The following reflection offered on this Good Friday is taken from chapter six of my new book, The Last Words of Jesus: A Meditation on Love and Suffering (2013).
When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. (John 19:30)
There is a fine line between beginnings and endings. With one the other inevitably follows. There’s a reason that college graduations are called commencements: what at the same time marks the completion of several years of study also marks a new beginning, a new chapter in the life of the graduate. Central to the Christian message of the cross – the very reason that followers of Jesus hang these signs of death penalty and torture on walls and places of worship over the centuries – is that in earthly death one doesn’t find just an end, but one finds also a beginning. It is, as the Franciscan tradition refers to the anniversary of the death of St. Francis of Assisi, a Transitus – from the Latin word indicating a passing over from this life into the next.
What has, in a sense, finished has also just begun.
Curiously, the meaning of the Greek word used in the Gospels that captures what Jesus cried out from the Cross is not as clear-cut as we might at first think. Which, I’m sure, is no accident. Reflecting this fine line between beginnings and endings, what is generally translated into English as “it is finished,” might better be translated as “it is fulfilled.” The word “finished” has such a terminal sound to it. While some scripture scholars believe that tetelestai, the Greek word the author of John’s Gospel uses, is more triumphant than it is evocative of surrender. Francis Moloney explains: “Climaxing these [earlier scriptural] indications of fulfillment, Jesus cries out ‘tetelestai’ (v. 30a), an exclamation of achievement, almost of triumph. The task given to him by the Father (cf. [John] 4:34; 5:36; 17:4) has not been consummately brought to a conclusion.” The exclamation isn’t something from which one needs to shy as much as it is an embrace of all that has come before, yet points toward the future where we are now to go. It is a climactic exclamation – it is fulfilled! – just like college graduation, but it is also the announcement of what is also beginning.
No one understood this better than St. Francis. His biographer, Thomas of Celano, tells us that while Francis was very sick and near the end of his life, he spoke to his fellow brothers about how they were to look at this point in the Saint’s life and in their lives.
He used to say: “Let us begin, brothers, to serve the Lord God, for up until now we have done little or nothing.” He did not consider that he had already attained his goal, but tireless in pursuit of holy newness, he constantly hoped to begin again.
He wanted to return to serving lepers and to be held in contempt, just as he used to be. He intended to flee human company and go off to the most remote places, so that, letting go of every care and putting aside anxiety about others, for the time being only the wall of the flesh would stand between him and God.
As Francis came to the end of this earthly journey, he echoes the words “It is finished” proclaimed by Christ on the cross. His words are not helpless, regretful, or empty in their recognition of one chapter in the pilgrimage of life. Instead, he expresses – perhaps in a way more fully than Jesus’s simple “It is finished” – that, while the other friars and sisters were crying about the imminent loss of their leader in religious life, Francis wanted to remind them of what it means to announce a commencement, a completion, a fulfillment, and a beginning: It is not a time of sorrow or loss, but a time to refresh and renew one’s commitment to the Gospel, to live as one in the Kingdom, and to continue to serve the Lord with redoubled intent.
In this way, Francis’s mirrored expression of those from the cross – “let us begin, brothers, to serve the Lord God, for up until now we have done little or nothing” – is an invitation to make Christ’s words – “It is finished” – our own over and over again in life. There is a sense in which the call to serve the Lord found in Francis’s deathbed announcement is a commentary or explanation of what Jesus might have meant in his own cry from the Cross, for to proclaim that “it is fulfilled” in a Christian context is to necessarily assert, “thy will be done.” Is it no wonder then that Francis, as he lay dying, asked that the reading from the Gospel of John at the Last Supper be read to him?
At his own Transitus from this life to the next, Francis sought to recall what it was that he committed himself to so many years earlier. “To live according the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.” That life was one of service in solidarity. That service in solidarity is demonstrated on the eve of the Lord’s own death, while at table with those he loved. The reading Francis begged to hear is this:
Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and me head!” Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.” After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord – and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example that you also should do as I have done to you.“ (John 13:1-15)
After the reading was completed, Francis “told them to cover him with sackcloth and to sprinkle him with ashes, as he was soon to become dust and ashes.” The last words Francis heard came to form a summary of the saint’s entire life: service and solidarity. Francis wasn’t just one who served others, but lived with and for them in a way that reflected the relationship Jesus demonstrated with all people. This is how Francis understood the Vita Evangelica, the life of the Gospel, and this is how he wished those who were to come after him would live. Francis lived his life as if every day was a proclamation of “It is finished, it is fulfilled.” He strove to obey the words of Jesus as after the Lord washed the feet of his followers and said, “For I have set you an example that you also should do as I have done to you.” Francis then left those who were following him to do likewise.
It can be difficult to tell the difference between beginnings and endings. Perhaps one of the strongest lessons in Jesus’s words from the Cross, those words lived in the life of St. Francis, is that we must not be as concerned about our time as we are about God’s time. In God’s time beginnings and endings are one in the same, because God’s time is not so much a matter of minutes, hours, and days as it is about a way of living in the world. The way we mark the passage of our life is not the same way that God marks our time. It is when washing the feet of others, the giving of ourselves for the sake of our brothers and sisters, that we live according to God’s time.
The time of the world is a time that sees the crucifixion of an accused criminal on a Roman Cross as an end. The time of the world is a time that sees a blind, poor man dying naked in medieval Italy as an end. Yet, the time of God is a time that sees in all things the potential for a new beginning, a reminder that life is more than an economy of checks and minuses, of winning and losing. God’s time is a time of fulfillment that makes little sense to the world, for what is logical is replaced by what is Kingdom-oriented and, as St. Paul reminds us, this way of thinking appears as foolishness and remains a stumbling block to the worldly (1 Corinthians 1:18-31).
People like Jesus of Nazareth and Francis of Assisi were fools for God, abiding in time that was not limited by the priorities of popular culture and society. To be a disciple today, to live up to the claim that you or I are willfully following the one who cried “It is finished” from the Cross, means to risk being foolish in the eyes of the world to be wise, loving, and renewed in the eyes of God. It means living in a time that prioritizes relationship and second chances, of starting over again to serve the least among us, of valuing what it is that God values.
But do you have the time?
God of all time, You call us out of the ordinariness of our everyday lives to see the world anew in your time. Help us to respond to your call to see in all things: both a completion and a new beginning; both an end and a renewed start; both sadness and joy. While our time marks your death on a cross as an end, Your time marks the Transitus from one life to the next. Enflame in our hearts a desire to see in life and death the Transitus and transformation your life, death and resurrection has brought forth in the world. Your time is a time of fulfillment that makes little sense to the world, for what is logical is replaced by what is Kingdom-oriented, and this way of thinking appears as foolishness to the worldly. Help us to live as your fools, willing to announce your Kingdom. Give us the strength to keep your time, where relationships take priority and we start over again and again to serve the least among us. AMEN.
For more reflections on the last words of Christ on the Cross, consider reading: The Last Words of Jesus: A Meditation on Love and Suffering (2013), from which this excerpt was taken.