Condensed from a book by Archbishop Fulton Sheen
When Jesus was hanging on the cross he asked for forgiveness for the people who were responsible for this great evil, and he gave a reason that they should be forgiven. He said it was because they were ignorant of their deeds. Their ignorance was a great blessing to them. We often hear that you get to know life through experience. This is true in the areas of travel and fine dining, but it doesn’t apply to everything. We should all desire to be free from the experience of sin just as a healthy doctor is free from disease. It is the disordered craving for knowledge that destroyed the unity that Adam and Eve had with God.
Keeping a safe distance from sin is what allows us to know how horrible it really is. You learn just how strong an enemy is by defeating it in battle, not by surrendering to it. If knowledge and experience was the key to happiness and morality then we would be the most virtuous people who ever lived.
Our Lord’s Passion was so horrific because He was so innocent. Sinning against someone of infinite virtue brings with it infinite guilt, but as He hung there on the cross he asked that the offenders be forgiven. Through our sins we too are equally guilty of the Passion, but we have an equal opportunity to be forgiven. Only the Sacrament of Reconciliation makes it possible for you to be forgiven for the times you have “experienced” too much.
” Amen, I say to thee: this day thou shalt be with me in paradise.” (Lk 23:43)
Our Lord’s second set of last words were in response to the good thief whose words we say at Mass: remember me, Lord, when you shall come into your Kingdom. When you compare the good thief with the bad thief you discover that the difference between them is in their wills. One recognised the injustice of Christ’s crucifixion and asked to be forgiven; the other mocked and blasphemed Our Lord. The good thief accepted the justice of his circumstances and was rewarded that day.
Everyone has his cross to bear and in bearing it we become perfected in God’s eyes. We should not think of our suffering as a punishment because it is given to us for a reason. Even Mary, who was made free from original sin, underwent the greatest of suffering. The tragedy in the world is not that there is pain, but that it is often wasted.
If we accept the unique crosses that each of us are meant to bear then we will be treated like royalty in heaven. The good thief only found his salvation because he was hanging on a cross. The reason we tend to be such mediocre Christians is because we refuse to let God use us the way He needs to. When the Virgin Mary heard the voice of the Archangel Gabriel, she did not ask what she needed to do; she said she would allow God to do what He needed to do. We too must be like clay in an artist’s hands. Our lives consist of only two things: active duties and passive circumstances. The first is in our control and should be done in God’s name. The second is out of our control and should be submitted to in God’s name. We are not made perfect by knowing the will of God, but by submitting to it.
“Woman, behold thy son.” To the disciple, “Behold your mother.” (Lk 19:26-27)
When someone says to you, “You have your own life to live”, remember that you live it alongside everyone else. As a Christian, love of neighbor is inseparable from love of God. The value of relationships is exemplified in Jesus’ third set of last words. The tragedy of the Passion united Christ’s family just as tragedies continue to unite people today. As Our Lord was hanging on the cross he united His mother with all Christians.
By referring to His mother as “woman” He distinguished her from just being His own mother and gave her to all of us. The night before, Our Lord willed His body to us at the Last Supper. At the foot of the cross he willed us His mother too. For thirty-three years she saw God in Christ and from this moment on she would see Christ in all Christians. And like a mother giving birth to a child, she become the mother of humanity in equal pain and anguish. It is no disservice to Christ to honor His mother. Just as Christ was formed in her, so must we be formed in her. Only she who raised Christ can raise a Christian.
“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Mk 15:34)
Our culture is increasingly overrun with problems of addiction. Untold numbers of people struggle with alcoholism, pornography, and violence. These are the torments of a world in despair. Feeling abandoned we might call out the same words the Our Lord did, but His words had a different meaning. The fourth set of last words of Our Lord come from the first line of Psalm 21. This is the psalm that says, “my bones have been numbered and they have drawn lots for my cloak.” But while the first half of the psalm is about suffering, the last half of the psalm is about hope. It ends with an acknowledgment that, whatever happens, we are assured victory over our enemies.
