Prior to the Liturgy of the Passion of the Lord on Good Friday at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington, Jesuit Father James Martin led an hour of reflection on the “seven last words” of Jesus.
Father Martin, an editor at large for America magazine, wrote the 2016 HarperOne book, “Seven Last Words: An Invitation to a Deeper Friendship with Jesus.”
“Father, forgive them; they know not what they do,” was the first phrase he reflected on. To illustrate this radical mercy, Father Martin recalled the story of a father whose son was killed by a drunk driver. In the hearing for the driver, the father pleaded that the judge give him the minimum sentence, because he saw him “as a person who was more than that one terrible act.”
Like that man, Father Martin said, Jesus forgives even when it is difficult.
“If anyone had the right not to forgive, it was Jesus,” he said. “…Even though the Roman soldiers do not express remorse, He not only forgives them, He is praying for them.”
Instead of only seeing them as executioners, Jesus saw them as people making horrible decisions, and maybe even being forced into it, Father Martin said. “Jesus sees everyone in their totality,” he continued, and He not only says that, but shows it by dying on the cross for sinners.
Reflecting on the second phrase, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise,” Father Martin acknowledged that belief in the afterlife is often difficult, even for faithful Catholics. In moments of doubt, it is natural to ask what will happen after death, or what has happened to loved ones, he said.
“From the moment of your conception, God has invited you into a loving relationship,” Father Martin said, adding that when people look back on their lives, they can see signs of that loving relationship.
“Why would God ever destroy the loving relationship He has with you?” he asked. “That loving relationship will last, as will our loving relationships with friends and family who have gone before us… God would never destroy love.”
The third phrase was when Jesus told Mary and John, “Mother, behold your son. Son, behold your mother.”
Father Martin reflected on Jesus’s helplessness in that moment, as He processed toward His death. The last time He was that helpless, Father Martin said, is when He was an infant. Just as Mary had taken care of Jesus in His helplessness then, Jesus is taking care of her in His helplessness before the crucifixion, Father Martin explained.
“We don’t have to be strong to help other people,” Father Martin said. “…We only have to love and want to help.”
The fourth phrase is one that Father Martin said was often most difficult for Christians to accept: “My God, why have you forsaken me?”
“My own sense is that Jesus really did feel abandoned,” Father Martin said, but there is “a difference between believing God is absent and feeling God is absent.”
Many people, with Mother Teresa being a well known example, feel that God is absent in their lives at times, Father Martin said. But even though Jesus felt His Father’s absence, He did not despair, and was still in relationship with Him by calling out to Him, Father Martin noted.
“When you struggle in the spiritual life, when you wonder where God is…you are praying to someone who is fully human and fully divine and who understands you fully,” Father Martin said.
The fifth phrase is a simple “I thirst.” This two-word phrase serves as a reminder of Jesus’s humanity, Father Martin said.
“He ate like us, drank like us, slept like us,” he continued. “…Everything proper to the human body, except sin, Jesus experienced.”
Noting how the risen Christ told His disciples to feel the wounds in His hands, Father Martin said even after His resurrection, Jesus still carries the experience of His humanity and understands physical suffering.
The sixth phrase, “It has ended; it is finished,” is usually interpreted by scholars to be the fulfillment of God’s will, said Father Martin, but he suggested that it can also be interpreted as a resignation, with Jesus saying, “I have done all I can do.” He may have wondered whether the apostles would carry on His work after He died, and be unsure if the great project of His ministry was coming to an end, Father Martin explained. But even if Jesus didn’t yet know how His project would continue, “The Father had other plans,” Father Martin said.
“We may feel our dreams are ending, but God always has other dreams for us,” he continued.
Lastly, Jesus said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Father Martin said his favorite theological question to think about is whether Jesus knew what was going to happen on Easter Sunday before He died. While the answer to the question is a mystery, “the one thing we do know,” said Father Martin, is “He desires only to do the Father’s will,” and in the Garden of Gethsemane, He reached the “ultimate decision point.”
“Jesus’s whole life was an offering. On the cross, He gives His entire self,” Father Martin said. “This is what we are called to do as well…it means surrendering to the future that God has in store for us.”
While one can never know what will happen after doing so, Father Martin said, “the more we give ourselves fully to God, the more God brings new life into what we give.”