April 2, 2010


Jesus finishes his mission

The four evangelists quote Jesus as saying various things while hanging on the cross. The things he said have come down to us as his “seven last words.”

Traditionally, those “words” are:

  • “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34), said about those who nailed him to the cross;
  • “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Lk 23:43), said to one of the criminals dying with him after the man said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Lk 23:42);
  • “Woman, behold your son” (Jn 19:26), said to his mother, referring to John, and, “Behold your mother” (Jn 19:27) to John;
  • “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt 27:46, Mk 15:34), the first words of Psalm 22;
  • “I thirst” (Jn 19:28);
  • “It is finished” (Jn 19:30);
  • “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Lk 23:46).

Of all that he said, perhaps the sixth of the seven “words” is the most significant: “It is finished.”

But what is finished? Was Jesus saying only that his life has ended or is there more to it?

There had to be more to it since Jesus knew that he was going to rise from the dead. He told his Apostles that—repeatedly, even if they didn’t understand him.

The Church teaches us that Jesus was actually telling us that his mission on Earth, the reason he came from heaven, was completed. He had accomplished his goal—the goal his Father had sent him to do—to restore the harmony with God that had existed before sin disrupted it.

Jesus did many things in his lifetime. He performed miracles out of compassion and to attract attention. He taught the crowds he attracted about the kingdom of God, usually through parables. He gave special instructions to his Apostles, who would lead the Church that he founded. But all those things were in some ways incidental to his real purpose.

He came to Earth to die. It was God’s plan to effect our redemption through Jesus’ crucifixion, and Jesus obediently accepted that plan: “I lay down my life of my own accord” (Jn 10:18).

It was something that only Jesus could do because only he was both God and man. No mere human, no matter how holy or what a great teacher he was, could take on the sins of all humanity and offer himself as a sacrifice for all. Only Jesus could do so. He redeemed us by his death.

However, just because Jesus was God didn’t make it any easier for him to accept his crucifixion. He was completely human in every way. He experienced the pains of his scourging, the crowning with thorns, and the crucifixion as any other human.

That’s why, in the Garden of Gethsemane, he prayed to his father, “Abba, Father, all things are possible to you. Take this cup away from me.” But he immediately added, “But not what I will but what you will” (Mk 14:36).

He knew what was coming and he was tempted to escape. Praying there at the bottom of the Mount of Olives, he could easily have climbed the hill and been on his way to the Judean desert in about 15 minutes. He could have returned to the town called Ephraim, where he had hidden after he raised Lazarus from the dead.

But Jesus didn’t escape after his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. John’s Gospel tells us that Jesus explained why: “What should I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But it was for this purpose that I came to this hour” (Jn 12:27).

This—his death by crucifixion—was Jesus’ purpose and mission. It was the reason that God became human.

St. Augustine explained the need for the Incarnation. God, he said, “had no power of himself to die for us: he had to take from us our mortal flesh. This was the way in which, though immortal, he was able to die.”

On Good Friday, we commemorate the accomplishment of that mission. Hanging on the cross, in the terrible position that our modern crucifixions don’t display, he was able to say, “It is finished.”

—John F. Fink

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