The podcast series with Archbishop Mark concludes with a return to Luke’s gospel for Jesus’ unforgettable final words from the cross.
Subscribe to our podcast to receive each episode directly to your device.
- Episode 7: Father, Into Your Hands I Commend My Spirit - Transcript
Episode 7: Father, Into Your Hands I Commend My Spirit - TranscriptAuthor: Archdiocese of Brisbane
Through these podcasts, we’ve been on a journey of exploration. Which in the first place has been a journey of listening. And that’s always where biblical religion begins. Listen, Israel. So, we have been seeking to listen to the seven last words of Christ in the darkness of Calvary as he moves to death and then beyond death into life.
We’ve been slowing down the listening process. Because these are words which have very, very deep roots and vast resonances. And I’ve suggested that they’re not words of once upon a time. They are words of here and now. And in a very real sense, the call is for them to become your words and my words, not just the words of Jesus on the cross. And we’ve seen as we’ve explored the first six of the seven words.
That they are words in which Jesus interprets his own death. They’re not just bald statements of fact. They are essentially interpretive words. Because the death of Jesus was an overwhelming and bewildering event. And clearly the question was for the early Christians, and it is for us now. What did that death mean? What’s the core of meaning at the heart of this bewildering event? And Jesus emerges in these seven words from the cross. As the one who interprets his own death.
So, he’s the sign the man executed atrociously on a cross. But he’s also the interpreter of that profoundly ambiguous sign of him dying on the cross. So, we’re seeking to listen to him, to slow down the listening, a kind of slow-motion listening. So that we can really come to grips with the meaning of the interpretation that he offers.
So having looked at the first of the six words. We come now in this final podcast to the seventh word. And this time it’s taken from Luke’s Gospel Chapter 23, Verse 46. Where Jesus, we are told, before he dies and right at the moment of his death, as it were, he says, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit’. So, there’s the seventh word, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit’.
Now, this report, in Luke’s passion narrative, could hardly be more different than what we find in Mark’s gospel, where we’re told that Jesus gave a loud cry and then breathed his last. In Mark’s gospel, it’s as if Jesus dies, shrieking in the darkness. But this is no shriek or scream in the death agony.
The words that Jesus speaks could hardly be more composed and peaceful. And the question is why does Luke want it that way? Part of that sense of peacefulness and composure is the assured sense of relationship. That is evoked in this seventh word, just as it was in the very first word. ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do’.
So even just the address of God as Father. Suggests that bond of intimate relationship. Even in this moment of Calvary, the moment of death and darkness. A moment which can seem to be shrouded in the absence of God. Jesus cries out in a way that makes the sense of intimate relationship unmistakable.
So, it’s a kind of inclusion, as we say, with the first of the words. Which was addressed to the Father and now then the seventh word, again, addressed to the Father. So, it’s almost as if in journeying through the seven last words of Christ. We journey from one depth of intimacy to another. But via the experience of abandonment or what seems to be abandonment. Which we saw in the fourth word, which is at the centre, as it were, of this journey. Where Jesus cried out quoting the Psalm. ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’ Now we saw that that’s not the end of the Psalm, it’s the first line, but it’s certainly not the last. The Psalm finishes quite differently, on a note of praise.
So, this journey from one depth of intimacy to another depth of intimacy via the experience of what seems to be and feels like abandonment. That is very much the journey that the disciple, you and me, are called to make on this journey of listening to the seven last words of Christ.
Now, the experience of peace that these words express. Is first of all, tied to the kind of prayer which a devout Jew might be expected to utter on his or her deathbed. In fact, Jesus is echoing the Psalm. And I stress again the importance of these echoes, citations, references to the Psalms throughout all of these passion narratives. Creating that sense that the death itself is a kind of liturgy. With Calvary becoming the Temple Mount and so on, as we have seen in an earlier podcast.
But this kind of prayer that Jesus makes here, is not only the kind of prayer that a devout Jew would be expected to utter on their deathbed. But it’s also the text that we take up at the end of each day before that little death we call sleep. Because these words are found in the office of Compline. Which is the very last prayer of the day before we rush off to hopefully a peaceful night’s rest. Into your hands O Lord, I commend my spirit, is what we say or sing. It is you who will redeem me, Lord. The Psalm goes on.
