Mary by the Cross. Cathedral of Pamplona, Navarre, Spain. (Photo: JMO Mandia)
– Fausto Gomez OP
As a child and as an acolyte, I loved most Holy Week, particularly the Sacred Triduum. Besides the mysterious liturgy of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Vigil and Sunday, I was looking forward to the sermons on the Commandment and of the Seven Last Words. As a student of philosophy and theology, my love for Jesus’ Seven Last Words intensified. It happened that in those years just before Vatican II, the preachers of the Seven Last Words were among the best in Spain. My classmates and I were eagerly expecting to hear by radio the preaching of Fr Antonio Royo Marin. Now, when I am in the Philippines, I love to listen with many others to the Seven Last Words preached by my brother Filipino Dominicans, and also by my brother religious the SVDs.
Good Friday of 2019. Jesus is crucified on the cross, suffering terribly: his whole body is wounded; his crown of thorns torments him, his hands and feet are nailed to the wood of the cross. And in his soul? Immense suffering and desolation. With devotion and reverence, let us listen carefully to his last testament and will: the Seven Last Words. “The wood, on which the members of the body of the man who is going to die are fixed, is also the throne of the master who teaches” (St Augustine).
St. Luke writes: “When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right, and the other on his left” (Lk 23:33). There are three crosses on Calvary: the cross of the bad thief, the cross of the good thief, and the cross in the middle: the Cross of Christ, the innocent one, the silent one who from time to time breaks his silence to utter a few words – seven last words.
FIRST WORD: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Lk 23:34). Jesus, betrayed, abandoned, maligned asks the Father with great serenity and compassion to forgive those who are crucifying him. Not only that: They nailed him and He excuses them before God. Jesus forgives all who offend God, his neighbors, or any of his creatures. The Crucified Lord, moreover, requests us – his followers – to ask for forgiveness to God our Father and to those we offend, and to forgive those who trespass against us: to ask for forgiveness and to forgive is the road to healing, peace and happiness. I remember the words of St. Aelred, Abbot: “Who could listen to that wonderful prayer, so full of warmth, of love of unshakeable serenity – ‘Father, forgive them’ – and hesitate to embrace his enemies with overflowing love? Lord Jesus, help us forgive all, including our enemies and persecutors.
SECOND WORD (Addressed to the crucified criminal who believed in the innocence of Jesus and asked him “to remember him in his Kingdom”): “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Lk 33:43). Marvelous: while the bad thief curses Jesus, the good thief acknowledges his crime and is sorry, reminds the bad thief that he is also guilty, and then ask for forgiveness and for a place with Jesus in his Kingdom. Each one of us carries his cross and is crucified on it. At times, perhaps, we complain like the bad thief: “Why me and not those terrible sinners around me? Why now? My God, where is your mercy?” Consoling words: “Love destroys the guilt of the rebellious creature,” and thus the good thief enters into the paradise of the Father (K. Rahner). Hopefully, thanks be to God, we are like the good thief: we acknowledge our sins, confess our guilt and try to be better followers of the Crucified Lord. Sorry, Lord! Please, help us. And when our time comes remember us in your Kingdom of heaven.
THIRD WORD: (Addressed to his Mother Mary and to his beloved disciple John, both standing before him): “Woman, there is your son.” John, “there is your mother” (Jn 19:26-27). How terribly the Virgin Mary suffered to accompany her Son up to the end. At the foot of the cross, she says silently “Fiat, let it be!” All her life was Fiat: total trust in God’s will – Let it be. What an incredible gift: Jesus gives us his mother. Mary is our mother, who is “better than the best of mothers” (St John Vianney). “Full of grace,” she is our dear spiritual mother, our mother in the order of grace, and accompanies us through life and at the hour of death. Mary is our best guide to Jesus and our best intercessor before him: “They have no wine.” Dear Lord Jesus, you are crucified on the cross for our sins and out of love for us, aid us to be good children of your Father and our Father, and good children of your Mother and our Mother. Thank you for giving us such a unique mother. Our dear Mother, Our Lady of Sorrows, pray for us.
