I had been invited to give a meditation on one of the “seven last words of Christ” that would connect with each movement of Franz Josef Haydn’s String Quartet of this title. Like all other public events during this COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, it was canceled. But I had given some thought to these “words” in the process of choosing which one I would comment on. So I here give a commentary on the words accompanied by interpretations from classical art instead of Haydn’s classical music, as my online contribution to Holy Week offerings. Perhaps visual art more than music helps us contemplate the passion of Christ as something that happened in his body. We focus on that in a time when a viral pandemic indiscriminately strikes bodies, some of them fatally.
About the Seven Last Words of Jesus on the Cross
Meditations with interpretative music on the Seven Last Words is a tradition that goes back to Jesuits in Lima, Peru in the 18th century. Father Alphonso Messia, SJ, arranged a three hour devotional service based on the last words of Christ in 1732. This devotion has grown in popularity over the centuries and is often presented on Good Friday in both Catholic and Protestant churches. Haydn’s String Quartet was commissioned for just such a devotion in 1786 for the Good Friday service at the Oratorio de la Santa Cueva (Holy Sepulchre Oratory) in Cadiz, Spain. Originally a work for orchestra, Haydn adapted and published it as a work for string quartet in 1787 and it was then performed in Paris, Rome, Berlin and Vienna, and in many places ever since.
The last words of Christ are drawn from all four Gospels. One word is found in both Mark and Matthew, three words are in Luke, and three words are in John. The harmonization of the Gospels was popular in the 17th century. Lutherans had a gospel harmonized History of the Passion in Seven Parts that was read and preached on during Lent in midweek services. Modern biblical critics object to harmonizations because it destroys the unique witness of each evangelist and runs the risk of presenting a confusing narrative. The medieval tradition had been to read (actually chant) through the four gospel passion narratives during Holy Week: Matthew on Palm Sunday, Mark on Tuesday, Luke on Wednesday, and John on Good Friday. These passion readings remained in the current lectionaries, but Matthew, Mark, and Luke are read on Palm/Passion Sundays in Years A, B, and C respectively. On Good Friday the Passion According to St. John is still read in the Good Friday Liturgy. But the extraction of the Seven Last Words from the four passion narratives provides an opportunity to reflect on Jesus’ final words. A special significance is often attached to the last words of a dying person. All the more so from Jesus, the Messiah, Son of God, and Savior of the world.
I don’t know who arranged the progression of the seven Last Words from four Gospels; the order of the words is standard. My guess is that they are arranged on the basis of their content from when Jesus would have been most mentally alert and physically strong in his early hours on the cross to when he began to sink into expiration with waning energy in the final hours. We should keep in mind, however, that this is an artificial chronology drawn from four evangelists with their own unique story of Jesus’s crucifixion.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate.
What is common to all four gospels is Jesus had been through a lot of suffering even before he reached “the place of the Skull” (Golgotha) where crucifixions took place: his mental agony in the Garden of Gethsamane; the arrest in the Garden and trial before the Jewish Sanhedrin; the trial before the Roman governor Pontius Pilate early in the morning; the flogging, which took place either before Jesus’s sentencing according to John in Pilate’s hope that seeing what a Roman flogging did to a man would placate the Jewish leaders, or after Jesus’s sentencing according to Mark and Matthew as a brutal way to hasten his death; the journey to Golgotha with Jesus carrying the cross beam (historically the standing post or “tree” was left in place for the next cross victim). The synoptic gospels report Jesus’s fall from its weight and a visitor to Jerusalem, Simon of Cyrene, pressed into service to help carry it. John stresses that Jesus carried his own cross. The gospel narratives all indicate that Jesus hung on the cross for about six hours, from roughly 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., when he expired.
Before I get to reflections on the Seven Last Words I want to establish the context of Jesus’s suffering in which they were uttered. The context of suffering, crucifixion, death, and burial is an article of faith in the historic creeds of the Church. “He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried” (Apostles; Creed). For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried (Nicene Creed).
