Seven Last Words
Given in the Durham 2nd ward, 2017-04-16
Note: the structure for this talk is a riff of James Martin, SJ's beautiful Seven Last Words: An Invitation to a Deeper Friendship, New York, HarperOne: 2016.
In 1981, the First Presidency announced the future construction of the third temple in Europe, in Stockholm, Sweden. The announcement was met with little resistance, and even with some support from the community. However, in 1985, in the months before the temple's dedication, a vocal opposition movement started to emerge, criticizing the Church for constructing such a secretive building and labeling the Church as a mysterious cult.
Sweden, like England, has an official state religion (Lutheranism). In response to this growing opposition, the Church of Sweden announced a press conference. Krister Stendahl, the bishop of Stockholm and a professor of theology and New Testament studies at Harvard, spoke in an effort to encourage religious harmony. He offered three rules for religious understanding, that anyone seeking to understand other religious sects should follow:
- When you are trying to understand another religion, you should ask the adherents of that religion and not its enemies.
- Don't compare your best to their worst.
- Leave room for "holy envy"—or be willing to recognize parts in the other religious tradition or faith that you admire and that you wish could, in some way, be reflected in your own religious tradition or faith.
When I first learned of these three rules, I was struck most by the third point—holy envy. While I love being a member of the Church and draw incredible spiritual strength from the restored gospel, I am full of holy envy. When I lived in Italy, I would take breaks from knocking on doors to watch mass in ancient cathedrals. When we lived in Egypt, I would take breaks from research and visit and rest in ancient mosques. I happened to be in New Orleans for a conference a couple years ago during Mardi Gras and I braved the post-party chaos to go to Ash Wednesday mass.
One tradition I am most envious of is the Christian liturgy around the Easter season, with Lent, Ash Wednesday, Palm Sunday, Holy Week, Good Friday, and all the other critical holy days, culminating in today's Easter celebration, where we remember the resurrection of the Savior. In our LDS tradition, we celebrate Easter, but it does not generally hold the same sentimental value that Christmas does for us. I mean, when Christmas happens on a Sunday we hold a special sacrament meeting with lots of music and then go home. When Easter happens on a Sunday (that is, every time), we get the full three hours of church. Maybe the bishop should let us all go home after this.
Today, I want to tap into my holy envy for Easter and borrow from an important tradition long used by Christian denominations that follow a liturgical calendar. Sermons and music during Holy Week and Easter will often focus on what are known as the "seven last words" of Christ, or the seven final phrases or sayings uttered by the Savior from the cross, beginning with "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do," and ending with "It is finished."
These sayings are important because of what they teach us about the necessity of Christ's suffering. In our tradition, we tend to focus more on Christ's suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane than on the cross—growing up, I always felt that the crucifixion was a necessary evil that brought us to the resurrection, which is all that really mattered. It is true that Easter Sunday focuses on the resurrection, and we do indeed believe that the crowning achievement of Christ's mortal ministry was the atonement and resurrection—that's the main reason he came to earth.
However, I think there is a lot we can learn from the suffering of Christ on the cross. We can learn more about Christ's life and deepen our Easter experience by looking briefly at each of these seven last words.
But before we get to the actual words, it's important to discuss why it was necessary for Christ to suffer for us. We typically talk about the atonement in two different ways. First, we talk about a judicial or a legal atonement. We believe that there's an eternal law that says that no unclean thing can enter the presence of God. If we sin, we are unclean, and justice demands that we cannot return to God. The atonement takes care of this legal issue—Christ paid for our sins through His suffering and will act as our mediator and advocate, fulfilling the demands of justice, and allowing us to return to God. The atonement here is like balancing scales. We sin, someone has to pay, we can't, so Christ suffered in Gethsemane and on the cross and everything's fixed.
For me, though, this legal version of the atonement feels really abstract and far away. I have no idea what the final judgment will be like, and while I'm grateful that I'll have an advocate and mediator then, it's not something I think about every day.
A more personal and powerful way of looking at the atonement, personally, is as an act of empathy. The atonement goes beyond just fixing legal issues. In Hebrews, we read "For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin." Christ can sympathize and empathize with every difficult thing we face because he suffered all those things.
We know that Jesus experienced the totality of mortal existence…. It’s our faith that he experienced everything—absolutely everything. Sometimes we don’t think through the implications of that belief. We talk in great generalities about the sins of all humankind, about the suffering of the entire human family. But we don’t experience pain in generalities. We experience it individually. That means he knows what it felt like when your mother died of cancer—how it was for your mother, how it still is for you. He knows what it felt like to lose the student body election. He knows that moment when the brakes locked and the car started to skid. He experienced the slave ship sailing from Ghana toward Virginia. He experienced the gas chambers at Dachau. He experienced Napalm in Vietnam. He knows about drug addiction and alcoholism.
This empathy was not something that occurred naturally. Christ had to develop it during his life, line upon line, precept upon precept. "The person [in whose name] we pray, the man we hope to follow, the one who is risen from the dead, understands us—because he lived a human life, and one that, particularly in his final week, was filled with suffering." (Martin 2016, p. 9)
For me, the seven last words show Christ's experiences with some of the most challenging aspects of faith and life. They show the Savior wrestling with and overcoming difficult issues. If we look at these phrases in this light—as critical parts of the empathetic atonement—we can better understand Christ's compassion and love for us.
