Saint Thomas Aquinas once was asked from what books he had garnered his extraordinary theological wisdom. Pointing to a crucifix, the holy Doctor of the Church replied, “This is my book!” We see in this beautiful example how the wisdom of the saints was acquired primarily through prayer and intense meditation on the life and death of Jesus Christ.
The season of Lent is a time when our minds and hearts especially recall the great mysteries of our redemption, when our eyes are beckoned to gaze lovingly on the crucifix, to consider Who it is Whose Image is thus pitifully portrayed, and why.
That we may better strive after the same holy wisdom that the saints shared, let us, then, go to Calvary. And there let us reflect on the Passion of Our Redeemer, the eternal Son of God become man, suffering the horrible death of the Cross for our sins.
But we ought not approach alone. We must go with Mary, His Mother. For who better than She understood how great was the agony of Jesus? She holds the key to the treasure, wherein the great secrets of the mystery of the Passion are contained. So let us join Mary and walk with Her, following her Son’s bloody footsteps to the Cross, where we are to be taught from the mouth of the suffering Master Himself, by the seven last utterances, which He delivered to us from His bed of wood.
“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
At the top of the Mount of the Skull we see Him whom our hearts desire, transfixed. He is a mass of wounds from head to foot. “There is no beauty in Him, nor comeliness . . . and we have thought Him as it were a leper.” (Is.53:2-4.) His executioners have stripped Him of His garments, and have violently thrown Him down on the Cross. They have fastened the divine Lamb with thick, blunt spikes to this coarse wooden altar of sacrifice, having so stretched His body to fit it that the muscles and ligaments of His limbs have been torn with horrible cruelty.
Yet throughout these torments and all the others that preceded them, Jesus never once has complained. Only sighs and quiet groans have passed His lips, betraying His excessive agony.
Now, with His compassionate eyes resting on the hateful mob below Him, Our Lord’s first thought is to call upon His Father, begging mercy for His executioners. Raising His thorn-crowned head, He speaks: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Consider these words of Christ. He who proceeded from the Father in eternity calls to the Lord in heaven. To draw attention and wrath away from the vile crowd below, wagging their heads in mockery, Jesus compels His Father to contemplate Him only, as if to say, “Look upon Me, O Father, and hear Me! Do not look upon the madness of Thy people, the Jews, for this raging mob has lost its reason!” Indeed, the Gospel confirms this, telling how the Jews, in plotting against Jesus, “were filled with madness.” (Luke 6:11.) This is not to say, however, that they were not responsible for this greatest of all sins. For as Christ Himself said: “If I had not come, and spoken to them, they would not have sin, but now they have no excuse for their sin.” (John 15:22.) And yet by our sins we, too, are guilty of the death of Jesus. And we, too, are, in a sense, mad when we sin, for only a fool would pass up eternal joy for a mere fleeting pleasure or fancy. What fools men are, for what do they gain by sin? Nothing. And what is lost? Everything!
Thus we see God the Son assuming His role as the eternal High Priest, offering Himself on the gibbet of the Cross to God the Father as the only acceptable reparation for the sins of mankind. And as our Mediator, with outstretched arms He begs us sinners to come to Him that we may possess His kingdom, where one day those same hands, now nailed to wood, joyfully will embrace all His repentant children. For this is His divine mission, as He declared to the confusion of His enemies: “I have not come to call the just, but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:32)
Who can fathom the infinite mercy of God in hearing these sweet words of Our Lord, so filled with eagerness to receive even such wicked men as His murderers, if only they would repent? Jesus offers to heal those by whom He is being wounded. Dying on the Cross, He offers life to those at whose hands He is receiving death.
“Amen, amen, I say to thee, this day thou shalt be with Me in paradise.”
Our Lord spoke through the Psalmist, who prophesied this terrible scene at Calvary, saying: “All they that saw me have laughed me to scorn; they have spoken with the lips and wagged the head . . . for many dogs have encompassed me.” (21:16-17) Now it is being fulfilled. Everywhere Our Savior turns He is insulted, surrounded by angry dogs ready to devour Him. Up to this point even the two thieves sharing the same fate at His sides have reviled Him.
