April 12, 2019

Christ the Cornerstone

Jesus’ prayers on the cross speak of both abandonment, hope

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson

“Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit;’ and when he had said this, he breathed his last” (Lk 23:46).

This Sunday, Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord, begins the holiest week of the Church’s year. Taking our final steps on the journey to Easter, we recall Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem, quickly followed by his ignominious passion and death on a cross.

Jesus died praying. His whole being was handed over to the Father in a profound act of love and worship. The Passion narrative that we will hear this Palm Sunday (Lk 22:14–23:56) does not include the familiar cry of Jesus, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt 27:46; Mk 15:34), but it does speak of his sense of abandonment by his disciples (especially Judas) and of his struggle to do his Father’s will. His final outcry in St. Luke’s Gospel is one of faith-filled surrender, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Lk 23:46).

The bystanders who heard the Lord’s words quoted by St. Matthew and St. Mark misunderstood him. They thought he was calling on Elijah or one of the prophets to come and save him. They didn’t realize that his words of abandonment were also words of profound hope. On the cross, Jesus speaks of both abandonment and hope.

Standing before the cross this week, we will understandably ask ourselves, what did Jesus mean when he prayed these words of abandonment and hope? Did he really think that his Father had abandoned him? What was the source of his hope? What did this final act of worship mean—for him and for many of us who have felt God’s “absence” (especially during the scandals of the past year) and who are desperately seeking hope?

Jesus died as he lived—in constant dialogue with his Father, in communion with the One whose love sustained his every word and action as the Son of the Living God and as our brother. Jesus lived, and died, praying. That means he lived and died in intimate communion with God. Every word he spoke, every action he performed was indivisibly linked to the will of his Father.

Unlike you and me, there was no division between Jesus’ intentions and his actions. Although his human nature struggled with the terrible demands placed on him as he entered into the loneliness and bitter pain of his passion and death, Jesus accepted his Father’s will and did what was required of him. Why? To save us from our sins. To show us what it means to surrender our will and let God our Father raise us up into loving communion with him.

Jesus’ prayer of loving surrender on the cross transformed his suffering and death into an act of love and worship. By his wounds, we are healed. By his cruel death, we are set free. His prayer was the source of his freedom. His acceptance of the Father’s will is what made it possible for him to descend into hell and liberate by his tremendous act of unselfish love all who were waiting to be set free.

Psalm 21, the prayer that Jesus prays in the passion narratives of Matthew and Mark, is a prophetic psalm that affirms the ultimate goodness of God in spite of life’s pain and sorrow. Jesus prays these words in solidarity with all who suffer and all who fear that they have been abandoned by God. But the Lord also prays this great psalm of messianic hope with complete confidence that its promises of freedom and salvation are being realized even as these bitter words of abandonment are being spoken on the cross in the midst of his greatest suffering.

Jesus died praying. He died sharing with his Father all the hopes and sufferings of his people—all of us who share in his passion, death and resurrection. The great prayers that the Lord proclaimed in a loud voice from the cross are also our prayers. We know their hopelessness and their hope. We know their loneliness and their promise of intimate communion with God.

As we stand before the cross during this Holy Week, let’s thank our Father for the wondrous gift of love that his Son has given to each of us. Let’s pray that his prayers of abandonment and hope will be ours as well.

Finally, let’s ask the Father for the grace to surrender our selfishness and sin so that with Jesus we, too, may rise again in glory—on this Easter Sunday and at the hour of our death. Amen. †

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