Catholics are currently entering into the Easter Triduum – the three days leading up to Easter – which is the most spiritually intense part of the season of Lent. Not only do we commemorate Christ’s death and resurrection in a more general sense, but we are approaching the feast days in which Christ’s death and the events surrounding it are directly celebrated.
One way for our meditation upon Christ’s death and resurrection to be fruitful is for us to build upon the thoughts and insights of those who have come before us. One particularly fruitful way in which to do this is through looking to the Church Fathers – the Churchmen, theologians, and saints of the first few centuries of Christianity. They were the first to attempt to interpret the Christian Scriptures and the spiritual, theological, moral, and philosophical concepts contained therein.
Some of the most powerful religious texts of the Passion narratives are the seven last words of Christ – that is, a series of phrases from the Gospels spoken by Christ immediately before His death. In what follows, I will present each of the seven last words, along with a Patristic analysis on these or related texts, along with my own short commentary. Through examining the teachings of the Bible, and how they were interpreted by the earliest Christians, we can make Lent and the Easter season a particularly Spirit-filled time.
I: Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do (Luke 23:34)
“[I]t has been clearly demonstrated that the Word, Who existed in the beginning with God, by Whom all things were made, according to the time appointed by the Father, [was] united to His own workmanship, inasmuch as He became a man liable of suffering…For I have shown that the Son of God did not then begin to exist [at the moment of the Incarnation], being with the Father from the beginning; but when He became Incarnate, and became man, He commenced afresh the long line of human beings, and furnished us, in a brief, comprehensive manner; so that what we had lost in Adam – namely, to be of the image and likeness of God – that we might recover in Christ Jesus. For as it was not possible that the man who had once for all been conquered, and who had been destroyed through disobedience, could reform Himself, and obtain the prize of victory; and as it was also impossible that he could attain salvation who had fallen under the power of sin – the Son effected both these things, being the Word of God, descended from the Father, becoming incarnate, stooping low, even to death, and consummating the arranged plan of our salvation…And from this fact, that He exclaimed from the cross, ‘Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do’ [Luke 23:34], the long-suffering, patience, compassion, and goodness of Christ are exhibited, since He suffered, and did Himself exculpated those who had maltreated Him. For the Word of God, who said to us, ‘Love your enemy, and pray for those who persecute you’ [Matthew 5:44], Himself did this very thing on the cross; loving the human race to such a degree, that He even prayed for those putting Him to death.”
-St. Iranaeus of Lyons, Against the Heresies, Book III, chapter 18
Comment: Here, St. Irenaeus affirms that man, due to sin, is incapable of overcoming sin by his own power and attaining salvation, and that it is only through God’s plan of salvation that we are saved; further, Irenaeus affirms that the Divine plan of salvation is brought about through the Word of God becoming Incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ, and dying for our sins on the cross. Jesus proclaimed from the cross, “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do,” as a manifestation of His love and mercy, and an example of the precept to “Love thine enemy.” More specifically, though, Irenaeus was fighting against the Gnostics, who denied that Christ truly assumed flesh. Against this, Irenaeus affirms that the Word of God literally assumed flesh without ceasing to be God, and that those putting Him to death were causing Him true bodily harm. It is through this that forgiveness of sins is proclaimed, which is seen when He asks His heavenly Father to have mercy on them.
“But O loving-kindness! … It is not for naught that all else has been written and how many things He did at that very cross sufficient to recall them to Him, that you might emulate His loving-kindness. For indeed He cast them to the ground, and restored the servants ear, and discoursed with forbearance; and great miracles did He show forth, when lifted up, turning aside the sunbeams, bursting the rocks, raising the dead…on the cross crying aloud, ‘Father, forgive them their sins.’ … What can be equal to this tenderness? On hearing these things let us hide our faces, to think that we are so far removed from Him whom we are commanded to imitate. Let us at least recognize how great the distance…”
-St. John Chrysostom, 79th Homily on the Gospel of St. Matthew
Comment: St. John Chrysostom here emphasizes the kindness and compassion which the Cross exemplified. Not only did Jesus ask for the Father’s forgiveness to come upon sinners, but the act of forgiveness which transpired at the Cross was accompanied by many and great signs, which exemplify the immense contrast between God’s mercy and loving-kindness, even towards His enemies, and or own weakness in imitating this.
“Do not seek to avenge yourselves on those who injure you…Let us make them our brethren by our kindness. For say ye to those that hate you, ‘Ye are our brethren,’ that the name of the Lord may be glorified. And let us imitate the Lord, ‘Who, when He was reviled, reviled not again.’ [1 Peter 2:3]; when He was crucified, He answered not; ‘when He suffered, He threatened not’ [2 Peter 2:23]; but prayed for His enemies, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ [Luke 23:34] If anyone, the more he is injured, displays the more patience, blessed is he. If any is defrauded, if anyone is despised, for the name of the Lord, he truly is the servant of Christ.”