But now within the heart of one of the thieves called Dismas the good seed of Christ is taking root. Upon hearing the pathetic prayer of Jesus for forgiveness of His enemies, Dismas was cut to the heart. He turns to rebuke the other thief and humbly confesses both his own sin and the justness of his punishment. Then he turns his sorrowful eyes, now opened to the Light, to the torn and beaten Christ, whom he addresses as “Lord.” What a miracle of grace! Dismas now calls Him “Lord” whom only moments before he had mocked as a fool. And what does he ask of his Lord: “Remember me when thou shalt come into thy kingdom.” This penitent robber asks for nothing more than a remembrance. And well he does so, for Our Lord is more generous to those who are humble.
The good thief is a perfect example of complete conversion and true repentance. He rebukes the bad thief-(and the Jews as well)-for mocking the Savior, by pointing to the punishment which both robbers are receiving, as well as to the avenging justice of God that awaits them if they do not repent: “Neither dost thou fear God, seeing thou art under the same condemnation?” (Luke 23:40.) Fear took hold of Dismas, and this was his first step to true repentance. Next he confessed his guilt and accepted his just punishment. Then he acknowledged the innocence of Christ. And lastly, he makes an act of faith, confessing the divinity of Jesus, by calling Him “Lord,” and asking for a remembrance in His kingdom.
The first word of Our Redeemer from the Cross was a prayer for the grace of conversion. Now the first fruits of that prayer are borne in the good thief. And the second word of Jesus is forgiveness itself: “Amen, amen, I say to thee, this day thou shalt be with Me in paradise.”
Marveling at this, Saint Augustine remarked: “His Cross was a school, where the Master taught the thief; the wood from which He hung was made the chair from which He taught.”
If our eyes swell with tears upon hearing the parable of the Prodigal Son, then let our hearts weep still more at the conversion of Saint Dismas; for this is that parable come to life. Far more than a remembrance was awaiting this sorrowful sinner, since God always grants infinitely more than He is asked, if the request is made in good faith. “This day thou shalt be with Me in paradise” – the paradise of the saints called the Limbo of the Just, from whence he should enter into the Beatific Vision with Jesus on Ascension Thursday.
“Woman, behold thy son. Behold thy Mother.”
Not being able to hide its grief, even Nature began to mourn the approaching death of its Author; for the entire earth was plunged in a dismal and foreboding darkness by a mysterious and prolonged eclipse of the sun, symbolic of the death of the Son of God. In the awful stillness of this phenomenon, many who had come to Calvary were overcome with fear; and they in their blindness, fleeing from Him who alone could be their refuge, walked back to the city hoping to find safety where only destruction awaited. As the crowd dispersed, some beating their breasts, Mary was able to approach the Cross with Saint John and the holy women.
Mary, the ever-faithful Mother of Jesus, after following His bloody path amidst blasphemous revelry, has at last arrived at the deathbed of Her Son. What could She do to comfort Him! “How helpless you must feel, O sweet Mother of God! You who are the Queen of the Angels! Where are the angels now who once filled the air with the joyous sound of “Gloria,” announcing to the shepherds the birth of the Christ Child? Where are the Magi and their retinue of thousands who came to adore Him, offering gifts and kissing His infant head? Where is the bright shining star that marked His humble birthplace, when even the sun now hides in shame?
“Yes, you knew the prophecies, O Mary! You knew He was to suffer before entering into His kingdom, but how could you have known it would be so bitter? Indeed, suffering was not foreign to you, O Queen, for your past joys were always mixed with sorrow. But now has come the greatest of all your sorrows. Exhausted with grief as you gaze upon your dying son, you echo the words of Ruth: ‘Call me not Noemi (that is, beautiful) but call me Mara (that is, bitter), for the Almighty hath quite filled me with bitterness.'”
What anguish of soul tormented Jesus as He forced open His blood-clotted eyes that He might fix them upon His dear Mother as she approached Him! She who had so tenderly wrapped Him in swaddling clothes has now come to wrap Him in a funeral shroud. She who with such sweet joy had laid Him in the manger has come to lay Him in His grave.
Jesus speaks his third word from the Cross to Her, tenderly addressing Her as “Woman,” lest the affectionate name “Mother” add more to Her grief. But Our Lord does so also that the Jews may know that She is the “Woman” of whom the prophets rave. In Genesis we read of the war between the children of Mary and the devil, which God declared when He cursed the serpent: “I will put enmities between thee and the woman, between thy seed and her seed; she shall crush thy head and thou shalt lie in wait for her heel.” (Gen. 3:15.) Again Jeremias in prophetic vision of the Incarnation exclaimed: “A woman shall compass a man.” (Jer. 31:22.) And later Saint John in recording his visions will refer to Her in this way: “I saw a woman clothed with the sun!” (Apoc. 12:1.) All that is most admirable in a woman was found in Mary, for both the honor of motherhood and the glory of virginity belong to Her. So it is with awe-inspiring reverence that She is referred to simply as “Woman.”
