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“THE FINAL WORDS of a dying person are precious to those left behind. When time is short, one has a chance to speak only of the most important things – love, forgiveness, faith. The last words are often the summation of a life, cherished and pondered long after the loved one has died. The final testament of a human life can be known in these words. That is why the church has a long tradition of meditating on the last words of Jesus from the cross.” (Alice Camille)
The Seven Last Words of Jesus are gathered from all four gospels. The ordering of the Seven Last Words have been standardized over the centuries.
FIRST WORD: “FATHER FORGIVE THEM FOR THEY KNOW NOT WHAT THEY ARE DOING.”
A friend has betrayed him. His own religious leaders have handed him over to the enemy, and he has been condemned to death. One of his closest companions has denied he even knows him. His longtime disciples have deserted him. Strangers drive nails into his body, and crowds who do not care about his love or his Father are making a joke of his suffering.
And Jesus forgives them all. Forgives Judas and the High Priest and Pilate and Peter. He forgives the followers who had no courage, the soldiers who perform the crucifixion, and the people who seek to humiliate him in the very act of their ridicule. Jesus does not wait for them to say they are sorry, to come to him with contrition, to prove they have changed. He asks his Father’s forgiveness for them even as they are putting him to death, even though no one shows a hint of remorse.
Why forgive? Because, according to Jesus they do not know what they are doing. In other words, they are spiritually asleep. If we and those around us were more spiritually awake, there would be a lot less pain caused by nasty words and deeds in our world.
SECOND WORD: “AMEN, I SAY TO YOU, TODAY YOU WILL BE WITH ME IN PARADISE.” Lk 23:43
The good thief’s (later to be named, Dismas) act of contrition is the most famous deathbed conversion in Christian history. Both the first and second word of Jesus from the cross demonstrates powerfully for us that the Christian God is unbelievably merciful. In this instant, a man who may have spent years doing terrible things is suddenly promised Paradise. We may say that is doesn’t seem fair. But, we are not talking about fairness here. We are talking about mercy. If ever we have doubts about God’s mercy, we should recall this scene in Luke’s gospel.
THIRD WORD: “WOMAN, BEHOLD YOUR SON. SON, BEHOLD YOUR MOTHER.” Jn. 19:26
At the miracle of Cana, when Mary asked Jesus to help out the young couple, he said to her: “Woman, my hour has not yet come”. Now “his hour” has come, the hour of his dying, his hour of passing from this world to the next. This is also the hour when a mother, who is also a widow, is to lose her only son.
This last word of Jesus has been interpreted literally (Jesus’ concern for his mother’s welfare) and symbolically (Jesus designates his mother as the mother of all believers, mother of the church - represented here by John, the beloved disciple.) John could also represent all those seeking salvation. On a pastoral level, this scene should be comforting to every parent who has lost a child.
FOURTH WORD: “MY GOD, MY GOD, WHY HAVE YOU FORSAKEN ME.” Mt 27:46, Mk 15:34
Commenting on this word of Jesus, Thomas Aquinas wrote that “God abandoned Christ in death inasmuch as he exposed him to the power of his persecutors. He withdrew his protections, but maintained his union”. If Jesus’ cry of abandonment meant that he had lost faith in God, there would be no reason to celebrate this day as Good Friday. “Why would anyone seek to unite themselves to the suffering Christ if the suffering Christ were at the same time the despairing Christ?” (Romanus Cessario O.P).
Commenting on this last of Jesus’ words, the late Basil Hume (Cardinal of London) says: “That emptiness when God is not in our lives (or so it seems) is a terrible pain. We just feel empty. The sense of being abandoned by God is the most crucifying of all pains; it is the end of hope, it is the way to despair and to nothingness. To speak of God’s love for us at such moments seems meaningless. It only adds to the pain. If we know that God is with us, there is much that we can endure, for pain and sorrow will pass, and joy and peace will return. But if there is no God . . . or if we sense that we have been rejected . . . that is a crushing burden, too much for the human spirit to endure. We can only pray, “My God, my God, why have you deserted me?”
In times of doubt, desolation or when we feel abandoned by God, we should consider holding a cross in our hands, meditating on this fourth word of Jesus from the cross.
FIFTH WORD: “I THIRST” Jn 19:28
While Jesus most surely experienced physical thirst on the cross, the much deeper thirst was his thirst for the salvation of souls. In Jn 10:11, Jesus says: “I am the good shepherd. A good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.” In turn, Jesus longs for our response of love. “God thirsts for man’s love, and that thirst can only be satisfied when we have begun to thirst and hunger for him” (Basil Hume O.S.B.). We are very blessed when we feel a yearning for intimacy with God in our hearts.
SIXTH WORD: “IT IS FINISHED” Jn 19:30
What is finished? The work or mission that the Father gave him to do. “I glorified you on earth by finishing the work you gave me to do (Jn 17:4). Jesus finished his mission of defeating evil and sin. “The great Christian story tells us that when Jesus says, It is finished, he is not saying that he is finished, or that anything is lost in his dying. In fact, the opposite is true. So much is begun on the cross, and so much is gained, that these words about endings are entirely about triumph and not at all about defeat” (Alice Camille). Jesus has finished his work of self-emptying, his work of obedience to the Father’s will, his work of laying down his life for others.
SEVENTH WORD: “FATHER, INTO YOUR HANDS I COMMEND MY SPIRIT.” Lk 23:46
In this final word of Jesus, we have the final act of surrender, the final letting go. In the dying process, when people seem to be holding on, loved ones sometimes tell them that it is okay to let go. But letting go is not easy, especially if we have lived a life of holding on, a life in which we tried to control things. If we practice letting go in the everyday events of life, we will be in a much better chance of peacefully letting go to God when death comes knocking at our door. Praying on this final word of Jesus on the cross the late Fr. Karl Rahner S.J. writes:
“I embrace Your cross, Lord of eternal love, heart of all hearts, heart that was pierced, heart that is patient and unspeakably kind. Have mercy on me. Receive me into Your love. And when I come to the end of my pilgrimage, when the day begins to decline and the shadows of death surround me, speak Your last word at the end of my life also: “Father, into Your hands I commend his spirit.” O good Jesus. Amen.”
The secret of my ministry is in that crucifix you see opposite my bed. It’s there so that I can see it in my first waking moment and before going to sleep. It’s there, also, so that I can talk to it during the long evening hours. Look at it. See it as I see it. Those open arms have been the programme of my pontificate: they say that Christ died for all, for all. No one is excluded from his love, from his forgiveness. In this last hour I feel calm and sure that my Lord in his mercy will not reject me. I’ve done my best to pay homage to truth, justice, charity, and the meek and humble heart of the Gospel. My time on earth is drawing to a close. But Christ lives on and the Church continues his work. Souls . . . Souls . . . Save them. St. John XXIII
- Which of the seven words speak to you most? Why?
- Are these last words that you heard someone say that still remain with you?
- If you were dying at this time, what last words do you think you might speak?
A blessed Good Friday,