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 sixth reflection based on John 19:29-30
“It is finished.”
There was a vessel filled with common wine. So they put a sponge soaked in wine on a sprig of hyssop and put it up to his mouth. When Jesus had taken the wine, he said, “It is finished.”
Throughout his passion narrative, the evangelist John emphasizes that Jesus’ death on the cross is the fulfillment of Sacred Scripture. Jesus’ last words are are summed up in the Greek wordtetelestai means “brought to its accomplishment.” “It has been accomplished.” It connotes "completion," "arriving at the intended goal," Jesus had set out to do the will of the Father, to love his own "until the end."
Three times God used that same word in history: first, in Genesis, to describe the achievement or completion of creation; second, in the Book of Revelation, when all creation would be done away with and a new heaven and earth would be made. Between these two extremes of the beginning and the accomplished end, there was the link of these words with the final expression of Jesus from the Cross. It is as though God’s only Son, at this horrible moment of his life when he was stripped and humiliated, seeing all prophecies fulfilled, all foreshadowings realized, and all things done for the Redemption of the human family, uttered a cry of joy: “It is achieved.” Like he has done so many times, John uses the words here with a double entendre. The word “finished” refers to the physical and temporal end of Jesus’ life. But it also tells, at the same time, about the total accomplishment of the mission entrusted to him by the Father.
In Jesus’ crucifixion we see the fulfillment of an important Jewish ritual, the annual Day of Atonement. On that day each year, the high priest entered into the inner tabernacle with an offering to atone for Israel’s sins. On Golgotha Jesus was both the victim and the great high priest. The atoning sacrifice was no longer the blood of an animal but Jesus’ own blood. No longer was it necessary for the high priest to enter into the Holy of Holies in the Jewish Temple, which was a symbol of the heavenly tabernacle. Now Jesus offered himself directly to his Father in heaven.
Bowing his head in a graceful and composed manner, The Word made Flesh hands over his life spirit to God. There is a luminous sense of serenity and strength as the Johannine Jesus meets death. His death is no play-acting. John makes that point in the spear thrust that follows, but in this scene on the cross, the terror of death has been defused by love.
But what exactly does Jesus’ death accomplish? For John, Good Friday is already Pentecost. On the one hand, Jesus hands his life over to God, from whom he received it. But he also hands it over to his disciples. Even his bowing of his head at the moment of death can be interpreted as a nod in their direction. Out of Jesus’ death comes life for his followers. In colloquial speech today, Jesus might have said, “Mission accomplished!” It’s in your hands now!
As we gaze on the face of the crucified Jesus today, what do we see? One who lives in the grip of anxiety, but we see with this person the seed of a new being who will be a source of empowerment not only for us, but also for those around us! In his death, Jesus becomes for us a point of embarkation. We all know people like this: just being in their presence, somehow seems to sort things out for us, it puts the pieces of our lives back together again. As one of the characters in Toni Morrison’s award-winning book “Beloved” describes the effect of his lover upon him: “She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order.”
There are people in each of our lives of such depth, such substance, such solidity, that others may, as it were, stand on the firm ground they provide and embark on their own lives through them. This, of course, is the role that all of us who are leaders, teachers and parents hope to play for our students, our children, our flocks, though we do so with varying, incomplete success. Later in life, we may be lucky enough to find such an embarkation point in a parent, a friend, a mentor, a psychotherapist, yes, even a bishop, priest, rabbi or minister. Anything is possible! And what a privilege it is if we ourselves become the embarkation point for others.
This wonderful process, whereby people become the solid base by means of which others may face the world, went on even amid the horrors of the Holocaust. Let me share with you a story by the Jewish writer Yaffa Eliach, from his book Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust [pp. 177-178].