“Woman, behold thy son.” Every faithful son provides for his parents. And none was more faithful than Jesus, who humbly served Our Lady and Saint Joseph for thirty years. He would not now leave His sorrowful Mother unprovided for, but instead gave to Her another son, a spiritual one, the Apostle John. Did this not seem a sad exchange for Mary – the son of Zebedee for the Son of God? Yet could it not be said of the beloved Apostle that he was now another Jesus? For having been ordained a priest at the Last Supper, Saint John would now take the place of Christ at the altar, and would continue daily to bring to Mary Her true Son in Holy Communion.
But our crucified Lord bequeathed from the Cross an even greater legacy to the Blessed Virgin. Speaking to Saint John, and through him to all men of good will, Jesus added: “Behold thy Mother!” That is to say, “Whereas in keeping My commandments and obeying My Church, and especially by receiving Me in Holy Communion, you become like unto Me, a son of God, so also do you become a child of the Mother of God. To her, My spotless, most perfect, most beloved creature, I give My children. To you, My faithful children, I give My Mother, whom I so love that I can never refuse any soul for whom she prays. And so perfect and loving a Mother is she that she can never refuse to pray for any soul who asks for her help.”
The prophet Isaias foretold: “He shall be dumb as a lamb before His shearer, and He shall not open His mouth.” (Is. 53:7.) Since His betrayal into the hands of His enemies the night before, Our Lord has been brutally beaten without rest; He has been scourged, crowned with thorns, made to carry His heavy Cross, and crucified. And still He has not once offered the slightest complaint. But now He meekly sighs His fourth utterance: “I thirst.”
To be sure, this is a human thirst – one which always afflicts a victim of crucifixion. Pain itself is said to cause a thirst corresponding to its intensity, and for the crucified, that thirst is compounded due to the unnatural position of the victim. The veins are so stretched as to become tense, and blood cannot force its way to the brain, causing the head to burn with intolerable fever. This thirst is said to be the most painful ordeal of crucifixion. Indeed, it must be so, for only when Our Lord experienced this craving did He finally cry out in agony. And let us remember that Jesus has had nothing to drink since the Paschal Supper the night before, and He has lost much blood already from His continually bleeding wounds. Thus His dehydration is far worse than that of other victims of crucifixion. His whole body is arid even to the marrow of His bones: “My strength is dried up, and my tongue hath cleaved to my jaws.” (Ps. 2 1:16.)
Yes, Our Redeemer suffers from a very real physical thirst, but it is nothing in comparison to His parching thirst for souls. As Saint Gregory said, “Jesus thirsts to be thirsted for.” Clearly, then, this is the most acute craving that has caused the Omnipotent Son of God pitifully to cry out. For as He hangs dying on the Cross for the salvation of men, He foresees how few there are who will satisfy His thirst for souls, as did the Samaritan woman at the well when Our Lord asked of her: “Give Me to drink.” The water He desired of her was her faith, and the woman refreshed Him.
“My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?”
At about the ninth hour, while the air was very still and a silencing fear was descending on the remnant of blasphemers curiously remaining on Calvary, the voice of Jesus again rang out in anguish: “Eli, Eli, lama sabacthani?” That is, “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?”
Our Lord here speaks not in His native Aramaic dialect, but in Hebrew. The Jews gathered in His presence, unaccustomed as they are to hearing Hebrew spoken, misunderstand the sacred words and are emboldened to offer fresh insults against their divine Victim. “Behold, He calleth Elias,” someone shouts. “Let us see if Elias come to take Him down.” Both Jew and Roman take up the blasphemous jeering, making ridicule of the intimate prayer of the Son to His Father, and laughing at Him, before whom they one day would appear to be judged.
What blind malice! Had they but opened their ears and softened their wicked hearts, the Jews again could have known for certain by this cry that Jesus was the Christ. For these very same words were spoken in prophecy in the Twenty-First Psalm, the whole of which described this Passion in such detail that it even prefigured the mocking retort they have just now hurled: “He hoped in the Lord, let Him deliver Him: let Him save Him, seeing He delighteth in Him.” (Ps. 21:9.)