There was no darker hour for Jesus than His crucifixion, yet He trusted His Father in spite of all the contrary appearances that things would end well. He was not abandoned or forgotten but He had to suffer before claiming His prize. Just as there is no feast without our preparations and no success without failure, there could be no empty tomb without there first being a cross. For the person who has hope, there is no obstacle that can’t be overcome. For the person who despairs, there can be only darkness. We must pray in confidence that every prayer of ours will be answered, and even when the answer is no, we have to be mindful that the “no” comes from the outpouring of a Father’s love.
“I thirst.” (Jn 19:28)
The fifth set of last word of Christ echoes Isaiah 55:1, “Come, all you who thirst.” Whether you acknowledge it or not, everyone has a thirst for God. Everyone desires something deeper and seeks someone higher. As Our Lord hangs on the cross, He says that it works two ways. God is also on a quest for our souls: He is the Hound of Heaven. We tend to desire God, but we want proof before we will commit to a God who seems so far away. We fail to realize that it is we who have distanced ourselves from God and not He who remains distant from us. He seeks us like a shepherd seeks a lost sheep.
There are many people who hate God and His Church who can’t seem ever to break away from its influence. These people should be prayed for because they are like St. Paul before his conversion. They may do great evil but their refusal to abandon God can be the source of their eventual return. Despite the reasons they give for hating the Church, they most likely realise that problem is really within themselves and does not have to do with God. The consciousness of their sins creates a vacuum that only grace can fill. God thirsts for the souls of even the worst sinners and ,while no one can deserve God, everyone can receive Him.
“It is consummated.” (Jn 19:30)
The expression used by Our Lord can be found three places in Scripture. It is found in Genesis after creation, in Revelation at the end of time, and here on the cross. It means that what was done is now perfected and for Christ it marks the end of His hour. During the wedding feast at Cana Jesus first mentioned His hour. He told his mother that his hour had not come; it was not time to begin his mission. For His hour, which lasted three years, would be a time of mortification, suffering and death. For us it has to be the same thing.
Many people are frustrated in their lives because they have rejected the cross. Instead of pursuing non-attachment in their lives, they fill their lives with worldly substitutes. Instead of embracing the mysteries of religion, they embrace murder mysteries on television. They criticise people and religion for the very things they despise in themselves. They are consumed with themselves, yet defeated because self-perfection can’t exist without self-denial. We must actively use our “hour” to improve our lives as Christians if we ever expect to find happiness. It is only in surrendering ourselves as Christ did that we become receptive to His grace.
“Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” (Lk 23:46)
Our Lord called out His final words in a great voice; meeting death head-on. Rather than wait for death to come and take Him, He used His perfect freedom and chose to die. There are two kinds of freedom. There is a freedom from something and freedom for something. Most people prefer the first kind of freedom because it is easier. Freedom from vegetables, freedom from oppression. The second kind of freedom is much more difficult because it implies a responsibility that can often be a burden. Freedom to choose, freedom to change. To understand the supreme nature of this kind of freedom we have to look at Christ on the cross.
There are only three things we can do with our freedom. We can direct it selfishly towards ourselves, we can scatter it among a thousand trivial things, and we can surrender it to God. The first option is by far the most damaging because, when we believe we are free to act as badly as we choose, we become slaves to our addictions. Boundless liberty leads to boundless tyranny. Uncontrolled freedom will always lead a person into slavery. The second alternative can be found in people who have no direction. Their fleeting desires change without there ever being an internal change of the soul, and they are unable to choose between the many attractions and temptations in life. But there is hope because there is a searching. Those who are empty can be filled, but people who are intoxicated with their own egos have no room for God.
The final choice is to surrender yourself to God and His will. Only when you have displaced the “me” can you find the perfect freedom that Christ had as He breathed His last. It was His self-giving sacrifice that made possible the Resurrection.