March 18, 2016

Editorial

Seven last words of Jesus

For many years, Bishop Fulton J. Sheen (later given the personal title of Archbishop) gave the annual Tre Ore (Three Hour) sermons on Good Friday at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. This was back when Catholics had Good Friday services from noon to 3 p.m. Bishop Sheen, of course, is widely acknowledged as the greatest preacher of the 20th century—once called that by Rev. Billy Graham—so crowds packed the cathedral to hear him. His sermons were listened to over speakers by people standing outside.

That tradition continues at St. Patrick’s. Last year, Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan invited Jesuit Father James Martin to give the sermon on Jesus’ seven last words, the topic that Bishop Sheen also preached about. HarperOne has published Father Martin’s sermon, and it is available in both hardback and as an e-book on Amazon.

We don’t often promote books in our editorials, but we would encourage you to download this book on a kindle and read it during Holy Week. It’s a short book; after all, Father Martin gave the sermon in less than three hours. Perhaps you could read a chapter a day and meditate on it. There’s a chapter for each “last word,” plus an introduction and a conclusion.

Jesus’ seven last words aren’t actually “words,” of course. They are the seven last things he said while hanging on the cross, at least as recorded in the four Gospels. They are, therefore, popular topics for preaching on Good Friday. Bishop Sheen was hardly the first preacher to do so.

These are the seven last words, in the order that Father Martin chose to preach about them:

“Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Lk 23:34). Jesus asked forgiveness for the soldiers who had nailed him to the cross. They were carrying out their orders, not knowing who Jesus was. Indeed, they were instrumental in carrying out our redemption.

“Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Lk 23:43). This is what he told one of the criminals dying with him after the man said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Lk 23:42). This is a lesson to us that it is never too late to repent.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mk 15:34; Mt 27:46). These are the opening words of Psalm 22 and Jesus might have prayed the entire psalm. Or, as Father Martin says, perhaps the human Jesus did feel abandoned by his Father. How accurately the psalm described what was happening: “All who see me mock me; they curl their lips and leer” (Ps 22:8), “They tear holes in my hands and feet” (Ps 22:17), “They divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots” (Ps. 22:19).

“Woman, behold your son” (Jn 19:26), Jesus said to his mother, referring to John, and, “Behold your mother” (Jn 19:27) to John. This scene has been interpreted both literally, as Jesus’ concern for his mother, and symbolically with Mary as a symbol for the Church. If Jesus was only concerned about his mother, he could have made arrangements for her at any time, not waiting until he was on the cross. Mary was given as the mother of us all.

“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Lk 23:46). This is part of another psalm (23:46). This “word” is often treated last by preachers.

“I am thirsty” (Jn 19:28). Usually treated earlier by preachers, it emphasizes Jesus’ humanity. Or Jesus could still be echoing Psalm 22: “My throat is dried up like baked clay, my tongue cleaves to my jaws” (Ps 22:16).

“It is finished” (Jn 19:30). This is perhaps the most important of his last words. His mission on Earth was complete. He had accomplished what his Father sent him to do—restore the harmony with God that had existed before sin disrupted it. No mere human, no matter how holy, could take on the sins of all humanity and offer himself as a sacrifice for all. Only Jesus could do so, because only he was both God and man. He redeemed us by his death.

—John F. Fink

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