We meditate on Jesus’s last words looking for the last bits of wisdom from his earthly life. But Athanasius of Alexandria would have us look at what Jesus did in his body if we want to perceive the Mind of God. He wrote in his treatise On the Incarnation that “through the Incarnation of the Word the Mind whence all things proceed has been declared, and its Agent and Ordainer, the Word of God Himself. He, indeed, assumed humanity that we might become God. He manifested Himself by means of a body in order that we might perceive the Mind of the unseen Father. He endured shame from men that we might inherit immortality” (54). If we want to know the intention of God “for us and for salvation” (Nicene Creed) we need to look at what Jesus did in his body.
Roman use of crucifixion as a means of execution ended with the reign of the emperor Constantine I (312-337). Athanasius would have been old enough (b. 293) to have seen or known about the Roman methods of crucifixion. Flogging usually preceded crucifixion and the extent of the flogging would have been determined on the basis of how long they wanted the bodies of the victims to linger on the cross. Victims of Roman floggings would have been naked. The buttocks and legs would have also received stripes as well as the back. Hardened Roman punishment squads were also known to have sexually raped their victims. This is a possibility Christians have not wanted to consider. But Athanasius speaks of Jesus enduring “the shame of men.” The ritual process of flogging was so humiliating that the evangelist Luke doesn’t even mention it in his passion narrative.
The suffering and death of Christ has been interpreted as a fulfillment of the suffering servant of Deutero-Isaiah. Isaiah 53:5 points to the possibility of the flogging of the suffering servant of God: “upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed” (The King James version has: “by his stripes we are healed.”) The suffering servant has been interpreted as the nation of Israel. Israel bears the pains of the nations. Jesus the Messiah becomes Israel reduced to one. He bears the pain, the suffering, and the shame of the nations, in this case including that of his own people Israel.
Victims of flogging and crucifixion would also have been flogged naked and fixed to the cross naked. The purpose was to add public humiliation and shame to suffering. Artists painting the suffering and crucifixion of Jesus have had to follow the church tradition of providing him with the modesty of a loin cloth that the Romans didn’t provide. But even according to the gospel accounts Jesus was stripped for his flogging, then vested in a purple robe and a crown of thorns for mockery, then stripped of the costume and put in his own clothes. At the place of crucifixion he was stripped again to be fastened to the cross and the execution squad divided his clothing and cast lots for his seamless robe.
Jesus was physically abused. The possibility of sexual abuse (sodomy) as the soldiers undressed him repeatedly needs to be considered. He endured shameful treatment and bore our shame as well as our sins in his suffering and death. In a time when we are aware of abuse of all kinds — physical, sexual, and mental — the shame Jesus endured from men needs homiletical commentary. Jesus shares the physical and mental abuse that victims throughout the ages have experienced. The words from the cross are uttered in this context.
For further reading: Dan Le, The Naked Christ: An Atonement Model for a Body Obsessed Culture ((Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2012); Leo Steinberg, The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and Modern Oblivion (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1983, 1996). For exegetical help on the Johannine words of Jesus I consulted Raymond E. Brown, The Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to John XIII-XXI (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1970).
The First Word
32 Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. 33 When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. [[34 Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”]] And they cast lots to divide his clothing. Luke 23:32-34 (NRSV)
Luke presents Jesus as a king, and Jesus acts with the nobility and grace that befits a royal person throughout the ordeal of his trials and physical degradation. I imagine this prayer being offered as Jesus is being nailed and tied to the cross and is experiencing the first agony of the crucifixion ordeal as nails are driven into his flesh and his body is lifted up on the tree. Certainly Jesus’s prayer asking his Father to forgive “them” would apply to the soldiers doing their job. Would it apply also to the mob that cried out “Crucify him?” What about the Roman governor who tried to release him but gave into the mob? What about the high priest and the leaders of the Jews who looked for a scapegoat rather than the whole people suffering, as Caiaphas said in John 11:49-53? What about the disciples who had abandoned him at the hour of the cross? Were all of them ignorant of who Jesus was and what his mission was? If so, they didn’t know what they were doing. All are forgiven? Doesn’t John the Baptist point to Jesus as “the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world?” If we all need and receive forgiveness from Jesus from the cross, is there anyone whom Jesus’s followers should hold culpable for the death of Christ? I would think not.
