18 April 2014

John Mason Neale: Seven Last Words


Good Friday and Holy Saturday Rumination:
The Seven Last Words of Christ

 “Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” 

 “I thirst.” 

 “Woman behold thy son; son behold thy mother.” 

 “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me.” 

 “Amen I say to you today, you will be with me in Paradise.” 

 “Father into your hands I commend my spirit.” 

 “It is finished.


The Reverend John Mason Neale

We have all known what it is to stand by the bed of a dying friend. How, when all is over, we treasure up his last words: we think of his last looks, we try, so far as we can, to imagine what were his last thoughts.
Well, and all is over now. All was over when, as at three o'clock on this most holy afternoon, He bowed His Head, and gave up the ghost. I thought, as the few last short strokes of the church bell were chiming that hour out, how those holy women must have felt, when they plainly saw that the end was drawing nigh; when they beheld that greyness come over our Lord's Face, which none, who have ever seen, can mistake again; when they heard those words, "It is finished,"— and again,—" Father, into Thy Hands I commend My spirit;" when they found that the blood ceased to flow; when the lips that spake as never man spake, were white and pale; when the eyes that had looked Peter into repentance were glazed in death. I cannot tell —none of us for one moment can fancy that desolation. None of us can tell what was that agony of the Blessed Virgin Mary; whom holy men have not feared to call the greatest of all Martyrs. We know what it is to see some one whom we dearly love suffer, and to be unable to help him. What then for her? who so loved as no woman ever loved before or since: who could not help Him in that tremendous battle with the Devil: who could only stand by and believe, while others, the dearest followers of our Lord, trembled and doubted.
Well:—and when the disciples came back on this evening, and gathered together—it might be at the house of the mother of Mark, for that was nearest to the hill of Calvary— what must they have thought or said? First, how many were there? Judas had hanged himself. S. Peter having denied his Lord, dared not to mix with the brethren. S. James had bound himself by a great oath neither to eat, nor drink, nor to associate with others, till he should see the Lord again. But the nine that remained, how must they have spent the last hours of the First Good Friday?
And when they came to reckon, they must have remembered, that our Lord had spoken seven times on the Cross.
"Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do." That first word, Father, shows that the whole petition would be heard. "I was content to do Thy will: 'though I were a Son, yet learned I obedience by the things which I suffered.' 'I gave My back to the smiters, and My cheeks to them that plucked off the hair,'—and all,—' That I might do Thy will, O God.' Father, forgive them." And how might that prayer be offered now? At this very time that I am speaking to you—at this very time that hundreds of thousands of God's people throughout the world are fasting, and weeping, and mourning—one of the largest pleasure gardens in London is opened for the first time this year. No doubt it is crowded with those who seek such sort of pleasure. No doubt the pleasures of sin for a season are sweet; but for them the Lord's prayer may still be, "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do." They little think that, while they are rejoicing in the delight which such a place offers—the foolish talkings, the jestings, which are not convenient—the Son of God a few hours since suffered—the Son of God an hour ago died—the Son of God at this time was buried. Who has taught them better ?" Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do."
But can that be said of you? You know, in your heart, it cannot. You know that to the best of my power—however unworthy, however much a sinner—I have warned you of this day. Our Lord may say, "Father, forgive them;" but He cannot say, "for they know not what they do." This last fortnight I have every day set before you life and death —a blessing and a curse: I have led all your thoughts to this day as the one day; as the great day; as the day that some one of you at least will never see more. If you now choose to sin it is with the knowledge of what you do. Sin if you will. Take the punishment if you must; but you never can say, "Father, forgive me; for I knew not what I did."
And if that speech be full of dread, how shall not the next be full of all comfort? "And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss. And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when Thou contest into Thy kingdom." Think what faith that was. He knew all the evil he had done; he knew all the good he had not done, and might have done; and yet,  "Lord, remember me." I know that of all faith that ever was, the Blessed Virgin's was the greatest. I put her, as the saying is, out of the question. But next to her, this faith of the thief's exceeded all others. In its first three words we learn this: "Lord, remember me." That malefactor a Lord? a King? one that had a Kingdom and a Court? Well; and if it were so: then, "remember me—me, a most miserable sinner—me, the wicked scoffer justly here, in whose company Thou vouchsafest to be crucified." And with the entreaty, there is also a doubt: "When Thou comest. Thou wilt come some time or other—it may be years or centuries hence— but, when Thou comest." And our Lord, the Good Shepherd, Who gathers in all the dispersed sheep—the kind Master, Who rewards the unworthy servant—answers, " Verily I say unto thee"—truly the message was so wonderful that it needed such a beginning—" Verily, I say unto thee, To-day shalt thou be with Me in Paradise."
