The First Word:
“Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.”
Jesus is nailed to the cross and left to die a torturous and slow death. Everyone involved in this execution knows what they are doing. Everyone involved knows what they have done. The soldiers who just followed orders. The leaders who condemned him. The people who first cried ‘hosanna’ and then ‘crucify’, when Jesus didn’t deliver what they were hoping for. Judas, who betrayed him. Peter, who denied him. The disciples, who ran away. It is easy to find a scape goat, why, it’s not my fault, someone else is responsible for what’s happening – but in the end, we all play a part in the great drama of life, and we all make decisions that contribute to the way things turn out to be. We know what we are doing.
And yet Jesus prays to the heavenly Father as he is surrounded by all those who know what they are doing, what they have done: Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing. People make decisions, but in the end don’t have any idea what consequences their actions or inactions have. Forgive them. Forgive us.
This is a challenging word, a challenging request. As long as forgiveness applies to us, it’s wonderful, and, after all, we are at least halfway decent people. But what about those who blatantly plunder and extort and rape and kill? What about those terrorists who murdered more than 30 last week in Brussels and injured scores more, what about the terrorists who have murdered innocent people in places like Turkey, Iraq, and Ivory Coast over the last couple of weeks? They surely know what they were doing.
But so, it seems, were the people who had part in Jesus’ betrayal, trial, and execution. Would Jesus cry out for today’s terrorists, for corrupt politicians and leaders of global businesses for whom money comes first and the wellbeing of people and the environment last?
We don’t know. We just know that Jesus points to a God who is merciful and slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. And talking about forgiveness: there is this fascinating bas relief at the cathedral of St. Madeleine in Vezelay, built in the 12th century, which has two sides to it. The first side shows Judas, hanging himself. The second one shows Christ, who takes the body of Judas on his shoulders, just like the good shepherd carries his sheep. The sinner is brought home.
The Second Word:
“I assure you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
“Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
Paradise. This word has been watered down in our day and age. We may think of all those travel ads promising us a trip to paradise – some place where the beaches are white, the ocean is blue, and palm trees gently sway in the breeze. Paradise, a place where we can relax, let go, and have no worry in the world.
This is NOT what Jesus talked about. The word ‘Paradise’ comes from the Greek, meaning ‘Garden’. Jesus is talking about the Garden Eden, the heart of God’s creation, a place where God lives in harmony with man and woman, a place where creation hasn’t been compromised and corrupted yet. Jesus promises the restoration of this amazing initial relationship between God and a mere human being.
And what a human being! Jesus is making this promise to a bandit, someone who, in his lifetime, has blatantly broken God’s law; even if this man was a rebel against the Roman occupation, and fought for Israel, for God’s people, he probably robbed, hurt, and killed. But this incident shows us what it is all about: it is faith. In the end, this bandit, this sinner, believes that Jesus is the Son of God, and asks to be restored to God. The word of promise is a word of the amazing grace, which is offered to all. We will be with God as humanity was with God in the very beginning.
The Third Word:
“Dear woman, here is your son. Friend, here is your mother.”
It seems this world is becoming more and more selfish. We have i-phones, i-pads, selfies. We have politicians and business leaders who don’t seem to give a hoot about the welfare of the weak and those who fall through the cracks. Hungrily, we gobble up displays of narcissistic behavior. It’s everyone for themselves, after all, isn’t this what the U.S. are all about, the freedom to express ourselves and to make something out of ourselves? Isn’t it all about opportunity?
How different are Jesus tender words from the cross, spoken to his grieving mother and the disciple he loved. Both will be bereft soon, and nothing will be the same. Jesus reminds them that, in all the chaos, all the hurt, all the grief and loss, they are not alone. Christ calls us into community, and as he entrusts his mother and his friend to each other’s care, he still calls us to be brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers for one another. Christ is seen and served in all those who walk the road of life with us. We are supposed to care for one another – even the least of these. It is in community that we truly find Christ.
