The Daily Offices

The Daily Offices from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, (Canada 1962), including daily Bible readings and occasional sermons from the Cathedral of the Annunication of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Ottawa

Monday, March 28, 2005

Good Friday sermon

A lesson on the seven last words of Christ.


by Father Carl Reid, Dean of the Cathedral of the Annunciation

In speaking earlier this week to Bishop Wilkinson, not least in preparation for his Reception and Installation here one week from tomorrow, we were discussing topics for sermons. To both of us has fallen the duty of preaching today, Good Friday. I mentioned to him that, because Fr. Peter had preached a short but brilliant sermon last Sunday that would have been perfect for Good Friday, I thought that perhaps I would tackle something that we’ve not heard on this day for many years in this parish – The Seven Last Words of Christ. Coincidentally, that is exactly what Bishop Peter himself said he will be preaching on today in Victoria, though I daresay much more erudite than my musings.

He mentioned that he might begin his sermon by saying something to the effect of, “I have $100 in my pocket for anyone who can tell us what are the seven last words and in their traditional order.” Now I suspect that there are several people here who could do just that, but I believe that the Bishop raises an interesting point. I’m certain that almost all Christians are very familiar with the sayings, but perhaps aren’t aware of their designation as the seven last words.

In their traditional order:
1. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34) Soldiers have just driven nails, or perhaps are in the process of doing so, through the hands and feet of our Lord, and hoisted Him up by those nails. But Jesus does not fear those who kill His body; He pities them and prays for them. They are unwitting instruments of the higher purpose that brings Him here. We shall come back to this first word, after a review of the words that follow.

2. “Verily I say unto thee, To-day shalt thou be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:43) In order that the indignity of the death to which He was condemned might be enhanced, our Lord, as we know, was crucified between two thieves, the one on His right hand and the other on His left. It was to one of these, to the one either who before being led to execution or who while hanging on the cross had repented of all his life-long wickedness, of his murders, and violences, and robberies, that our Lord, when dying, addressed the second of His sayings. A discomforting word for some who would wish to limit God’s grace in some way. “Why should someone who has lead a life of crime be admitted so readily into Paradise?” But let us consider that someone in the midst of dying the unthinkably horrible death of crucifixion is hardly to be interested in some political movement or leader, is he? Is not this episode so very important, not just in terms of its historical context, but also for generations that have followed? This man, hanging on the cross, dying on the cross beside Jesus saw what others apparently failed to see – the Kingliness of Jesus Christ. In his penitence, he had nothing to plead but Jesus Himself; and that is how any of us should approach confession of our sins.

3. “Woman, behold thy Son. Behold thy Mother.” (John 19:26-27) Even though last night, following the Last Supper, all of His disciples forsook Him and fled, here on Calvary, He is not alone. We might look at this word purely in practical terms: Jewish society unhappily condemned widowed women who had no children to a life of beggarly poverty. We think of the widow of Nain whose only son had died, and whom, compassionately, Jesus brought back to life.

Tradition states that Jesus’ adoptive earthly father, St. Joseph, in being much older than Mary, had died years before Calvary. Tradition further maintains that our Blessed Lord was the only offspring of Mary – those referred to as his brothers and sisters being relatives. The word that we translate from either Greek or Hebrew into English as “brother” can also mean a close male relative – cousin, nephew, half-brother. Thus, when our Lord was to be taken from her, Mary indeed would be desolate. However, it is remarkable that John does not use the name “Mary” in recounting this episode. She is the “Mother of Jesus;” and, “woman.” Just like the previous word, is not this also perhaps of significant importance for generations that follow? John seems to be saying to us, “This is not just Mary of Nazareth, she is the Mother, and she is the Woman that was foretold in Genesis, who would not submit to Satan, as Eve did, but would crush his head with her heel.” In that the disciple at the foot of the cross is also not identified by name, always understood to be John himself, does he not also perhaps represent all of us? Mary, Mother of God Incarnate; therefore the perfect Mother, the model – our Mother.