FOURTH WORD: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me” (Mk 15:34). In his abandonment, Jesus prays with the Psalmist those piercing words (Ps 22:1). Jesus as the Son of God could not be abandoned by God; Jesus as Man could and was abandoned by God: “So was the son left to die by the Father” (Tertullian). Jesus accepted “absolute loneliness” as part of God’s will and to be close to the lonely and abandoned of the world: the poor, migrants, refugees, women, born and unborn children, the elderly. Jesus is close to all of us, particularly when we feel abandoned, and ask God our Father: Why this cancer? Why do you keep quiet when children are abused? Why the continuing terrorists’ attacks? Why, Lord, do you remain silent and tolerate all these evils? And we continue asking questions to God and make of our questions – after Jesus – an act of faith and a prayer of hope to our merciful Father. Aid us, O Lord, to accompany the abandoned around us and when we feel abandoned, to pray with Jesus: “Rescue my soul from the sword”; “Save me from the lion’s mouth” (Ps 22:20-21).
FIFTH WORD: “I thirst” (Jn 19:28). Jesus is very thirsty. He continues losing blood: it started at the Garden of Gethsemane, continued with the scourging at the pillar, the crowning with thorns, the carrying of the cross and the nailing on the cross. He is totally dehydrated, and very thirsty: thirsty not only of water for himself, but of water for those who are thirsty – the poor, sick and marginalized – and are, in a true sense, Christ: “I was thirsty,” he tells us, “and you gave me a glass of water.” On the cross, Jesus is thirsty not only of water for his dehydrated body and for his poor; He is also longing for souls who need spiritual water, the living water He offered the Samaritan woman. As God’s face of mercy, Jesus longs for the salvation of all – of each one of us. Lord, help us to be thirsty of following you, of suffering after you. Help us give a glass of water to the thirsty around us. “Oh God, you are my God, for you I long, for you my soul is thirsting. My body pines for you like a dry weary land without water” (Ps 63:1).
SIXTH WORD: “It is finished” (Jn 19:30). Jesus has been more than two hours and a half on the cross, and after tasting the vinegar a soldier gave him, the Crucified Lord utters the Sixth Word from the cross: “It is finished.” The Lord had already done all that He was supposed to do: He was born of the Virgin in a stable (“no room for him in the inn”) in Bethlehem; He was exiled to Egypt; he worked as a carpenter’s son; He preached the Good News to all, in particular the poor and needy; He healed many physically and spiritually; He was acclaimed in Jerusalem, sold for thirty pieces of silver, and thereafter, despised, scourged, cursed, spit on. Our earthly life will end one day. Everything will pass away. Only one thing will accompany us to the other life: the love we have accumulated through this life. Dear Jesus, you who turned your death into life help us be able to pronounce our sixth word, “It is finished.” Hopefully by then, we have done – at times limping and, perhaps, falling – what we were supposed to do: following you by the path of love and of merciful and suffering love.
SEVENTH WORD: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Lk 23:46). We are told that Jesus pronounced his Seventh Last Word “crying with a loud voice.” This is a prayer of trust: trust of the Son – the Son of God and the Son of Mary – in his Father, God the Father. Through Christian history, the seventh Word has been repeated by many saints at the end of their lives. To name a few: by St Stephen, St Catherine of Siena, St Thomas Becket…: “In manus tuas, Domine – Into your hands…” Many Christians, and particularly priests and consecrated men and women and lay missionaries, pronounce those words at the end of the day in their night prayer: In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum – “Into your hands, Lord, I commend my spirit.” After the Crucified Lord cried out his last word, He “breathed his last.” Like the Centurion who guarded Jesus on the cross, we say: May God be praised! Dear Lord, we love you, we thank you for dying for us and showing your love in the most perfect way – by giving your life for our salvation. Help us to follow you in sunny and dark days, to close every day and the last day thus: “Into your hands, I commend my spirit.”
Let me close with a true story. Two young women, who are studying in two different universities in Manila, become good friends: one was a Filipina-Chinese Buddhist; the other, a Filipina-Catholic. On Holy Week, they decided to visit their respective temples. First, they visited the Buddhist Temple in Binondo, and afterwards the popular Catholic Church of Quiapo. The Catholic showed to the Buddhist the large cross with Christ crucified, which is at the back of the Church: “Who is this?” She asked. The Catholic girl answered: “He is Jesus Christ; He died for us.” When they were leaving the Church, the Buddhist girl asked the Catholic: “What did you say? That He died for you?” “Yes.” The Buddhist: “What have you done for him?” What are we doing for him and for those crucified like him today?