On the 3 Last Words of Jesus Dying on the Cross
"We Shall Never Fall Outside the Hands of God, Those Hands That Created Us"
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VATICAN CITY, FEB. 15, 2012 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the Italian-language catechesis Benedict XVI gave today during the general audience held in Paul VI Hall. The Pope continued his reflection on the prayer of Jesus dying on the Cross, today focusing on the three last words of Jesus as recounted in the Gospel of St. Luke.
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Dear brothers and sisters,
In our school of prayer last Wednesday, I spoke about the prayer of Jesus on the Cross taken from Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Now I would like to continue to meditate upon the prayer of Jesus on the Cross as death was imminent, and today I wish to consider the narrative we find in the Gospel of St. Luke. The Evangelist has handed down to us three words of Jesus on the Cross, two of which -- the first and the third -- are prayers addressed explicitly to the Father. The second, on the other hand, consists in the promise made to the so-called good thief crucified with Him; in fact, in responding to the robber’s plea, Jesus reassures him: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). In Luke’s account, the two prayers that the dying Jesus addresses to the Father and His welcome of the plea addressed to Him by the repentant sinner are thus evocatively interwoven. Jesus calls upon the Father and harkens to the prayer of this man who is often called latro poenitens, the “repentant robber."
Let us consider Jesus’ three prayers. He pronounces the first immediately after being nailed to the Cross, while the soldiers are dividing His garments as a sad recompense for their service. In a certain sense, the process of crucifixion is brought to a conclusion by this act. St. Luke writes: “And when they came to the place which is called The Skull, there they crucified Him, and the criminals, one on the right and one on the left. And Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.’ And they cast lots to divide His garments” (23:33-34). The first prayer Jesus addresses to the Father is one of intercession: He begs forgiveness for his executioners. Jesus puts into practice what He had taught in the Sermon on the Mount, when He said: “But I say to you that hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you” (Luke 6:27), and He had also promised to all those who learn to forgive: “Your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High” (v. 35). Now from the Cross, He not only forgives His executioners but also addresses Himself to the Father directly, interceding on their behalf.
The attitude of Jesus finds a moving “imitation” in the account of the stoning of St. Stephen, the first martyr. Stephen, in fact, already near the end, “knelt down and cried with a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ And when he had said this, he died” (Acts 7:60): This was his last word. The comparison between Jesus’ prayer of forgiveness and that of the proto-martyr is significant. St. Stephen addresses himself to the Risen Lord and asks that his murder -- an act clearly defined by the expression “this sin” -- not be held against those who were stoning him. On the Cross, Jesus turns to the Father and not only begs forgiveness for those who crucified Him but also offers an interpretation of what is happening. According to His words, in fact, the men who are crucifying Him “know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). He makes their ignorance -- their “not knowing” -- the motive for His plea for forgiveness to the Father, since this ignorance leaves open the path to conversion, as is the case with the words the centurion will pronounce at Jesus’ death: “Truly, this man was just” (v. 47); He was the Son of God. “It remains a source of comfort for all times and for all people that both in the case of those who genuinely did not know (His executioners) and in the case of those who did know (the people who condemned Him), the Lord makes their ignorance the motive for His plea for forgiveness: He sees it as a door that can open us to conversion” (Jesus of Nazareth, II, p. 208).
The second word of Jesus on the Cross reported by St. Luke is a word of hope; it is the response to the prayer of one of the two men crucified with Him. The good thief, in the presence of Jesus, returns to himself and repents; he realizes that he stands before the Son of God who truly makes the face of God visible, and he begs: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingly power” (v. 42). Jesus’ response goes well beyond what was asked of Him; indeed, He says: “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (v. 43). Jesus knows He will enter directly into fellowship with the Father and reopen to man the way to paradise with God. Thus, through this response, He gives the firm hope that God’s mercy can reach us even in our final moments and that, even after a misspent life, sincere prayer will encounter the open arms of the good Father who awaits the return of His son.
But let us pause to consider the last words of the dying Jesus. The Evangelist recounts: “It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.’ And having said this He breathed his last” (vv. 44-46). Several aspects of this narrative differ as compared with the scene offered by Mark and Matthew. The three hours of darkness in Mark are not described, while in Matthew they are connected to a series of varying apocalyptic events: the earth quakes, tombs are opened, the dead are raised (cf. Matthew 27:51-53). In Luke, the hours of darkness are caused by the sun’s eclipse, but in that moment the veil of the temple is also torn in two. Thus, the Lucan account presents two somewhat parallel signs, one in the heavens and the other in the temple. The heavens are dimmed and the earth crumbles, while in the temple -- the place of the presence of God -- the veil that protects the sanctuary is torn in two. The death of Jesus is explicitly portrayed as a cosmic and liturgical event; in particular, it marks the beginning of a new worship, in a temple not built by men, for it is the very Body of the dead and risen Jesus that gathers the peoples together and unites them in the Sacrament of His Body of Blood.