4. “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46) The first three words which we have thus far somewhat considered would seem to have been spoken by our Lord when first nailed to the cross. It was not until nearly the three hours had elapsed, until He was drawing near unto death, that the four following sayings were spoken. During this interval, while there was darkness over all the land, He remained silent. In all that He had said previous to the darkness, the reference had been solely to others: to those who crucified Him, to the penitent thief, and to His Blessed Mother and St. John. In all that now follows, the reference is solely to Himself. With our Lord, even when dying, it is others first, then Himself. Three of these last four words concerning Himself are taken from the Psalms, and it is supposed that the other also, "It is finished" was the original ending of the twenty-second Psalm.

In this fourth word, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” is Jesus crying out in apparent abandonment by His Father, or is He quoting Psalm 22 which begins in apparent tragedy, prophesies in particular detail events that would happen on this very day, and then ends in triumph? Certainly, we must not minimize the words themselves; our Lord must indeed have felt the unimaginable weight of the sins of all mankind, past, present and future. How could any bear such a burden and not feel alone, yea, abandoned, forsaken?

Many western Christians, since the Reformation, maintain that this word signifies that, at this point, Jesus was separated from God the Father. Martin Luther said, “God forsaking God! Who can understand it?” Indeed, how can God be separated from God? We must also keep in mind the ever-present acknowledgement that the Old Testament is fulfilled in the New. If our Lord was not purposefully quoting Psalm 22, and we accept the current Reformed thinking that this word signifies nothing more than Jesus being separated from God the Father, I fail to see how there is any fulfilment of the Old in the New here. If, however, as has traditionally been understood, His words were full of purpose, then the fulfilment is rather more obvious. And further, contextually, might this fourth word also be intended, not just for Jewish hearers who would have recognized one of their hymns, for that is what the Psalms were and are to them, but also for all generations who would follow? When we feel spiritually forsaken, abandoned, do we dwell in misery, or do we look ahead to the promise of triumph, as does Psalm 22, as did our Lord - as St. Paul in his letter to the Philippians stated, “Jesus, for the joy that was set before Him, endured the Cross?”

5. “I thirst.” (John 19:28) Time passes slowly; His remaining strength is failing; as Fr. Peter mentioned to us last Sunday what is the usual consequence of crucifixion, He is beginning to suffocate. Loss of blood, such as our Lord had already experienced in His agony in the Garden, during his flogging, the painful crown of thorns; loss of blood can precipitate the most agonizing thirst. Is this the moment for which the Tempter has been waiting? Through the voices of the cynical onlookers do we hear Satan echoing his invitation from the wilderness temptation for Jesus to prove Himself, “Save yourself, and impress the people?”

Two weeks ago we commemorated the life of the late 19th and early 20th century Bishop of Lincoln, Edward King, of whom it was said by a Roman Catholic priest, “Of course I do not believe that no Protestant can go to Heaven. I have known many Protestants whom I firmly believe to be in Heaven, and I have known some that I believe went straight to Heaven without passing through Purgatory. Edward King is the one that comes first to mind.” Aside from his preaching and personal holiness, King, with his well-developed understanding of Jesus being both fully God and fully man, was wont to encourage his flock to recognize that we are fully human. Of this word from the Cross, King observed, “Our Lord did thirst as any mere man might thirst, and He was not above saying so--not above expressing a weakness of body. Let us not then be above saying we are tired; let us not be above saying we cannot do so much as others, that we cannot stay so long on our knees as others do, that we cannot fast so long as others, and let us not be ashamed to own it and eat. If we find that we cannot do without a little more sleep than others, then let us have it. Let us not be ashamed that we are human beings, and that we have various degrees of weakness, and are not such perfect models as we are tempted sometimes to appear. Let us not be above honestly saying, ‘I am tired, I cannot go to church four or five times a day as some people do. I may get better, I may learn to do more. I trust I may, but I cannot now.’ Our Lord could have kept back this word, but he said, ‘I thirst,’ and I thank Him from my heart, for it is a word of sympathy with me in my frequent bodily weariness, when I am trying to do the will of God. For we do get tired, physically tired, even in prayer. Let us be real and true, admit the fact that we are of different degrees of strength, and we cannot do what some people do. We should be much more cheerful, much better tempered, much happier, and. get on much better with our spiritual duties if sometimes we had the humble courage to say, ‘I can not do so much as you do, but I try, and I hope God will lead me on’.”

