Contemplating the last words of Jesus on the cross

| Elizabeth Kelly | February 3, 2016 | 0 Comments

I don’t know if this story is true but it seems plausible, so I’ll repeat it here. The famous and mightily beloved singer/songwriter James Taylor was giving a concert when someone in the audience yelled out, “I love you, James!” Things fell very quiet for a moment and Taylor looked up from his guitar and said very simply, “Oh yeah? What makes me sad?”

His surprising response was well formed. What is the measure of loving someone? St. Thomas Aquinas tells us we love when we “will the good of another.” We say that we love someone when we truly desire their good. And one important aspect of that desire, as Taylor — who knew a fair amount of suffering — was so keen to point out, is knowing in a real way what causes one to suffer. We do not really love someone until we come to know them in their suffering and, in this way, take a share in it.

This is one of the most important, precious and often final ways that we are invited into the knowing of a person: We come to know them in their suffering, the suffering of death.

In some respects, this is the invitation of Lent. We are invited to come to know Jesus and keep him company in his suffering and death, this most intimate personal space of all. And what a spectacularly generous gift. Because who do you invite into your suffering but those you love the most? Who do you call to your bedside when you are sick and all hope is lost, but those you love and trust the most?

Many of you reading this column have lost loved ones. No doubt, the last words of your loved ones were very precious to you. Or, on the occasions where words were not possible, maybe the last look you shared, the last squeeze of their hand, a final caress became their “last words.”

When someone we love is dying, these last encounters remain with us in a way that little else does. It is a deep desire of the human heart to say goodbye well, with fullness, to say all that needs to be said. What is our final encounter, then, with the dying Christ?

The English priest and Catholic convert Robert Hugh Benson (1871-1914) asserts something very striking and most helpful when we come to reverently consider the crucifixion.

He says that we are watching not just Christ’s death, but our own death, too — our own interior tragedy. And if that’s true, we might also assert that we are watching not just Christ’s death and not just our death, but also our capacity to forgive: “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.”

We observe our capacity to surrender: “Into your hands, I commend my spirit.” Our deep longing for communion with the Beloved: “I thirst.” Our capacity to serve to the very end, to love to the very end, to live lives of service and self-donation: “It is finished.”

As we enter into Lent, I will be reflecting in greater depth on this precious, last encounter with Christ on the cross, his last words to his most faithful friends. Next time, “Father, forgive them.”

Kelly is an award-winning speaker and the author of five books, including “Reasons I Love Being Catholic.” She is trained as a spiritual director in the Ignatian exercises and leads retreats with a particular focus on helping women to flourish in their faith.

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Category: Commentary