“Anna was among the tens of thousands who succumbed to the typhus epidemic in Bergen-Belsen. Her friends gave her up for dead and told her that her struggle with death was useless. But Anna was determined to live. She knew that if she lay down, the end would come soon and she would die like so many others around her. So, in a delirious state, she wandered around the camp, stumbling over the dead and the dying. But her strength gave way. She felt that her feet were refusing to carry her any farther. As she was struggling to get up from the cold, wet ground, she noticed in the distance a hill shrouded in gray mist. Anna felt a strange sensation. Instantly, the hill in the distance became a symbol of life. She knew that if she reached the hill, she would survive, but if she failed, the typhus would triumph.
Anna attempted to walk toward the hill which continually assumed the shape of a mound of earth, a huge grave. But the mound remained Anna’s symbol of life, and she was determined to reach it. On her hands and knees, she crawled toward the strange mound of earth that was now the essence of her survival. After long hours passed, Anna reached her destination. With feverish hands she touched the cold mound of earth. With her last drop of strength, she crawled to the top of the mound and collapsed. Tears started to run down her cheeks, real human, warm tears, her first tears since her incarceration in concentration camps some four years ago. She began to call her father. “Please Papa, come and help me.. I know that you, too, are in the, camp. Please Papa, help me, for I cannot go on like this any longer.”
Suddenly, she felt a warm hand on top of her head. It was her father stroking her just as he used to place his hand over her head every Friday night and bless her. Anna recognized her father’s warm, comforting hands. She began to sob even more and told him that she had no strength to live any longer. Her father listened and caressed her head as he used to. He did not recite the customary blessing but, instead, said, “Don’t worry, my child. You will manage to survive for a few days, for liberation is very close.”
That occurred on Wednesday night, April 11, 1945. On Sunday, April 15, the first British tank entered Bergen-Belsen.
When Anna was well enough to leave the hospital in the British Zone where she was recovering from typhus, she returned to Bergen-Belsen. Only then did she learn that the huge mound of earth in the big square where she spent the fateful night of April 11 in her combat with typhus was a huge mass grave. Among thousands of victims buried beneath the mound of earth was her father, who had perished months earlier in Bergen-Belsen. On that night when she won her battle with death, Anna was weeping on her father’s grave.”
Yaffa Eliach’s story of Anna, the typhus victim from Bergen-Belsen, makes a similar point to the theme of embarkation announced in John’s Gospel. Even death does not stop Anna’s father from coming to her, blessing her, promising her that she will live, and encouraging her to hold on just a little while longer. Death cannot stop those significant persons in our lives from becoming embarkation points for us. Indeed, their importance may even grow. We may come to see aspects of who they were for us that we never realized when they were alive.
When such people are taken away from us so suddenly, and there is really no time to say goodbye, the pain is even greater. Sometimes we soften the tragedy by saying that some people died natural deaths. They weren’t shoved into gas chambers, stark naked and humiliated. They didn’t die from starvation or typhus. Still, from the biblical perspective, “natural death” is a misnomer because every death is a violation of the God-willed order for creation. One thing we often hear from survivors of the Holocaust or of other great tragedies of the past centuries and even our century, is that they didn’t have time to say a proper good-bye. Partly because guards were standing there with whips, screaming at them to keep moving. Partly because the survivors didn’t know that they weren’t even going to see their mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters again- because they didn’t know that this parting was for eternity.
Today, on this Friday that we dare call good, we experience another sort of communion. This form of communion- with the tragedies of Jewish history, culminating in the Holocaust, and with Jesus’ death on the cross- are inextricably bound up with each other. For the death of Jesus invites us all – especially Christians and Jews – into a knowledge of our communion with one another and a recognition of the terrible brokenness of the world. Nothing and no one can ever wrench us away any longer from that communion. Nothing can remove our sense of belonging to, participating in, and being the beneficiaries of God’s saving encounter with Israel and with the broken world, which occurred in the crucifixion of Jesus, son of Israel and Son of God.
Today as we stand grieving, huddled together on this hill of death, surrounding the most important member of our community, and hear his final words: “It is finished. It is accomplished”, we know in some strange and mysterious way that the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus gathers up the broken pieces of our lives, puts them all back together, in the right order, and makes us whole again. And the world will only be healed, repaired, restored, renewed if we Christians and Jews become such points of embarkation for one another and for the world.