Our Lord was indeed physically thirsty when he uttered this word, and as King observes, that should be for us both sympathetic and encouraging. But might we not, as in the case of the previous word, also find an equally, yea even perhaps more significant fulfilment of the Old in the New yet again. The Psalmist expressed our own spiritual thirst, our souls’ built-in desire of, love for, God, more than once, “My soul is athirst for God, yea even for the living God,” and, “Like as the hart desireth the water-brooks, so longeth my soul after Thee, O God.” In this, His very last hour, almost His last breath, was our Lord, in the matchless Divine Love that God has for each human soul, expressing His thirst for human souls?

6. “It is finished.” (John 19:30) This particular word is one that we often clarify in terms of the proper understanding of the word ‘finished.’ Better translations for the modern English speaking world might be ‘accomplished,’ or even ‘consummated.’ But even these fall short of expressing fully the meaning of what our Lord meant. When our Lord, speaking for the sixth time from the cross, said, “It is finished,” He used these words in a sense in which none other than He could use them. Everything which He had come into this world to do was accomplished--perfectly, entirely, thoroughly, completely, finished--so that there was nothing lacking, nothing that could be added, nothing that could be further done. He had fulfilled all that the prophets had foretold, He had realized every type of the Old Testament Scriptures, He had wrought every miracle that He came to perform, spoken every word that He was to speak, set up and established the New Kingdom, His Church, instituted the Sacraments, and made, by His now dying on the Cross, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world. He had done all that was to be done, or that could be done, and had done all in such a way that in regard of every single detail thereof, as His eyes were now closing in death, He could say, “It is finished.” It could not be better, more perfectly, more entirely accomplished than it is. It could not have been brought to a more thorough and complete end than it has been: “It is finished.”

How does this apply to us today, beyond the obvious of encouraging us, by His example to complete any task that we undertake? Certainly, as it relates to the existence of the Traditional Anglican Communion, while we try to remain steadfast to our Lord’s most obvious instructions in terms of how the Church is to be ordered, other parts of the Church in the western world seem bent on revisiting so much of what our Lord said, what He did, what He ordained, what He consummated – glibly claiming that they know better than God by saying such things as, “If Jesus were alive today, He would have done this, that and the other thing differently than He did two thousand years ago.” The import of, “It is finished, accomplished, consummated, perfectly and finally completed” seems to be lost on them. Lest we Anglican Catholics become guilty of pride, collectively and individually, we must acknowledge our own less-than-perfect record of following His commandments and examples.

7. “Father, into thy hands, I commend my spirit.” (Luke 23:46) Before we visit this last word in any depth, might we return to the first word that begins the same way, “Father?”

“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” This is a word of prayer; and, as mentioned, offered on behalf of others. It is also a word of majesty, proclaiming the Divinity of the Sufferer. It is a priestly Word, a Word of absolution. It may have been spoken before the Cross was lifted up, when the nails were actually piercing those blessed hands.

Our Lord’s life was begun, continued, and ended in prayer. His first recorded words were that He must be in His Father’s house, about His Father’s business; and, as the perfect prayer which He taught us begins with the words “Our Father,” so on the Cross His first and last word is “Father.”