So, the extraordinary thing is that Jesus quoting the Psalm in this context, as he dies on the cross, almost constitutes the cross as a death bed. Or even the bed in which you and I sleep at night. This is an extraordinary interpretation of this emblem of torture and cruel, cruel death. It becomes a peaceful death bed and the bed in which we seek rest at night. In other words, with these words, death is interpreted by Jesus as sleep. And this finds its way into our liturgical text. At Mass for instance, in the Eucharistic prayer, we speak about those who sleep in Christ.
And I can remember when the new translation of the Missal appeared back in 2011. Someone wrote to me a letter complaining about many of the translations. And this one got a particularly severe critique, where death was being portrayed as sleep. And I said in my reply, well, look, you have to accept that it’s one of the most ancient understandings of death. That is traceable to Jesus himself in this moment of his own death.
So, that sense of death as sleep goes back to the very dawn of Christianity, and you see it everywhere on Christian funerary monuments. But in the end, it takes us to Calvary as we see here. So, death not as annihilation, but as a kind of sleep from which we will be awakened.
Now, you find this very often, this image of death as sleep in the fathers of the church and their abundant writings. Where they refer, for instance, to Adam, who sleeps in the garden. And from the side of Adam as he sleeps, the rib is taken. And from that rib, Eve the woman is created. And also, in the fathers. You then get them to go on and say, well, as Jesus slept on the cross, just as Adam slept in the garden. And just as Eve was born from the side of the sleeping Adam. So too the church is born from the side of Christ, the wounded side of Christ as Jesus sleeps on the cross. It’s a beautiful and powerful image that you find frequently enough in the fathers. That sense of the church as born from the wounded side of the dying or dead Christ, the sleeping Christ, however.
And the church, therefore, as the kind of New Eve, which is also a language used of Mary. And here you see how very often the language and imagery used of Mary is also used of the church. So, there’s this strict analogy through Christian tradition of the church and Mary. Both understood as the bride of God, as it were, the bride of the Holy Spirit.
But throughout Orthodox Christianity’s hymns and icons. You see this sense of Christ sleeping on the cross. And the figure looks like someone not dying in agony, no shrieking in the darkness. But someone in fact, who is peaceful and at rest and looks more like someone who is simply asleep and will therefore waken. And this is the moment of Easter when Christ wakens from the sleep of death.
Even in the Cathedral here in Brisbane. In the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, there is an image of the crucifix, the crucified Christ, above the tabernacle. And if you look carefully at that image of the crucified Christ. Again, it doesn’t suggest Christ in agony, as you seen in many, many other crucifixes. I think particularly of Spain, where some of the most gory crucifixes I’ve ever seen are found. You don’t have that sense when you look at the crucifix above the tabernacle in the Cathedral at Brisbane. Because again, there is this sense of peace and calm and composure. And the figure looks more asleep than in agony.
So, Jesus is depicted here in Luke’s gospel, as in the Cathedral at Brisbane and in many other places, as Jesus at rest. So, death is a kind of rest. Not just sleep, but also a Sabbath. In other words, the impression given at this point. Is that after six days of recreation, bringing to birth the new life. Jesus rests in this Sabbath moment of his dying. So, the death not only as sleep. But the death as Sabbath. I mean, the rabbis asked the question, what did God create on the seventh day?
Well, the temptation is to say, well, God created nothing on the seventh day. He did it all on the sixth day. The Rabbis, in typical style, say, no, no, no. On the seventh day, God created rest. He created the Sabbath. And you see it here as Jesus enters into a kind of rest, a kind of Sabbath that is the death. And looks to something beyond.
The impression that’s given also of Jesus at rest is that he is very much in control. And this has been a theme throughout these seven words. Now, he doesn’t seem to be in control. But again, that tension between what seems to be and what is is fundamental to understanding what’s going on in these texts. And to understand that the whole point of the Bible, not just these words, is to lead us out of the world of what seems to be the world of illusion, into the world of what is, the world of truth.
Because if we get stuck on what the death seems to be, we are caught in a world of illusion. We have to penetrate beyond what seems to be to discover what the death really is. And that’s where, again, the interpreter of what the death means is Jesus himself. Hence the importance of these seven words.
Here we find a Jesus who, as it were, just expires rather than the more loaded versions that we find in Matthew, Mark and John, the other gospels. In other words, it’s Jesus who is laying down his life. He’s as much in control now as he approaches death, comes to the very edge of death, as he has ever been. He hasn’t been swept away by a tide of violence, as it might seem to be.