That 63rd Psalm might be called the Psalm of the Penitent Thief. "O God, Thou art my God." Thou art the reproach and ridicule of them that stand about us, but "My Lord and my God." "My flesh also longeth after Thee in a Darren and dry land;" on the wood of the Cross; in all the misery and fever and agony of my wounds; my soul thirsteth for Thee—not after any earthly refreshment. "As long as I live:" whoever may threaten, whoever may revile, however few hours I may live—" I will magnify Thee on this manner." And again. "Have I not remembered Thee in my bed,"—that hard deathbed of the Cross? And once more: "The King shall rejoice in God." Jesus of Nazareth the King of the Jews. He shall rejoice indeed when He sees all the company of the Elect gathered unto Him: the last Saint, the last penitent brought into the Kingdom of Heaven.
And then again. "Woman, behold thy son;" and, " Behold thy Mother." And here He consecrates earthly love to Himself. We are not to think that He who said, " What could have been done more to My vineyard that I have not done in it?" would pass by that. And mark you, He consecrates both ties; that of relationship, in speaking of the Blessed Mother; that of friendship, in speaking of S. John. We can love no one, we can feel for no one, we can grieve for no one, without being thus far like our Lord. Like our Lord? Yes: and like Him at the moment of His greatest agony.
And then next, that most awful saying of all, "My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?" We cannot tell what that means. We cannot tell how He That was from the beginning with the Father, That was His Delight, That was the Only-Begotten Son; how He could now be forsaken of Him; how He could thus utter this cry. But this we may learn: when we feel forsaken, when we feel alone, that then perhaps we may be nearest of all to Christ. This was the mid-most of His sayings: three went before, and three came after: and not only so; it was the only one which was spoken in an unknown language. Was this the reason? All may understand why we have to bear affliction. All may see that pain, sorrow, loss, come from God. But to feel that we are left by God, to feel that we have to face the world alone, that is a sorrow beyond all earthly sorrow. Why, consider it for yourselves. If there be any earthly friend on whose sympathy you have reckoned, and he fails you; if you had trusted on him, and he shrinks from you; can there be a bitterer grief? Yes, there may; but only one: when He that is the source of love, the source of friendship, seems to withdraw from us; seems to leave us to ourselves ; seems to make us say, "Then I said, I have laboured in vain, and have spent my strength in vain."
And next, His disciples would have remembered that He said, "I thirst." What! He endured the scourge, the crown of thorns, the nails, the Cross, and said nothing! Yes: and now He thirsts. He speaks this both as God and Man. He speaks it as man, feeling that dreadful thirst which all wounds give; so that after a battle, the cry among the wounded is, "Water! Water!" Yet He speaks as God too. He lately said, "If it be possible, let this cup pass from Me." Now He says, "I thirst." Bitter as that cup was, now He longs for it: terrible as His Passion was, now He rejoices to wear His crown, that the Scripture might be fulfilled I Truly so. All the sayings of all the Prophets are bound up in this—all depend on that speech—" With desire I have desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer." If His desire had not been such, who would thus have borne the burden and heat of the day? If His thirst had not been such, we, like the rich man, might have thirsted for one drop of water to cool our tongues, and might not have found it.
And now—" It is finished."
What is that It? And who shall tell? The wrath of God, the promises of God, the pains and agonies of the Passion, all fear of death, all enmity to heaven, all that we could hope, all that we could fear. No need now to shrink back from death, which He has made the entrance into life. No need now to be afraid of pain, which He has made the porch of glory. Hope what you will, pray what you will, your hopes will be exceeded; your prayer will be surpassed—"It is finished."
And then, the great lesson of this Lent. "Father, into Thy hands I commend My spirit." So must we. Now and at all times. Every morning and every evening. But at this Passion time more especially.
For think. This word seals up the whole of our Lord's sufferings. With that speech He enters on His rest. The hours of this Lent, well spent or ill as they may have been, have given in their account to the throne of God. What we have done in it, what we have tried to do in it, He alone knows Who searches all hearts.
We have yet a day of rest for those who have laboured.
We have forty days of triumph for those who have conquered.
Have we laboured?
Have we conquered?
You must answer for yourselves.
For me, I say—and I advise you to say also (it is the same prayer we said this morning) —" God, be merciful to me a sinner !' Lord, remember me when Thou comest into Thy kingdom!'"
Now to God, the Father, the Son, and the Holt Ghost, be all honour and glory for ever. Amen.