THE THREE HOURS, PREACHED BY THE REV'D DR PHILIP PFATTEICHER
AT THE CHURCH OF THE ADVENT, GOOD FRIDAY, APRIL 22, 2011

1. Father, Forgive

Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them;
for they do not know what they are doing.”
Luke 23:34

In the night of November 14, 1940 an ominous drone filled the darkness over central England. The droning gathered to a roar, and fire fell from the sky as 500 German aircraft dropped 600 tons of high explosives on the city of Coventry where airplane engine factories were located. The fire fell all night: it was the longest sustained raid endured by any British city in the Second World War.

With the dawn the results of the raid on the 900-year old city became clear: 400 people had been killed, many more seriously injured, the factories were ruined, the center of the medieval city was obliterated. It was, said Churchill, “the most devastating raid which we sustained.”

At the center of the devastation was the 14th-century cathedral. That church, which had endured warfare and English weather for 500 years, now in the morning light lay a ruined shell.

But there was something else. On that horrid morning someone had taken two charred timbers from the church, made them into a cross, and set it up where the altar had been; and someone had taken charcoal from the smoldering ruin and written on the remains of the apse two words, “Father, forgive.” In 1962 a new cathedral was built beside the ruins of the old. The ruins remain; the charred cross and the two words are still there, the words now cut deep into the stones of the ruined apse for later generations to read, FATHER, FORGIVE.

It was the work of someone who understood, of someone who had been so formed by that holy place that the essence of the Gospel was clear and apparent, even amid the horror of that devastation. The Luftwaffe raid was an attack on essential aircraft factories and on people—civilians, women and children and the old and the sick; it was an attack on the spirit of the English people; it was an attack on civilization, on religion and architecture and art and music and culture--all that gives meaning and depth to a society. But still, amid the smoking ruins of the city, the soul of civilization still lived; indeed it lived with a new power.

Remarkably, the spire of the ancient cathedral survived, a sign perhaps of the indomitable faith of the people of Coventry. But a clearer sign of that living faith was written on the wall: “Father, forgive.” There the soul of the people shone out more clearly than ever in contrast to the barbaric attack. Those two words gave answer to the air raid.

“Don’t get mad; get even,” we say. And the British did that, to be sure. They did not cave in under the constant Blitz. Within two weeks the factories of Coventry were running again. Night after night, month after month, the bombs fell, but the British would not bow. Hitler abandoned his plan to invade England.

The payback came on February 13, 1945 when the Allies, led by Sir Arthur Harris, nicknamed “Bomber Harris,” fire-bombed the exquisite German city of Dresden, a center of Baroque art and music and culture. Dresden was destroyed and with it a glorious rococo jewel, the 18th century Frauenkirche, the Church of Our Lady. Germany’s loss was greater than its devastation of Coventry.

The fire-bombing of Dresden was a direct answer to the fire-bombing of England, and this raid did lead to the surrender of the victims. But with the perspective of two-thirds of a century, we have come to admit that what was done to Dresden stained the victory of the Allies. It is something that we cannot be proud of. Overwhelming retaliatory power was not the answer.

The power, we may come at last to see, lay not in that awesome raid on Dresden. The power did not come three months later in the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany. The power lay in two words written on the ruins of the cathedral in Coventry, “Father, forgive.”

The first words that Jesus spoke from the cross, as St. Luke tells it, are not confined to the distant and irrecoverable past. They remain charged with vigor; they leap from the ancient text and speak to us and speak for us. For what the Luftwaffe did to Coventry, for what we did to Dresden, for what our enemies did to us in that in all wars, for what we have done to our enemies, “Father, forgive.”

Each Good Friday we who keep this solemn day are brought face to face with the way of God. As we gather again at the Place of the Skull and ponder what happened there, we learn the power not of war but of peace, not of brutality but of love, not of hate but of reconciliation. The quiet words of a dying young man finally drown out the bombs and the fire and all the accumulated thunder of violence and hatred of all the centuries. For here on the cross we see the compelling revelation of God’s power—real, lasting, ultimately irresistible.

