THE SEVEN LAST WORDS OF JESUS FROM THE CROSS
(John 19 28)
PREACHER FR SEAN WALES C.Ss.R
Of the seven last words of Jesus from the Cross, one is recorded by Mark and Matthew; three are recorded by Luke and three by John. All the gospels were written a considerable time after the events they record and they were not written as biographies of Jesus. They were written, under the power of the Spirit, to proclaim profound religious truths about Jesus: who he is, what his life and death mean, what his resurrection means, how we are drawn into his life, how we share, through him, the life of God. The gospels are like unfinished sketches of Jesus, some emphasising one aspect of Jesus, some other aspects, all together attracting us to the central reality, Jesus crucified and risen.
In another image, the gospels are like a diamond with many sides, glittering in the light and revealing new beauty from every angle.
So it is that in the course of presenting the mystery of the Passion and death of Jesus, Mark and Matthew, writing for a Jewish audience very familiar with the Scriptures, focus on the great cry of abandonment in psalm 22 wrung from Jesus on the Cross: My God, my God why have you forsaken me? In this way they show how Jesus has experienced to the utmost extreme the spiritual suffering of despair and dereliction.
Luke on the other hand, writing for a mainly Greek and Roman readership, puts the emphasis on Jesus as a gentle and heroic figure ready and able to forgive even his executioners, happy to welcome a fellow victim repenting at the last minute and gently yielding his spirit into the hands of his Father in his dying moments.
Writing his gospel much later than the other three, John sees the Passion and death of Jesus as a wonderful revelation of the Glory of Jesus.
John consistently goes beyond the surface meaning of the events of Jesus life and unveils something of the mystery of God at work in everything to do with Jesus. From the very beginning (in the great Prologue to his gospel) right to death of Jesus-and beyond, John uncovers the deeply symbolic and spiritual realties at work. In John’s account of the Passion of Christ, Jesus is in charge: he remains conscious and aware of everything, he is not a victim at the mercy of his torturers, he freely chooses to lay down his life for others, he completes the work given to him by his Father in heaven. In addressing his mother and his best friend he establishes a new community -his Church- and on them he breathes forth his Spirit, the Spirit of God, the Spirit of his Father.
The first readers of the fourth gospel summed up John’s approach in their saying “The Lord reigns from the wood of the Cross”.
We see John’s style at work in the immediate context of Jesus’ word about his thirst:
After this [having given Mary into the care of John and vice versa]
Jesus knew [he was fully conscious, alert, in command of himself]
that everything had now been completed [ his mission had been accomplished, he had loved them to the end]
and to fulfil the scriptures perfectly [ the particular scripture suggested is psalm 69 verse 22 : in my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink ]
Of course, the whole ordeal leading up to Calvary, the physical facts of crucifixion, the burning heat of the noonday sun, would all have contributed to a raging physical thirst. Matthew tells us that when the executioners reached Golgotha “they gave him wine to drink mixed with gall, which he tasted but refused to drink” (27:34) and Mark says “they offered him wine mixed with myrrh, but he refused it” (15:23). But after hours on the Cross it is perfectly understandable that Jesus would have been tormented with thirst.
But we know that John always goes deeper than the surface meaning: he explores the symbolic and religious significance of what is happening. Readers of John’s gospel will be mindful of an earlier time when Jesus was thirsty. At Jacob’s well near the Samaritan town called Sychar Jesus spontaneously (and against the rigid social customs then in place) asked the Samaritan woman for a drink. That encounter led to a fascinating conversation about “living water”. The Samaritan woman is thinking exclusively about the physical water in the well, Jesus is introducing something profoundly spiritual “anyone who drinks the water that I shall give will never be thirsty again: the water that I shall give will turn into a spring inside him, welling up to eternal life”. (4:14).
Even the disciples were confused about what was going on. When they returned they urged Jesus to eat something to which he replied : “I have food to eat that you do not know about…My food is to do the will of the one who sent me” (4:32-34)
What Jesus said on the Cross surely connects with what he said during his arrest the previous evening. Simon Peter tried to rely on violence to prevent the arrest of Jesus by drawing his sword and cutting off the right ear of Malchus, the servant of the High Priest, one of those sent to arrest Jesus. Jesus said to Peter: “Put your sword back in its scabbard; am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?” [18:11)
On the Cross, so close to the end, Jesus was determined to complete the work the Father had given him, to drink the cup the Father had given him.
The Thirst of Jesus was to do the will of the Father. The thirst of Jesus was for all of us to do the will of the Father. The thirst of Jesus was for you and for me.
If you go into the chapel of the Missionaries of Charity, Mother Teresa’s Sisters, anywhere in the world you will see beside the Crucifix the words I THIRST. Mother Teresa (Blessed Teresa of Kolkata) established this practice because these words of Jesus interpreted her life-long spiritual journey. From the time she left the Loreto Sisters she experienced two profound spiritual experiences: one was an interior darkness which stayed with her most of the rest of her life. You can read about it in an unusual book COME BE MY LIGHT.
This darkness was not simply a purification or simple trial: it was a share in the darkness of Calvary, it was a share in the darkness of those who live without faith in God, of those who feel abandoned, rejected, oppressed.
The other religious experience was at work in her life even before she left the Loreto sisters; it was what impelled her to leave the security of the traditional convent and go into the streets with her Missionaries of Charity: TO SATIATE THE THIRST OF JESUS ON THE CROSS.
Despite or because of the profound inner darkness, Mother Teresa experienced an unquenchable thirst for God. She found this thirst for God more painful than the deepest darkness. From the first “Inspiration Day” (Sept 10th 1946) on the train from Kolkata to Darjeeling, she was experiencing something of the Thirst of Jesus on the Cross.
It was her share in this Thirst that was expressed in her consuming passion for the poorest of the poor. For over 40 years she could not stop speaking about the Thirst of Jesus. Her insight into the Thirst of Jesus is offered to all who ponder this sacred word of Jesus from the Cross.
Another contemporary witness to the Thirst of Jesus is Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. In reflecting on this word of Jesus from the Cross, Benedict draws our attention to the fact that the response to Jesus’ cry of thirst was to offer him vinegar: vinegar symbolising sourness, bitterness, staleness.
“We ourselves” he writes, “repeatedly respond to God’s bountiful love with vinegar -with a sour heart that is unable to perceive God’s love”.
How often, I wonder, have we offered the leavings of our lives, the tired and empty husk of our lives to Jesus ?
The cry of Jesus I THIRST is made directly to us tonight.
How shall we respond?