Popular Lenten devotions have often used the last words of Jesus from the cross as a way of inculcating a deeper awareness of what took place at Calvary. These reflections on the ’seven last words’ take the gospel accounts of Christ’s passion as their point of departure and encourage an active use of the imagination to envision Jesus’ death before our eyes. The goal is to enable us to place ourselves ’in the scene’ so that the final words of the word-made-flesh might have their full impact.
The great value of this devotional exercise did not escape the notice of St Alphonsus, who always gave centre stage in his writings to the Passion and death of the Lord. He sees the seven last words as an especially helpful way of gaining access to the story of the crucified Lord. In 1773, he published a work entitled Considerations on the Passion of Jesus Christ. where he devoted an entire chapter to the topic. A look at his treatment of Jesus’ final words reveals a deep sensitivity to the spirituality of the Passion, one that invites us to share in a more intimate relationship with the suffering Saviour and the cross from which he hangs.
THE FIRST WORD:
“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34)
For Alphonsus, Jesus’ first word from the cross reveals his loving tenderness. He establishes this claim by citing several commentators on Jesus’ prayer to the Father. For example, St Augustine remarks that, when praying in this way, Jesus was thinking not of the injuries that his enemies were inflicting upon him, but of the love that led him to shed his blood for them. St Bernard says that Jesus does not forgive his enemies himself, but asks his Father to do so in order that we might learn to pray for those who persecute us. According to Alphonsus, Jesus includes all sinners in these words. He notes, however, that Jesus’ prayer is conditional, since those who resist the Holy Spirit ultimately close their hearts to God. He concludes his meditation with a heartfelt prayer to the Father to hear Jesus’ request for mercy and for the grace of true repentance. He ends his reflection with a prayer of thanksgiving for the great love for humanity that led Jesus to find and save what was lost.
THE SECOND WORD:
“This day you will be with me in paradise.” (Lk 23:43)
Jesus addresses his second word from the cross to the repentant thief. To explain this passage, Alphonsus cites some more commentators. Arnold of Chartres, for example, speaks of the virtues exercised by this thief at the time of his death: “He believed, he repented, he confessed, he preached, he loved, he trusted, he prayed.” St Augustine says the thief did not have the courage to ask for pardon before his confession. Only after his confession of guilt, was he able to cast off the burden of his sins and say, “Remember me in your kingdom.” Alphonsus himself addresses the thief, telling him that he is fortunate to have been able to unite his death to the death of his Saviour. He then turns to the Lord in prayer and invites us to ask for the grace to do the same.
THE THIRD WORD:
Woman, behold your son…Behold your mother” (Jn 19:26-27)
Jesus addresses his third word from the cross to his mother and to the beloved disciple. With regard to Mary’s pain at the moment of Jesus’ death. Alphonsus says that it exceeded all the pains a human heart could endure. According to St Augustine, it was through her grief that she became the spiritual mother of all believers. St Bernard remarks that Mary was silent at this time because her great pain took away her power of speech. Alphonsus points out that, while looking upon her in her silent agony, Jesus entrusts the care of his mother to his beloved disciple, who from that moment treats her as his own mother. By referring to John as “the beloved disciple”, Jesus wants us to understand that Mary is the mother of all believers. Alphonsus concludes his reflection by asking us to join him in turning to Mary in heartfelt prayer. We should ask Mary to intercede for us so that we might obtain the graces of confidence in God’s love and holy perseverance. Such prayer encourages us to commend our souls to her care and to that of her Son.
THE FOURTH WORD:
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt 27:46)
Jesus addresses his fourth word from the cross to God. How could divinity abandon divinity? For Alphonsus, Jesus was not stripped of his divine glory, but only of that sensible relief that God gives his servants in times of suffering. He tells us that we can understand the Father’s action only in the light of Jesus’ free decision to take the sins of the world upon himself. Alphonsus invites us to unite our own experiences of desolation to what Jesus experienced in his death. He reminds us that Jesus sometimes hides himself from the souls he loves most, but always provides them with strong interior help. In the concluding meditation, Alphonsus invites us to ask Jesus to bless our souls with grace at times of need, especially at the hour of death.
