All that begins at the cross.
When Jesus had received the wine, he said, "It is finished" (John 19:30).
We humans have a deep distrust of endings. Something in the human spirit answers every farewell with a resounding No! We prefer not to say good-bye but rather "see you later." We turn graduations into commencements, wanting to respond to endings with beginnings. We do everything we can to promote continuance, to avoid the near occasion of closure.
Maybe we learn to suspend our belief in endings from the earth, from seasons that turn and are enfolded into the next. We observe the cycles of life in nature and see each death as preparation for a new season of life and growth. Nature gathers up the fragments of the old that nothing may be wasted. All is made new out of the weavings of decay.
Every spiritual path seeks to respond to the innate disbelief in a personal ending. Death is seen as a moment of transition from life as we know it to something more. Belief in reincarnation, the translation from material life to pure spirit, or the Christian understanding of Resurrection, body and spirit, are all ways of expressing our rejection of a personal end. The expression "life goes on" is not simply a cliche but more like a secular creed. What we hope to mean is: "I will go on."
When relationships are broken or loved ones are lost to death, we feel both the loss and the nonrational certainty that, in a real sense, nothing is lost and the relationship continues. Something may come to an end objectively out there, but subjectively within us, nothing ever really ends. People we haven't seen for years still communicate their love and support--or disapproval--inside of us. Situations that are long ended continue to heal or haunt us. The idea that anything really dies forever is alien to our experience.
The great Christian story tells us that when Jesus says, "It is finished," he is not saying that he is finished or that anything is lost in his dying. In fact, the opposite is true. So much is begun on the cross, and so much is gained, that these words about endings are entirely about triumph and not at all about defeat.
This wasn't clear to those who surrounded Jesus that final week of his life. Caiaphas and the other religious leaders convened the Sanhedrin to discuss the Jesus Problem, and they decided that putting him to death would be the perfect solution. Once Jesus was killed, his disciples would disperse and the unpleasant challenges to Temple and Torah authority would end. The political tension of having too many restless citizens gathering in the streets of an occupied country would be eased. There would be no trouble from the Romans, and once again there could be business as usual in Jerusalem. It would all be finished once Jesus was executed, and his little religious cult would vanish from the earth.
Pilate, too, was concerned about getting back to business as usual. More specifically, he wanted this unpleasant mock trial of an innocent man to be done with. His wife had had a disturbing dream, and Pilate was reluctant to proceed with the otherwise routine solution of capital punishment. Besides, the man himself was disturbing to behold. He looked like any other poor Jewish wretch after suffering a sound lashing and the cruelty of the guards. Yet he had a regal air about him that was more than delusional. He really did seem more like a king than all the royalty of Judea put together. He had an authority about him that made Pilate feel somehow small and inadequate. Pilate didn't like the way the whole thing wound up, having his hand forced by the local leadership, as if he weren't the procurator of the land. But at least it was finished, and he could forget about it. The sooner he could disassociate his name from the man from Galilee, the better.
Peter and the disciples, huddled together in the upper room, prayed for it all to be over soon. For the sake of the man they loved and had followed, they wanted this dark day to end. They wanted his misery to be short, for God to show some mercy on a holy and innocent man. They also, quite naturally, wanted the public scandal to blow over quickly, so they could creep out of the city and back to Galilee where they belonged.
The sea looked better to them every moment since the tide turned against them in Jerusalem. They longed for the old life, for their wives and the predictable work of their hands. They wanted to forget they had ever dreamed of kingdoms and justice. There was no justice. Justice had been nailed to a cross, and all they had left were shreds of teachings that seemed like fool's gold now. Maybe God took care of the lilies, but not of the one who had called God Father. The life of that one, and all the hopes his life had raised, were finished.
The women gathered under the cross were brokenhearted. Love was dying above them, and they were helpless to stop it or even ease the pain. Jesus had given them such comfort, forgiveness, healing, and hope, and they could give him nothing in this hour. All they could do was be present to his suffering and not look away. It was a poor offering, a widow's mite. They watched and wept and wrung their hands.
They saw his agony go on, his breath labored, his bruises darkening, the blood mixing with sweat on his bare flesh. They heard his final words: a short conversation with a dying convict, a prayer cried out to God, a few words to his mother and the one disciple who dared to stay. He forgave those who were murdering him--they would never forget that as long as they lived! And he had asked for water--or was it water he was asking for? His gaze seemed to be on something farther than they could see.
And now he said: "It is finished." They looked up, but they could see he didn't mean his dying at all. His chin was high, and he seemed confident, ready, almost serene. As astonishing as it seems, it was as if he had intended the cross, as though it were but one more thing that served his purposes, like the mud he used for healing eyes or the demons he cast out of the possessed. What was finished? His mission?