But what of Our Lord’s words of anguish: “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” What do they mean? Does Jesus literally mean that God the Father, with whom He is consubstantial, and who is ever-present also to His human vision, has abandoned Him, the Only-Begotten Son? Indeed, this utterance embodies an awesome mystery – one in which all other sacred mysteries meet – and what man in this life can fully comprehend it? Nonetheless, the Church does not leave her faithful without considerable understanding of it.
First, we must remember that He who spoke these words truly possessed a human nature with a created human soul. Christ, therefore, suffered all the pain of body and soul as if He were only human. And we are assured by His desolate cry that the human soul of Jesus does suffer at this moment the indescribable fear and horror of feeling abandoned even by God Himself.
But we must also remember that the Person of Jesus Christ was divine-was Himself God! Furthermore, we summon to mind the fact that this God-man, this divine Victim, this sacrificial Lamb, took on Himself the infinite shame, wretchedness, and ugliness of all men’s sins, thereby making His incomprehensible beauty before the eyes of God the Father – if we can imagine it – wholly repulsive. Hence He speaks through the Psalmist, where it is written: “But I am a worm and no man, the reproach of men and the outcast of the people.” And Isaias wrote of Him, saying: “Surely He hath borne our infirmities, and carried our sorrows; and we have thought Him as it were a leper, one struck by God and afflicted.”
When, therefore, we consider the dual natures in Our Savior, we must be mindful that it is only natural that His human nature cries out to be freed from the brutal terror of the Cross – just as it did over and over again in the Garden of Gethsemani, so tormented in soul as even to cause His body to sweat blood: “My Father, if it be possible, let this chalice pass from Me.” But in His divine nature, the will of Jesus is – and can only be – in perfect conformity with the will of God the Father. And so He added to His prayer in Gethsemani: “Nevertheless, not as I will, but as Thou wilt.” How clearly we understand, then, His meaning when He cautioned the Apostles with Him in that garden: “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
This utterance from the saving Cross, therefore, hints of the magnitude and absoluteness of divine Justice willed by the all-holy and all-loving God. Not even Jesus in all His human torment can escape what must be done to redeem our race. And not even the Father, with all His divine love for His Son, can spare Him this cruelest of fates lest the sacrifice be less than total.
“It is consummated.”
The end is now approaching. The pain of Jesus intensifies. His sacred body begins to droop heavily, and His nailed hands seem as if they will no longer support His weight. His features have lost all their fleshy fullness; His cheeks are drawn and gaunt. The eyes, once so striking, are red and swollen, their lids caked with clotted dry blood, and his gaze, or what was left of it, set fixedly into space. What a pathetic sight! With what astonished horror the angels behold their dying God! And who can imagine the agony within the sorrowful Heart of Our Lady as she looks upon her divine Son?
The voice of Jesus has been heard only rarely from the Cross, for most of His three long hours of torment have been spent in silent communion with His Father. But now His mind scans the Scriptures in an instant, as it were, and sees that indeed everything has been fulfilled that has been written of Him. “What more could You possibly suffer, O Jesus! All that remains for You is the peace of death. You speak again: ‘It is consummated.'”
The sight of the barely recognizable body of Christ is the very image of defeat. Yet His defeat is His triumph! He has drunk to the dregs from the bitter chalice His Father has given Him. Sin has been overcome. The Justice of God has been appeased, and Mercy can now reign. Man has been reconciled with his Maker. All the sacrifices under the Law of Moses prefiguring this divine atonement have reached their culmination, and the Old Law is no more. “It is consummated.”
“Father, into Thy Hands I commend My spirit.”
It is now the ninth hour. At this same moment the high priest is slaughtering the paschal lamb in the Temple, while the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world hangs upon a gibbet outside the city. As the priest strikes the lamb and its blood issues forth, all the Jews bow down in reverence to commemorate their deliverance from slavery in Egypt. Yet only a short time before they were waving their fists in rage, shouting: “His blood be upon us and upon our children,” and condemning to crucifixion the One who came to deliver them from eternal slavery to the devil.
