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'It is finished' (John 19:30)

Friday, April 15, 2011

The last words spoken by the dying Christ in St. John's Gospel are simply: tetelestai, or in Latin, consummatum est. 'It is finished' or 'it is fulfilled'. Did Jesus mutter these words on the cross as his life slipped away in a tone of resigned defeat? Or were they regretfully sighed like one obliged to undertake a painful but necessary task? Did Jesus utter 'it is finished' in exhausted relief that he had endured to the end? Or was it instead a defiant cry of victory?

How we understand this last word, then, seems to depend on how it was said. John's passion narrative is at great pains to emphasise that Jesus was in control of the events that led to his death, that he was in control throughout his trial, torture and execution. In the Garden, 'knowing everything that was to happen to Him' (John 18: 4), Jesus steps forward to meet the cohort sent to arrest Him and takes the initiative. From this point onwards Jesus is humiliated, tortured and ultimately executed. Yet St. John is careful to emphasise that this suffering was chosen, not because suffering is good in itself, but out of obedience to the will of the Father. In other words, Jesus chose the cross with a goal in view, the cross was a means to an end.

It seems to me to be quite important that the cross came to an end, both in the sense that the suffering lasted for a finite time and in the sense that the cross had a point, it had a meaning. One of the great tragedies of our fallen world is that so much human suffering can seem pointless, meaningless, absurd. When we contemplate the cross, we see human nature tortured by its own sin, humanity nailed by sin to the tree. Yet we also hear the God who has taken on our human nature tell us from the cross: 'it is finished'. These are not words of despair but hope. If we join our sufferings to the cross of Christ, if we die with him, then we shall also live with him. The cross is not the last word. Our true end, our true human destiny, is the vision of God in heaven.

Nicholas Crowe OP


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