The cathedral church in Coventry is dedicated to St. Michael, the warrior archangel, the leader of the heavenly armies. His name was thought to mean “who is like God,” and it is in the ruins of that cathedral church of St. Michael that we see what it means to be like God. We see that the angelic hosts are not just like earthly armies, only stronger, with insuperable might and invincible strength.

The lesson of Good Friday, God’s Friday, is that the power of God is revealed not in might and overwhelming force, but in weakness and in love and in prayer for one’s enemies.

We are witnessing on that cross this day a warfare very different from the combat the world knows. Here on the cross we see the revelation of a new sort of power, a paradoxical power that, St. Paul says, is perfected in weakness. It confounds the world and its ideas of power.

The victory of Coventry is inscribed on the ruins of the church: FATHER, FORGIVE. In this first saying of Jesus we begin to see already the triumph of the cross. With the events of this dread day we are entering upon an entirely new realm, and it fills us with awe and wonder. Here on the Hill of the Skull, in a broken body, we see the unbroken power of love.

 

2. Today . . . Paradise

One of the criminals who were hanged there . . . said,
“Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.”
He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in
Paradise.”
Luke 23:42-43

A door slams shut, and then there is silence. That can be a powerful action on a stage, or in a film, or in our own life. There is an argument, and someone storms out of the room, out of the house, slamming the door shut to close off that event, that portion of a life, as if to eradicate it from memory.

We imagine another scene. A steel door clangs shut with a chilling metallic reverberation, and a prisoner is alone in a cell with no possible way of escape.

The slam of a door pierces us to the heart.

So it was in the garden of paradise. In the picture language of Genesis two people chose to do what they had been explicitly told not to do, and as their teeth cut into the fruit that they had been forbidden to eat, a door slams shut. In that apparently simple, even trivial act we hear a heavy thud that has had its effect on us down through all the generations of all the centuries. By their disobedience our first parents had excluded themselves from paradise; they were driven from the garden into the world that you and I know, and an angel with a sword of fire sealed off any hope of return to that garden. Paradise was lost.

On another level of our experience, dreaded news comes to us, shatters our dreams, destroys our hopes, and we can never be the same again. Innocence is broken.

So it was when the First World War erupted with its unprecedented violence into the complacency of Europe and then of America. In the mud and the disease of the trenches, with the fiery throats of huge guns, with the poison gas, an entire generation of young men was obliterated. And out of the desolation, the poet Philip Larkin spoke for and to a shattered world: “Never such innocence again.” [“MXMXIV”] The Great War altered things permanently.

The childhood of humanity was over, its innocence ended, and we were plunged into the grown-up world, shaken by the knowledge that “you can’t go home again.” The past is gone beyond recovery. We may look back longingly to childhood, but it is lost to us except in fading memory.

And so we lost children of Adam and Eve, we inheritors of rebellion and its consequences, we who ourselves have made a ruin of our lives, come to this church today to sit beneath the great Holy Rood and ponder what it means.

We are confronted by the enormity of what we as a race have done to one another, what we have done to the world in which we live, what we have done to our Creator. There on that cross, we see the result of our sin, its full effect revealed and made plain. There we are shown who we are.

And then into that hopelessness a word is spoken, a word to a thief who deserved his execution according to Roman law and who knew that it was so, a word that reaches beyond that repentant thief to touch even us. Jesus says to him and, we believe, to us, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”

The two thieves and the thousands upon thousands who were put to death on Roman crosses all died for themselves, many justly, some surely innocent and undeserving of death. But that man between the two thieves this day included them all and all of us as well in his death. He went where all who were before him had gone and where all after him must go. He did not go into the darkness of death alone; he went on our behalf. His death, the Church has confessed and preached down through the centuries, was for us.

