THE SEVEN LAST WORDS OF JESUS FROM THE CROSS
FATHER, INTO YOUR HANDS I COMMEND MY SPIRIT
PREACHER FR GERARD McCABE C.Ss.R
We live in a world which has been utterly transformed by the fact that communication has become so easy for us in all kinds of ways. To a person even my age, it would have been impossible to imagine the internet, social media, 24 hour news, Skype and Facebook. Although all these forms of communication are always open to abuse, we have to acknowledge that this has been a marvellous blessing on our lives.
One of the results of our capacity to communicate instantly with almost anyone in the world, is the huge rise of interest groups which cover almost the whole spectrum of human experience. We have groups of Arsenal fans all over the world who discuss everything related to their club. We have groups of people who hate Arsenal and who have their own interest groups! And so it is with almost every feature of life. We live at a time when, in terms of our social communications, anything goes. Or perhaps I should say that almost anything goes.
There seems to be one final social taboo when it comes to our conversations, and that it the topic of death. On the face of it, this seems to be very strange. The one single fact that we all have in common, other than that we have been born, is that we will all die. Yet it is an area of life where none of us talks very freely, either in our family homes, or among our friends, or in society. It was not always like that. In previous times, people lived with a vivid awareness of their own mortality, and the knowledge of death shaped the lives of many past generations. It seems that those days have gone. But hopefully not forever.
In the middle of the 20th century one of the great philosophers of recent times, Martin Heidegger, spoke of the loss of our human potential that occurs when we fail to properly acknowledge the fact that we are going to die. He claimed that unless we recognise that death is a natural boundary for each one of us, then we will never be able to live an authentic life.
The removal of a healthy recognition of death often makes the actual experience of a death in the family more difficult than it might be. Both of my parents have now died. My dad was 74 when he died, and my Mum was 77.
My dad was a quiet man, who did not often show a lot of emotion. He was a good man but he didn’t often open up except about soccer and the joys of drinking good whisky! He had always been healthy but he suddenly took ill about 9 years ago. When he went to the doctor he was diagnosed with stage four cancer, and there was nothing could be done. We were told that he would have about 6 months to live. I was lecturing at the time and couldn’t just leave and go home. So I planned to travel home for my parents’ golden wedding when I thought my Dad would still be relatively okay. But one night I got a phone call from my sister to say that my Dad had very suddenly deteriorated. I just thank God that I managed to get home a few hours before he died. There was time for me to have a final glass of whisky with him and then he just very peacefully slipped away. Of course, the hardest thing I have ever had to do in my life so far was to celebrate the Requiem Mass of both my parents.
But in the months of grief after my return to South Africa, I often regretted that I had never in my life spoken to my Dad about death. Even in his final illness he never spoke to anyone in the family about the fact that he was dying. But in the weeks after his death my Mum kept finding little notes of love in all kinds of places telling her how much he loved her, and how he thanked God that he was going to die before my Mum.
After that I made a resolution that whenever I was home I would talk to her about facing up to death and the dread of losing one another. So each time I went home, at the end of the evening, just before going up to bed we would speak about God, about our love and about the fact that she was growing weaker. These were not morbid conversations but sacred moments of grace in both of our lives.
My Beloved Mum died 2 years ago last Christmas. Again, I got a phone call from my sister to say that my Mum had fallen down the stairs and was in a very critical condition. She had broken every bone down the left side of her body. The doctors told us that my Mum would not last for 24 hours. This was not because of her horrific injuries but because it was cardiac failure that had caused the fall. We spent those hours at her bedside, gathered in anguish and heartbreak and prayer. But although she was always on the point of death my Mum did not die. There was of course nothing the doctors could do for her other than try to control her pain. But we received the grace of getting Mum back home where she wanted to be. And she lived for another 6 or 7 weeks. It has always been such a blessing to me that we had Mum home for those precious weeks. My sister and I took turns to sleep next to her each night. In the weeks leading up to her death she was never alone for a single second.
