Good Friday meditation on the Seven Last Words
By a Dominican friar | 5 April 2023
And when they were come to the place, which is called Calvary, there they crucified him, and the malefactors, one on the right hand, and the other on the left. Then said Jesus, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do. And they parted his raiment and cast lots.
The prayer of Jesus is always efficacious, because He is the beloved Son of the Father. Therefore we should hold that this prayer from the Cross, the first of His seven last words, obtained that which it sought. This prayer of Christ from the Cross was not like His prayer in Gethsemane, when He said, “If it be possible, let this chalice pass from me.” That prayer, made during the agony in the garden, was conditional — “if it be possible”. That prayer, we may think, was a spontaneous expression of our Lord’s deep sadness at the thought of all those for whom He would die, but who would nevertheless not benefit from His death.
This prayer, made from the Cross, is different. It is not conditional but rather, without condition. Jesus asks His heavenly Father to forgive those who crucify Him in ignorance. In the first place, this means the Roman soldiers who carried out the crucifixion. These soldiers were not in the same position as the Sanhedrin. The members of the Sanhedrin who pronounced that the Lord was worthy of death were not truly ignorant of the gravity of their action. They had witnessed His miracles and heard His teaching, and they had seen that He was free from sin. They were not ignorant but guilty of darkening their own minds; they had turned away from the light, because the light was painful to them.
The Roman soldiers, by contrast, were foreigners, living in a country whose languages they probably did not speak, and whose inhabitants they had little in common with. They were ignorant that they were crucifying the Son of God. And so our Lord prays for them, and they receive mercy on account of His prayer. We do not know, I think, whether all the soldiers were converted. Tradition tells us of St Longinus, the centurion who pierced the Lord’s side, and who received the gift of faith. His lance is kept in St Peter’s basilica. But we should believe that God offered mercy to all the soldiers for the offence which they committed against His Son, although it was in itself the greatest crime imaginable.
I think that this first word of Jesus from the Cross has also a wider meaning. Every mortal sin can be truly said to crucify our Lord, since He alone could pay the price which is owing to God’s justice for even one such sin. But there are many people in the world who commit mortal sins and who do not know that these sins brought Christ to the Cross. In that sense, these people, like the soldiers, do not know what they are doing. That does not mean that they are innocent, since they sin freely. But I think that Christ in these words prayed for all these people, whether they are pagans, Jews, or even baptised people who have had no instruction. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” He looked into the future and saw those who had not yet been born. “They will not know that their sins bring me to the Cross.” And this prayer of Christ to His Father, the first of His seven words, gains for them a delay in God’s justice, and a space for them to repent.
One of the malefactors which were hanged railed on him, saying, If you be Christ, save yourself and us. But the other answering rebuked him, saying, Do not you fear God, seeing you are in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man has done nothing amiss. And he said to Jesus, Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom. And Jesus said to him, Amen I say to you, today shall you be with me in paradise.
The conversion of St Dismas, the good thief, is perhaps the greatest conversion in history. At the beginning of his crucifixion, as we learn from another gospel, Dismas took part in mocking our Lord. “They that were crucified with Him, reviled Him.” But in the course of his crucifixion, Dismas changes his mind. He now defends Jesus as innocent. Not only does he defend Him, he recognises Him as king. This is an amazing act of faith. We read in the gospel that our Lord admired the faith of the centurion who said to Him, “Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldst come under my roof, but only say the word and my servant will be healed.” But at that time, Christ was still free, followed by large crowds, healing people of all kinds of illness. Here He is nailed to the Cross, stripped of His clothes, abandoned by His disciples, apparently helpless. Yet Dismas does not simply recognise Christ as a king who has been treated unjustly: he confesses Him as a king who is about to reign. He says to Him, “Remember me, when you come into your kingdom.” His faith appears to me even more sublime than the faith of the centurion.