-St. Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Church of Ephesus, chapter 10
Comment: Like Chrysostom, St. Ignatius of Antioch (writing about two centuries earlier) speaks of the moral implications of these words. When cursed by His killers, Jesus blessed them, by asking the Father to have mercy on them, thus exemplifying the command of “Love thine enemy”. Thus, the more we imitate this, the more we can truly claim to be servants and disciples of the Lord.
II: Truly I say unto you, today you will be with me in paradise (Luke 23:43)
“The blessed apostle Paul counts the mystery of the Incarnation of the Only-Begotten worthy of all admiration, and, so to speak, is in amaze at the wisdom and excellence of the plan of salvation, saying, ‘O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and the knowledge of the Lord.’ [Romans 11:33] For consider how the Savior of all and Lord, by Whom the Father brought all things into existence, refashions man’s nature, restoring it to that which it was in the beginning by becoming Himself like unto us, and bearing our sufferings for our sake…. When therefore He hung upon the precious cross, two thieves were hung with Him. And what follows from this? It was verily mockery as regards the object of the Jews; but [it was also] the commemoration of prophesy: for it is written, that ‘He was also numbered among the transgressors.’ [Isaiah 53:12] For our sake He became a curse, that is, accursed: for it is written again: ‘Cursed is he who hangeth on a tree.’ [Deuteronomy 21:23] … Two thieves therefore were hanged with Him, as I said, in mockery of the passion which brings salvation to the whole world: but of these, the one, it says, resembled in his conduct the impiety of the Jews, belching forth the same words as they did, and giving free utterance to blasphemous expressions. … But the other, following a different course, is justly worthy of our admiration: for he believed in Him, and while suffering so bitter a punishment, he rebuked the vehement outcries of the Jews, and the words of him who was hanging with him. He ‘confessed his sin, that he might be justified’ [Psalm 51:4]; he became the accuser of his own wicked ways, that God might remit His guilt: for it is written, ‘I said that I would confess of myself my iniquity to the Lord, and Thou forgavest the wickedness of my heart.’ [Psalm 32:5]”
-St. Cyril of Alexandria, 153rd Sermon on the Gospel of St. Luke
“…Jesus Christ the Son of God was fixed to the cross He had been carrying, two robbers being similarly crucified, one on His right hand, the other on His left: so that even in the incidents of the cross might be displayed that difference which in His judgment must be made of all men; for the believing robber’s faith was a type of those who are to be saved, and the blasphemer’s wickedness prefigured those who are to be damned. Christ’s Passion, therefore, contains the mystery of salvation, and of the instrument which the iniquity of the Jews prepared for His punishment, the Redeemer has made for us the stepping-stone to glory…”
-Pope St. Leo the Great, Sermon 55
Comment: Both St. Cyril and Pope St. Leo are making a similar point, namely, that we receive the benefits of Christ’s death and resurrection by following in the way of the repentant thief: by realizing our own sinfulness, by accusing ourselves of wrongdoing before the Lord, and by experiencing a radical sense of openness to God’s saving grace. Both emphasized how such salvation is possible for paradoxical reasons: namely, that which was an instrument of torture and death became for us, by God’s power, the source of eternal life. The fact that God would go to such great lengths to redeem us from sin is a sign of the depths of His love and wisdom, as St. Cyril writes.
“The expression so troubled some people as discordant that they dared to suspect that the phrase, ‘Today you shall be with me in paradise,’ was inserted into the gospel by some people who lived an easy life. But we say, more simply, that perhaps, before He departed for the so-called heart of the earth, He established the believing thief in the Kingdom of God.”
-Origen of Alexandria, fragment 248 from his homilies on
Comment: Origen notes that among some early Christians, this particular phrase was so controversial that it was suspected to be a later addition from those who believed that the process of salvation would be easy. The answer, according to Origen, is much simpler: anyone who approaches Christ for forgiveness is brought to salvation by Christ.
III: Mother, behold your son; son, behold your mother. (John 19:26-27)
“And He, having committed His mother to John, said, ‘Behold, your son.’ [John 19:26] O the honor! With what honor did He honor the disciple! When He Himself was now departing, He committed her to the disciple to take care of.”
-St. John Chrysostom, 85th Homily on the Gospel
Comment: Here, St. John Chrysostom notes the great honor which Jesus bestowed upon the Apostle John when giving him the responsibility of taking care of His mother. Outside of Christ Himself, Mary was the most important person in salvation history. This was indeed a great honor.
IV: My God, My God, why have You forsaken me? (Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34)
“And observe when it took place. At midday, that all that dwell on the earth may know it, when it was day all over the world; which was enough to convert them, not by the greatness of the miracle only, but also by its taking place in due season. For after all their insulting, their lawless derision, this is done…then He shows the darkness, in order that at least so (having vented their anger) they may profit from the miracle. … For whether they thought He Himself had done it, they ought to have believed and to have feared; or whether not He, or the Father, yet thereby they ought to have been moved to compunction, for that darkness was a token of His anger at their crime. … And for this reason, even after this He speaks, that they might learn that He was still alive, and that He Himself did this, and that they might become by this more gentle, and He says, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani’ [‘My God, My God, why have You forsaken me’] [Matthew 27:46] that unto His last breath they might see that He honors His Father, and is no adversary of God. … But mark also their wantonness, and intemperance, and folly. They thought (it is said) that it was Elijah whom He called, and straightaway they gave Him some vinegar to drink [Matthew 27:46]. But another came to Him and ‘pierced His side with a spear.’ What could be more lawless, what more brutal, than these men, who carried their madness to so great length, offering insult even to His body? But mark thou, I pray you, how He made use of their wickedness for our salvation. For after the blow the fountain of our salvation gushed forth from thence.”
