Now we turn to some of the lessons Christ poured out for us while He drained that cup of suffering for our sakes. St. Augustine brilliantly observed: “The tree upon which were fixed the members of Him dying was even the chair of the Master teaching.”
St. Thomas Aquinas admirably provides us with one of those lessons that Augustine gleaned from that teaching chair of the Cross. “Not without purpose did He choose the class of death, that He might be a teacher of that breadth and height, and length, and depth, of which the Apostle speaks (Eph. 3:18).”
As for the breadth, Augustine declares that the crossbeam of the Cross represents good works, since Christ’s hands were spread out upon it. The length of the Cross from the crossbeam to the ground, where it is planted, stands, and abides, represents the virtue of longanimity (bearing suffering patiently), which bears all things over time.
The Cross’s height from the crossbeam to its top held the head of the crucified Christ, who is the supreme desire and hope of believers. Finally, the depth of the Cross, hidden in the earth from view, holds it fixed like the root from which the entire tree grows, and this represents the depth of God’s gratuitous grace. Of course, Jesus taught us not only metaphorically through the wood of the Cross but also through the words that He spoke from that most painful teaching chair.
For centuries Catholics have pondered the rich meaning of Jesus’ seven last words from the Cross. These “words” are the seven brief sayings Jesus uttered while He hung on the Cross in utmost pain and loneliness. Let’s look at them, consider their Source and their context, and ponder how they might console and strengthen us as we bear our own immeasurably lighter crosses.
1. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34)
Christ’s first words from the Cross, in the earliest throes of His agony, are to ask God to forgive the very people who placed Him there. How many of us are lonely because of estrangement from someone once close to us whom we have refused to forgive or who has been unforgiving of us? Can we make a gesture to reach out to that person while our arms remain free to move? Even if we should be rebuffed, can we do as Christ did and pray that God will forgive that person — and us, too?
2. “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:43)
The completely innocent Christ was given two criminals as His companions as He hung from the Cross. One of them railed at Him, demanding that He save them all if He truly was the Christ. The other rebuked the first for not fearing God present in Christ, who suffered the same punishment as theirs even though He was innocent.
When that “good thief” asked Jesus to remember him when He came into His kingly power, Jesus uttered His second word from the Cross: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” These words certainly brought that thief incredible solace and joy. If we are or should become victims of severe emotional or social isolation, how might we treat those in the same boat, bearing a similar cross? Will we recognize Christ in them and treat them accordingly? Our ultimate reward will be great one day should we, too, share Paradise with Christ.
3. “Woman, behold, your son. . . .Behold, your mother.” (John 19:26–27)
Now imagine Christ’s loneliness as He looks down at His totally loving, devoted, and sinless mother, beside John, His “beloved disciple.” He knows how they share His tortures and will soon have to cope with His loss in their earthly existence, but He is anything but paralyzed by His distress. He wants those whom He loves to continue to love and care for each other in the most intimate of ways, as that between a mother and her child, a child and his mother. Of course, Jesus grants Mary as Queen of Heaven to be mother not only to John but to every man and woman on earth. She is as willing to fly to our aid today as she was to John’s on the day of Christ’s Crucifixion.
Centuries after that day, St. Thérèse of Lisieux would ponder the strength of the Blessed Mother in enduring so many sorrows, noting that, unlike all of us, Mary herself did not have a Blessed Mother to pray to (although, of course, she had her Son)! So, is there a lonely person in your life, perhaps someone bereaved of a parent, or a child, for whom you might step forward and offer love and support, as John and the Blessed Mother offered each other love and support?
4.“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46; Mark 15:34)
Christ here echoes Psalm 22:1, which expresses the desolation He felt in His human nature. Here is Christ suffering. Here is another example of how we can join our suffering with Christ’s. In our loneliest hours, do we feel that we are forsaken not only by man, but by God? If so, can we still call out to God in prayer, expecting that He will hear us?
5. “I thirst.” (John 19:28)
Here is another reminder that Christ joined us in our humanity. The eternal Word who was in the beginning, who was with God, and who was God (see John 1:1) has agreed to take on the weakness, the cravings, and the gnawing of the human flesh of His creatures, for our own sake, and yet we let Him suffer.
Do we take much time to think of the lonely people in our lives for whom Christ died and of how they might thirst for attention? And we needn’t get too metaphorical, for sometimes the lonely are isolated and may experience physical thirst and hunger that we might help relieve. The Church has always recognized that we are not disembodied souls, but ensouled bodies and both elements of our unity are good and deserving of care. This is why she has long encouraged both spiritual and corporal (fleshly, bodily) works of mercy.
In fact, sometimes we spend so much time in the virtual, electronic world that we forget that we all have bodies with needs we can help each other fulfill. When a text or an e-mail replaces a phone call, we have cut ourselves off from the recipient’s voice.
When a call replaces face-to-face contact, we have cut ourselves off not only from that person’s face, but from his or her body language, all those subtle ways that God has given us to communicate with one another by virtue of having bodies. When we connect only over distant airwaves, we can certainly suggest that a thirsty friend get a drink, but we are in no position to hand him one.
6. “It is finished.” (John 19:30)
What a relief Christ must have felt when His task, the most gruesome yet important task ever assigned on earth, was complete! He expressed it in these simple words: “It is finished.” Our own life task is clearly not finished.
What, then, will we do to establish new emotional and social connections and strengthen the ones we already have in our time left on earth before, God willing, we pass through the gates of heaven Christ opened for us by completing His mission on the wood of the Cross?
7. “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit!” (Luke 23:46)
These are the very last words Jesus breathed on earth before His spirit returned to His Father. Will our focus be on God in our last moment? It is, after all, “in Him that we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Are we willing to commit our spirits to God now? Such commitment to God, who is no mere abstract power or force, let alone an uncaring ruler, but is our Father, who has given His Son for our salvation, and who gives us His Holy Spirit to dwell in the temples of our bodies, cannot help but provide relief to our deepest feelings of loneliness, and motivation to reach out with His love to the lonely around us.
Let’s ask ourselves how we might unite our sufferings with Christ’s and, despite what may befall us, resolve to trust in Him and commit our spirits to the Father’s loving hands.