And one thinks of the words that Jesus speaks in John Chapter 10, Verse 18. No one takes my life from me. In other words, Jesus was not dragged screaming to the cross against his will or against God’s plan. And by the power of violent human beings. No, no-one takes my life from me. And here he says, ‘I commend my spirit’.
And the language could hardly be less violent. Into your hands, in other words, not into their hands and into their power. I don’t yield to that power, but I simply commend my spirit, my soul, myself, into the hands of the one whom he calls Father.
So, this is fundamentally important. That Jesus is absolutely in control. And we have seen that he’s as much in the know as he is in control. And because he’s so much in the know, he knows what’s going on, he knows the truth. He’s not caught in a world of illusion. He knows the truth of what is unfolding in the drama of his death. He is an absolutely reliable interpreter of the death. And therefore, to him, we must listen.
So, there we are with the seventh word. A word that is peaceful, calm, composed, has Jesus resting on the cross, entering into a kind of Sabbath, a sleep from which he will awaken when the resurrection comes.
In all of this, these seven words that come to a climax in this seventh word. We are immersed in the experience of the God who speaks from Calvary and on Calvary. Speaks in the moment and in the situation where silence seems to be totally regnant. And into the silence of Calvary is gathered all the silence. And all the silences of the world. Where God seems to be absent, God seems to be silent, say nothing. That nothing could be further from the truth in fact. As we stand in the darkness of Calvary and listen to the words coming from the cross.
So, we are taken into the darkness of things, into the silences of the world. Into that experience of what feels like abandonment and isolation. These words face us into the violence of the world, shocking violence. And into the experience of death and loss and pain that every human being knows in some way. But also, into the experience of humiliation. And the experience of what seems to be failure. Because that was the experience, it seemed, of Jesus. We are taken into what seems to be an absolute defeat. And also, what seems to be absolutely hopeless. So, all of that, we are taken into.
And the question is, what do these things mean? What is the truth? Do all of these things condemn us to a darkness that is endless, to a silence that knows no end and so on. In fact, what these words say. Is that at the heart of every darkness, there is a light to be discovered. At the heart of every silence, there is a voice to be heard. At the heart of all abandonment and isolation there is a love that can be known and an intimacy that can be embraced. That even in the face of violence and death and loss and pain and humiliation and failure. There can be the experience of peace and of calm. And that defeat can give birth to victory. And what seems to be hopelessness can generate the only true hope for which the human being may hope. In other words, not a cosmetic hope. But something that is true and enduring.
But to come to see all of this, we need to understand what Jesus says. In other words, not be like those who heard his voice from the cross and said to each other. Oh, he is calling on Elijah when he cries out in Aramaic, Eli Eli Lama Sabachthani. My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? They thought he was talking, calling on the Prophet Elijah. Well, they heard him, but they didn’t understand what he was saying. And that’s a risk for all of us. We can hear the voice, the words of Jesus. But we don’t really understand what he’s saying. And the whole point of these podcasts is to try and help all of us, myself included, as the one who’s speaking. To understand more of what we’re actually hearing from the lips of the dying Christ.
Each of the seven words that we have heard and sought to explore is about relationship. Even in a moment of what seems to be complete isolation and abandonment. Three of the words we’ve seen are addressed to God. Two of them calling God ‘Father’. With all that that implies. One word was addressed to Mary and to John. The inner circle, the family, as it were. And one to the repentant criminal who dies beside him on another cross. And who stands for so many figures in the world again, this is not just an isolated individual. The repentant criminal who hangs on the cross beside Jesus is a profoundly and powerfully symbolic figure. Of the outcast to whom Jesus reaches out, even in this moment, from cross to cross.
And then two have uncertain and seemingly cosmic addressees. ‘I thirst’ and ‘It is accomplished’. So, there are various addressees, but at the heart of all of these words, there is that sense of relationship. And I refer to what I began with in the first podcast where I spoke quoting Novo Millennio Ineunte that letter of Pope John Paul II, where he quotes Saint Thérèse of Lisieux and Saint Catherine of Siena, who speak about that strange combination of bliss and agony that Jesus on the cross doesn’t just give us, goes through the motions of suffering. He suffers in agony. That’s physical and emotional, psychological and spiritual. But at the same time, nothing can cancel that sense of bliss and joy that belongs to him as the second person of the Blessed Trinity, as the son of the Father. So that combination of bliss and agony, joy and sorrow. That as Saint Thérèse and St Catherine say is also an experience known to the saints.
