Why We Call this Friday Good -- Part 2

Reflections on the Seven Last Words

continued from part 1

THE FIFTH WORD FROM THE CROSS

I thirst.

Evangelist: John 19:28-29

Reader: Seven times he spoke while he hung on the cross. But of the seven words which he spoke, here is the only one that you or I could have said. Who of us, in the moment of crucifixion, would have called upon his God, even to ask why he had forsaken him? But what is expressed here is a need so human that any of us could have spoken it. This fifth word had nothing to do with religion, morality or character, but entirely with sheer physical need. I am thirsty.

Who would not have been, hanging for three hours beneath a blazing Eastern sun while his life's blood ebbed away? I am told that of all the needs of the human body, thirst is far and away the most agonizing. One can endure hunger for a fairly long period of time. It is amazing how much physical pain the human body can take. But thirst is like a consuming fire. The most devastating, the most intense agony anyone can know is to feel one's tongue thickened and one's throat parched for lack of water. I thirst.

It ought not to surprise us, therefore, that sooner or later there should come from the lips of the Crucified this cry of human need. The surprise comes only when you set the whole scene in the context of our Christian faith about Jesus Christ.

How many I wonder, when they hear the word "God" would see a man nailed to a cross, murmuring with parched lips, "I thirst?" Yet that is exactly the picture of God presented to us in this scene. Each of these seven last words is a precious photograph of the mind and heart of God. But this one is a picture that requires considerable study. I said earlier that this fifth word was one which had to do not with religion, morality, or character, but the sheer physical need. And that, of course, is true. But the fact that the gospel presents us a picture of God in a position of purely physical need has everything to do with religion. The fact that at the center of our faith you find not the figure of some remote and awful deity, not some heroic superman, not some discarnate spirit who lives beyond human pain, but One divine enough to forgive and human enough to be thirsty—that fact makes our Christian faith unique, different from all the religions of the world.

Here is the God of the gospel, a poor, pathetic, dying man who pleads for a little water to moisten his cracked and burning lips. You can never stand at the foot of the cross, hear this fifth word, and say that the God of the gospel is impervious to human suffering, unconcerned with human pain, too big to be bothered with human need.

That's the God of the gospel, caring for every human need because he has shared every human need, even the simplest and most elemental of all. I thirst.

Here at the old rugged cross are no sentimental pretense, no mock heroics, no effort to make angels or supermen, but honest facing of the full facts of human existence in all of their grim reality. And with that I can begin and of that I can be certain. A God who bid me be a hero when I am a coward could not help me. But a God who has honestly faced and felt the same suffering, him can I follow. I do not know where it will come out. But at least I have a guide I can trust, since he has been where I must go.

And is not just this the power of the Christian faith? It presents us in Jesus Christ with a God not too big to care and not too far away to know. The only God who can meet our need is the God who has honestly known our need.

We thirst for certainty. We thirst for assurance. We thirst for meaning and significance. We thirst for peace and contentment. Our hearts are hot and dry and sometimes grow so parched we think we can no longer stand the pain. Here at the cross are no answers, no easy speeches, no quick solution. But here is One who has opened the way to the waters of healing.

Hymn: "Ah, Holy Jesus"
Ah, holy Jesus, how have you offended,
that mortal judgment has on you descended?
By foes derided, by your own rejected,
0 most afflicted!

Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon you?
It is my treason, Jesus, that has undone you.
'Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied you;
I crucified you.

For me, dear Jesus, was your incarnation
your mortal sorrow, and your life's oblation;
your death of anguish, and your bitter passion,
for my salvation.Therefore, dear Jesus, since I cannot pay you,
I do adore you and will ever pray you,
think on your pity and your love unswerving,
not my deserving.
[Text: Johann Heermann, 1630, tr. Robert Bridges, 1899; tune: HERZUEBSTEE JESU]

THE SIXTH WORD FROM THE CROSS

It is finished.

Evangelist: John 19:30

Reader: And what was finished? The meaning of this sixth word from the cross is rather uncertain if we look no further than the word itself. Just these three words, taken by themselves, could constitute a very pathetic yet very human cry of weakness and defeat. It is finished. It is all over now—the suffering, the pain, the scorn. Death will soon draw its merciful curtain across the scene. There are no more burdens to be borne. There is no more pain to be suffered, no more torment to be endured. The powers of death have done their worst. It is finished.

But now, exactly what was finished? His life, to be sure. But what had he accomplished, what had he completed with the ending of his life? What was this goal the achievement of which gave our Lord such a conviction of victory as he died, transforming his very death into a triumph?