And in a deeper sense, when he died, all humanity died with him. For he was taking all of us back where we came from, returning to the garden, to paradise that we thought had been lost for ever.

The mighty warrior assaults the gates that have closed us in our prison house of death. The doors that have slammed shut now open before him, and a way of return home is opened for us.

The language of the Church’s praise proclaims this opening of the gates. In the Te Deum we sing to the victorious Victim, “You overcame the sting of death and opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers.”

In the collect for Easter Day we will pray to God “who through your only-begotten Son Jesus Christ overcame death and opened to us the gate of everlasting life.”

Today the gates that had shut us out are being opened.

At the end of the first part of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress Christian and Hopeful, after many battles and long struggles, at last come up to the gate of heaven. Bunyan describes the scene in his quaint but still effective language:

Now just as the gates were opened to let in the men, I looked in after them; and
behold, the City shone like the sun, and the streets also were paved with gold, and
in them walked many men with crowns on their heads, and golden harps to sing
praises withal.

There were also of them that had wings, and they answered one another without
intermission, saying, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord.” And after that, they shut up
the gates: which when I had seen, I wished myself among them.

For John Bunyan and for the usual way of thinking, one day out there ahead of us in the future the gates of paradise will open for us and for each believer when our time comes to enter the holy city.

But notice what Jesus says to the thief: “Today, Paradise.” Today? we wonder. On Good Friday? Doesn’t he have to wait at least until Easter or even until Ascension Day when Jesus will enter heaven? But the word, the wonderful word, is “today.”

It has been a favorite word of St. Luke in his gospel which began with the angels’ announcement to the shepherds, “Today is born to you a savior, Christ the Lord”; then Jesus’ announcement to Zacchaeus, “Today I must stay at your house” (19:5); and now to the repentant thief, “Today, Paradise.”

It is a way of announcing that eternity has broken into time, that the eternal present is already here, that we are dealing not with events of the distant past “once upon a time” nor looking longingly to the far-off future, saying “I wish I were in heaven.”

Like us, God is concerned with today, our life just now wherever we are. Precisely here, God comes to us and extends his hands and welcomes into the kingdom people who don’t deserve it—sinners of all kinds, the outcasts of society, repentant thieves, even ourselves, saying, “Today, Paradise.” The gates open to us, and we are home.

 

3. Son . . . Mother

When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her,
he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your Son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.”
John 19:26-27

Four months ago in this church we sang, sweetly and gladly, the delightful carol,

The angel Gabriel from heaven came,
His wings as drifted snow, his eyes as flame;
“All hail,” said he, “thou lowly maiden Mary,
Most highly favored lady. Gloria.

For know a blessed mother thou shalt be,
All generations laud and honor thee;
Thy Son shall be Emmanuel, by seers foretold,
Most highly favored lady. Gloria.

Then Christmas came, and we continued to sing of that “most highly favored lady.” We had warm and comforting thoughts of a mother and her child; we set up a representation of that familiar scene, back there by the door to the library. It was, as always, a truly joyful time.

We praise that most holy night because it saw the Incarnation: God taking human flesh, immortality born of a mortal mother.

Martin Luther, who is often quoted from this pulpit, in his splendid exposition of the Song of Mary, the Magnificat, says of the experience of this “most highly favored lady,” “It needs to be pondered in the heart what it means to be the mother of God.”

So we think of Christmas and praise her in song and ascribe grand titles to our blessed lady, the pure and holy and ever-virgin mother of our God and Savior.

Now, four months later, we come to this day, the most horrid day in the history of the world, when mortals nailed their God and Savior to a cross and left him there until he was dead.

It is to us, gathered here before that cross, that Luther speaks still. Look at the young man dying, look at his mother watching him as he hangs there, remember Michelangelo’s Pieta, that famous sculpture of a still-young woman holding in her lap the body of her dead Son. Imagine the scene as clearly as you can, and then hear again Luther’s words, “It needs to be pondered in the heart what it means to be the mother of God.”

