The Seven Last Words of Jesus from the Cross

The First Word: Luke 23:26, 32-34a

As they led Jesus away, they seized a man, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming from the country, and they laid the cross on him, and made him carry it behind Jesus. . . . Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”

“Them”? Who is “them”? The Roman soldiers? Pilate, who gave the order for his crucifixion? The crowd, which howled for his blood? Caiaphas and the priests, who egged on the crowd? His disciples, who scattered?

. . . Everybody? All of them?

. . . Us?

Surely he asked God to forgive all those who took part in his betrayal and death—Pilate, Caiaphas, the crowd which rejected him, the soldiers who flayed him, Judas who sold him, Peter who denied him, Thomas and James and the others who ran—for none of them understood, none knew what was really happening; but the circle of guilt doesn’t stop there, it wasn’t only Roman soldiers and Jewish priests who were responsible for his crucifixion. Rembrandt paints the raising of the cross, and paints himself as one of the soldiers—Mel Gibson films the passion, and it is his hand that drives the first nail—because they understand who killed the Son of God: we did. Our sin, our rebellion, our agony, our despair, our lostness led him to that cross, hung him on it, nailed him there, and broke his heart; and did he rage against us for the evil we do? No; instead, he asked God to forgive us. Forgive us for killing him, because we didn’t understand who he was, who we are, any of it. Forgive us, for in his death, even as we killed him, he paid the price for that sin, and every other.

The first candle extinguished

“The Power of the Cross” v. 1

The Second Word: Luke 23:39-43

One of the criminals hanging there kept mocking him and saying, “Aren’t you supposed to be the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other one rebuked him, saying, “Don’t you fear God, since you’re under the same sentence of condemnation? We’ve been justly condemned, for we’re getting what we deserve for what we’ve done—but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

The first one home is a thief.

Jesus warned his listeners, in his parable of the great banquet, that when the invited guests refused to come, he would throw the doors open to all who had never been invited anywhere—the poor, the lame, the crippled, the blind—but surely no one imagined that the gates of heaven would be open to people like this. This man was a career criminal, and certainly a serious one—or maybe a revolutionary to boot—for Rome to go to the trouble of crucifying him for his crimes. He had done great evil, of that we can be sure; and now, at the end, he had nothing but pain, and fear, and just enough good in him to recognize Jesus for who he was. And so he cries out, not a great confession of faith, but a cry of desperate hope against hope: “Jesus, remember me!” Jesus, please, whatever you can do for me, please . . .

And in response to this thief, this man who has done nothing in his life to merit mercy, whose faith barely deserves the word, is barely the size of a mustard seed, Jesus’ answer is staggering: “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” The thief had no good reason for hope, no reason to expect mercy, and yet Jesus gave him everything. This is the love that says, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing”; this is the wideness of God’s mercy, that reaches out even to the last-minute rescue of a worthless thief; this is the grace of Jesus, greater than all our limitations, greater than all our sin, great enough even to deliver us.

The second candle extinguished

“Hallelujah, What a Savior!” v. 2

The Third Word: John 19:25-27

Standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple Jesus loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.

As greatly as Jesus suffered on the cross, Mary’s pain must have been almost as great. Surely she would rather have traded places with her son than have to stand there watching as his enemies tortured him to death. Through his childhood she had cared for him, comforted him, held him, loved him, and tried to understand him; from the time he began his ministry, she had been his first disciple. Sometimes his actions must have baffled her, and his words must have hurt; when they were at the wedding in Cana and the wine ran out, she went to him to ask for help, and all he said was, “Woman, what does that have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” But she believed in him, and so she stepped out in faith and told the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” And now, she had to watch him die. She had to—others had run away, but she couldn’t; she had to be there for him, whatever it cost her.

And as great as Jesus’ pain was, he was there for her, too. He saw her pain and loss at the death of her first-born son, and he also saw John’s pain and loss—John, the disciple with whom he had been closest—at the loss of his Lord and dearest friend; and he gave them the greatest gift he could give: each other. To comfort each other, care for each other, share the burden of their loss, he gave John a new mother, and his mother a new son.

The third candle extinguished

“Were You There?” v. 1

The Fourth Word: Matthew 27:45-46

From the sixth hour until the ninth hour, there was darkness over all the land. About the ninth hour, Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani”—which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
     Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry out by day, but you don’t answer,
     and by night, but I find no rest.

Yet you are holy,
     enthroned on the praises of Israel.
Our ancestors trusted in you;
     they trusted, and you delivered them.
They cried out to you and were delivered;
     they trusted in you and weren’t disappointed.

But I am a worm, not a man,
     scorned by all humanity and despised by the people.
All who see me mock me;
     they shake their heads and sneer,
“He trusted in the LORD—let the LORD deliver him!
     Let the LORD rescue him, if he delights in him so much!”

Yet you are the one who brought me out of the womb;
     you made me trust you while I was still on my mother’s breast.
From birth I was cast upon you;
     from my mother’s womb you have been my God.
Don’t be far from me,
     for trouble is near
     and there is no one to help.

Many bulls have surrounded me;
     mighty bulls of Bashan have encircled me.
They have opened their mouths against me
     like lions about to rend and roar.
I am poured out like water,
     and all my bones are out of joint;
my heart is like wax—
     it has melted away within me.
My strength is dried up like a potsherd,
     and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth;
     you lay me in the dust of death.

Dogs have surrounded me—
     a band of thugs has encircled me—
they have pierced my hands and feet.
     I can count all my bones;
they stare and gloat over me.
     They divide my garments among themselves
          and cast lots for my clothing.