To be sure, there are many ways in which we could answer that question. To be surer still, there are many answers to that question which lie beyond the poor power of our minds to grasp and understand. But no one who studies the life of our Lord even casually can fail to perceive that he was a man with a mission. Even as a boy of twelve he was conscious that he ought to be about his Father's business. And in the maturer years of his ministry, his Father's business was the motive for every word that he spoke and every deed that he did.

Anyone can talk about God in the quiet of a church or the calm of a study hall, speculating as to his nature, theorizing about his character. But our Lord lived the life of God in all the heat and dirt, the blood and tears of our human situation without the betrayal of his mission. One failure in his task, one surrender to some lesser goal, and he would have been a failure, presenting a false God to the human mind and heart.

But that had not happened, not even in the pain and agony and weariness of these last three hours. Finished! In Jesus Christ, God has found us. In Jesus Christ, we have found God. What matters that it cost him h is life? It was worth it to be able to show his brothers and sisters a finished sketch, in lines which they could not possibly misread, of the mind and the heart of God.

We need to see not just once but often the love of God hanging triumphantly on a cross. With all of our doubts and fears, we need to be assured once again that God so loves the world. We need some tangible token that all this is not somebody's hopeful guess, some empty preachment, but burning reality. That is why we take bread and break it, lift the cup and drink it. This is my body broken for you. This is the blood of the New Testament shed for you.

The God who found us in Jesus Christ will never leave us. The love that grasped us at Calvary will never let us go. The victory of the cross is true today, tomorrow, always. It is finished!

Hymn:  “O Perfect Life of Love”

O perfect life of love!
All, all is finished now;
all that he left his throne above
to do for us below.

No work is left undone
of all the Father willed;
his toils, his sorrows, one by one,
are prophecies fulfilled.

No pain that we can share
but he has felt its smart.
All forms of human grief and care
have pierced that tender heart.

And on his thorn-crowned head,
and on his sinless soul
our sins in all their guilt were laid,
that he might make us whole.

In perfect love he dies;
for me, his awful death!
O all-atoning Sacrifice,
I cling to you in faith.

In every time of need,
before your judgment throne,
your work, O Lamb of God, I'll plead,
your merit, not my own.

Yet work your way in me,
my self-will, Lord, remove;
then shall my love and service be
the answer to your love.
[Text: Henry W. Baker, 1875, tune: SOUTHWELL]

The Seventh Word from the Cross

Father, into thy hands
I commend my spirit.

Evangelist: Luke 23:44-46

Reader: There is not one of the seven last words of our Lord which contains stranger contrasts than this, the seventh and the last. Here in this final word from the cross there is pathos and there is power. There are tears, but there is triumph. And if we really are to have a full picture of the last moment in the earthly life of our Lord, we must see them both.

For if we see the pathos without the power, the tears without the triumph, the death of Jesus Christ becomes nothing but history's great tragedy, a sad song that must be played throughout in a minor key. And if we see the power without the pathos, the triumph without the tears, the death of Jesus Christ becomes nothing but a piece of divine play-acting, completely unrelated to the suffering and sorrow of our human lives. It is only when we see both that we can understand how the death of Jesus Christ can be what the Christian faith has always asserted—an event in which God shared the misery of our human existence to the full and by this very sharing of it redeemed it into glory.

But there is something more about this last word from the cross. Do you know what every little Hebrew child was taught to say by his mother before he closed his eyes at night, much as you and I were taught “Now I lay me down to sleep”? Into thy hands I commend my spirit. That very Friday night in countless homes in Palestine when the mothers had tucked their little ones in their beds and blown out the lights, they would hold their hands and listen while little lips formed this prayer. Into thy hands I commend my spirit.

Thirty years before in such a home in Nazareth, time after time Mary had kissed her son good night and then listened while he said this evening prayer. Into thy hands I commend my spirit. And now that same son, grown to manhood, climaxing his ministry on a cross, can find no better way to take farewell of life than that which he had learned at his mother's knee. Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.

I find something infinitely moving in that picture—and equally instructive. It brings the cross down from those theological heights where we so often isolate it to our level of understanding. In his final moment of suffering Jesus Christ spoke not some lofty discovery of the mature religious mind, some bit of esoteric wisdom to be shared only by the few, but a childhood prayer, very likely the first prayer that he had ever learned, one that had stayed with him through the years and now at the end was still able to nourish his soul.

The shadows have lengthened and the evening has come. The busy world is hushed, the fever of life is over, and his work is done. The wheel has turned full circle. Did he in those last moments see once again the old familiar home in Nazareth, the face of his mother bending over him, as like a tired child he rested his weary head? Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.

In the darkness, confusion, and mystery of our lives, the hand of God is something extended for us to grasp, for us to hold. Sometimes the path is rough. Sometimes the water is cold and deep. We may wonder why it should be that way. But it is that way, and there is no better answer. Yet no matter how rough and dark the path, no matter how chill and deep the stream, there by your side, if you will reach out to grasp it, is the hand of Almighty Love. And if there is anything in life and death of which you may be sure, it is this. That hand is always there and will always be there.

