As our Lord Jesus Christ hung on the cross, he uttered seven last sayings or phrases. What were they and how can they help us as we contemplate Jesus’ passion and death? Fleur Dorrell explores a painting by the artist Robert Wright on these sayings and what they might mean for us today.
The Seven Last Sayings of Jesus
As our Lord Jesus Christ hung on the cross, he uttered seven last sayings or phrases. These sayings are powerfully evocative to anyone contemplating Jesus’ passion and death. They continue to inspire many homilies and reflections from a tradition begun in the 17th century by a Jesuit priest in Peru. He developed a service of meditations for Good Friday based on the last words of Jesus, and the devotion spread around the world. Jesus’ last words, as recorded in the Gospels, became part of the Church’s Lenten tradition. They have also inspired many musical compositions and settings, notably by Haydn, Gounod, Franck and MacMillan.
The way that Jesus’ sufferings helped him to understand us, is reflected on by the Church, particularly during this season. The person to whom we pray, the man we choose to follow, the one who is risen from the dead, understands us not only because he lived a human life, but one that, in his final week, was filled with pain and suffering. His deepest hope was to bring about the conversion of Israel, that the reign of God might become real on earth. In his pain and suffering, in the face of a barbaric death, Jesus’ seven last words today give us strength and grace throughout our own lives. His unconditional love, entirely given to save us, is one of the most profound mysteries of our faith.
The Seven Last Sayings:
1. Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing. Luke 23:34
Forgiveness – Jesus forgives the Roman soldiers who crucified him and those involved in his death.
2. Today, you will be with me in paradise. Luke 23:43
Salvation – Jesus was crucified between two thieves, traditionally named as Dismas and Gestas, one supports Jesus’ innocence and asks him to remember him when he comes into his kingdom.
3. Behold your son: behold your mother. John 19: 26-27
Relationship – Jesus entrusts Mary, his mother, into the care of “the disciple whom he loved.”
4. My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34; Psalm 22
Abandonment – As death approaches Jesus experiences utter dereliction from God and his closest disciples.
5. I thirst. John 19: 28 (cf. John 4: 4-26); Psalm 22:15; Psalm 69:21
Distress – Jesus is given a drink of sour wine symbolising the need for the Scriptures to be fulfilled. John sees Jesus, the anointed Messiah, as perfecting the example of the first anointed King, David, who was also persecuted by his enemies for his service to God.
6. It is finished. John 19: 30
Triumph – Jesus’ earthly life is over, and his death opens even the darkest of places to the reconciling love of God.
7. Father, into your hands I commend my spirit. Luke 23: 46; Psalm 31:5
Reunion – Jesus begins to join his Father in heaven as he journeys from death to resurrection. In the midst of agony, degradation, and what must have seemed like failure, Jesus still trusts in God’s will.
A person’s final words said prior to their death or as death approaches are generally taken to have particular significance. The lack of sayings recorded in the biblical accounts suggests that Jesus remained relatively silent for the hours he hung on the cross but that what he did say had a resonance beyond the words themselves
In the Bible, seven is the number of perfection, and the seven last words can be seen as the completion of the seven days of the circle of Creation.
This Lent, by journeying with these seven last sayings and contemplating the depth of their meaning in front of Robert Wright’s painting, may we come to love Christ more deeply, and through him, ourselves and all those we meet.
Meditation on the Painting of the Seven Last Words.
This abstract interpretation of the final words of Jesus before he died on the cross was painted in 2004 by the English priest painter, Robert Wright.
As we reflect on this visual perception of a key moment in Christ’s life, are we quiet onlookers or passive disciples? Can we accompany Christ in his last hours, be alongside him in his agony? Do we want to turn from, or towards, this canvas where geometry collides with space and colour in a painter’s puzzle?
It seems that observation is not enough; we can’t just look at this enigma, or read the Bible texts supporting it, or see this painting without any afterthought – we have to embrace its difference.
In this painting we see seven shapes – is this a coincidence that echoes the seven last words or is it intentional? Notice that there are two components not touching, but all the rest of the shapes are connected. The centre piece is the fulcrum in red and black, the place of suspension where Christ hangs in time and space awaiting the darkness of death. Here is the presence of life contained and constrained by gravity. Jesus is rooted a little longer yet, but while mortals sleep – he will transcend this earth.
Do you see the overlapping borders and edges as they compete for vulnerability of exposure? Perhaps this is the exposure of our souls in front of God. Do we dare kneel down or turn away?
When we think about Holy Saturday – it is as a space beyond the Cross, betwixt and between, the world suspended between life and death. One seemingly empty day which changes everything. The empty space in our painting might remind us of the space we need to make beyond Lent if we are to mature in our faith. Can we make that space to sit with God as a regular habit in our spiritual life in ordinary time?
This painting highlights an instinct clear in the lives of all contemplatives. The magnificent otherness of Creation is only ever mediated to us through created things. We glimpse the transcendent both here and now and yet still in the future. This paradox accompanies our eyes, our minds and hearts as we experience the Word that is beyond words through these visual hints at the Divine.
So let us follow the artist’s hand as we walk our faith around this painting. May our openness to the artist’s intentions open us to the Spirit prompting us, evoking memory, awaking echoes, stimulating links and connections with our own experiences.
A mystery to be entered in silence before being able to articulate it in words. In this silence before God, we are more free to encounter the Divine and to make sense of our own meanings that are often buried deep within. While God calls to us, seeks us out very gently, he never imposes; the invitation is always with love. Can we respond? What is the cost? To whom? We can’t save ourselves but while living in holy tension isn’t easy, the Holy Spirit allows us to create something new out of this tension. And it’s ongoing, we can keep at it. It is both the fruit of living through the experience of contemplation and discernment while being engaged with the world and with the power of grace. And God’s grace is already at work. How it dwells within us and can change us depends on our trust in the divine mercy. Thankfully we aren’t loved for being good but rather we are good being first loved.
In this painting, all these elements can be opened up. We can encounter a ‘mystical moment’ in the single event of the Cross that both confronts and confirms our faith. If as we “see” this painting we can arrive at “Holy equanimity”, letting God be God and opening ourselves to disturbance, to change and relinquishing the last word, then the resurrection of Jesus will be transforming us and the world once more.
Questions for Reflection
Spend a few moments stilling your thoughts and body by gently praying for openness to God at this time.
When you are ready, begin looking at the painting.
Prayers for the Season of Lent and Easter.
It was out of love that God gave us his only Son;
It was out of love that Christ laid down his life for us;
It was out of love that Christ called us to him;
It was out of love that Jesus came quietly from the tomb.
Jesus is this love.
May your loving power that shatters tombs
shatter any doubt in me.
My heart burns within me as the scriptures are fulfilled
and your blessings are revealed.
You are rising in my heart;
your grace is all I need.
Fleur Dorrell is Catholic Scripture Engagement Manager for the Catholic Bishops’ Conference and Bible Society. She is the national Co-ordinator of the God who Speaks initiative.