The Fourth Word:
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Whenever I hear the word forsaken, I imagine ruins. Sometimes old ruins, sometimes ruins like in parts of Detroit, abandoned after the American dream failed here; I am sure many here remember the ruins that were left in German cities after WW II. And we still see ruins of war, when we turn on the news and look at images from Damascus or other Syrian cities. Ruins tell tales of a time when there was life, when people laughed and cried, when children played in the streets, when there were celebrations. But now it’s all gone. Life is gone.
Ruins are a witness of calamities. Sometimes it’s a slow decay, like a change of climate that makes an area uninhabitable, or an economic disaster. Sometimes destruction is swift and violent, as we see in Pompeii, or at the Brussels Airport. In any case, life is sapped away. And whenever something or somebody dies, there is the feeling of abandonment and forsakenness. Why is this happening? God, why are you not here?
It has been said that death is not the absence of life, but the absence of God. In death, we are forsaken. Even Jesus feels the loneliness as his life is sapped away. That’s what makes death so scary – that we are alone. This is not God’s will. Death is not God’s will. As followers of God, we are a people who foster life whenever we can, in all the places in this world that seem to be doomed to be forsaken.
The Fifth Word:
“I am thirsty.”
Jesus experiences one of the basic human needs, a basic need for life: he thirsts. Dehydration was one of the factors of a torturous death on the cross. It seems only natural that he, as life slowly drains out of his body, wants some of the elixir of all life: water.
We have experienced the consequences of drought here in California over the last few years, but, thank God, we were not deprived of this precious resource. But there were communities like Porterville in the Central Valley, who experienced a water emergency, and even now, after the abundant rain we had this winter, the ground water reservoirs are not restored.
We probably have all heard about Flint in Michigan, where for years toxic water was allowed to be pumped into the homes of the poor. A lesser known fact is that the water in many Native American reservations in this country is polluted and unsafe to drink as well.
International companies like Nestle, buy water rights all over the world, often in the poorest countries, and deny locals access to their own water, but rather bottle it and sell it back to the people at a huge profit.
When Jesus moans, ‘I thirst’, we hear the voice of humanity. To be without water means death. We can’t squander, pollute, and deny this precious gift of God if we understand ourselves as God’s people, a people of life.
The Sixth Word:
“It is finished!”
This may be like a big sigh of relief – thank God I don’t have to suffer any longer. It is over. I can imagine that Jesus had those feelings as he could feel death finally approach.
But, as we are reminded, these words are words of triumph. Jesus’s death on the cross is the ultimate fulfillment of his existence here on earth – the forgiveness for all. Jesus’ mission is complete. Scholar Mark Roberts writes: Jesus had accomplished his mission. He had announced and inaugurated the kingdom of God. He had revealed the love and grace of God. And he had embodied that love and grace by dying for the sin of the world, thus opening up the way for all to live under the reign of God.
Because Jesus finished his work of salvation, you and I don’t need to add to it. In fact, we can’t. He accomplished what we never could, taking our sin upon himself and giving us his life in return. Jesus finished that for which he had been sent, and we are the beneficiaries of his unique effort. Because of what he finished, you and I are never “finished.” We have hope for this life and for the next. We know that nothing can separate us from God’s love. One day what God has begun in us will also be finished, by his grace. Until that day, we live in the confidence of Jesus’ cry of victory: “It is finished!”
The Seventh Word:
“Father, I entrust my spirit into your hands!”
It is finished, the circle of the life of Christ is complete; the spirit, the breath of life given to Jesus at his birth by God, now returns to God as Jesus is dying. As Jesus is breathing his last, he is breathing it with trust that God will catch this breath. Jesus trusts that God is waiting on the other side of death, ready to welcome him home.
This word tradition calls ‘the word of reunion’. Father and Son are reunited, they become one again. But this reunion also foreshadows our reunion with God, the restoration of the unbroken and unblemished relationship with God, the homecoming to paradise. This is a promise all of us are given.
It is part of my profession to be with the dying. I’ve accompanied quite a few who were suffering from fatal diseases and who knew they were dying. And people die differently. Sometimes the faith and trust of those who await death is so strong, there is the confidence that, indeed, their spirits will find their home with God. Those who surrender themselves to the grace of God die most peacefully. May God give us the grace to surrender, not only in our final hour, but all the hours of our lives, and give us the peace that passes all understanding.
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