A shattered family. Joseph was gone. Now her only child, her Son, was dying, and she was left to face the rest of her life alone—unprotected, with no one to console her.

But it was not be as desolate as that. Her Son did not abandon her who, the Gospels show, had been present at each of the significant events of his life. He commends to one another’s care the two faithful followers who were still there, his mother and John the beloved disciple.

It is not just that as a dutiful Son he thought of others and their well being even in the extremity of his Passion. For he is not just a thoroughly good and caring man. As he dies he establishes a community, his family, gathering those who belonged to him and by his death establishing a new people who are to share his love. “Here is your son. Here is your mother.”

There is more here than the human tragedy of a mother watching her son die. That is almost unbearably painful. But there were all those grand promises at the beginning.

Mary . . .you have found favor with God. . . . He will be great, and will be called
the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of his
ancestor David, He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his
kingdom there will be no end.

And it was an angel who had said that to a frightened young woman. Great . . . Son of the Most High . . . a King for ever.

She accepted the Word of God with its grand promises, and the Incarnation happened. But that was only the beginning. The years of growing, adolescence, young manhood were all leading to this Friday, for this too was part of what it meant to be the mother of God.

There was the joy of the Incarnation, and there was the horror of watching him die. “It needs to be pondered in the heart what it means to be the mother of God.”

Great; Son of the Most High; a King for ever: where was it all now? What had become of those grand and thrilling promises? She had to watch him, of whom all that had been spoken, die. It broke her heart.

In that broken heart, she, and we, find a revelation of the depth of those promises that she had heard so many years before. The promises were grander than she could have understood at the beginning, more profound than she could understand now at the cross. They had to do not with earthly glory or might. They overturned all human expectations. The grand promises embraced the will and the way of God.

That wonderful will and way is this: it was because she “found favor with God” that the joyful mother became the mother of sorrows. The Gospel suggests that the blessed mother was led from joy to grief precisely because she had found favor with God. A compelling sign of divine favor was her place at the cross. She was honored by being chosen to share in the sufferings of her Son. There are people in this congregation today who have also been so blessed, whose very anguish is a sign of God’s favor.

As we probe this paradox, be clear that it is not that God sadistically enjoys making people suffer. Today before the cross of the Son of God we are to learn that the soaring promises that were so thrilling at Christmas are on Good Friday still being unfolded to reveal yet more of their profound depth. The meaning of those promises lies far deeper than Mary or we had suspected, for the meaning of these promises included this death.

 

4. My God, Why?

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 27:46
Mark 15:34

There is no more terrifying verse in all scripture than this: “My God, why have you forsaken me?” It shatters our illusions about the Bible and human life and God.

We are sometimes inclined to think that the Gospel—the good news of God in Christ—is entirely lovely, a source of great comfort in a wretched world. We hear the media preachers inviting us to come to God who is waiting for us, always there, ever-dependable, just a prayer away, “Invite him into your heart.”

But if you have ever been in a real crisis, if you have any experience of the spiritual life, you know that prayer does not always seem to work. We cry out in agony, and our cry disappears into the air. We pray earnestly, for hours, even whole days at a time, and there is no reply. Heaven seems shut, and our words come back at us as empty echoes. No one is listening.

If we were to pray and receive as an answer a clear No, we would be able to bear it: at least we would have a reply, at least we would know that our prayer had been heard and rejected. But sometimes there is no response at all.

It was this silence of heaven that tormented the English poet Thomas Hardy. If human suffering could be explained as the will of some perverse god who likes to see people suffer, then, Hardy said, he would at least have an explanation. But it was the silence of heaven that tormented Hardy almost unbearably and drove him out to the edge of the Church.