-St. John Chrysostom, 88th Homily on the Gospel of St. Matthew
Comment: St. John Chrysostom sees a close connection between the story of Jesus’ cry of abandonment and the eclipse that took place during Christ’s death. The eclipse was meant to be a sign of God’s wrath and anger towards those who killed Christ; Jesus’ cry of abandonment was meant to showcase His close relationship to the Father, that He was so close to God that He could cry out to God even in His time of need. All of this was meant to humble Jesus’ executioners, but they unfortunately doubled-down with regard to their evil. Yet, St. John Chrysostom notes how, in a mysterious and paradoxical manner, God used the hard-heartedness of those who crucified Him as a means to bring about salvation.
“For in the morning on the first day of the week was His resurrection, whereby He was taken up, into eternal life, ‘over whom death shall have no more dominion’ [Romans 6:9]. Now what follows is spoken in the person of the Crucified. … ‘O God, my God, why have You forsaken me?’ [Psalm 22:2] Far removed from my salvation: for ‘salvation is far from sinners’ [Psalm 119:155]. For these are not the words of righteousness, but of my sins. For it is the old man nailed to the Cross that speaks, ignorant even of the reason why God has forsaken him; or else it may be thus, The words of my sins are far from my salvation.”
-St. Augustine, Ennarations on the Psalms, exposition on Psalm 22
Comment: These words on the Cross said by Jesus were taken from the twenty-second psalm, verse two. St. Augustine here says that these words are meant to be associated with Christ on the Cross, not Christ in His risen, glorious state, after having conquered death. For Augustine, God abandons sinners because of their sin. St. Paul writes in Romans 6:6, “We know that our old self was crucified with Him [Christ] so that the body of sin might be rendered powerless, that we might no longer be slaves of sin.” Jesus took our sins upon Himself, and destroyed them by the power of His death and resurrection. Conversion and baptism thus represent the throwing off of the old self and participating in the glory of the resurrected Christ. Thus Jesus, by speaking these words, is attesting to God’s abandonment of our sinful selves, which we have the power to overcome through grace.
V: I thirst (John 19:28)
“He was here again fulfilling prophesy. But consider, I pray, the accursed nature of the bystanders. Though we have ten thousand enemies, and have suffered intolerable things at their hands, yet when we see them perishing, we relent; yet they did not so even make peace with Him, nor were tamed by what they saw, but rather became more savage, and increased their irony; and having brought Him a vinegar sponge, as men bring it to the condemned, thus they gave Him to drink; since it is on this account that the hyssop is added.”
-St. John Chrysostom, Homily 85 on the Gospel of St. John
Comment: Here, St. John Chrysostom notes that the Gospel writers specifically point out this episode to show its parallel to the twenty-second psalm, more specifically Psalm 22:14-15. For a Christian, we relent in fighting our enemies when our enemies relent in fighting against us, and search for the first opportunity to make peace with them; we fight our enemies, but we have mercy on them in their moment of weakness. Yet, when seeing Jesus at His most vulnerable, Jesus’ executioners became more vicious – which can be seen in giving Jesus vinegar to drink instead of water. Yet, the more they hurt Jesus, the more Jesus used their evil as the means to help us attain salvation.
VI: It is finished (John 19:30)
“Do you see how He does all things calmly, and with power? And what follows shows this. For when all had been completed, ‘He bowed down His head, and gave up His spirit.’ [John 19:30] That is, ‘died.’ Yet, to expire does not come after bowing the head; but here, on the contrary, it does. For He did not, when He had expired, bow His head, as happens with us, but when He had bent His head, then he expired. By all which things the Evangelist has shown, that He was the Lord of all.”
-St. John Chrysostom, Homily 85 on the Gospel of St. John
Comment: Here, St. John Chrysostom writes that Christ did not die until He proclaimed His mission of salvation completed or fulfilled. For him, the Gospel writers record this in order to show that Jesus is Lord over all, even death, for He died on His own terms, of His own accord.
VII: Father, unto You I commend My spirit (Luke 23:46)
“For the precise succession seems to be this, namely, that He said first ‘It is finished,’ when what had been prophesied regarding Him was fulfilled in Him, and that thereafter – as if He had been waiting for this, like one, indeed, who died when He willed it to be so – He commended His spirit [to His Father], and resigned it.”
-St. Augustine, On the Harmony of the Gospels,
Here, St. Augustine makes a point very similar to the point made by St. John Chrysostom. The words “It is finished” were meant to indicate how the prophesies surrounding Christ had been fulfilled in Christ at His death. Yet, when He commended His spirit to His Father, it was a sign of how, even in weakness, Christ showed power even over the forces of death.