But you, O LORD, don’t be far off!
     O my Help, come quickly to my aid!
Deliver my soul from the sword,
     my life from the dog’s paw;
     save me from the mouth of the lion, from the horns of the wild ox!

You have answered me!
     I will declare your name to my brothers and sisters;
     I will praise you in the midst of the congregation.
You who fear the Lord, praise him!
     All you descendants of Jacob, honor him,
     and all you descendants of Israel, stand in awe of him!
For he hasn’t despised or disdained
     the suffering of the afflicted;
he hasn’t hidden his face from them,
     but when they cried for help, he heard them.

From you comes my praise in the great congregation;
     I will fulfill my vows before those who fear you.
The afflicted will eat and be satisfied;
     those who seek him shall praise the LORD—
     may your hearts live forever!
All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD,
     and all the families of the nations shall worship before him,
for kingship belongs to the LORD,
     and he rules over the nations.

Indeed, all those about to sleep in the earth shall bow down to him,
     all who go down to the dust will kneel before him.
He who did not keep himself alive—
     his descendants shall serve him.
It shall be told of the LORD to the coming generation,
     and they shall declare his righteousness to a generation yet unborn,
for he has done it.

The fourth candle extinguished

“The Power of the Cross” v. 2

The Fifth Word: John 19:28

After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the Scripture), “I thirst.”

It’s no surprise that he was thirsty; he’d lost half the blood in his body to the flogging, and his body was trying desperately to make up the fluid it had lost—but his last drink had been the wine at dinner the night before. He was fully human, even as he was fully God, and his sufferings were as real as any of ours. He lived our life fully, in every respect; he knows our weaknesses, our temptations, our pains, for he experienced them, and in no place more fully than on the cross, which was designed to kill people by driving them beyond their limits.

There’s also an irony here. Each day of the Feast of Tabernacles, a priest would lead a procession from the Temple to the Pool of Siloam, fill a golden pitcher with water, and then lead the procession back to the Temple, where he would pour the water into a funnel as an offering at the same time as the other priests were making the burnt offering and the drink offering; this was called the “Great Hosanna,” and was marked by the sing-ing of the Hallel, Psalms 113-18. On the last day of the feast, the great day, the priest would circle the altar seven times before pouring out the water. This was a moment of great joy, a remembrance and celebration of God’s provision of life-giving water; and John 7 tells us that on the last day of the feast, presumably as the last strains of the Hallel faded and a hush descended on the Temple, Jesus stood and shouted, “Let anyone who thirsts come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of their heart will flow streams of living water.’” The promise of the feast would be fulfilled in a new way, for through Jesus, God would give his people living water, which is the Spirit of God. And yet, here on the cross, the one who is the source of the living water which quenches our thirsty souls, Jesus, thirsted. By his thirst he satisfied ours.

The fifth candle extinguished

“O Sacred Head, Now Wounded” v. 1

The Sixth Word: John 19:29-30a

A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.”

“It is finished.” Not, “It’s over,” not, “I give up,” not, “I’m finished,” but “It is completed,” the work is done. What Jesus came to do, he had done, and the effects would be felt throughout all time and space. This moment is “the still point of the turning world” without which, as T. S. Eliot says, “there would be no dance, and there is only the dance.” This is the point around which all creation revolves, for in this moment the world is redeemed; in this moment we are saved, all of us through all space and time—we who know the story of Christ, our brothers who worshiped God at the Temple in the time of David, our sisters in the deepest jungles of Asia who know not the name of Christ but feel his Spirit moving in their hearts nonetheless, those rich and poor, powerful and powerless, intelligent and unintelligent, all of us who will gather before the throne of grace in the eternal kingdom: we were saved there, then. All the rest is simply God working out in our lives the victory Jesus had already won on the cross.

Thus Jesus’ cry is a cry of victory in the midst of death; his moment of greatest desolation was also his moment of glorification. It is a strange victory and a strange glory, this glory of the cross; yet because of it, we may say with the hymnwriter, “I boast not of works nor tell of good deeds,/For naught have I done to merit his grace;/All glory and praise shall rest upon him/So willing to die in my place.” Because of it, we affirm, “I will glory in the cross.”

The sixth candle extinguished

“In the Cross of Christ I Glory” v. 1

The Seventh Word: Luke 23:45b-46

But as the curtain of the temple was torn in two, Jesus called out in a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Having said this, he breathed his last.

Jesus said to them, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. . . . I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that don’t belong to this fold, and I must bring them as well, and they will listen to my voice. There will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.”

This last word from the cross is the cry of one who asked, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And what a strange word that is, coming from the throat of God! How could God the Father forsake God the Son? And yet, with the weight of all our sin on his back, Jesus, who had ever been one with the Father and the Spirit, descended into the depths of our damnation, experiencing in full our alienation from the Father—God, “ever Three and ever One,” somehow divided, taking even our lostness, our separation, our isolation onto himself so that it too might be healed—so that we might be healed.

nd yet, despite the physical pain, despite the far greater spiritual pain, he went through with it. No one could have made him; he laid down his life, no one took it from him; and in such desolation, the temptation to call it all off must have been nearly overpowering. Yet God must be who he is, bound together by love, bound by his decision to love us—and so, in defiant trust in that love, trust that no matter how forsaken he may feel, the Father is still there, still faithful, Jesus screams out, “Into your hands I commit my spirit.” And the Father was faithful: at that moment, the curtain in the Temple that separated the Holy of Holies, the small space where the presence of God was, tore in half—from top to bottom; no longer would the presence of God be confined to one small room to keep the rest of the world out. The price had been paid, the victory won.

The seventh candle extinguished

“O Sacred Head, Now Wounded,” vv. 2-3

Note: in these reflections, I am indebted to the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus’ book Death on a Friday Afternoon.

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