Today may have been the most beautiful day we have had in Durham this year. The sun was bright but still soft, and there was a gentle breeze that kept it from feeling too warm. Today, being the third of April, marks another month since my father’s death; he died twenty months ago. As I thought about him I also thought about Jesus’ last words from the cross—“It is finished”—because my dad and I shared a love for a Gaither Vocal Band song that draws its title from those words. I’ve already watched it a couple of times tonight and was amazed once more when Guy Penrod and David Phelps go crazy on the tenor parts.
It is finished. The English teacher in me wants the antecedent to the pronoun to be clearer. What is finished? The song begins with a couple of verses that lay out a cosmic battle of good and evil taking place at Golgotha and then turns to the second verse:
but in my heart the battle was still raging
not all prisoners of war had come home . . . .
Jesus’ death did not mark the end of suffering or evil or sin, or even death. In fact, the simplest way to hear the words was he was saying his life was over. He finished the sentence and, as I remember best from the King James Version, he “gave up the ghost.” The song moves to a note of triumph that feels overstated, as much as I love the harmonies:
it is finished—the battle is over
it is finished—there will be no more war
it is finished—the end of all conflict
it is finished—and Jesus is Lord.
To look at these past few days—the continuing violence in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Sudan, Somalia; the grieving families of those who died in the plane crash in the French Alps; the horrible murders at the college in Kenya; those I know who are dealing with loved ones in hospice and hospital; friends living through the aftermath of broken relationships that held such promise—leaves me not ready to embrace such a triumphant spirit. I lean more towards words like Martin Luther King Jr.’s: “The of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.” If what Jesus meant was what the chorus says, then we are taking a long, long time to play out the final scene.
Then I found words—or they found me—from three other voices. One was at one of the Patheos blogs in an article written by Jan Vallone.
Jesus, when you say that it is finished, are you pleading for your words to come to pass?
Jesus, I have never been as good as you, yet I’ve not endured the punishment you have. Still, I’ve oftentimes asserted, “It is finished” with grief and longing in my heart.
I said it when my obstetrician told me I would never give birth to a baby. I said it when my father and my mother died and my sister became estranged from me. I said it when I lost the job I loved, having worked a lifetime to secure it. I said it when my dear friend left me suddenly without explaining why.
Yet I survived all these losses—these crosses—because I knew the ending of your story. I knew although you claimed that it was finished, it wasn’t finished at all.
Instead, God resurrected you.
Likewise, every time that I thought my life was over, God resuscitated me, and I went on living, loving, even laughing, although doing so had seemed impossible.
Jesus, as you cry out “It is finished,” I think you’re giving us the words to pray in crisis. They mean: “God, I really need you now. I’ve done all that I can do. I don’t have strength to carry on alone. Now I trust that you will pull me through.”
And these words from Jayne Davis at Baptist News Global, telling the story of a friend who died this week and had written a Sunday School lesson on Jesus’ last words:
“Many years ago I saw a fountain,” Lamar wrote. “I cannot even remember where it was, perhaps a college campus or a city park. The picture comes back to me as sharply as if I saw it yesterday. In the center of the fountain was the statue of a young man with his hand pointing gracefully toward the sky, and from the tip of his index finger there gushed a steady stream of water, which was blown by the wind, and then of course, fell back into the pool beneath his feet. I do not know why, but there came to my mind at once the idea of life’s opportunities, and how they slip through our fingers as easily and as steadily as the water from his unmoving hand. . . .
“The question for Christians today is not: ‘What will be my last words, and will they be remembered?’ When that moment comes, the real question will be: Can I really say, ‘It is finished?’ ‘Have I made the most of my opportunities to do the work of God on earth?’”
The last word comes from a Texas friend who said:
No matter how hard I try I can’t get my head around this whole Easter thing. Death by torture. Darkness. Emptiness. And life emerging from it all. All I can do is embrace it with my heart. It is easier this year.
All three words come from people acquainted with grief, which is at the heart of what it takes to get to Easter—that I have come to understand over the past two years in ways I could not before. Life is full of “It is finisheds,” if that can be a plural. We know all too well about endings, about losings, about disappointments and betrayals. We are like the two who met Jesus on the road to Emmaus: “We had hoped . . . .”
Jesus said, “It is finished” and died. I don’t think they were words of triumph. His life was finished. His time with his friends. His earthly ministry and what he had tried to do. His healing touches were finished. His kind words. His parables. The last thing he did was to voice his grief, and perhaps his resolve. And it was over.
Yes, his last words are not the Last Word. Thank God. What happened next was a new beginning, not an undoing of the ending. In a couple of days we get to celebrate an act of Grace and Love that blows the doors off. Love wins. Love will be the last word.
But the grief still leaves a mark.