As a priest I have often been at people’s deathbed. But I have never known anyone to go through such a painful last week of life. It broke our hearts to stand by utterly helpless as we watched Mum’s last great struggle. All we could do was to pray that God might take her so that her sufferings might finally be over. I still vividly remember my niece Clare asking me in floods of tears why God could allow her beloved Gran to go through so much agony. I had no answer.
All I remember of that last week of Mum’s life is that none of us slept for a moment. And the only prayer I could make during those awful days was an echo of the last words that Jesus spoke from the Cross:
Father, into your hands I commend Mum’s spirit.
The end finally came. And in all the heartbreak there was also a huge sense of relief that the person I have loved most in the world was finally at rest, and with the God who made her and loved her. And I also had the spiritual consolation of knowing that in our conversations my Mum had prepared my heart to accept that this day would come.
Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.
During these last six weeks we have been given the grace of reflecting on the last seven words that Jesus spoke as he was dying on the Cross. His first word was a prayer to the Father asking for the forgiveness of the world. His last word is one which is full of grace and acceptance. It is a final act of trust and faith in His Father. It is prayer of trust that His life had not been in vain, and that he had achieved all that the Father had asked him.
It is also a prayer that reflects not only the last word of Jesus, but that reflects his whole life. It embraces the fact that throughout his life Jesus was continually commending his spirit into the hands of His Father. He did this in his every action, his every teaching, his every miracle and prayer. The last word of Jesus therefore is more than a prayer but a reflection of who he was at every moment of his life on earth. It is a word that consoles us too, even though our hearts are anguished as we stand at the foot of the Cross with Mary and the few faithful disciples, while Jesus draws His last breathe.
Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.
This last prayer of Jesus, most significantly, teaches us to live in such a way that we will die with those final words of Jesus engraved on our hearts and spirits.
All of us here tonight are going to make our own journey to death. All those we most love and care for are going to die. To speak of this is not to be morbid but to be living our faith appropriately.
Some of us will die relatively young. Many of us will live into old age. Some of us will die suddenly and unexpectedly, perhaps without even a moment to pray. Others of us will have time to prepare for death and to find perfect reconciliation with all our loved ones. Others too will die of diseases like Alzheimer’s and have no real knowledge of either personal existence or the proximity of death. That we will die is certain, how we will die it is a mercy that we do not know.
Since the event of our death is largely out of our control, it is important that we already make Jesus’ final word our own. It is a prayer that we might usefully say each day in anticipation of the fact that there will come a moment when each of us will commit our spirit into the loving hands of the Father. It is a prayer that we should make our own each day, not out of fear or dread, but with the same faith and trust and hope in which Jesus uttered his final word.
And, even more importantly, this prayer should not simply be a prayer in preparation for the moment of our death. It should be for each of us a prayer that already in our daily lives we place all that we are, and all that we do into the loving hands of the Father. It should be a prayer that each day we more and more into the loving Providence of God, who loves us and holds us in the palm of His hand.
Many of the great saints of our faith also offer us a model of how to live in such a way that each day we commend our spirits into the loving hands of God. Today Christians in many parts of the world are being martyred for their faith, even though this is a fact that is largely ignored in the Western media. They are our brothers and sisters. We should remember them as they do what we most desire to do: to give their all for the love of God.
I would like to conclude this Lenten Novena service with a prayer written by Br Charles of Foucauld, who was martyred about a 100 years go in the African desert. His prayer also reflects the last word of Jesus and asks that we might live every day that in such a way that we can face our death without fear and indeed with faith and hope.
I abandon myself into your hands; do with me what you will.
Whatever you may do, I thank you:
I am ready for all, I accept all.
Let only your will be done in me, and in all your creatures.
I wish no more than this, O Lord.
Into your hands I commend my soul;
I offer it to you
with all the love of my heart,
for I love you, Lord,
and so need to give myself,
to surrender myself into your hands,
and with boundless confidence,
for you are my Father.
Charles de Foucald