You may not know where you are going. You may not know how you will get there. But this you can always know: the hand of God is stretched out to you in all of his strength. And once you grasp it, he will never let you go—no, not even when you must enter that darkest valley and cross that coldest stream. Even then you can walk without fear, in full confidence that the same hand that has led you all the way will lead you safely across and up into those eternal hills and shine in their glory on the other side.

This last word from the cross is no dying man's philosophy of life, no mere echo of a childhood prayer. It is the secret of victorious living, to be renewed every day of our lives. Do we face problems that we cannot even begin to solve? Into thy hands. Do we experience sorrow we are sure we cannot bear? Into thy hands. Do we face temptations stronger than we can endure? Into thy hands. Is life with its many complications too much for us? Into thy hands. Are we staring across the great sea of eternity wondering what lies on the other shore, wondering if there is another shore? Into thy hands.

This is the word of One who first learned his faith at his mother's knee, who proclaimed it gladly to the thronging people who spoke it tenderly to hearts that were sore and perplexed, who tested it in the harsh experience of crucifixion, who used it to shatter the barriers of darkness, sin, and death, and let in the unquenchable light of life and love.

It is the word of Jesus Christ our Lord, guaranteed by his life's blood. For see, the hand that is stretched out to you in the darkness still bears the marks of the nails!

Hymn: “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded”
O sacred head, now wounded,
with grief and shame weighed down,
now scornfully surrounded
with thorns, your only crown.
O sacred head,  what glory
and blessing you have known!
Yet, though despised and gory,
I claim you as my own.

My Lord, what you did suffer
was all for sinner's gain;
mine, mine was the transgression,
but yours the deadly pain.
So here I kneel, my Savior,
for I deserve our place;
look on me with your favor
and save me by your grace.

What language shall I borrow
to thank you, dearest Friend,
for this, your dying sorrow,
your mercy without end?
Lord, make me yours forever,
a loyal servant true,
and let me never never
outlive my love for you.
[Text: Medieval, tr. James W. Alexander, 1830; tune: HERZLICH TUT MICH VERLANGEN]

Prayer:
Let us pray:
A few hours more,
A few minutes more,
A few instants more.
For thirty-three years it has been going on.
For thirty-three years you have lived fully minute by minute.
You can no longer escape, now: you are
There, at the end of your life, at the end of your road.

You are at the last extremity, at the edge of a precipice.
You must take the last step,
the last step of love,
the last step of life that ends in death.
You hesitate.
Three hours are long, three hours of agony,
longer than three years of life
longer than thirty years of life.

You must decide, Lord, all is ready around you.
You are there, motionless on your Cross.
You have renounced all activity other than embracing these
Crossed planks for which you were made.
And yet, there is still life in your nailed body.
Let mortal flesh die, and make way for Eternity.

Now, life slips from each limb, one by one, finding refuge in this
still-beating heart,
immeasurable heart,
overflowing heart,
heart heavy as the world, the world of sins and miseries that it bears.

Lord, one more effort.
Humankind is there, waiting unknowingly for the cry of its Savior.
Your brothers and sisters are there, they need you.
Your Father bends over you, already holding out his arms.
Lord, save us.
Save us.

See.
He has taken his heavy heart,
and,
slowly,
laboriously,
alone between heaven and earth,
in the awesome night,
with passionate love,
he has gathered the sin of the world,
and in a cry,
he has given All.
“Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.”

Christ has just died for us.
Lord, help me to die for you.
Help me to die for them.

Amen.
[From Prayers by Michel Quoist. Available for $8.95 from Sheed & Ward, P.O. Box 419492, Kansas City, MO 64141. Used by permission.]

The Lord's Prayer

The Benediction

Closing Hymn:  “We Sing the praise of Him Who Died”
We sing the praise of him who died,
of him who died upon the cross.
The sinner's hope for all decide;
for this we count the world but loss.

Inscribed upon the cross we see
in shining letters, “God is love.”
He bears our sins upon the tree;
he brings us mercy from above.

The cross! It takes our guilt away;
it holds the fainting spirit up/;
it cheers with hope the gloomy day
and sweetens ev'ry bitter cup.

It makes the coward spirit brave
and nerves the feeble arm for fight;
it takes the terror from the grave
and gilds the bed of death with light.

The balm of life, the cure of woe,
the measure and the pledge of love,
the sinner's refuge here below,
and angel's theme in heaven above.
[Text: Thomas Kelly, 1815; possible tunes: BRESLAV, WAREHAM]

The Rev. Dr. Howard Hageman is past president and Distinguished Professor of Liturgies of New Brunswick Theological Seminary.