1. "Father, forgive them; for they no not what they are doing."
The Savior's first phrase from the cross is perhaps his most famous: "Father, forgive them; for they no not what they are doing" (NRSV). In the midst of the horrors of the crucifixion, he came to understand radical, unconditional forgiveness. Imagine how hard it would have been to forgive the people who had just driven nails through your hands and feet. I can't. He had to experience that so that he could empathize with us as we face difficult situations where forgiveness is required.
For example, Jane H. Neyman was an early member of the church who faced immense hardships. After moving to Nauvoo in 1840, her husband died within a few months. She remarried in 1844, but then her second husband died a couple months later, along with four other members of her family. In the midst of all of this, she was not allowed to join the Relief Society—her daughters were accused of immortality and she was consequently barred from participating with her sisters in Nauvoo. She wasn't able to join the RS until it was reorganized in Utah in the following decade.
Despite all this, in an 1869 RS meeting in Beaver, Utah, Neyman taught her sisters about charity and forgiveness. She "encourag[ed] all to be forbearing and forgiving, refraining as much as possible from scrutinizing the conduct of our neighbors, remembering always that we are human and must therefore err" (At the Pulpit, p. 50). She had overcome the earlier unpleasantness in Nauvoo and found joy in forgiveness, recognizing that we all have faults.
Christ too, learned this—only in a much more dramatic and painful way. And because he knows this, he understands when it's difficult for us. He empathized with Jane Neyman. He empathizes with us.
2. "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise."
The Savior directed his second phrase, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise," to one of the thieves hanging on the cross next to his. In the midst of his own suffering, he comforted another suffering man. Christ took the time to understand and empathize with the thief's doubts about the afterlife.
While we are taught the plan of salvation and understand what will happen to us after we die, this, like the legal version of the atonement, is another gospel topic that is so abstract to me that it's not something that I really think about all that often, and when I do, I sometimes have a niggling worry that maybe the afterlife won't be how we are taught. I know that the plan of salvation is a true principle of the gospel, and I find immense comfort knowing that Christ understands this worry and doubt.
3. "Woman, here is your son… Here is your mother."
The Savior follows a similar pattern with his third phrase: "Woman, here is your son… Here is your mother." He notices Mary, his mother, weeping near the cross. He sees her needs as a parent, understands her love for him, and empathized with her pain for him. He makes sure she is taken care of, commanding a beloved disciple to watch over her. He once again served other people in his final moments on the cross
4. "My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?"
In the fourth phrase, the Savior turns his empathy and understanding inward, crying out painfully, "My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?"
Christ intimately understands doubt. He felt abandonment. He felt alone. He felt utter depression. He felt existential spiritual doubt. He felt the pain of a faith crisis. This means that he understands us when we have the same feeling of abandonment, depression, doubt, and crisis.
An excellent modern example of this is Mother Teresa, a Catholic nun who spent her life in the slums of Calcutta serving the poorest of the poor. She became a nun because of powerful spiritual and mystical experiences early in her life. However, early in her service in India, the heavens darkened. She lost all connection to God, writing "I am told God lives in me and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.… Heaven from every side is closed." (The Crucible of Doubt, p. 124). She remained in this spiritual wilderness for the last 50 years of her life, until her death. However, even in the face of her internal torture of pain and doubt, she lived a life of compassion and service.
Whether we, like Mother Teresa, feel completely cut off, or whether we have more benign doubts, we can find comfort in the idea that Christ himself had the heavens darken and withdraw from him.
5. "I thirst"
The Savior's fifth phrase is his shortest: "I thirst." He doesn't just understand doubt and emotional pain, he also understands and experienced physical pain. Jesus was both fully divine and fully human, and we often forget the "fully human" part of him. Here he's not just pretending to be human, going through the motions of crucifixion—he was actually human.
Because of this, he understands our physical sufferings. He can empathize with our pain.
6. "It is finished" and 7. "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit."
The Savior's final two phrases, "It is finished" and "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit" teach us that he understands sacrifice and consecration. He gave himself—both body and spirit—to God. This is hard.
In 2013, Sister Neill F. Marriott lamented:
I have struggled to banish the mortal desire to have things my way, eventually realizing that my way is oh so lacking, limited, and inferior to the way of Jesus Christ. “His way is the path that leads to happiness in this life and eternal life in the world to come.” Can we love Jesus Christ and His way more than we love ourselves and our own agenda?
When we offer our broken heart to Jesus Christ, He accepts our offering. He takes us back. No matter what losses, wounds, and rejection we have suffered, His grace and healing are mightier than all. Truly yoked to the Savior, we can say with confidence, “It will all work out.”
We make plans and hope they work out. We try to be as in-control as possible. But unexpected things always come up. Plans change, dreams are postponed, and life is chaotic. We have to have faith that things will work out. This is hard! Christ understands this because he, too, had to suffer disappointment and pain and ultimately give himself up.
In conclusion, the actual suffering of Christ is not something that we generally focus on during Easter. The resurrection is important—it is critical to the plan of salvation. But I feel holy envy for Christian traditions that do examine the suffering. I feel that there's value in looking at the suffering. It helps us better understand the empathetic version of the atonement. Christ suffered so that he can sympathize and empathize with us, and the ordeal of the crucifixion gives us a powerful window into that process of building empathy.
I personally am grateful for Christ's sufferings and for his eternal "grace that so fully he profers me."
Testimony and done.