A thick and chilling stillness permeates the air, as if the wind itself has gone into shock. The sun’s eclipse continues to blanket the earth in gloomy darkness. Suddenly, Jesus, with eyes raised to heaven, cries out His last word with a loud voice: “Father, into Thy Hands I commend My spirit.” And bowing His Head, He yields up the ghost.
Never was there seen such a death as this! Not even Nature can contain its grief any longer as its Creator departs this mortal life. The whole earth quakes. The rocks burst apart. Even the veil of the Temple is rent from top to bottom before the eyes of the murdering hypocrites who had retreated thence from Calvary for the paschal sacrifice. “The graves were opened,” Saint Matthew writes, “and many bodies of the saints that had slept arose.” Seeing many of these things, Longinus, the centurion stationed beneath the Cross, was immediately converted, saying: “Truly this was the Son of God.” And others with him professed the same.
“Into Thy Hands I commend My spirit.” By these words Our Lord wants us to know that He dies of His own will; that is, He freely gives up His spirit. As He said in the Gospel, “I lay down My life that I may take it up again. No man taketh It away from Me, but I lay It down of Myself.” We read of the many times His enemies sought to kill Him, as an infant and later throughout His public life. But because His time had not yet come, He miraculously escaped them. And even when His hour had arrived and the mob surrounded Him in the Garden of Gethsemani, His persecutors fell back upon the ground at the mere sound of His voice. It is to be understood, then, that the Son of God freely took to Himself our human nature, and that He now freely surrendered His mortal life to satisfy the will of His heavenly Father.
After speaking these final words of triumphal mystery, Jesus bowed His thorn crowned head in a last gesture of humble submission to the will of the Father, and His spirit departed. Here again is another proof that this was the Son of God. A victim of crucifixion in the end actually dies from suffocation. It was purely miraculous, therefore, that Our Lord could cry out with such mighty power at this moment. Scripture affirms that this very prodigy, along with the convulsions of the earth and the unnatural darkness, was what moved the centurion to recognize the divinity of the Crucified. Ordinarily the head of a dying man falls when the soul departs. But the Gospel says Jesus first bowed His head and then He gave up the spirit. We stress again that death had no right over Christ. By bowing His head it was as if to beckon death to come, and only at His divine command could it come.
Our Lord Himself explained this mystery in a parable: “Unless the grain of wheat falling into the ground die, itself remaineth alone. But if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.” Jesus did die! The fruit of His death is the Church. And the fruit of the Church is the saints.
That the Sabbath might not be profaned, the Jews in their hypocritical observance of the Law besought Pilate that the legs of the three who were crucified be broken to hasten their deaths, and that their bodies be taken away. The soldiers, therefore, broke the legs of the two thieves. But when they came to Jesus, seeing that He was already dead, Longinus opened His side with a lance. And immediately there came out “blood and water.” Thus the prophecies were fulfilled: “You shall not break a bone of Him”; and “They shall look on Him Whom they have pierced.”
Yet still another prophecy was realized-that which Simeon made to the Blessed Virgin on the day of Our Lord’s presentation in the Temple: “Thy own soul a sword shall pierce, that out of many hearts thoughts may be revealed.” When the lance opened the Heart of Jesus, the Sorrowful Mother felt it pierce Her own. In his writings on the sacred Hearts, Saint John Eudes explains that where the Heart of Jesus is, there also is the Heart of Mary, and that their Hearts are inseparably united as one.
And it is in this that we are to discover the deep mysteries of the Cross. For, as it was when she bore Him in her womb, no one could approach Jesus but by Mary. One cannot find the Holy of Holies but within Her tabernacle. Though we were to go to Calvary itself, we would not find Our Redeemer-indeed, we would not find our redemption-unless we come sheltered beneath her mantle.
She it was who brought Jesus into the world. She it was who nursed Him and comforted Him. She it was who bid Him at Cana to satisfy our parching thirst for His refreshing wine, even before His time had come. It was she who, forfeiting her parental rights, offered Him on the Hill of Golgotha for our salvation. And as Saint Alphonsus Maria de Liguori tells us, had the soldiers not crucified Our Savior, she would have driven in the nails herself for our sakes; and Jesus would have submitted. O Mary, you are the Gate of Heaven! We cannot enter but by you! You hold the key to the treasure! Lead us to Calvary, O Blessed Mother, and let us ever remain there with you beneath the Cross outside the city, lest we perish in the comforts of this modern urban wasteland!