THE FIFTH WORD:
“I thirst.”(]n 19:28)
Jesus’ fifth word from the cross concerns his experience of thirst, which was both bodily and spiritual. The Gospels tell us that his bodily thirst came from his loss of blood in the garden, from his scourging and crowing with thorns in the hall of judgment, and finally from hanging on the cross. To explain Jesus’ spiritual thirst, Alphonsus cites two authorities. According to Blosius, it sprang from Jesus’ ardent desire to save humanity and to suffer still more in order to show his deep love for us. St Laurence Justinian, in turn, affirms this insight by stating that Jesus’ thirst came from “the fount of love”. Alphonsus concludes his reflection on Jesus’ bodily and spiritual thirst with yet another heartfelt prayer: “O my Jesus! You have thus desired to suffer for me; and I, when my sufferings at all increase, become so impatient that I am insupportable both to others and to myself.” He ends by inviting us to ask Jesus for help to be patient and resigned in the sicknesses and crosses that come our way.
THE SIXTH WORD:
“It is consummated.” (Jn 19:30)
Jesus’ sixth word from the cross is one of fulfilment. Before Jesus breathed his last, Alphonsus says that all the sacrifices of the old law. all the prayers of the patriarchs, all the prophecies regarding his life and death, and all the injuries he was predicted to suffer passed before his eyes. Seeing all of these prophecies fulfilled enabled him to utter the now famous words: “It is consummated.” Alphonsus goes on to say that when we ourselves feel disturbed and moved to lose our patience through inward passions, or temptations, or persecution, we should turn our eyes to Jesus, who poured out all of his blood for our salvation. We will overcome our difficulties only by turning our eyes to our crucified Lord. The pains of the Lord Jesus should be ever before our eyes and should inspire us to join our sufferings to his. Alphonsus ends with a heartfelt prayer to Jesus for the grace to serve and love him, and with a prayer to Mary for help to always be faithful to her Son.
THE SEVENTH WORD:
“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” (Lk 23:46)
Jesus’ last words from the cross are a prayer to his Father in heaven. According to Alphonsus, the final words of Jesus on the cross should bring great comfort to us at the moment of death. In all things. Jesus our Saviour has gone before us and prepared a way for us. Because of his passion and death, we need not be afraid of anything, not even death itself. Alphonsus concludes his treatment of Jesus’ last words with a prayer to Jesus the Redeemer. He invites us to commend our souls to Jesus and asks for the help never to turn away from him. Jesus has given himself wholly to us; we must do the same. He ends with an affirmation of his love for Jesus and asks Mary, his mother, for the grace to live and die faithful to her Son.
In his Introduction to the Considerations, Alphonsus cites a number of saints and blesseds who speak at great length about the “book of the cross”. He is well aware that heartfelt meditation on the Passion and death of Jesus can teach us things not found in ordinary books. He sees the seven last words as an especially helpful way of gaining access to the story of the crucified Lord. Spoken by Jesus in his dying moments, these words sprang from his heart and were ultimately meant to find a place in our own. Although they were spoken in a particular place and time, they have achieved universal significance and are to be numbered among the most sacred words ever uttered. Alphonsus’ commentary on these words attempts to bridge the distance between Jesus’ heart and our own. Although it appears on the printed page and is sequestered away in a larger commentary on Jesus’ passion and death, it represents a determined effort on the Alphonsus’ part to venerate Jesus’ final words and to ensure that they find their rightful place in the inner sanctum of our hearts.
By Dennis j. Billy C.Ss.R.
Note: This article is an abridged form of ’Alphonsus on the Seven Last Words’, Spiritus Patris 29/1(2003); 12-16, a journal of the American Redemptorists.
Fr Dennis Billy CSsR is a Redemptorist of the Baltimore Province. Former professor of the history of moral theology and Christian spirituality at the Alphonsian Academy in Rome, he has written extensively on Redemptorist spirituality.
courtesy of Redemptorist Publications Ireland / Reality, April 2020