“Father, forgive them; they know not what they do. . . . I thirst. . . . It is finished.” It’s the Good Friday liturgy at the Oratorio de la Santa Cueva in Cádiz, Spain. The year is 1786 and composer Joseph Haydn has written the oratorio “The Seven Last Words of Christ” specifically for this service. In the preface to a later publication of the work, he described the occasion: “The walls, windows, and pillars of the cathedral church were cloaked with black cloth and the solemn darkness was broken only by one large lamp hanging from the centre of the roof. The doors were closed at midday and the liturgy began: a brief opening prayer, a short musical introduction and the bishop ascended the pulpit. He intoned the first of the seven ‘words’ and delivered a sermon. Finished, he exited the pulpit and fell to his knees before the altar. The orchestra struck up the slow, solemn response. The same process was followed for the second word, then the third, and so on until the seventh word has been prayed. The lenten liturgy ended with a dramatic final sonata entitled, ‘Earthquake’ ” (Wikipedia, “Haydn, Last Seven Words of Christ”).
As Easter Hallelujahs resound through our churches and take lodging in our hearts, it’s important we not lose sight of the sacred words that brought us to this point. Easter’s shouts of triumph are preceded by Christ’s poignant words from the cross. The seven “words,” sentences really, were introduced as a subject for pious practice by 12th-century monks and have long been recognized as spiritual food for the soul. They are both legacy and summation, revelatory of the essence of one’s life. Jesus’ last words lay bare his relationship with the Father and the dynamic at the heart of the Paschal Mystery. They illuminate the hope we live as an Easter people.
The first profound hope arises when we realize that the first word Jesus speaks from the cross is one of forgiveness: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do” (Lk 23:34). Unjustly sentenced, cruelly tortured and bearing the jeers and taunts of the crowd, Jesus still finds in his heart the wherewithal to ask his Father to forgive his tormentors and executioners. The mercy that was present throughout his ministry is still preeminent. Our hope is simple: will that mercy and that same request be made when our sins are considered in the divine dispensation?
The second word is similarly promising. “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Lk 23:43). A guilty sinner is assured a glorious, undeserved future far beyond condemnation he rightly deserves. Might we hope to hear the same glorious promise spoken to us in our guilt as we face our own moment of death?
With the third word, Jesus creates a new community, offering humankind a life-saving entry into newness. “Woman, behold your son. Son, behold your mother” (Jn 19:26-27), he says, and a grieving mother and a beloved disciple find themselves in a new relationship. Our hope resides in this new family, birthed at the foot of the cross and flowing from Jesus’ side, giving us, and every generation, access to God in an unparalleled way.
The fourth and fifth words, words of abandonment and distress, still manage to offer hope. Death is drawing nearer and the one who was at-one with the Father is now bereft. With the fourth word, Jesus takes for his own the words from the 21st psalm, joining men and women everywhere who in their darkest moments have felt the loss of God: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” he cries (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34) and he joins us in our times of God-abandonment. From now on and forevermore, the abyss is a place where Christ is present and therein lies our hope.
With the fifth cry, Jesus, expresses his thirst. The Living Water now yearns for a refreshing drop — but of what? It is not primarily physical thirst that torments Jesus; it is his spirit that is parched and dry. Jesus thirsts for life and love; he thirsts for us. It is the bedrock of our hope: God longs for us and so we have the courage to approach, longing to satiate Christ’s thirst with our love.
The sixth word brings us to fulfilment. What might have been an expression of defeat, “It is finished” (Jn 19:30), is really a cry of completion. Jesus has faithfully carried through to the end his mission from the Father, and whatever has been carried through in fidelity and love has reached fulfilment. These are words we desire to hear at the end of our lives, hoping that our lives have indeed reached fulfilment.
Jesus’ final word brings him full circle in his life. He who came from the Father, returns to the Father as the reunion of Father and Son is effected: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Lk 23:46). For the final time, Jesus turns to his Father and lets himself go, trusting that he will be caught into his beloved Abba’s loving, gentle hands. Is that not our hope as well, that we too, will, in the end, be brought and held in God’s tender embrace?
And with that, the incarnate Word enters into the silence of death and the world holds its breath. We wait for the Father to speak the final word and when it comes, it is a word of victory. God’s response to Jesus’ death is a triumphant “Yes!” The Word rises from the tomb and sin and death are vanquished. God’s light prevails and we are made new. Shaped by Jesus’ seven last words, the Hallelujahs break from our lips and we walk as an Easter people.
Prather, BEd, MTh, is a teacher and facilitator in the areas of faith and spirituality. She was executive director at Star of the North Retreat Centre in St. Albert, Alta., for 21 years and resides in Sherwood Park with her husband, Bob. They are blessed with four children and 10 grandchildren.