In these seven words, we’ve seen that Jesus has the initiative. He’s in charge, in control. Even when he seems most powerless. Because he’s reduced to that ultimately powerless thing called a corpse. The only thing a human corpse can do is to decompose. So, there’s nothing more powerless in that sense than a human corpse. That’s what he becomes. But it’s precisely in that powerlessness that another kind of power, the power of the Father God that moves through him. So, he seems to be completely at the mercy of others. But in fact, he is absolutely in the hands of the Father. And it’s the Father who is in control. And through Jesus, the Father’s control becomes evident.
Now, once you believe that Jesus does have the initiative and is always in control, whatever the evidence to the contrary. It’s possible to come to the peace and composure that we see in him as he goes to death, as he dies. So, it is possible. It may seem a mirage, but you’ve only got to look at a figure like Mary MacKillop. To see how so often faced with great suffering and rejection, Mary shows, and you see it in her letters, an extraordinary peace and composure that nothing seemed to be able to shake. And that was born of that sense that Jesus is in control. And nothing could shake that sense in her.
So, this is true of prayer. I mean, when we pray, Jesus remains the one who is in control. He has the initiative. Because what is distinctive about Christian prayer is that Jesus speaks first. In other words, we begin with the ear before we move to the lips.
So, we listen to the voice of Jesus. And only then can we speak. Because if we speak before we’ve listened, we will end up to use the words of Jesus, babbling as the pagans do. And that’s not Christian prayer. Christian prayer begins with the listening that is rooted in that sense that Jesus always has the initiative. And even in the affairs of this world, and this can seem strange, certainly countercultural. Jesus, in fact, has the initiative and is in control. He’s in charge. He’ll have the last word. Very, very often you think of the chaos of Afghanistan. Where is Jesus Christ in all of that? And yet still we say that despite the seeming triumph of chaos and there are so many other examples of this. Where is Jesus? Well, Jesus, in fact, we say, is in control in ways that we can scarcely imagine and that we can’t understand at this point. Similarly, with COVID-19. Who’s in control? It seems the virus is in control. But what we say, though, having listened to these seven words particularly, is that in fact Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, is in control.
So, that opening to his power, his initiative, his control is really what the life of discipleship is all about, not just in the moment of prayer. But in the whole journey of discipleship in other words, on the road, home to paradise. It’s what keeps us going on the road. To remember, not to forget, how important that word remember is, to remember that Jesus, in fact, is leading the way, is in control. He knows the way home because again, he’s as much in the know as he is in control. And if we follow him, he might lead us down some strange paths that we don’t expect. But he will in fact, be the one to lead us home to paradise.
So, he knows what’s happening, even if I don’t. And again, I think of the title of a book I read just recently, How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going. And very often here am I the Archbishop, I’m supposed to know it all. Well, very often I don’t. Particularly at a time like this. I have to lead, but leadership doesn’t always mean you know exactly where you’re going. Sometimes it means you don’t know. But that presumes that you believe that Jesus knows. So, if you keep your eye on him and your ear on him, then you’ve got some chance of knowing the way and pointing the way to others.
So, I may not know, but he does. So, there’s this strange interplay between knowing and believing and unknowing and unknowing. But focusing on him and listening to him as we have sought to do in these podcasts.
So, at the end of this journey. We have reached a point where we have not only listened to the words of Jesus and explored their meaning, allowed him to interpret his own death. But we may have come a little closer to the point where his words become our words. And in the end that is the goal of our listening. So that the words spoken by Jesus on the cross are not just out there or back there. They are in fact, on my lips and in my heart. So let me conclude these podcasts, Words from The Cross, by reading the poem that I began with in the very first podcast, it’s by Charles Causley. And it’s called from a Normandy Crucifix of 1632. So, I leave you with this.
I am the great sun, but you do not see me. I am your husband, but you turn away. I am the captive, but you do not free me. I am the captain, but you will not obey. I am the truth, but you will not believe me. I am the city where you will not stay. I am your wife, your child, but you will leave me. I am that God to whom you will not pray. I am your counsel, but you will not hear me. I am your lover, whom you will betray. I am the victor, but you do not cheer me. I am the holy dove whom you will slay. I am your life, but if you will not name me, seal up your soul with tears and never blame me.