On Good Friday
afternoon, Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB, preached the Tre Ore Ceremony of the Seven Last Words of Christ in St. James Cathedral in Seattle, Washington. Below is the fifth reflection based on John 19:28.
After this, aware that everything was now finished, in order that the scripture might be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I thirst.”
Deep within each person created in the image and likeness of God is the very desire for the Creator in whose image we were made. This desire is evoked by the words of the Psalmist: “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so longs my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God?” (Ps 42:1-2). When we cease to thirst for the living God, our faith risks becoming a habit, it risks being extinguished, like a fire that is not fed. It risks becoming meaningless.
The theme of thirsting appears throughout the Scriptures, and in a very particular way early on in John’s Gospel during Jesus’ powerful encounter at high noon with the woman of Samaria. In that provocative scene, Jesus’ thirst was not so much for water, but for the encounter with a parched soul. Jesus needed to encounter the Samaritan woman in order to open her heart: he asks for a drink so as to bring to light her own thirst. The example of the Samaritan woman invites us to exclaim: “Jesus, give me a drink that will quench my thirst forever”.
At the climax of the Passion under the burning midday sun, stretched out on the Cross, Jesus called out: “I thirst” (Jn 19:28). According to custom, he was offered sour wine, which was commonly found among the poor and could also be described as vinegar: it was considered thirst-quenching. Jesus declined to drink it: he wanted to endure his suffering consciously (Mk 15:23). This scene on the Cross transcends the hour of Jesus’ death. On the one hand, the account is quite factual: we have the thirst of the crucified Jesus and the sour drink that the soldiers customarily administered in such cases. On the other hand, we hear an echo of Psalm 69, in which the victim laments: “for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink” (v. 21). It is not only Israel, but the Church, it is we ourselves who repeatedly respond to God’s bountiful love with “I thirst”: this cry of Jesus is addressed to every single person.
How could I possibly speak of Jesus’ words: “I thirst” without mentioning one who took these words to heart: Blessed Teresa of Calcutta. During my years of graduate studies in Scripture at the Biblical Institute in Rome in the late 1980s, I had the privilege of teaching the novices of the Missionaries of Charity in their formation house in Rome. On each occasion, I joined them for Eucharistic adoration and mass in their chapel that was located in a Gypsy camp in a Roman periphery. Mother Teresa was often present for these celebrations.
Once during Lent 1988 following mass with the sisters, Mother Teresa met me in the sacristy to thank me for my service to her sisters. I asked her why those words “I THIRST” were on the wall of the chapel. At that time I thought they had been placed there for the liturgical season of Lent. Mother Teresa took my hand and told me quite firmly that those words are found in every convent chapel of her order – taken from Jesus words from the cross in John’s Gospel. I remember her distinctly saying to me: “They serve as a constant reminder of the purpose of the Missionaries of Charity. They remind us what an MC is here for: to quench the thirst of Jesus for souls, for love, for kindness, for compassion, for delicate love.”
When visiting any convent chapel of the Missionaries of Charity – the religious order she founded – one is immediately struck by the simplicity and austerity of the sacred space. There are no chairs, pews, or kneelers. The sisters take their shoes off before entering the chapel and sit or kneel on the bare floor. Typically, there are no ornate pieces of religious art – just a gold tabernacle behind the altar and a statue of Our Lady near the altar. However the image that stands out most in every MC chapel I have visited in various parts of the world is the large crucifix behind the altar and the stark words painted in bold, black capital letters on the wall alongside it: “I THIRST.”
Ever since her call in 1946 to leave the Loretto Sisters in India and serve the poorest of the poor in a new community, Mother Teresa insisted that the Missionaries of Charity were founded “to satiate the thirst of Jesus,” and she included this statement in the founding Rules for her religious order: “The General End of the Missionaries of Charity is to satiate the thirst of Jesus Christ on the Cross for Love and Souls.”
