This reflection was offered as part of a series of readings and reflections on the last seven words of Christ at St. John’s Cathedral, Jacksonville, FL, April 3, 2015.
(Photo taken at Trinity Episcopal Church in St. Augustine, FL.)
When Jesus had received the wine, he said, ‘It is finished.’
Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. (John 19:30)
“It is finished.”
When we hear these words of Jesus,
we are tempted to move quickly to
an explanation of their greater meaning.
We want to paint the big picture,
to say that Jesus has paid our debt,
has conquered sin once and for all,
has accomplished the work which the Father
sent him to do through his earthly life.
We want to fast forward to the celebration
of all that this signifies.
But it is not time for celebration.
We come this day to Golgotha,
to sit at the foot of the cross.
To be with Jesus as he bows his head,
as the blood and water – the last bit of life force —
flow from him.
Imagine being one of Jesus’s followers,
without benefit of the full story.
Imagine listening to him teach.
Imagine breaking bread with him.
Being close enough to witness miracles
of healing and deliverance,
close enough to witness the generosity of
a merciful God who feeds his people,
who weeps with us and comforts us.
Imagine sensing that this man from Nazareth
is the King of Glory.
Though this is a dangerous, turbulent time,
the excitement and promise of Jesus
tamp down our anxiety.
But in time trouble comes.
Jesus has attracted too much attention.
And following him has become dangerous.
Hopeful anticipation and expectancy are
crowded out by profound confusion
and fear as Jesus is arrested.
The sense that the end is near is palpable.
Any hopes of a new day are dashed.
“It is finished.”
To hear Jesus speak with such finality
must have been chilling.
I imagine in some form those words
reverberated in the hearts of the disciples
who had fled,
who dared not risk being present for Jesus’ execution.
When I imagine this scene, I cannot help but
think of our own Ben Clance.
Or of my social worker friend Sara Flynn Baldwin,
both of whom work on behalf of death row inmates.
Both of whom walk alongside prisoners,
praying, singing hymns, keeping vigil,
even witnessing executions.
A couple of years ago Sara asked me to
visit a young man who was waiting to be
resentenced for a series of armed robberies.
At age 16, Asa had been sentenced to life without patrol,
something the Supreme Court deemed unconstitutional.
You cannot give up on someone
who’s brain hasn’t fully developed.
Asa and I visited over the course of a year,
and I came to know a young man who
was very bright and full of promise.
It is a miracle he was even alive.
His parents were crack addicts who began buying
him pot when he was 10.
After they turned him out onto the street,
a career criminal took him under his wing.
At the resentencing hearing, a few people
showed up to support this young man:
a social worker, a former teacher, an aunt.
After the sentencing, the judge allowed
him to turn his chair and face us,
to visit for a few minutes.
He had difficulty looking at us,
even as we assured him of our love.
A couple of weeks later, he told me:
“I felt so ashamed in that court room,
I couldn’t look at you.”
After waiting nearly 2 years for resentencing,
there was no more wishing for quick release.
Asa will be in his 50s before he is free.
If we live long enough most of us will have a time
where we feel that all is lost —
that “It is finished.”
The loss of a friendship or business or marriage.
Colossal failure, ethical breaches,
seemingly irredeemable mistakes.
Such pain and suffering is something
we want to avoid, whether it is our own
or someone else’s.
Sometimes I am no better than the disciple
who saw the writing on the wall and fled,
in search of a safe place to hide from the storm.
There are times I have walked away from
friends and associates, perhaps fearing
I’d be engulfed by their agony and shame.
But the love of Christ calls us to the foot of the cross,
to draw closer to one another in our suffering.
This is a place where there are no easy answers.
Just the reality of our own poverty,
emptiness, and defeat.
Jesus tells us we must take up
our cross and follow him.
Can we find it in ourselves to sit with the one
who has failed, who is shamed,
who seems lost beyond all recall?
And can we find it in ourselves to allow
another to see our naked suffering,
our utter hopelessness?
Yesterday I was able to hold the hand of a man,
whose body has been ravaged by addiction.
He was covered in tattoos.
When I first met Paul, he showed me where
the numbers 666 are tattooed on his eyelid.
He was adamant that there was no hope for him,
that he had done too much bad in his life.
“It is finished,” I could hear him say.
There is no more.
After a few months of attending Church Without Walls,
He began to receive communion.
Some weeks ago he began reading the scriptures
printed in our bulletins.
He prays every day and has felt
the Spirit come upon him.
I wondered aloud if he might consider
being baptized on Easter, and he resisted.
But when I explained that in baptism we share
in Christ’s death, this made sense to him.
He understands death.
In truth, we are each called to make room
for suffering and death.
We may deny it, but we all know it.
We come together to wait at the foot of the cross.
Because even if this were the end of the story,
even if there were no more to come,
being present matters.
To show up for one another.
To acknowledge suffering.
To affirm the end of our hopes and dreams.
These too are holy moments.
These too are sacred times.