Recognizing here that Fr. Peter so graphically snapped our focus onto the events at Calvary last Sunday, today is the actual day on which they occurred, therefore, let us visit the scene again. The Cross is laid on the ground. Jesus is stripped and thrown roughly on to the Cross. Nails were driven into the hands and feet. The Cross is jerked up, throwing the whole weight of the body upon the tortured hands and feet. Then with a sickening jar, the Cross is dropped into the hole prepared for it, and wedges of wood are driven in to steady and support it, each blow of the hammer sending a thrill of agony through the whole of our Lord’s body. And He meets each fresh thrill with the prayer, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” The Greek makes it quite plain that this word was not spoken just once. A better translation might be “Jesus kept on saying, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing’.” Nor was it for the soldiers only, who drove the nails and lifted up the Cross, that He prayed. Darkness falls upon the earth, and hell empties itself from all sins accumulated there throughout all the ages of the fallen human race.

Adam brings his sin and places it into the outstretched arms of the Adam, the Man on the Cross. Cain presents his crime. The generations that perished in the Flood because of their sins; Sodom and Gomorrah carry their heavy load and place it into the heart of the Crucified One. Idolaters and blasphemers, adulterers and thieves, all who rebelled against God also follow this dark, ghostly procession to His Cross. Here come Pharoah, Judas Iscariot, also Caiaphas and Pilate, scribes and Pharisees, and add to the load placed on the Son of Man.

For those who passed by and railed on Him, wagging their heads and saying, “Ah, Thou that destroyest the Temple, and buildest it in three days, save Thyself and come down from the Cross,” for the Chief Priests who mocked and said, “He saved others; Himself He cannot save,” and for all who took part, He prays, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Ah yes, here comes Nero and the other Caesars who threw Christ’s believers to wild beasts, or crucified them in the arena. Behind them follows another endless stream of those who have accumulated sins during the two thousand years since His Crucifixion. Everyone carries his own heavy burden and loads it upon the Man on the Cross. Now I see myself, with all my many, many sins, nearing the Cross. I load them all on Jesus, nearly collapsing under the weight of just my own sins myself.

All hell of the past and future emptied itself completely during those three hours of Calvary. Nothing was left behind, nothing forgotten, omitted or neglected. Everything was loaded upon the Son of Man. These are the contents of Good Friday as men made it.

But not only hell, also heaven was opened that day. All the infinite Might of God poured down to the earth that the Crucified One could be strong enough to accept the terrific burden of the world. Man and God in one on the Cross! As Man, He took the sin of the world, the sin of all men, and as God, He let it die in His Holiness. He accepted the death of the world and returned life to His earth. Of all His miracles, this was the greatest, which far exceeds human imagination and understanding.

Must we not marvel at the power, the absolute self-control which refused to be crushed by the nails driven through hands and feet, or by a wreath of thorns pressed down on a weary head, or by the taunts of coarse soldiers, or by the sarcasm and jeering from the priests, scribes and Pharisees who were just so happy over their clever scheming that had at last disposed of this prophet of Nazareth? This Prophet could have asserted His power, and confounded them all; but He shows a more excellent way, and with amazing control over Himself and the whole situation, He calls out, “Father, forgive them.”

“Revenge is sweet” – so goes the Proverb. Is it really? “Forgiveness is sweeter.” There are many human hearts in the world, that are chilled and hardened because they demanded reparation and revenge from those who wronged them; they asked for justice, and when justice extended its hand to them, it was as cold as ice. Might we all think personally of our own experience under the shadow of the Cross? Can we recall a time when we have forgiven anyone a wrong, and been sorry for it afterwards? To forgive without exacting any condition whatever is a great thing. It makes us resemble Christ Himself. To be great means to have a great soul. There is nothing that we can desire that could be more precious. A great intellect, a great name, a great influence, a great popularity may be desirable in many ways. But none of these can compare with a great soul, which is within the reach of each of us. One of the indications of a great soul, following the example of Jesus, is to forgive , from the bottom of our hearts, anyone and everyone who may have wronged us.

