The title of Stanley Hauerwas’ meditations on the seven last works of Christ, Cross-Shattered Christ, is taken from John F. Deane’s poem “Mercy”:
Unholy we sang this morning, and prayed
as if we were not broken, crooked
the Christ-figure hung, splayed
on bloodied beams above us;
devious God, dweller in the shadows,
mercy on us;
immortal, cross-shattered Christ—
your gentling grace down upon us.
Listening to Joseph Haydn’s haunting oratorio (1796), I received an epiphany: the seven last words of Christ, a biblical number connoting perfection, are cruciform; they consist of horizontal words (spoken by Christ to man) and vertical words (spoken by Christ to God).
- First Word (vertical): Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34)
- Second Word (horizontal): “Truly I tell you today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43)
- Third Word (horizontal): “Woman, behold thy son!” . . . “Behold thy mother!” (John 19:26-27)
- Fourth Word (vertical): “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46)
- Fifth Word (horizontal): “I thirst” (John 19:28)
- Sixth Word (vertical): “It is finished” (John 19:30)
- Seventh Word (vertical): “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46)
For each of the seven last words of Christ, I will offer a favorite passage from Hauerwas’ book.
Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing. —Luke 23:34
We think it is very simple: Jesus had to die because we needed and need to be forgiven. But, ironically, such a focus shifts attention from Jesus to us. This is a fatal turn, I fear, because as soon as we begin to think this is all about us, about our need for forgiveness, bathos drapes the cross, hiding from us the reality that here we first and foremost see God.
Moreover, as soon as these words from the cross are bent to serve our needs, to give us a god we believe we need, it is impossible to resist entertaining ourselves with speculative readings of Jesus’s words from the cross. For example we think what a wonderful savior we have in Jesus, who, even in his agony, kindly offers us forgiveness. Of course we are not all that sure what we have done that requires such forgiveness, but we are willing to try to think up something. Ironically, by trying to understand what it means for us to need forgiveness, too often our attention becomes focused on something called the “human condition” rather than the cross and the God who hangs there” (27-28).
According to Herbert McCabe, these words, “Father, forgive,” are nothing less than the interior life of the Triune God made visible to the eyes of faith. The Son asks the Father to forgive, a forgiveness unimaginable if this is all about us and our struggle to comprehend the meaning of our lives in the face of death. By this deed, by this word, Jesus rules out all speculative theories that seek to subject these words and this death to our understanding about what is required for the reconciliation of the world (29-30).
Truly I tell you today you will be with me in Paradise. —Luke 23:43
Remembrance is quite literally to be re-membered. Through baptism we are given a new body, a body no longer isolated from the bodies that constitute Christ’s body, and we are thereby made capable of remembering that we live through memory. Only Christ, only the Second Person of the Trinity, could promise to the thief and to us that today we will be with him. To be with Jesus, to be claimed by Jesus to be his friend, is paradise, for Jesus is the kingdom of God, the autobasileia, the kingdom of the crucified. We need to know no more than this. To be in paradise is to be “with Jesus,” to be pulled into God’s life by the love made visible on the cross. Our salvation is no more or no less than being made part of God’s body, God’s enfleshed memory, so that the world may know that we are redeemed from our fevered and desperate desire to insure we will not be forgotten.
Here, in this crucified Messiah, we see the love that moves the sun and the stars. To be “with Jesus” means we are not ‘”lost in the cosmos,” but rather we can confidently live in the recognition, with faith, that God is not other than the one found in Jesus of Nazareth. How could we ever think we need to know more than this thief? Like the thief we can live with the hope and confidence that the only remembering that matters is to be remembered by Jesus” (43-45).
