Friday, April 18, 2014

"It is Finished" and Other Famous Last Words

The Importance of Last Words

It's understandable that we humans place importance upon a person's last words. It's the final time they communicate something to us, and we hope some deep meaning may reside in such a terminal statement to the universe--something that might make sense of it all.

Jesus' Last Words in the Gospel of John "It is Finished" (actually just one word in Greek), are truly the most "Perfect" ever uttered. And the quote marks matter here. I'll explain in this post.

Jesus' Last Words from the Cross differ between the Gospel versions.

In Matthew 27:46, he cries out, "Eli, Eli, lima sabachthani (ηλι ηλι λιμα σαβαχθανι) which is translated, "My God, my God, why have you foresaken me?

In Mark15:34, Jesus says the same, however Mark gives us a purer Aramaic version of the utterance, "Eloi, Eloi, lima sabachtani" (ελωι ελωι λιμα σαβαχθανι). (Matthew's version replaces the "My God" element with the Hebrew equivalent.)

Luke paints a different picture. He has Jesus cry out, just before death, "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit." St. Luke was certainly aware of at least Mark's Gospel and perhaps he wanted to present Jesus at peace with his sacrifice, in contrast to the apparent despair that Matthew and Mark had depicted.

"It is Finished" - The "Perfect" Last Words

John's Gospel differs from the Synoptics in so many ways. And Jesus' Last Words are no exception. But unlike the other Gospels, Jesus' final statement is pregnant with a deeper meaning which the Evangelist establishes long before Our Lord ascends that Cross. 

In John 19:30, Jesus said, "It is Finished (τετελεσται/tetelestai). And bowing his head, he handed over the spirit.

But to understand what John really conveys here, we need to look at other places in his Gospel and Epistles where he uses forms of the root from which "It is Finished (τετελεσται/tetelestai)" derive.

John begins his own Passion Narrative with the following summary:

"Before the Feast of Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to pass from this world to the Father. He loved his own in the world and he loved them to the end (John 13:1)"

The phrase "to the end" in Greek is "εις τελος/eis telos." It's the same root from which "It is Finished" is derived.

But the key to understanding Jesus's Last Words in John is the fact that this root conveys not just completion, but perfection. In other words, he loved us to perfection.

In John's Gospel and Epistles what is "perfected" is love.

Our Lord taught us about the crucial centrality of love when he said:

"A New Commandment I give to you, that you love one another (αγαπατε αλληλους/agapate allelous), even as I have loved you, that you also love one another." (John 13:34).

 And John reminds us that it is love that must be perfected when he writes in 1 John 4:12:

"If we love one another, God abides in us, and His love is perfected in us (η αγαπη αυτου τετελειωμενη εστιν εν ημιν/e agape autou teteleiomene estin en emin).

John further writes in his first epistle:

"There is no fear in love; but perfect love (η τελεια αγαπη/e teleia agape) casts out fear ... and the one who fears is not perfected in love (τετελειωται εν τη αγαπη/teteleiotai en te agape)." (1 John 4:18)

Understanding the connection between this root and love even tells us how Jesus intends the Church to stay united. For he prays in John 17:23 that the Church may be "perfected into unity" (τετελειωμενοι εις εν/teteleiomenoi eis en).

Indeed, all our sad divisions would soon cease if we would truly practice the same self-sacrificial love for one another that he commanded us. We would let go of those differences that should not divide us. And we would repent of those differences that should.

Our Lord died for us while we were yet sinners. (Romans 5:8)

And so, when he spoke those Last Words from the Cross, "τετελεσται/tetelestai," he was not saying, "It (My Life) is finished."

What he actually was saying was, "It (My Love) is Perfected."

Famous Last Words and Man's Search for Meaning

History has carefully preserved several examples of "Famous Last Words."

Perhaps the most notable of all is Julius Caesar's "Et Tu, Brute?" spoken not actually in Latin at all!

Caesar Augustus faced his final destination with the words:

"Acta est Fabula! Plaudite!" - "The Play is Over! Applaud!"

Perhaps he felt in his final moments that his life had been a show, indeed, a sham.

Nero, who styled himself an artist, uttered his last words lamenting the loss the universe endured:

"Qualis artifex pereo" - "What an Artist I am, who Perish!"

And in the end, no one's last words can truly satisfy that ultimate human hope that somehow this all matters. Nothing indeed will satisfy it, save for the Resurrection of Our Lord.

Jesus' Actual Last Words

 Death has not had the Last Word. He is Risen! 

We who cling to the Christian hope profess that, in the end, Jesus' so-called Last Words were nothing of the sort. He is Risen! And after his so-called Last Words, come others! 

Matthew 28:19-20: "Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age."

Jesus still speaks today. He speaks through the Church he founded. He speaks through you and me.

But let us never forget, chief among the things he commanded us remains, "Love One Another."

And that is what he speaks to us every day. 

Here is my cover version of the classic hymn "Ah Holy Jesus," for your contemplation of Our Lord's sacrifice:

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