Even the saintly priest George Herbert, “holy Mr. Herbert” his loving parishioners called him, 300 years before Hardy, found heaven sometimes closed and God not paying any attention. Two weeks ago we heard Father Warren read Herbert’s poem “Denial” in which he complained to God,

When my devotions could not pierce
Thy silent ears;
Then was my heart broken, as was my verse:
My breast was full of fears
And disorder.
* * *
O that thou shouldst give dust a tongue
To cry to thee,
And then not hear it crying! all day long
My heart was in my knee
But no hearing.

We don’t like to hear that. So we flatten out the terrain of devotion and make God the superlative of human kindness who could not possibly be hard on anyone.

Henry Fothergill Chorley’s well-known hymn originally began, “God, the all-terrible King who ordainest/Great winds thy chariot, lightnings thy sword.” But “God the all-terrible” soon became “God the all-merciful” and then (somewhat better) “God the omnipotent.” “God the all-terrible” is not what we want to hear. It isn’t good for the children.

Early in the last century Lutherans used Edward Caswall’s translation of Adeste fidelis, which began, “Come, hither, ye faithful, triumphantly sing;/Come see in the manger the angels’ dread king.” [CSB 21] We don’t sing that anymore.

But when we are plunged into the depths, pleasant optimism won’t do. Today we watch the dread king of angels on the cross, and our souls are shattered by his piercing cry to the all-terrible, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” To make that cry still more overwhelming, St. Matthew and St. Mark give it as Jesus’ only words from the cross, and, in the first two gospels, with that terrifying cry Jesus dies.

It is a quotation from Psalm 22 of course. We heard the whole Psalm last night at the stripping of the altar, and we will pray it again in a few minutes. It is a Psalm that begins in desolation but which concludes in confidence. But to say that may be a way of softening this terrifying cry and making it palatable—and distorting the fullness of the Gospel. All we have from Jesus is the first verse of that Psalm.

So we dare not weaken the force of this cry. We must allow it to pierce us to the depths of our souls and to shatter all easy and undemanding religion. The sinless Son of God abandoned by the One whose will he was fulfilling to perfection. The Son of God forsaken by the Father.

God himself has felt not only human life and death but the depth of our experience of abandonment as well. The most distressing experience that can come to us—that God is gone—was known and felt even by God.

Having allowed this dreadful cry to pierce our souls, note this about that cry. In the extremity of desolation Jesus still calls the One who has abandoned him, “My God.” It is a claim that soars far beyond our casual use of the phrase as an ordinary oath that cheapens its depth and cheats us of reverence. Even in abandonment Jesus allows God to be God, who is to be honored as good and gracious even if God acts and speaks otherwise, even if all our feeling and understanding contradict that assertion of goodness. Jesus in death is certain that God is gracious even though he does not feel it.

He feels one way, but he believes otherwise. He cries out honestly in agonizing pain, yet he leaves it all to God’s goodness, fixing neither time nor place, neither manner nor measure. God will act when it pleases him and will make of this death what had been in God’s mind since the foundation of the world. That is sure and certain. But it will happen in God’s time and in God’s way, not ours.

 

5. I thirst

When Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said
(in order to fulfill the scripture), “I am thirsty.”
John 19:28

St. John the Evangelist has his own way of telling the story of Jesus. When you try to make a harmony of the Gospels, John’s gospel doesn’t match up very well with the first three. His order is different; his emphasis is distinctive; his way of telling the story is his own.

In this fourth gospel, things mean more than they seem. So it is with this fifth word from the cross. “I thirst,” or even more blandly in the modern translations, “I am thirsty.” Our response is likely to be, “But of course.” Thirst is a natural consequence of excruciating crucifixion at midday in the Middle East. “I thirst”? Of course.

This was a horrid way to die: desiccated in the heat of the noonday sun, the weight of the body constricting the chest and compressing the lungs so that the victim suffocated, all in plain view of casual passersby. Jesus feels intense human pain. The God we worship is not a God far off, remote, removed from the anguish of this world. But as always in John, there is more.