The Second Word
39 One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding[a] him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah?[b] Save yourself and us!” 40 But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into[c] your kingdom.” 43 He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” Luke 23:39-43 (NRSV)
Jesus was crucified between two criminals. One of them taunts (tempts?) Jesus to save himself and get down from the cross if he is the Messiah. But Jesus cannot save himself and also save them and the whole world. Whatever the other criminal understood, he knew that Jesus was being wrongfully punished even by worldly standards. The two criminals are receiving the just rewards of their misdeeds, “but this man has done nothing wrong.” Whatever and wherever King Jesus’s kingdom might be, he asks Jesus to “remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus responds with mercy and fulfills the request: “today you will be with me in Paradise.”
The weight of the saying falls on “today.” It is not in some apocalyptic future that the repentant thief will know Paradise, but “today” — presumably at the moment of his death. This opens up the issue of what happens after death. I think Jesus’s words are pointing to the defeat of death in his resurrection, which he has predicted along with his suffering and death. The repentant thief and all of us will “sleep” in death until the resurrection of the dead. I think of death as a state that lacks consciousness. But, as St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15, “the trumpet will sound and the dead will be raised incorruptible, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye.” There is no conscious time span between death and resurrection. We die, we are raised. We fall asleep, we are awakened. Souls (who we essentially are) are in God’s keeping to be joined to our resurrection bodies. The resurrection we face Christ our Judge. But the Judge has already acquitted the criminal who repented at the last minute. He was offered Paradise. Paradise conveys the image of a royal park where we walk and talk with the king. It’s where we will dwell with King Jesus forever.
The Third Word
Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26 When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” 27 Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home. John 19:25-27 (NRSV)
In Mark and the other synoptic gospels there is no mention of Jesus’s male disciples at Jesus’s crucifixion. But the fourth Gospel, presumably based on the witness of the beloved disciple, inserts that disciple into the scene, along with Jesus’s mother. Jesus even elevates that disciple to the status of brother as he makes arrangements for the care of his mother after his death. She receives a new son and he receives a new mother. According to tradition that disciple took Mary into his house and they finally settled in Ephesus, where tourists today can visit Mary’s well.
Some have argued that this scene supports Mary’s perpetual virginity, because otherwise Jesus’s biological brothers would have cared for their mother. This is not an issue we need to get into here. The relationship of motherhood and sonship that Jesus establishes here has theological significance. It completes the divine plan that Jesus was carrying out. The mother of Jesus and the beloved disciple each represent larger groups. Commentators have made various suggestions as to the identities of those groups. An ancient one that I think still carries weight is that Mary is the symbol of the church and the beloved disciple represents the apostles. In his ministry Jesus has gathered disciples. He intends a continuing fellowship of those disciples after his death. They are entrusted to the care of the apostles who will be commissioned as such after Jesus’s resurrection. Those who succeed the apostles in the leadership of the church continue the ministry of the beloved disciple in caring for the church, our mother which gives birth to faith.
The Fourth Word
45 From noon on, darkness came over the whole land[a] until three in the afternoon. 46 And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Matthew 27:45-46. See also Mark 15:33-34. Mark quotes the words of Jesus in Aramaic, “Eloi, eloi, lema sbachthani.” (NRSV)
El Greco’s unique style and the composition of this painting suggests that the distorted figure is transcending his physical pain to turn to God alone. I believe that this is what Jesus was doing in this sole word from his mouth recorded in Matthew and Mark. He is speaking only to God. But he does not speak using his own words. He is speaking the words of Psalm 22, which is categorized as a psalm of lament.