Woman, behold thy son! . . . Behold thy mother! —John 19:26-27
In the New Testament Jesus is often designated or assumed to be the new Adam, the new Moses, or the new David, but he is never called the new Abraham . . . The reason Jesus is not associated with Abraham is very simple—Mary is our Abraham. Just as Abraham did not resist God’s call to leave his father’s country to go to a new land, so Mary did not resist God’s declaration that she would bear a child through the power of the Holy Spirit. Abraham’s faith foreshadows Mary’s “Here am I” because just as we are Abraham’s children through faith, so we become children of the new age inaugurated in Christ through Mary’s faithfulness (51-52).
God restrained Abraham’s blow that would have sacrificed Isaac, but the Father does not hold back from the sacrifice of Mary’s son. Jesus’s command that Mary should “behold your son” is to ask Mary to see that the one born of her body was born to be sacrificed so the that we might live. As Gregory of Nyssa puts it, “If one examines this mystery, one will prefer to say not that this death was a consequence of his birth, but that the birth was undertaken so that he could die.” When God tested Abraham by commanding the sacrifice of Issac, Abraham’s “Here I am” (Genesis 22:1) did not result in Isaac’s death. Mary’s “Here am I,” however, could not save her son from being the one born to die on a cross (52-52).
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? —Matthew 27:46
Jesus’s being handed over, Jesus’s obedience even to the point of death, Jesus’s cry of abandonment makes no sense if this is not the outworking of the mystery called Trinity. This is not God becoming what God was not, but rather here we witness what God has always been. Here, as the Second Council of Constantinople put it, “one of the Trinity suffered in the flesh.” The Word that was in the beginning, the Word that was with God, the Word through whom all things came into being, the Word that shines in the darkness, the Word that assumed our flesh, suffering even unto death, is God. The cross, this cry of abandonment, is not God becoming something other than God, is not an act of divine self-alienation, instead this is the very character of God’s kenosis—complete self-emptying made possible by perfect love (62-63).
God is most revealed when he seems to us the most hidden. “Christ’s moment of most absolute particularity—the absolute dereliction of the cross—is the moment in which the glory of God, his power to be where and when he will be, is displayed before the eyes of the world,” says David Bentley Hart. Here God in Christ refuses to let our sin determine our relation to him. God’s love for us means he can hate only that which alienates his creatures from the love manifest in our creation. Cyril of Jerusalem observes that by calling on his Father as “my God,” Christ does so on our behalf and in our place. Hear these words, “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?” and know that the Son of God has taken our place, become for us the abandonment our sin produces, so that we may live confident that the world has been redeemed by the cross (65).
I thirst. —John 19:28
The work of the Son, the thirst of the Son through the Spirit, is nothing less than the Father’s thirst for us. God desires us to desire God. We were created to thirst for God (Psalm 42) in a “dry and weary land where there is no water” (Psalm 63). Such a desire is as “physical” or real as our thirst for water, our thirst for one another, and our desire for God. Surely that is why our most determinative response to those who ask how we can ever come to worship this Jesus is to simply ask, “Do you not need to eat and drink?” Our God, our thirsty God, is the One who is capable of saying to us: “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water'” (John 7:37-38).
Through the waters of baptism we have been made God’s body for the world. We thirst for one another so that the world may know that the world has been redeemed and that this redemption is as real as the water we need to survive. That redemption is found in the body and blood of our Lord that forever slakes our thirst. So refreshed, we become for the world the reminder that God has not abandoned us, and we can, therefore, trust in his promise that just to the extent we take the time—in a world that believes it has no time—to care for those who thirst for God’s kingdom, the kingdom will be present.
It is finished. —John 19:30
“It is finished” is not a death gurgle. “It is finished” is not “I am done for.” “It is finished” will not be, as we know from the tradition of the ordering of these words from the cross, the last words of Jesus. “It is finished” is a cry of victory. “It is finished” is the triumphant cry that what I came to do has been done. All is accomplished, completed, fulfilled work.