And Jesus, after he had tasted the wine, said: It is finished. It is perfected. It is accomplished. It is consummated! His words would be translated in all these ways and more through the centuries, as people sought to understand them. To the writer John, Jesus was the divine Christ from before time, the Word who was with God before the creation of the world. Jesus was always in control of his destiny, a destiny ordained by God and not made by human hands. "For this reason the Father loves me," he once told his disciples, "because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again." God chooses the hour, Jesus assured his followers. Jesus himself chose the surrender.
When Jesus says, "It is finished," he closes his mission on earth by laying down his life. It is no helpless surrender, but a deliberate action, freely chosen. Even from the cross, the divine Word has the power to create reality. The power of the Word once made light, time, and world come into being. Now that same Word calls the earthly mission to an end, names the hour, and enters into glory.
The mission is not only ended, but perfected. This exit at the cross was no accident or mere tragedy but the brave course that love took to empty divinity into humanity and humanity into death itself. The raising up of that same person into glory would have meaning for all of us who must go by way of death from this world. The Word became flesh to travel the way of all flesh. And now we who are flesh can surrender ourselves to death with confidence.
Something is accomplished, too, in the mission that led Jesus to the cross. The Father's will is done, on earth as perfectly as in heaven. Love chose to testify to the truth, without compromise. Love chose fidelity over self-preservation, the beloved over the self. The kingdom has been announced, and its arrival is at hand, awaiting only our willingness to receive it.
Perhaps the most meaningful translation of this phrase is the lover's cry: It is consummated! It speaks of love reaching its fullness. It reminds us that heaven and earth are reconciled as of old, the ancient enmity bridged at last. The two are made one: God and flesh at table. To see the union of love transposed upon the loneliness of the cross is to understand Transfiguration at its deepest level. The glory is hidden in the humility. Life waits in the darkness of the tomb. Love bursts forth unseen in the moment of apparent abandonment.
In the words of Jesus, we come to understand that everything he intended by his mission is completed, and nothing he has started will come to an end. "And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age," Jesus guarantees his followers. This means that those who contemplated his death were quite mistaken about it. The religious leaders hoped to finish off his following, yet for 20 centuries it has extended to all the world. Pilate hoped to wash himself clean of the disturbing association, and yet his name is forever linked to the cross in our creed. The disciples wanted to forget that terrible Friday, but they would instead spend their lives and go to their deaths proclaiming it. The women believed that love was dying with Jesus, not realizing that love is stronger than death.
The unchallenged reign of sin is ended, the fatal sting of death is vanquished. The mission of Jesus has been satisfied, but like so many apparent endings, the pronouncement "It is finished" is more about beginnings. The cross did not finish Jesus, and death can never make an end of us. The church began in the blood and water that poured from Jesus' heart, early writers insisted. We owe our mission to the completion of that fateful hour.
The cross was a good and faithful servant that Jesus chose to use in the service of the One who sent him. The cross continues to serve us in our mission as church. It is the sign with which we mark ourselves, our buildings, our worship, our tombstones. It is the sign of membership in Baptism and the sign of blessing throughout our lives. We say it is the sign under which we are saved, the sign that teaches us our true identity. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit--so we begin and end our every prayer.
Through the Creator, we understand our creatureliness, our dependence on the source of life. Through the Redeemer, we know that God does not abandon us even as we pass through the portal of death. Through the Sanctifier, we bless our world, seeking holiness in our work, our relationships, our very being. The cross is our greatest teacher. What makes us Christian is our willingness to face it and even to bear it for one another.
The cross is, very literally, a crossroads. The vertical and horizontal dimensions are the intersection of divinity and humanity, death and life, endings and beginnings, humiliation and glory. It was meant to be an instrument of execution, but it became the source of salvation for all. An act of cruelty was transformed into utter generosity and compassion.
This is the meaning of the cross: that any low or base motive can be lifted up through the power of the cross and become a conduit for grace. We "offer up" what sin brings into our lives and ask that it be taken and blessed, broken and shared, no longer the poison of our souls but the food of goodness and truth. Through the power of the cross, every force that threatens to harm us must surrender to the transformation of grace. We are saved, which is another way of saying we are safe.
It is finished. Yet it also begins here at the cross, a life without end. We who are privileged to bear this sign should contemplate it often. It reminds us that, no matter what sin does, love does more.
By Alice Camille, a writer and religious educator living in Berkeley, California. Excerpted from Seven Last Words: Lenten Reflections for Today's Believers, [C] 1998 by Alice Camille. Published by ACTA Publications, Chicago, Illinois, 800-397-2282. Used with permission. All rights reserved.
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|Title Annotation:||Christ's crucifixion as a beginning|
|Date:||Apr 1, 1999|
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