What can explain the conversion of St Dismas? I think it is the prayer already offered by our Lord to His Father, as the first word from the Cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” This prayer, as we have seen, was made for all those who sin in ignorance, especially for those who would be ready to change if they knew that the Son of God loves them and died to take away their sin. Dismas must have been such a person. As a result of Christ’s prayer, the heart of St Dismas is enlightened all at once with a perfect faith. And the Lord, by His answer to Dismas, shows that He is never vanquished in generosity. For if the conversion of the good thief is the greatest of conversions, the promise of Christ is the greatest of promises. It is the promise that every man has been hoping to hear ever since our first parents left the garden of Eden: “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
Now there stood by the cross of Jesus, his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary of Cleophas, and Mary Magdalen. When Jesus therefore had seen his mother and the disciple standing whom he loved, he saith to his mother: Woman, behold thy son. After that, he saith to the disciple: Behold thy mother. And from that hour, the disciple took her to his own.
Why does our Lord address His mother by the title of “Woman”? He is teaching us that Mary is the Woman foretold in the garden of Eden, when God said to the serpent, I will put enmity between thee and the Woman. She is the woman who, with her Son, crushes the head of the serpent, through her co-operation in Christ’s Passion.
Since she is the woman foretold from the beginning, Mary is also Mother. The first woman, Eve, was called “the mother of all the living”. But Eve might equally have been called “the mother of all the dying”. The new Eve is the mother of all the living in a better sense; she is the mother of us who have been redeemed for an everlasting life.
I feel sure that Mary acted already as a mother to the twelve apostles during Christ’s public ministry. Even though they had not yet received the full gift of the Holy Spirit, they could not have failed to perceive her goodness: surely they would have already have been accustomed to speaking to her about their Master’s words and actions, and about the work that they themselves were doing for His sake. And our Lady’s heart was already open to them all, and surely she already spoke to her Son about them, and interceded with Him for their needs and difficulties.
But these words of Christ from the Cross, “Behold thy Son”, cause Mary to become mother in an even more sublime way. Fr Garrigou-Lagrange tells us that these words of Jesus are like sacramental words, which effect what they signify. When the priest says, speaking in the person of Christ, “This is my body”, the bread becomes Christ’s body. When our Lord says to Mary, “Behold thy Son”, He makes her to be Mother; He gives her a new office and a new grace. And when he says to St John, “Behold thy Mother”, Christ gives to all the children of the New Testament the grace to be children of Mary. He makes available to all of them a grace to recognise the Blessed Virgin as mother, and so to come to Him through her. Let us pray for those, like the Protestants, who profess to follow Christ, but who have no idea that He wishes them to love and honour Mary as their Mother. Let us pray that this word of Christ from the Cross may be efficacious in their souls this Easter.
The chief priests mocking, said with the scribes one to another, He saved others; himself he cannot save. Let Christ the king of Israel come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe. And they that were crucified with him reviled him. And when the sixth hour was come, there was darkness over the whole earth until the ninth hour. And at the ninth hour, Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying: Eloi, Eloi, lamma sabacthani? Which is, being interpreted, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? And some of the standers by hearing, said: Behold he calleth Elias.
Why did our Lord speak these words? He spoke them, first of all, because they are the opening words of Psalm 21, and He wished to show that He was the one spoken of in that Psalm, and in all the Psalms. He was “abandoned” by the Father, not in the sense of being separated from Him, which would be impossible, but in the sense that the Father permits Him to fall into the power of unjust men. Christ also speaks these words, one ancient writer says, as a Jew, to express His great sorrow at what has happened to the Jewish people. It is as if He is saying, “Why has Thy grace so forsaken this people that they reach the point of crucifying me, Thy Son?” Finally, St Bede tells us that Jesus speaks these words as a man in order to express the feelings which men naturally experience in times of tribulation, such as a serious illness. In such times, even believers often feel themselves abandoned by God, although in reality it is not so. Our Lord expresses the natural, human thoughts of His suffering members by means of His own words. He does this to console them, and to teach them that has God not abandoned them, but rather, God incarnate has made Himself their advocate.
Afterwards, Jesus knowing that all things were now accomplished, that the scripture might be fulfilled, said: I thirst. Now there was a vessel set there full of vinegar. And they, putting a sponge full of vinegar and hyssop, put it to his mouth.