The work that is finished, moreover, is the cross. He will be and is resurrected, but the resurrected One remains the One crucified. Rowan Williams reminds us of Pascal’s stark remark that “Jesus will be in agony until the end of the world.” This is a remark that makes unavoidable the recognition that we live in the time between the times—the kingdom is begun in Christ but will not be consummated or perfected until the end of the world. Williams observes that Pascal’s comment on Jesus’s ongoing agony is not an observation about the deplorable state of unbelievers; it is instead an exhortation to us, those who believe in Christ. It is an exhortation not to become nostalgic for a supposedly less compromised past or take refuge in some imagined purified future, but to dwell in the tension-filled time between times, to remain awake in our inability “to stay in the almost unbearable present moment where Jesus is.”
God has finished what only God could finish. Christ’s sacrifice is a gift that exceeds every debt. Our sins have been consumed, making possible lives that glow with the beauty of God’s Spirit. What wonderful news: “‘It is finished.’ But it is not over.” It is not over because God made us, the church, the “not over.” We are made witnesses so the world—a world with no time for a crucified God—may know we have all the time of God’s kingdom to live in peace with one another.
Father, into your hands I commend my spirit. —Luke 23:46
These words, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit,” have been repeated by countless Christians on their way to death. We Anglicans pray, at the Commendation in the Liturgy for Burial, “Into thy hands, O merciful Savior, we commend thy servant.” Christians repeat these words in imitation of Jesus and because we assume they are words of comfort as we face the unknown that death names. These words can and should comfort, but that these words comfort us should not hide from us that these last words of Jesus before his death name his willingness to embrace the ice-cold silence of hell. Accordingly, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit,” are every bit as frightening as Jesus’s prior cry of abandonment. Jesus is not comforting himself; he is gesturing to the Father that he is ready to face the final work that only Jesus can do.
Jesus began his time on the cross praying to his Father. We should, therefore, not be surprised as his death draws near that he again prays as only the Son of God can pray. He prays to the Father. This should remind us that we can only imitate Jesus’s prayer. We can repeat his words only because Jesus had no one to imitate. Jesus is the Christ, but the Christ is known only in the one called Jesus. Jesus is not a “Christ-figure” if by Christ-figure we mean the exemplification of a universal pattern of sacrifice for the goods of others. Jesus is no “Christ-figure” if we mean that his death is an exemplification of how we should all die; that is, we should die with the confidence that we have nothing to fear from death. No, this is the real and specific death of Jesus, the Savior of all that has been, is, and is to come, who submits to death by our hands—”Having said this he breathed his last.” Dead. Jesus is dead.
We are told in John 1:18 that without the Son no one can see the Father. Von Balthasar, therefore, reminds us “when the Son, the Word of the Father is dead, then no one can see God, hear of him or attain him. And this day exists, when the Son is dead, and the Father, accordingly, inaccessible.” This is the terror, the silence of the Father, to which Jesus has commended himself, this is why he cried the cry of abandonment. He has commended himself to the Father so he might for us undergo the dark night of death. Jesus commends himself to the Father, becoming for us all that is contrary to God. Christ suffers by becoming the “No” that the salvation wrought by his life creates. Without Christ there could be no hell—no abandonment by God—but the very hell created by Christ cannot overwhelm the love he has for us.
Jesus is really dead. He is on the way to Holy Saturday. Hell will be hallowed. Jesus goes to those who dwell in isolation from themselves, one another, and God to overcome the silence of their lives. He is the Word who alone can make communication possible between those who can speak but not hear. Only the Son of God is capable of this, that is, to submit fully to death and yet redeem the destruction death names. For this the Son of God came, to assume our nature, making possible the proclamation of the gospel, as we told in 1 Peter 4:6, “even to the dead, so that, though they had been judged in the flesh as everyone is judged, they might live in the spirit as God does.” Because Jesus, the Son of God, has done this great work, he can tell us in the book of Revelation: “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades” (Revelation 1:17-18).
- Gramophone: Haydn, Seven Last Words. Review of recording with Nikolaus Harnoncourt (conductor), Arnold Schonberg Choir, and Concentus Musicus Wien (period-instrument band).