One of my unfulfilled hopes is to some day before meeting the Lord preach the “seven last words” on Good Friday someplace. It will probably await my retirement if it ever happens at all. It would require abundant research, prayerful thought and a discipline which is not usually found in my preaching. Part of the reason which I would like to do this is because I have long been fascinated by the words and phrases attributed to the Lord in his final hours. I know they mean far more than their simple literal meaning. This year, again with the help of Pope Benedict XVI’s superb book on Holy Week, things which I have often played with in my mind take on a richer and deeper meaning and at least today have given me the springboard to reflect on one example of those last words, “I Thirst.” What follows is my homily for Good Friday 2011 at the Cathedral of St. Jude the Apostle. Lent comes to an end at the conclusion of the liturgy today. I hope it was a truly blessed journey for you.
HOMILY FOR GOOD FRIDAY 2011
“I thirst” Christ cries from the cross before breathing his last. The torture and terror of the day has drained his body of almost all of its strength, his breath is badly labored, blood and water are flowing from the wounds of his hands and side, the pain must have been excruciating and many of us have had the personal experience either of dehydration or an unquenchable thirst. Christ’s cry for something to help him in his final moments is so very human, so very understandable, and seemingly so very simple.
Pope Benedict XVI in his new book Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week (pages 217-219) opens up a meaning of these two words far beyond their simplicity. The Romans were beastly cruel but even they offered to those who were to be crucified prior to standing them upright a drink which would reduce the pain and suffering somewhat, an anesthetic of sorts. Jesus had refused, wishing no compromise with the plan of the Father, which through his death would redeem all of humankind of its sins and failings. He sought no relief for Himself to bring relief to others.
In the heat of the midday sun, the response of those near him, perhaps even his executioners, was to offer him a “poor man’s wine”, almost vinegar. The Holy Father points out in his book that in making this request Christ and in recording it John are recalling the text of Psalm 69 “for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.”
The Pope adds that there is to be found in those two words, “I Thirst” also a reference to the great prophet Isaiah’s parable of the vine which envisions Israel as a vast vineyard planted lovingly, given a special place where its product might produce the finest of wine and over which loving care has been taken. “He looked for it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.” [Is 5:2] From his summit on the altar of the cross, Jesus looked out at the vineyard he had planted for three years and found no harvest, no wine but vinegar, no justice and no apparent love beyond that which hung on the cross.
Pope Benedict once again for a final time on these last words; “…God’s suffering over his people in a way that far transcends the historical moment, so too the scene at the cross far transcends the hour of Jesus’ death. It is not only Israel, but the Church, it is we ourselves who repeatedly respond to God’s bountiful love with vinegar – with a sour heart that is unable to perceive God’s love. “I thirst”: this cry of Jesus is directed to every one of us.” [p.218-219].
So my dear brothers and sisters, today as then Jesus is crying out to us to quench his thirst for souls, his desire for believers who embrace him and his message, who wish to live a life of love and sacrifice. He would have died in vain and even today his suffering might be denied relevancy if all we can offer him is vinegar, not our best but our cheapest or easiest,
It is not the Roman centurions sent to guard him and assure and record his death that he gazes at this afternoon; it is not his loving, heart pierced mother or his beloved friend John that he sees, it is us. He thirsts for us, for our hearts, for our love, for our fidelity, for our willingness to make sacrifices for our love of him and our neighbor.
In so many ways Israel failed him. How about us? Is it all about us and little about Him?
There is much that he would see good in our life as Church today. We do care for the poor, we do act justly and love constantly as the prophet Micah suggests, but do we walk humbly before the Lord? Or perhaps more apropos to this moment are we sitting here, listening indeed but not internalizing the events, which for far too many are merely historical, and not of importance to this moment. He thirsts for you and I and we are unable to satisfy that thirst by simply recalling history. We must make the most of every moment given us in this life to spread and share his love – with joy. The parents who sacrifice for the education of their children give him more than vinegar to quench his thirst. The parish or people who work for justice in our world and community give him more than vinegar to quench his thirst. The couple that despite the occasional challenges of married life together renew their love for each other daily and remain faithful give him more than vinegar. The priest or religious who carry some of the crosses of always being on call to serve God’s people quench his thirst and give him more than vinegar. The teenager who says no to drugs, sex outside of marriage, use of alcohol quench his thirst and give him more than vinegar,
So those words, so seemingly simple, cry out to each of us today to examine our lives and check our response to Christ’s thirst born of his incredible suffering on the cross. They make his passion real once again in our lives. They make us more than bystanders who have gathered to hear once again a good story, reverence a cross, approach the Body of Christ automatically without thinking of the consequences, for Him and for us, of his sacrifice.
If Good Friday is truly to be “good” then we offer him a response to His thirst, which says, “I get it, Jesus.” I am yours and you are mine.