In Psalm 29, God says to His people, “If I were hungry, I would not tell you.” And so, nowhere in the gospel does the Lord say that He is hungry, even though the evangelists tell us that He was hungry after the fast in the desert, and again on the morning after Palm Sunday, when He saw the fig tree that had no fruit. But on this one occasion, He does say that He is thirsty. This thirst is one more torment, in addition to all the other torments which have come upon Him since He entered into His Passion the previous evening. Why does He make known to the bystanders this one kind of suffering rather than any of the others? St John tells us a reason: it is so that the Scriptures may be fulfilled. Jesus has a love for all of His Father’s works, but especially He has a filial reverence for the words which His Father inspired the prophets to speak, by which the prophets foretold the details of the Messiah’s earthly life. Since David had foretold in Psalm 21 that the just One would suffer great thirst, and in the Psalm 68 that He would be given vinegar as His drink, our Lord says from the Cross, “I thirst,” and the vinegar is given to Him.
But the spiritual writers have always seen another meaning to this word from the Cross. St Gregory Nazianzen says that God thirsts to be thirsted for. The redemption is now nearly complete, Christ has almost died. But if no one believes that Christ is God or cares about His death, what good will the redemption achieve? As we say in the Dies irae, Tantus labor non sit cassus — “may so great a labour not be in vain”. Christ therefore thirsts that the peoples of the earth may believe in Him and be refreshed. For as St John says in the Apocalypse, He is the Lamb who will lead them to springs of living water.
Jesus therefore, when he had taken the vinegar, said: It is consummated.
“It is consummated”: how much meaning is compressed into this, the sixth of the seven words from the Cross! In the Greek in which St John wrote his gospel, this word is literally one word, tetelestai, it is consummated. What is consummated? The prophecies of Scripture, the work which the Father gave to Christ to accomplish, all the sufferings of His life, the redemption of mankind. It is all consummated. We can say that during all His life, Jesus was gathering the price of our redemption. Each of His actions on earth merited a reward from His Father; each of them had an inexhaustible merit. But it is only on the Cross that He hands over to the Father this price which He has merited during all His life, so it is only on the Cross that the debt of Adam is paid.
It could seem a strange way to finish the Passion, with the tasting of some vinegar. We might have supposed that the Passion would end with the piercing of His Sacred Heart. But no, that happens later, when He is already dead. If Jesus completes His Passion with the vinegar, I think it is because sin began with the tasting of the forbidden fruit. That fruit went sour already in the mouths of our first parents, and it has been sour in the mouths of all their children since. Jesus seems to atone last for the first sin, and in doing so, He shows that all the sins back to the beginning have now been atoned for. Consummatum est.
And Jesus crying out with a loud voice, said: Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit. And saying this, he gave up the ghost. Now the centurion, seeing what was done, glorified God, saying: Indeed this was a just man.
Our Saviour’s last act on earth was a miracle. Having been terribly scourged, and having carried His cross and then been crucified for three hours, it was not possible for Him by human power to cry out with a loud voice. This was only possible by divine power. This is one reason why the centurion is converted by witnessing Christ’s death. If our Lord chooses to end His earthly life in this way, by a miracle, it is perhaps so that we will always remember that, even in the depths of His humiliation and sorrow, Jesus was still equal to the Father, always beholding His Father’s Face. Sinful men, acting partly in virtue of our own sins, were able to do terrible damage to His body and grievously to afflict His soul, but they could do no more than He permitted them to do. It was not sin which was the master during Christ’s Passion, but love: the love of the Son for the Father and for all mankind. And so, no man took His life from Him, but rather He sent forth His own spirit into His Father’s hands.
Jesus’s holy body and soul are now separated, though each is still united to His divinity. And already the conversions are beginning. First it was the centurion, but now there are others. St Luke says, “all the multitude of them that were come together to that sight, and saw the things that were done, returned striking their breasts.” There is deep sorrow for Mary, and for the apostles and disciples; but already, even as Jesus’s soul descends into Limbo, perhaps they remember His words at the Last Supper, “Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”