Catholic Voices - Jesus’ last words from the cross

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What do they mean for us today?

Each year our Lenten journey leads us inexorably to Good Friday, when we relive the tragic passion of our Savior and his crucifixion on Golgotha. Crucifixion was a brutal form of torture that literally stole the breath of a human being. Suspended by the arms, the weight of the crucified man made breathing extremely difficult. He could inhale but had great difficulty exhaling. To exhale, he had to straighten his legs to release the pressure on his arms and chest. But this caused excruciating pain to his feet, because of the nails.

This was the context in which Jesus uttered his “Seven Last Words,” recorded in the four Gospels: when he was literally fighting for every breath. It cost Jesus dearly to speak these words, so we should attend with special devotion to what he had to say to us:

“Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34)

“Today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:43)

“Woman, behold, your son. … Behold, your mother.” (John 19:26-27)

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46)

“I thirst.” (John 19:28)

“It is finished.” (John 19:30)

“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” (Luke 23:46)

Despite Jesus’ suffering and torment, his increasingly difficult breathing, the agony and sadness in his soul, he could not remain insensitive to the distress of those who had followed him up to Calvary. We see in the Gospels that Jesus always showed tremendous sensitivity and compassion toward those with whom he came in contact. Suspended high on a cross, the Lord even makes arrangements for the care of his mother, who stood at the foot of the cross.

On the cross, Jesus of Nazareth is the true king, but his power is unique. His throne is the cross. He is not a king who kills; on the contrary, he gives his life. His approach to every single person, especially the weakest, defeats solitude and sin’s destiny. With closeness and tenderness, God’s only Son leads sinners into the space of grace and forgiveness. He offers people mercy from the cross. In the kingdom of Jesus, there is no distance between what is religious and temporal, but rather between domination and service. Jesus’ kingdom is unlike the one that Pilate knows. Pilate’s kingdom, and for that matter the Roman kingdom, was one of arbitrariness, retribution, vengeance, recrimination, privileges, domination and occupation. Jesus’ kingdom is built on love, service, justice, peace, forgiveness and mercy.

Nailed to the cross, Jesus is the insurgent, the revolutionary of kindness, tenderness, compassion, consolation, forgiveness and care for others. From the cross, Jesus turns us outward toward people to whom we are not physically related, identifying these people as our spiritual mothers, fathers, sisters or brothers. From the cross, Jesus breaks down the barriers between people and creates this new family by the power that flows from his death for humanity.

Jesus calls us to die to self-centeredness so that we may rise up in compassion and service. In his moving homily in St. Peter’s Square on Palm Sunday last year, Pope Francis spoke about this heart-wrenching scene of Jesus’ crucifixion:

Basilian Father Thomas Rosica
Basilian Father Thomas Rosica

“He forgives those who are crucifying him, he opens the gates of paradise to the repentant thief and he touches the heart of the centurion. If the mystery of evil is unfathomable, then the reality of Love poured out through him is infinite, reaching even to the tomb and to hell. He takes upon himself all our pain that he may redeem it, bringing light to darkness, life to death, love to hatred.

“God’s way of acting may seem so far removed from our own, that he was annihilated for our sake, while it seems difficult for us to even forget ourselves a little. He comes to save us; we are called to choose his way: the way of service, of giving, of forgetfulness of ourselves.”

May we learn from the words and example of Jesus crucified, for he is our pontifex to the heart of God.

Basilian Father Thomas Rosica, CEO of Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation, will lead a Lenten retreat at the Archbishop Brunett Retreat Center at the Palisades March 10–12.

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Northwest Catholic - March 2017