Offered by Father Matthew Dallman for the Parish of Tazewell County on Palm Sunday, Year A, 2017.
The fifth of the Seven Last Words of Jesus was recorded by Saint John in the nineteenth chapter of his Gospel. We are close to the very end of Jesus’s life on earth. Mocked and spat upon, crucified on the Cross, His garments torn, the words to Mary His Mother and His Beloved Disciple John having been bestowed upon them, John tells us that “knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfil the scripture,) “I thirst.” This, the fifth Word of Jesus—“I thirst.”
John then records that a bowl of vinegar stood there—that is to say, sour wine; so they put a sponge full of the vinegar on hyssop and held it to His mouth. Now by hyssop what is referred to here is a branch of a shrub long used in Jewish rites of purification. To have that as the means of giving to Jesus a sponge full of vinegar should not be seen as a final means of torture exacted upon Jesus, because the text seems to indicate that the people giving Him this were close bystanders, perhaps even His disciples. This was an act of compassion, not derision, following ancient practice. Jesus had given His life, and His work is complete, and those around Him recognized the holiness of this moment and even some of its lasting and eternal significance. We recreate this moment at the conclusion of every Eucharist, when the Chalice used in Holy Communion to share the Precious Blood of Christ is purified by the Priest. We do this not because the Vessel was dirty—far from it!—we purify it because it touched holiness, a vessel for Jesus Himself.
Why, then, did Jesus say, knowing that all was now finished, “I thirst”? Let us first recognize that it is of Jesus’s character to thirst. His conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well began with Jesus saying to her, “Give me a drink.” Jesus craves us, and wants to be with us more than we can possibly comprehend. He is always thirsty for us—for our prayer, for our confusion, for our hopes, dreams, thoughts, desires—He is always thirsty for us. This Last Word of Jesus was said so that we always know that His love is one of close relationship with Him even in the darkest hour.
Let us also recognize that the night before His crucifixion, in words we just heard in the Passion Gospel, Jesus was in the Garden of Gethsemane, asking His disciples, “Could you not watch with me one hour?” And then He prayed to His Father the most holy of petitions: “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as Thou wilt.” The full humanity of Jesus shines forth—He is not bent on dying, Our Lord is no masochist seeking to die for its own sake, as so much committing suicide. Far from it! He wants always to follow His Father’s will, and in the same prayerful breath of supreme, almost unspeakable honesty to His Father of not wanting to die, Jesus says, “Nevertheless, not as I will, but as Thou wilt.”
Or as we say in the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy will be done,” and even as Blessed Mary said: “Let it be unto me according to Your Word.” Jesus fully accepts His Father’s will, and He accepts the cup given Him, the chalice of His Passion. Indeed, in the bitterness of His suffering He rejoices, bearing His pain with the most holy perseverance and patience.
What an example to us for all time as we face our trials in life, our dark moments, our wounds. Let us hear the humanity of the words, “I thirst.” And also the deep yearning Jesus has for us, accepting the cup of His Passion. On account of the sensitiveness of His humanity He sought to refuse the suffering because it was so great. Yet His love for us, His family—past, present and future—overcame Him. It surmounted the agony of the cross to such an extent that He was prepared, if necessary, to submit not only to the agony of the Cross, but even to a suffering of a greater kind. For there is nothing Jesus would refuse to suffer for us, since it was for our sake that He laid down His life—laid Himself on the Altar of the Cross.
After supper he took the cup of wine; and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, and said, “Drink this, all of you: This is my Blood of the new Covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.” Let us rejoice that the whole life of Jesus is a gift that makes the possibility of true forgiveness, not a nice-sounding sentiment, but palpably, unmistakably, real.
Cover image “Crucifixion of Jesus” by Dionisius is licensed under CC BY 2.0 / Cropped from original.