This word (and that’s all it is in Greek, one word, just four letters) is John’s equivalent of the only word from the cross reported by Matthew and Mark—“My God, why have you forsaken me?” Here are two comparable sayings that attempt to get at the same basic fact. Something deeply disturbing is going on.

In the picture presented by Matthew and Mark, God’s Son is abandoned by God. How can we begin to comprehend the depth of such abandonment, let alone begin to understand it? In the picture presented by St. John, God’s Son is drained of life-giving, life-supporting water. “My God, why?” “I thirst.” Two deep and profoundly distressing mysteries confront us today.

John had been carefully preparing his readers for this saying. In chapter 3 of John’s gospel Jesus had said to Nicodemus, “You must be born of water and the spirit,” for together water and spirit give life.

In chapter 4 Jesus had declared to the Samaritan woman at the well, “Whoever drinks of the water that I shall give will never thirst” because that living water wells up to eternal life.

In chapter 5 we learn of the healing water in the pool of Bethesda [Bethzatha].

But most of all we need to bear in mind the use and meaning of water in chapter 7 at the most popular of all the great Jewish festivals, the Feast of Tabernacles. Pilgrims gathered in Jerusalem and lived in light shelters, booths or tents, to remind themselves of their time in the wilderness. It was a time of joy and celebration. On each of the first seven days of the feast a golden vessel was filled with water from the Pool of Siloam and brought to the temple as the words of Isaiah 12 were sung, “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.”

The water that was carried at the Feast of Tabernacles was a reminder of the water that Moses drew from the rock in the desert [Numb. 20:2-13] and a symbol of the hope of coming deliverance by the Messiah. For seven days water was brought in a golden pitcher from the pool to the temple. But not on the eighth day.

On the last and culminating day of the feast, its solemn eighth day, “Jesus stood up and proclaimed, ‘If any thirst, let them come to me and drink.’” [7:37] At the culmination of the feast, when the Jews reminded themselves that they depended on God for that elemental gift essential to life, the gift of water, Jesus declares, “If any thirst, let them come to me and drink.”

But now as the end nears, we hear the same Jesus cry, “I thirst.” Our faith in him is shaken to its foundations. He who had proclaimed, “I can supply living water” now himself is thirsty and cannot satisfy his own desperate need. The one who had proclaimed, “If any thirst, let them come to me,” now himself is thirsty. Now in Jesus the well of life has run dry, the living water is stopped, the man is parched.

But at the Feast of Tabernacles Jesus adds, “As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’” And then, perhaps, we begin to understand. Before long, to be sure of his death, one of the executioners will pierce Jesus’ side with a spear, and out will flow, John reports, blood and water.

That is to say, this death will give life, and we can have a share in that divine life by that blood and water—the water of Holy Baptism and the blood of Holy Communion.

Tomorrow night at the Great Vigil of Easter we will gather in the baptistery of this parish church, and there in the prayer over the font we will hear again words that uncover for us the meaning of water.

We thank you, Almighty God, for the gift of water.
Over it the Holy Spirit moved in the beginning of creation.
Through it you led the children of Israel out of their bondage in Egypt
into the land of promise.
In it your Son Jesus received the baptism of John
and was anointed by the Holy Spirit. . . .

We thank you, Father, for the water of Baptism.
In it we are buried with Christ in his death.
By it we share in his resurrection.
Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.

“I thirst,” says Jesus in his extremity, but this deprivation was for us, to make available to us the living water of Holy Baptism by which we are given our share in the deed we watch today.

We who take these events with the utmost seriousness do more than mediate on the Passion. We do more than mentally ponder these dread events, turning them over in our minds. We who have been baptized have been immersed in the death of Christ; we bear his seal and sign on our foreheads. By that sacrament of birth into Christ and by our reception of the sacrament of his body and blood, we carry in our bodies the whole work of Christ for us. What happened to him happens to us.

