Yesterday evening, we were made aware of the gift of the Eucharist; today of the gift of the Cross. It is the gift of God the Father, lifted up over us, set in the sky of our lives, as it were. It is a strange gift: this Cross, this man on a cross, God’s Son on a cross, dying on a cross. We might well recoil from it. Even the brutal Romans found crucifixion so repulsive that it was never mentioned in polite society. And if God is involved in this gift, we might be still more unsettled. And yet, as the poet said, “we call this Friday good.”
From this Cross, this man spoke seven times – last words thrown out into the world. They have been prayed and meditated upon by believers, analysed by scholars, set to music, even down to our own James MacMillan. Three of them we heard from St Luke on Palm Sunday. Another one we hear, terrifying, from the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And with John, the incomparable Gospel heard just now, the tally is complete: “Woman, behold your son” and to the disciple, “behold your mother”. “I thirst”. And, finally, “it is finished.”
Let’s listen to this last, a gift within the gift. “It is finished” or, as we heard, “it is accomplished”, or as it could be, “fulfilled” or “perfected” or even, “it is consummated”, consummatum est. In the Greek of the Gospel, it is just one word. Here, then, is literally Jesus’ last word, the last earthly word of the Word made flesh – followed by the bowing of his head and the giving up of his spirit. That was the moment we knelt.
Let’s pause here for a moment, with the three Marys and the beloved disciple, and the soldiers, and listen.
“It is finished.”
On 22 May 1535, John Fisher, the Bishop of Rochester, was on his way to execution by order of King Henry VIII. Execution because he had protested at Henry’s divorce of his lawful wife, Katherine of Aragon, and his union with Ann Boleyn. Because too he had protested at Henry’s other divorce, of the Church in England from the rest of the Church gathered round the Pope. I read once that as he was about to mount the scaffold, Fisher asked for a copy of the Gospels. He opened it and it fell open at Jesus’ great prayer in John ch. 17. He read: “I glorified you, having accomplished the work you gave me to do. And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence” (vv. 4-5). That was enough. “I have accomplished the work”. In that passage, Jesus uses the same word as on the Cross: “accomplished”. On the Cross, Jesus finished the work the Father gave him to do, and Fisher on the scaffold his.
On 25 May 735, St Bede the Venerable died, and he had the boldness to use Jesus’ very words: “consummatum est”. He was translating the Gospel of John, and his words signalled a sense of completion, of a life devoted to the Scriptures now accomplished.
Martyrdom brought St John Fisher to Christ-like completion, love of Scripture and the monastic life had taken St Bede there too. It’s rare for us, though, to die in such a “finished” way. The more likely scenario is unfinished business. As St John Henry Newman poignantly wrote: “No man is given to see his work through. “Man goeth forth unto his work and to his labour until the evening,” but the evening falls before it is done. There was One alone who began and finished and died.” We look to Jesus “the pioneer and the perfecter of our faith” (Heb 12:2), to the wholeness of his life and death to supply for the imperfection of ours, for our half-heartedness and irresolution, our limited generosity, the debits in our love for those we’ve been given to love. It is the Lord – praise him! – who makes up for our short-changing lives.
So, when Jesus said at his very end “it is finished”, he was saying more, far more than, “well, that’s it” or “done and dusted”. At the point of dehydration and death, it spoke of kingly triumph. It signalled that he had accomplished the Father’s work and glorified him on earth, that he had brought the biblical story to completion. To echo our second reading, it proclaimed that he had been made perfect through suffering and so become our High Priest, able to help those who are tempted and suffer. He had done everything and undergone everything.
But perhaps there’s another step to take. “It is finished.” Yesterday evening, the Gospel began: “having loved his own, he loved them to the end.” It’s the same language again. What was brought to completion on the Cross was love: this love, the divine-human love of the God-man. Love gives life. Real, true love is for real life. It doesn’t want the loved one to die, but to live. This love, this crucified love, is the truest of all and it gives life for ever, “for good”, as we say. Consummatum est. On the Cross, the marriage of God and humanity is consummated. The Cross was the unlikely marriage bed and the passion unique of its kind. The seed fell into the ground and died and brought forth a harvest of life. Jesus’ real last word wasn’t a word, but – as it is with love – a sigh, a breath. “And he gave up his spirit (his breath)” “It is finished” and the Breath of life is released, the blood and the water flow. The brutal Cross becomes the tree of life and joy has come into to the world from this unlikely place.
“After the Passion”, said a French poet, “there is only compassion.” Brothers and sisters, Good Friday leaves us this good question: how shall I live now – not a silly life, but a real life? How shall I love, Christ-wise? After the Passion, how shall I show compassion? “It is finished”. Therefore, now and here, we can begin – let’s begin! – our life in Christ.
St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 15th April 2022