Many commentators have spoken of Jesus’s sense of abandonment by God, and indeed the opening words of the psalm suggest that. But if Jesus could recite the psalm in Hebrew (in Aramaic in Mark’s version), he knew the whole psalm. He knew and perhaps could sense that he was fulfilling what the psalm expressed: “scorned by others, and despised by the people. All who see me mock at me; they make mouths at me, they shake their heads” (Verses 6-7). “They stare and gloat over me; the divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots” (Verses 17-18). He also knew, as the psalmist said, that the holy God is “enhroned on the praises of Israel. In you our ancestors trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them” (Verses 3-4). And he knew where this song of lament ended: in a word of praise. “I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you” (verse 22).
El Greco’s painting heightens empathy between the viewer and Christ by having the elongated but graceful figure appears alone in the scene. This was a devotional image meant to encourage contemplation and spiritual reflection. Christians have recited Psalm 22 as they contemplate the suffering and crucifixion of Christ. It is recited during the stripping of the altar at the end of the Maundy Thursday liturgy and as a response to the reading from Isaiah 52-53 in the Good Friday Liturgy. It is through this psalm above all that we should contemplate the passion of Christ because in the words of this psalm Jesus expressed his deepest devotion to his God and Father in the midst of his pain and suffering.
The Fifth Word
28 After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), “I am thirsty.” 29 A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. John 19:28-29 (NRSV)
Only this word of Jesus from the cross alerts us to the agony he was experiencing. Many commentators have wanted to spiritualize Jesus’s thirst. There has been a tendency to ignore what happens in the body. But I think the evangelist John is given us a glimpse of the reality of his physical suffering. Modern anatomy and biochemistry helps us to understand the process by which one dies from being crucified. The muscles in the arms, which are extended outward or upward, grow tired of supporting the body and can no longer hold the torso up. The feet, actually nailed to the side of the cross rather than to a footrest (as archaeologists have discovered from the remains of a first century Palestinian victim), cannot push the body back up. As the body sags downward it becomes harder to get oxygen by inhaling air and to expel the carbon dioxide that accumulates in the lungs. Once the chest is fully expanded with carbon dioxide and the diminishing supply of oxygen, it’s impossible to breathe in anything more than sips of air. The victim is slowly suffocating. Gasping for air will obviously dry out one’s mouth. We may also assume that Jesus is dehydrated by this point.
All four evangelists report that Jesus was either offered or asked for something to drink as death approached. John uniquely reports that a sponge dipped in sour wine was offered to Jesus on a branch of hyssop and that this was done to fulfill prophecy. The hyssop suggests theological symbolism. Jesus died on the day when the paschal lambs were being slaughtered in the Temple precincts. Jesus is being slaughtered outside the Temple as the paschal lamb of the new covenant. In the Exodus story the Israelites used hyssop branches to smear the blood of the lamb on their door posts to be spared as the destroying angel passed over the land of Eygpt, claiming the first born in each household.
John gives no citation of the prophecy being fulfilled, but Psalm 69:3 states “I am weary with my crying; my throat is parched” and verse 21 states “They gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink” (sour wine). Another candidate is Psalm 22:15: “my mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to me jaws.” The evangelists saw everything Jesus did as the fulfillment of prophecy. The very meaning of Jesus in the gospels is that he fulfills prophecy. This binds the Old and New Covenants together. We cannot understand what Jesus was all about without the law and the prophets. And what prophecy points to us a suffering servant who embodies a suffering God. This is not the impassable God of the Greek philosopher. It is a God who experiences pain — the pain of his creation and of our broken bodies.
The Sixth Word
30 When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. John 19:30 (NRSV)
The cry, “It is finished,” is the last utterance of Jesus in the Gospel of John. The word sounds a note of triumph. Jesus has accomplished his mission. The rest is left to God. This word of mission accomplished is often contrasted with the one word from the cross in Matthew and Mark, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” from Psalm 22, which sounds like a cry of dereliction and defeat. I have suggested that it is not because Jesus is reciting Psalm 22. So also here “It is finished” sums up the whole intent of that psalm. In John’s theology, Jesus is lifted up from the earth on the cross in order to draw all nations to him (John 12:32). Unwittingly confirming this, Pilate had written on the sign above the cross, “Jesus of Nazareth, king of Jews” in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, so that those of all nations would turn to the cross. We hear at the end of Psalm 22 that all the ends of the earth turn toward the Lord.
