at the foot of the Cross, Jesus also gives his Mother to you so that she will comfort you with her tenderness.

4) “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt 27:46)

• Moment of extreme agony. Suffering passed from his body to his soul. Jesus could have prayed this silently, but he wanted it to be heard by others. Was Jesus feeling completely abandoned? It is possible. But it could be Jesus was citing this Psalm 22 because of all that it describes about his passion, or even because of its manifestation of trust of the Lord in the end and new life, “I shall live for him.”

• Jesus suffered every sort of temptation we suffer, but never sinned. He likely underwent this spiritual suffering, which was far worse than his physical agony. This was not despair, because despairing never prays to God. He can relate to us even here, even when we undergo the dark night. But like the great saints after him, he continued to trust in the Lord.

• “My God” instead of “Father” or “Abba.”

• There are times in our priesthood when we can feel all alone, when we can feel like the only Catholic in our rectory, or our parish, or our diocese. We can suffer for fidelity from those sometimes even closest to us. Our prayer can be drier than Jesus’ throat on the Cross. Jesus shows us to trust in the Lord to the end. “You who fear the Lord, praise him!” This is a question, not a doubt, like Mary’s question to the Angel Gabriel, not Zechariah’s.

• Psalm 22:1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? 2 O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest. 3 Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. 4 In you our ancestors trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them. 5 To you they cried, and were saved; in you they trusted, and were not put to shame. 6 But I am a worm, and not human; scorned by others, and despised by the people. 7 All who see me mock at me; they make mouths at me, they shake their heads; 8 “Commit your cause to the LORD; let him deliver — let him rescue the one in whom he delights!” 9 Yet it was you who took me from the womb; you kept me safe on my mother’s breast. 10 On you I was cast from my birth, and since my mother bore me you have been my God. 11 Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help. 12 Many bulls encircle me, strong bulls of Bashan surround me; 13 they open wide their mouths at me, like a ravening and roaring lion. 14 I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast; 15 my mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death. 16 For dogs are all around me; a company of evildoers encircles me. My hands and feet have shriveled; 17 I can count all my bones. They stare and gloat over me; 18 they divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots. 19 But you, O LORD, do not be far away! O my help, come quickly to my aid! 20 Deliver my soul from the sword, my life from the power of the dog! 21 Save me from the mouth of the lion! From the horns of the wild oxen you have rescued me. 22 I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you: 23 You who fear the LORD, praise him! All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him; stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel! 24 For he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him. 25 From you comes my praise in the great congregation; my vows I will pay before those who fear him. 26 The poor shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the LORD. May your hearts live forever! 27 All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him. 28 For dominion belongs to the LORD, and he rules over the nations. 29 To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, and I shall live for him. 30 Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord, 31 and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it.

• Way of Cross 12: “You too some day may feel the loneliness of Our Lord on the Cross. If so, seek the support of him who died and rose again. Find yourself a shelter in the wounds in his hands, in his feet, in his side. And your willingness to start again will revive, and you will take up your journey again with greater determination and effectiveness.”

5) “I thirst” (John 19:28 )

• The tremendous loss of blood through Jesus’ five wounds, 195+ scourge marks, the crown of thorns, the exposure to air, the tremendous amount of work just to breath, would have produced an extreme physical thirst. But Jesus who had suffered so much up to this point without a cry enunciated this need. He who formed the waters on the second day of creation, who had said to the woman at the well that he would give her a spring of living water welling up within her to eternal life, now said, “I thirst!”

• Earlier he had rejected the anaesthetic sedative of wine mixed with myrrh. Now he asked for a drink and they used a hyssop branch to present him a sponge soaked with sour wine. Why did he ask now? St. John says, “When Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), ‘I am thirsty.’” This was a continuation of Psalm 22:15: “My mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death.” Hyssop was the same branch that dipped in the blood of the Paschal lamb to sprinkle the lintles and posts of the Jews in Egypt.

• Dives, the Rich Man in the parable with Lazarus, thirsted in hell and begged Abraham to send Lazarus to dip his finger in water to bring him some comfort. Jesus now shared in that thirst of the damned before they are damned.

• It was also a thirst for souls. Just like he said to the Samaritan woman, “Give me to drink,” so he says to all “I thirst.” He wants to exchange with us the living water.

• What do we give to his thirst? Vinegar and gall? The Lord asks us to give him something to drink. He also asks us to share his thirst.

• Friends of God 202: “Jesus hungers, he thirsts for souls. On the Cross he cried out Sitio!, ‘I thirst’. He thirsts for us, for our love, for our souls and for all the souls we ought to be bringing to him, along the way of the Cross which is the way to immortality and heavenly glory.”

6) “It is consummated.” (Jn 19:30)

• All of Jesus’ mission was consummated. This is not so much a throwing in the towel as a triunphal statement, in the midst of tremendous agony, “Mission accomplished.” This was in many ways the consummation of his marriage with his bride, in which he said, “This is my body given for you!” He had faithfully achieved what the Father had sent him to do, the completion of his messianic work.