“Forgive.” It is the first word that echoes from the Cross to each of us. Is there anyone who has hurt any of us? Please let us forgive them, as God forgives us. Always forgive, otherwise, we may not be forgiven. Forgive in our hearts, and also say it aloud as Christ did, to those whom we forgive. Let us not say that it is difficult; let us not count the cost of our forgiveness; but rather, let us remember how much it cost God to forgive each one of us. Father, forgive all of your human creatures whose sins nailed your only begotten Son to that Cross; they know not what they were doing.

“Father, forgive them.” “Father, into Thy hands, I commend my spirit.” And so from the first Word to the seventh, everything begins and ends with God the Father. Now at the very end, Jesus quotes another Psalm – 31, “Into thy hands, I commend my spirit, for thou hast redeemed me, O Lord, thou God of truth.” We have come to the last, the supreme moment. Jesus is dying. His sacred head is sinking down upon His breast. The light is going out from those loving eyes. Almost the last drop of his blood has oozed out and trickled down from those cruel wounds. The earth is quaking; the graves are opening; the rocks are rending; the darkness is growing thicker and blacker; the veil of the temple is parting asunder from top to bottom; and the people are beginning to smite upon their breasts and to hide their faces. The Divine Sufferer has but one more, only one single more breath to expire, and with it--listen--listen--as if summoning back all His energy, all His life, He lifts up His voice, and with a cry that pierces even to Heaven, He pours forth from those lips, by which the tidings of a lost world's salvation was proclaimed, His last, last words: "Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit." "I now give up the breath of life, I cease to breathe and to live, but this spirit, this life, I commend to Thee, O Father, that after three days Thou may restore it to my body again."

All is over. Jesus is dead. There He hangs lifeless, crucified and slain for us men, and for our salvation. And as we look up to Him with adoring love and gratitude, and with the echo of these last words still sounding in our ears, how shall we use these words? First of all, will they move us with gratitude for all that was accomplished for us and for all mankind on this day? Will they be a source of inspiration so that we might resolve to be more like Christ, our Master and example? Will they move us to seek only the will of the heavenly Father in our own lives – to give up ourselves – body, mind, and spirit, into the hands of our faithful Creator; and to be content to let Him direct and rule our hearts in everything that concerns us, from the least to the greatest thing? Shall we see His hands in all things, yea, whether living or dying? Might we make our last words at night, as our eyes close in sleep the same words of our Blessed, dying Saviour, “Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit?” Every time we approach the altar to commemorate His most precious death, might we repeat them, as have generations of saints before us? And then, with our own last, expiring breath when we too shall be dying, might we make them our own last words!

The Seven Last Words. Simply words of agony from the lips of a dying criminal? Or words with eternal meaning, each and every one of them, from the heart of God incarnate? Our first hymn observed in verse 5, “Seven times he spoke, seven words of love.” Divine Love suffered Crucifixion for each one of us. All was done in accordance with the will of God the Father; all was done for the sake of fallen humanity. Today then is a day when we kneel as we would on no other day, at the foot of the Cross and bewail our sins that nailed Him to that tree; when we renounce one by one the sins of our past: our pride, our coldness and hardness of heart, our rash and idle words spoken hastily, our impiety, our anger and malice, our impurity, our dishonesty, our untruthfulness, our covetousness. But also for praying that in our humble attempts we may be enabled ever hereafter to walk in the blessed steps of the most holy life of Him who was truth, and patience, and tenderness, and spotless purity, who was silent before His accusers, who did humble Himself even to the death upon the cross, and even when dying could be mindful of the needs of his mother and brethren.

Today is a day for the lowliest adoration but also for the highest worship. If indeed it be God Incarnate Who hangs on that Cross, dying for each and every one of us, how can we possibly express our gratitude for His unspeakable act of Love? Surely, within our hearts, we should proclaim as never before, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing!”