The historic Good Friday Liturgy also ends on a note of triumph. The antiphon sung at the veneration of the cross is: “Be adore you, O Christ, and we bless you; by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.”
The Seventh Word
45 while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. 46 Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Having said this, he breathed his last. Luke 23:45-46 (NRSV)
The devotion of the Seven Last Words gives us Luke’s last word from the cross as the final word. In contrast to Jesus’s final word of triumph in the Gospel of John, this last word from Luke’s gospel evokes the serenity of Jesus giving himself over to God.
Spirit (pneuma, spiritus) suggests breath. We cannot come to life unless we breathe. When the Lord fashioned Adam from the dust of the earth in Genesis 2:6, he breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and the man become a “living being.” Breathe is so much a part of us that we take it for granted — until we can no longer breathe on our own. The victim of crucifixion could no longer breathe. His oxygen was depleted and he could no longer inhale a fresh supply because his lungs were full of carbon dioxide. In the COVID-19 pandemic the victims of the novel coronavirus may descend into pneumonia and cannot breathe without the ventilator. Jesus knows he will not last much longer and he turns to Psalm 31:5: “Into your hands I commend my spirit; you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.”
Jesus easily surrenders to God because he has done this all along. In his agonizing prayer in the Garden in which he asked that the cup of suffering might pass him by, Jesus says, “Nevertheless, not what I will, but what you will.” Jesus’s last word is the psalm we sing in Compline, the night prayer of the church, before retiring for the day. “In your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.” Jesus gives his spirit, his breath, back to God. We offer up our lives, too, knowing that we cannot control life and death. If we cannot control the ultimate things, why do we spend so much energy trying to control the small outcomes? Why don’t we join the natural flow of the Spirit, of the breath? Why don’t we go where the Spirit leads us? Right now, as we face social restrictions, economic fragility, and the vulnerability of our bodies, why don’t we surrender to the divine flow?
The Entombment of Jesus’s body
38 After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. 39 Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. 40 They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. 41 Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. 42 And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there. John 19:38-42 (NRSV)
There are no words left. We return to the body — a dead body, a corpse. According to John’s passion narrative the Jewish leaders did not want the bodies of the crucified victims left on the crosses because it was getting toward the Eve of the Sabbath, a great Sabbath that year because it was also Passover. The soldiers were instructed to break the legs of the crucified to hasten their death. They discerned that Jesus was already dead and made sure of it by thrusting a spear into his side, which released a gusher of blood and water.
Securing permission from Pilate to retrieve the body of Jesus, two hidden disciples of Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, took the body down from the cross and carried it to a nearby garden where there was a new tomb, never before used. They did what they could with the body and departed. The women followers of Jesus who went with the men carrying Jesus’s body would return on the morning of the first day of the week to anointing the body for a proper burial. The dead body of Jesus lays on the slab during his own sabbath rest on the threshold of his own completed passover from death to life.
From the Eve of Holy Saturday (Good Friday night) to the Eve of Easter (Holy Saturday night) a great sabbath descends on the liturgical life of the church. There is a liturgical pause between Good Friday and Easter that gives us an opportunity to ponder both Jesus’ death and and his resurrection that we will celebrate. By moving too quickly from the cross to the empty tomb, we fail to grasp the depths of Jesus’ suffering and death; what it means that God suffered and died that day. Nor can we know the wonder, power, and hope of “He is risen! Alleluia” unless we feel the full weight of God lying lifeless in the grave during an interval of utter despair when no such hope was even conceivable for Jesus’s followers — or for us, if we are honest. We ritually reactualize that sense of despair for ourselves in the experience of leaving a dark church at the end of the Tenebrae on Good Friday and entering a dark church before the beginning of the Easter Vigil. We are left deep in lamentation — even deprived of our sacred spaces of worship this pandemic year. Only out of these depths can we be utterly surprised that even in death God alone has the power of life and light to make the whole creation new.
Pastor Frank Senn, STS