• He had also fulfilled all of the prophecies to the letter. Bishop Sheen: “There was not a historic foretelling — from Abraham who offered in sacrifice his son, to Jonah who was in the belly of the whale for three days — which was not in Him fulfilled. The prophecy of Zechariah that He should make entrance into Jerusalem on an ass in humility; the prophecy of David that He should be betrayed by one of His own familiars; the propecy of Zechariah that He should be sold for thirty pieces of silver, and that this price should afterwards be used to buy a field of blood; the prophecy of Isaiah that He would be barbarously treated, scourged, and put to death; the prophecy of Isaiah that He would be crucified between two malefactors, and that He would pray for His enemies; the prophecies of David that they would give Him vinegar to drink and divide His garments among them, that He would be a prophet like Moses, a priest like Melchisedech, a Lamb to be slain, a scapegoat driven out of the city, that He would be wiser than Solomon, more kingly than David, and that He should be the One to Whom Abraham and Moses looked in prophecy — all these wonderful heiroglyphics would have been left unexplained, had not the Son of God Incarnate on His Cross looked back on all the sheep and goats and bullocks who were offered in sacrifice and said: ‘It is achieved.’”

• His work, the redemption of our body, is not yet finished. We have not yet achieved what he wants to give us. And our mission in this world has not yet come to its end. Time to continue.

7) “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit” (Lk 23:46)

• Jesus turns back, and his very last words were of tremendous trust and confidence in His Father. To give out a loud cry would have been incredibly jarring, but he did it anyway. His last words were to his Father. Sheen: His garments are consigned to his executioners, his blood to the earth, his body to the grave, his mother to John and His soul to His heavenly Father. He entrusted all he had left to his Father in heaven. This was the prayer that Jewish young people were taught to pray before they went to bed. It is still the prayer that all of us and all others who pray the liturgy of the hours pray each night before we go to bed. Tremendous confidence and his hope and his trust were not let down. Neither will ours.

• Jesus was quoting from Psalm 31:1 In you, O LORD, I seek refuge; do not let me ever be put to shame; in your righteousness deliver me. 2 Incline your ear to me; rescue me speedily. Be a rock of refuge for me, a strong fortress to save me. 3 You are indeed my rock and my fortress; for your name’s sake lead me and guide me, 4 take me out of the net that is hidden for me, for you are my refuge. 5 Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O LORD, faithful God. 6 You hate those who pay regard to worthless idols, but I trust in the LORD. 7 I will exult and rejoice in your steadfast love, because you have seen my affliction; you have taken heed of my adversities, 8 and have not delivered me into the hand of the enemy; you have set my feet in a broad place. 9 Be gracious to me, O LORD, for I am in distress; my eye wastes away from grief, my soul and body also. 10 For my life is spent with sorrow, and my years with sighing; my strength fails because of my misery, and my bones waste away. 11 I am the scorn of all my adversaries, a horror to my neighbors, an object of dread to my acquaintances; those who see me in the street flee from me. 12 I have passed out of mind like one who is dead; I have become like a broken vessel. 13 For I hear the whispering of many — terror all around! — as they scheme together against me, as they plot to take my life. 14 But I trust in you, O LORD; I say, “You are my God.” 15 My times are in your hand; deliver me from the hand of my enemies and persecutors. 16 Let your face shine upon your servant; save me in your steadfast love. 17 Do not let me be put to shame, O LORD, for I call on you; let the wicked be put to shame; let them go dumbfounded to Sheol. 18 Let the lying lips be stilled that speak insolently against the righteous with pride and contempt. 19 O how abundant is your goodness that you have laid up for those who fear you, and accomplished for those who take refuge in you, in the sight of everyone! 20 In the shelter of your presence you hide them from human plots; you hold them safe under your shelter from contentious tongues. 21 Blessed be the LORD, for he has wondrously shown his steadfast love to me when I was beset as a city under siege. 22 I had said in my alarm, “I am driven far from your sight.” But you heard my supplications when I cried out to you for help. 23 Love the LORD, all you his saints. The LORD preserves the faithful, but abundantly repays the one who acts haughtily. 24 Be strong, and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the LORD.

• Jesus was proclaiming his love for the Lord and inspiring us likewise to be strong and let our hearts take courage, those of us who are waiting for him.

• Way 95: ‘In te, Domine, speravi: in thee, Lord, have I hoped.’ And, with my human resources, I threw my prayer and my cross into the balance. And my hope was not vain, nor ever will be: ‘Non confundar in aeternum! I shall never be disappointed!’

• Friends of God 240: “ Later, nailed to the Cross, alone, with his arms opened wide in a gesture of an eternal priest, he continues his dialogue with his Father, ‘Into thy hands I commend my spirit.’”