 

6. It is Finished

When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.”
John 19:30

And now the end is near.

Beneath the Great Rood we imagine ourselves there on Golgotha, for we have gathered this day to watch him die. We do it as somberly as we can at this service: without the magnificent choir, without a procession or cross or candles, without incense, without vestments (for the cassock, as you know, is only a basic garment and not itself a vestment.) This service is as plain as we can make it. (And at the Church of the Advent that takes some doing.)

The liturgical enactment and celebration of this day with its ancient ceremonies takes place this evening. But this service of the preaching of the Passion is remarkably barren in order to focus our hearts and our spirits on what this death means for us and for all the world. During Passiontide we veil crosses and statues; this service extends that concealment of all that may distract us. It is like closing the blinds and drawing the curtains, for we are in mourning for ourselves and for the world.

Christians around the world today assemble in churches and in heart and mind to ponder this death, to meditate upon its meaning. But we do so not to mourn a fallen leader, not to lament the untimely passing of “the young prince of glory” whose life was abruptly cut off.

For all of the simplicity of this service, despite its barren somberness and shades of mourning, there is a deep undercurrent of confidence that we dare not miss.

“It is finished.” This last saying according to John’s account of the Passion is filled not with resignation, not with relief that the agony has now at last come to its end. This last saying is suffused with triumph, for these are words announcing achievement: it is finished, accomplished, done. In the incomparable words of Christopher Smart’s hymn that you may know,

And now the matchless deed’s achieved
Determined, dared, and done. [no. 386]

And so it is. “It is finished.” With these words Jesus claims victory; he has accomplished what he came to do.

The key to this “sixth word” from the cross is in the pronoun “it.” What, we may well ask, is finished? His life, we may perhaps answer quickly, for, as John tells the story, with these words Jesus dies. But a more careful answer would be that what was finished was his life in this world of space and time, for there was life still ahead, beyond the confines of the grave.

The suffering is over at last, to be sure. I suppose every priest has said something like that at certain funerals, echoing the thought of the family and the congregation. Now at last the suffering is done; now at last comes the long-awaited, long-delayed peace. Lots of us have felt that; many of us have said that.

But here at the Place of the Skull we are not watching a mere mortal die. We have come to watch and to ponder the death of Christ our God. In that wonderfully poetic description in the Revelation of St. John the Divine [13:8], he is “the Lamb who has been slain from the foundation of the world.” This death is the completion of a work begun ages before the birth of the young man on the cross whom we are watching today.

Today we ponder the culmination of the whole story of the Bible from the garden and lost paradise, to Noah and the great flood, to Father Abraham and the chosen people of God, to Egypt and slavery, to Moses and the Red Sea and deliverance, to the promised land, to David the king, to Solomon and the temple, to Elijah and all the prophets, to the exile in Babylonia and return to the land of promise. All that long history of salvation has been moving toward this place, preparing for this act; and now it is finished. It is nothing less than a new creation.

Throughout this fourth gospel Jesus has often spoken of his “hour.” He said it first at Cana, when he said (rather rudely it may seem) to his mother, “My hour is not yet come.” Twice [7:30; 8:20] his enemies were ready to arrest him but “no one laid hands on him, for,” John explains, “his hour had not yet come.”

Half-way through the gospel, as the shadows gather around him, Jesus solemnly announces to his disciples, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” [12:23]

This “hour” of which he spoke is his time of triumph, the fulfillment of all that he came to do, the completion of his Father’s work for which he had been sent. And that hour of triumphant revelation came on a cross. It is there on that blood-stained tree in the broken body of a young man that we are able to look into the heart of God.

For John, the moment of death is paradoxically the moment of glorification. The instrument of death becomes the source of life. This tree becomes a throne, and a bloodied body reigns over the universe, crowned with light and victory, for such is the wonderful way of God. Death, who by a tree in the garden of paradise once overcame the new human race, now by a tree on Golgotha is overcome. The work of destruction is subverted, the ruined is restored, the lost regained.