The prayer of Jesus in this moment of suffering -- “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” -- is a loud cry of extreme and total trust in God. This prayer expresses His full awareness that He has not been abandoned. The initial invocation -- “Father” -- recalls His first recorded words at the age of twelve. At that time, He had remained for three days in the temple of Jerusalem, whose veil is now torn in two. And when His parents had shown Him their concern, He responded: “How is it that you sought me?” Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49). From beginning to end, what completely determines Jesus’ feelings, His words, His actions, is His unique relationship with the Father. On the Cross, He fully lives in love His filial relationship with God -- this is what inspires His prayer.
The words pronounced by Jesus after the invocation “Father” take up an expression from Psalm 31: “Into your hands I commit my spirit” (Psalm 31:6). These words, however, are not a simple quotation; rather, they reveal a firm decision: Jesus “delivers Himself over” to the Father in an act of total surrender. These words are a prayer of “entrustment” filled with trust in God’s love. The prayer of Jesus as He faces death is dramatic, as it is for every man, but at the same time, it is imbued by that profound serenity that is born of His trust in the Father and His will to deliver Himself up entirely to Him. In Gethsemane, when He had entered into the final struggle, and into more intense prayer, and was about to be “delivered into the hands of men” (Luke 9:44), His sweat became “like great drops of blood falling down upon the ground”(Luke 22:44). But His heart was fully obedient to the Father’s will, and for this reason “an angel from heaven” came to comfort Him (cf. Luke 22:42-43). Now, in His final moments, Jesus addresses the Father by speaking of the hands into which He truly delivers over His entire life. Prior to their departure on their journey toward Jerusalem, Jesus had insisted with His disciples: “Let these words sink into your ears; for the Son of man is to be delivered into the hands of men” (Luke 9:44). Now, as life is about to leave Him, He seals His final decision in prayer: Jesus allowed Himself to be “delivered into the hands of men,” but it is into the hands of the Father that He commits His spirit; thus -- as the Evangelist John affirms -- it is finished, the supreme act of love is taken to the end, to the very limit and even beyond that limit.
Dear brothers and sisters, the words of Jesus on the Cross in the final moments of His earthly life offer challenging pointers for our prayer, but they also open it to a serene confidence and to a steadfast hope. Jesus, who asks the Father to forgive those who are crucifying Him, invites us to the difficult act of praying even for those who wrong us, who have harmed us, by learning how to forgive always, so that God’s light might illumine their hearts; and He invites us in our prayer to live in the same attitude of mercy and of love that God shows in our regard: “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us,” as we daily say in the “Our Father.” At the same time, Jesus who in the final moment of death entrusts Himself entirely into the hands of God the Father, communicates to us the certainty that, however difficult our trials may be, however difficult our problems, however burdensome our suffering, we shall never fall outside the hands of God, those hands that created us, that sustain us and that accompany us on the path of life, for they are guided by an infinite and faithful love. Thank you.
[Translation by Diane Montagna]
[In English, he said:]
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
In our continuing catechesis on Christian prayer, we turn once more to the prayer of Jesus on the Cross. Saint Luke relates three “last words” of the crucified Lord. In his prayer: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Lk 23:34), Jesus intercedes for his executioners and shows the depths of his reconciling love for sinful humanity.; In his words to the Good Thief: “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Lk 23:43), he offers sure hope to all those who repent and put their trust in him. His final cry: “Father, into your hands, I commend my spirit” (Lk 23:46), expresses Jesus’ trust-filled surrender to God’s will, born of that unique relationship to the Father which had shaped his own life of prayer. From the Cross, Jesus teaches us to forgive and love our enemies, to pray for their conversion, and to commend ourselves into the Father’s hands, trusting that they will continue to sustain us amid the sufferings of this life until they embrace us in heaven.
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I welcome the priests taking part in the Institute for Continuing Theological Education at the Pontifical North American College. My greeting also goes to the pilgrims from the Archdiocese of Toronto, as well as to the many diocesan, parish and school groups present at today’s Audience, especially the students of Our Lady’s High School in Motherwell, Scotland. Upon all the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors, including those from England, Ireland, Norway and the United States, I cordially invoke God’s blessings!
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[In Italian, he said:]
With affection, I greet representatives of the National Association of Large Families. In today’s social context, families with many children are a witness of faith, of courage and of optimism, for without children there is no future! It is my hope that adequate social and legislative measures for the safeguarding and support of larger families will continue to be promoted, since these families constitute a source of wealth and hope for the entire country.
Lastly, I greet young people, the sick and newlyweds. Yesterday we celebrated the feast of Sts. Cyril and Methodius, who were the first to spread the faith among the Slavic peoples. May their witness also help you to be witnesses of the Gospel, leaven of an authentic renewal in personal, family and social life.
[Translation by Diane Montagna]