What exactly does it mean: “to satiate the thirst of Jesus”? Until we know deep inside that Jesus thirsts for us, we cannot fathom who He wants to be for us, for you and for me. What specifically is Jesus thirsting for in us? Mother Teresa saw Jesus’ “I thirst” as a very personal statement spoken to each individual today, at every moment. And she said Jesus is constantly awaiting our response to His thirst. Near the end of her life, in a letter to all of the Missionaries of Charity, she made a passionate appeal to her sisters to draw closer to the thirst of Jesus and take His statement “I Thirst” more seriously in their daily lives. Mother Teresa made Jesus’ statement “I thirst” so personal that she told her sisters to imagine Jesus saying those words directly to them. She even encouraged them to put their own name before “I thirst” and hear Jesus saying those very words to each of them.
On March 4 of this year, four Missionaries of Charity – Sisters Anselm, Marguerite, Judit and Reginette were massacred in Aden, Yemen, in the nursing home where they cared for the destitute poor, most of whom were Muslims. It was an act of senseless and diabolical violence. How many times did those sisters hear the words of Jesus: “Anselm, I thirst for you!” “Marguerite, I thirst for you!” “Judit, I thirst for you!” “Reginette, I thirst for you.” In the end, these four Missionaries of Charity and the twelve lay co-workers with them gave the gift of their very lives, serving Jesus in the poorest of the poor. Because they thirsted for God and quenched the thirst of Jesus, they were brutally murdered and their skulls were smashed by their killers.
When suffering persons in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Gaza, Ethiopia, India or Sudan experienced torturing thirst, Mother Teresa and her sisters would quickly bring water to satiate thirst of the people they served. Mother Teresa and her sisters desired to satiate Jesus thirst by promptly responding to His will, by making sacrifices for Him, by loving Him in the people they serve and by entrusting their entire lives into the hands of God hands.
We may not be able to travel to the places where Mother Teresa’s sisters minister and work with the destitute poor, but can begin to satiate God’s thirst for our love by being generous with Him with our time, by giving Him attention throughout our day, by spending more of our lives with Him in prayer. Many of us, however, are hesitant to do so. We are afraid to entrust ourselves totally to Him. We cling to our own plans. Meanwhile, Jesus waits for our response as he continuously says to us, “I thirst”.
Even though Jesus no longer needs to take up his cross and walk toward Calvary, today – in me, in others – Jesus continues to endure his passion. The small child, the child full of hunger who eats his bread crumb by crumb because he is afraid of running out of bread before running out of hunger – that is the first station of the cross. In our way of the cross we see Jesus, poor and hungry, enduring his own falls. Are we there to offer him our help? Are we there with our sacrifices, with our piece of bread, of real bread? Are we there to share their suffering? Are we there, or are we rather like the proud man who crosses over to the other side of the street, glancing at the one in need yet continuing on our way because of our business, our officiousness or fear?
Jesus thirsts for us to speak out when we see the cross raised up in our sisters and brothers killed, burned alive, throats slit and decapitated by barbarous blades amid cowardly silence. And we remain silent out of political correctness or fear of guilt by association.
Jesus thirsts for us to embrace children, women and people, worn out and fearful, who flee from war and violence and who often only find death and many Pontius Pilates who wash their hands of these people.
Jesus thirsts for us to unlock the doors of our minds and hearts, especially when we pretend to befilled with knowledge and not with the spirit, when we have become scholars of death and not of life, who instead of teaching mercy and life, threaten with punishment and death, and who condemn the just.
Jesus thirsts for us to be merciful when we are so often judgmental of others and pick up stones to throw at them and crush them without ever recognizing our own sins and faults.
Jesus thirsts for us to speak out and take action when we see public officials who try to erase the Christian memory and exclude the Gospel and the Cross from public life in the name of a pagan laicism.
When Jesus breathed his last, he both handed his spirit back to the Father and handed on the Holy Spirit to the Church. The water that flowed from Jesus’ pierced side symbolizes the Spirit made available to humanity because Jesus had now been glorified in the “lifting up” on the cross (John19:34; 7:39; 12:32). His blood is a symbol of the redeeming work of the cross. Moreover in this water and blood, the early Fathers of the Church saw allusions to the life-giving Sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist.
Jesus thirsts for us. He longs for us and desires to meet us at the high noons of our life to quench our thirsts. May we always thirst for him and for the life-giving water that he alone can give. Let us never be afraid to allow this water to wash over us, cleanse us, purify us and send us out on mission to feed the hungers and quench the thirsts of the human family.