The transforming victory is won not by force of arms, not by overwhelming might or violence, but by the invincible strength of love, enduring the worst that the might of Rome and the hatred of humanity could inflict, and by that endurance revealing the ultimate powerlessness that lay at the center of earthly force.

Jesus Christ dies in triumph.

 

7. Into Your Hands

Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands
I commend my spirit.” Having said this, he breathed his last.
Luke 23:46

With these words of quiet confidence Luke brings to a close his account of the end of Jesus’ earthly life. They stand in contrast to John’s last word of ringing triumph, “Finished!” These final words breathe Luke’s characteristic spirit; they are thoroughly in character for the portrait that Luke has been painting: quiet, confident, prayerful.

The last word from the cross in John’s gospel and the last word in Luke are in sharp contrast to each other. And yet—before we conclude that they come from widely divergent areas of early Christian experience—we need to observe that they are not so different after all. They represent John’s characteristic way and Luke’s characteristic way of making what is essentially the same point.

That point is that Jesus has been in charge throughout his Passion, from the trial to the execution. Pilate poses as an insightful judge, but Pilate was himself on trial. Then people had their way, and Jesus was handed over to be crucified as had been decreed from the foundation of the world.

The soldiers nailed him to the cross of execution and in so doing made it possible for life to be restored to the whole world. The might of Rome and its vast empire easily stamped out the life of an obscure religious teacher, and thereby sealed the fate and secured the place of that young rabbi in the center of history.

That mighty empire has passed away, and the realm of that man they executed continues to spread. The world and all its powers, they thought, were no match for this puny prophet; and they were right. They are all gone, and he remains.

Jesus is the one who is in charge throughout his passion, and so he is at the end. He does not surrender to death. He does not passively give up. Even in the agony of a brutal death, he hands over his soul to the Father.

He is indeed the victim, the sacrificial Lamb who went uncomplaining to his death, but he is also, at the same time, the priest who offers this sacrifice of himself. We sing of him in a translation of a Latin hymn of the 7th century,

Offered was he for greatest and for least,
Himself the victim and himself the priest. [327/328]

He says of his death, “I commend my spirit.”

“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” He said that as the divine High Priest as he, making sacrifice, hands over his spirit. “Into your hands I commend my spirit.” He said that in his human nature too. He does so not knowing exactly what would happen, not knowing what precisely would be done with his sacrifice.

It is enough for this young priest to embody and to make his own the words of the psalmist, “In the volume of the book it is written of me, ‘I have come to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart.’” [40:7-8]

He taught us by his word and by his own example to pray to the Father, “Thy will be done.” So now, having done what he came to do, he can with perfect confidence turn the work of perfect obedience over to the Father and let God do with it what he will.

This last saying from the cross continues to teach us. “Into your hands I commend my spirit” is another way, a more personal way of praying “Thy will be done.” Again we are taught by Jesus’ own example to pray that God’s will be done to us, and for us, and by us. His trust, and ours, is in the larger purpose and plan of God to which we gladly submit, not yet knowing what it all means, knowing only that the God who demands it of us is a good and loving Father.

Confident of acceptance, confident of continuing care, Jesus can die. Thus surrounded by the love and unearthly power of God, Jesus begins the passage from death into life.

In the office of Compline, sung as Christians prepare to go to sleep, the responsory following the short lesson echoes this last word of the dying Savior, “Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.” Such is the way the Church says Good Night. The last earthly words of Jesus are taken up by his Church every night, and these quiet words live on in his body and in his people as in prayer they conclude each day and prepare for sleep.

So it can be when our last hour comes. One day each of us will be able with final confidence and obedience and surrender to say with Christ and to Christ, “Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.” And then we can peacefully go where Christ has led the way.