As we listen to John’s account of the actual dying of Jesus, we feel the mystery of it all. We would love to have been there. We would love to know what his last moments were like. John tries to tell us in his gospel. Before we think about what he says, we need to look at what other gospel writers have said about those last moments of Jesus. They all give a different account of it. John has Jesus dying in complete silence. Mark has him dying with a loud cry. Silence and shouting: the silence of Jesus, the last cry of Jesus. We hear both of them. And we are there in the midst of them.
Mark highlights the loud cry of Jesus. Before his accusers and tormenters, Jesus has been silent. As he dies on the cross, he gives a loud shout. It is easy enough, I think, to imagine it as a cry of victory. But that is not immediately what Mark is trying to tell us.
And Jesus uttered (let go) with a loud voice, and gave up the ghost (15,37).
The verb ‘uttered’ could mean ‘departed’. The adjective ‘loud’ means very loud, as with a megaphone. [The Greek carries the sense: bellow out like a wounded bull.] The sound is not articulate. ÁARGH!!! And the body collapses, dead. The previous lines in Mark read:
And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ (15, 34)
This is not the same sound. The verb ‘cried’ is not the same as (and not as strong as) ‘uttered/departed’. Mark used it at the beginning of his gospel, when he presented John the Baptist as a voice ‘crying’ in the wilderness. The quotation now is from Psalm 21. The emphasis in the quote is on ‘why’. Why, God? Lamma? And there is only silence….before the further, and final, unanswered Cry.
In Mark’s gospel, Jesus commanded demons to leave bodies they had possessed. When they came out, they cried out with a loud voice.
And when the unclean spirit had torn him, and cried out with a loud voice, he came out of him. (1,26)
And they cried with a loud voice…and the unclean spirits went out… (5, 7-13)
Mark is using the same expression for the dying of Jesus as he did for the expulsion of spirits from bodies they had possessed. It is the cry of despair and defeat by the spirit at the moment the spirit leaves the body.
We ought recall how in Mark, at the baptism of Jesus, Jesus
Saw the heavens parting and the Spirit falling down into him as a dove hovers.. and immediately the Spirit cast him out into the wilderness (1, 10 and 12)
The Spirit of God entered right into Jesus. The Spirit did not ‘light upon’ Jesus (Matthew waters down the expression in that way). The Spirit casts Jesus out into the desert, as Jesus will cast out evil spirits and demons …
Now, at his dying, the Spirit exits the body of Jesus and casts the body of Jesus into death. Even God has forsaken him. Now the Spirit forsakes his body. Who uttered the loud cry? Jesus, or the Spirit leaving him?
The soldier in the execution squad makes the bitter and ironic comment:
So this was a son of God, yeah right!
Matthew does not like this scene, as depicted by Mark. It is too real. I suspect most of us don’t like it either.
He shall not strive, nor cry; neither shall any man hear his voice in the streets. A bruised reed shall he not break, and smoking flax shall he not quench, till he send forth judgment unto victory (12, 19-20)
Luke goes further and changes Mark’s description of the dying of Jesus.
And when Jesus had spoken with a loud voice, he said, Father, into your hands I commend my spirit. And having said this, he breathed his last. (23, 46)
Luke omits the cry of forsakenness from the Psalm that Mark put on Jesus’ lips, and substitutes the act of trust and confidence in the Father. In the Father: God is Father of Jesus, especially at this moment. Jesus is a speaking subject, saying his own word: he ‘speaks’, there is neither silence nor cry. Jesus uses his own voice. And then, having done that, he breathes his last breath. There is a calm, controlled peace at the moment of death. At no point is Jesus in despair, or even in trouble.
The Jesus of Luke’s passion narrative had said to the women of Jerusalem:
Do not weep for me. (23,28)
On the cross, he promised favours to one crucified with him:
Assuredly I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise. (23, 43)
Jesus is like that, right to the very end.
When Luke edited Mark’s story of Jesus casting out a demon, he removed the demon’s loud voice from the moment of expulsion, and shifted the cry to the moment of the demon’s initial recognition of who Jesus really is. The unclean spirit leaves without sound effects.
But Jesus rebuked him, saying, Be quiet, come out of him. And when the demon had thrown him in their midst, it came out of him and did not hurt him. (4,35)
And it did not shout either. It is the same quiet peace that surrounds Jesus as he gently dies…
The soldier in the execution squad politely and piously says:
This was certainly a righteous man.
John is the gospel we read in our liturgy this afternoon.
Beside and beneath the cross, John, the author of the 4th gospel, sees a group of some few who had faith in Jesus. It is a group of Galileean women, including the mother of Jesus, Mary of Magdala and others. The Beloved Disciple was with them. We could well see this group as leaning on the vertical upright of the cross, and looking up towards Jesus. We could equally envisage Jesus as looking down and bent over them.
There are words, and then there is silence.
After this, Jesus knew that everything had now been completed, and to fulfil the scripture perfectly he said: I thirst.
A jar full of vinegar stood there, so putting a sponge in the vinegar on a hyssop stick they held it to his mouth. After Jesus had taken the vinegar he said: it is accomplished. And bowing his head he passed across the Spirit.
John's intriguing expression, 'having bowed his head' needs pondering. Jesus does not first die, and then his head drops. The inclination of the head comes first. It is more than the 'head', taken in a strict sense, that is bent over. Of his own free will, he who would not allow his life to be taken from him but would lay it down of himself, decided that all was consummated, and that any further physical effort to prolong mortal existence was not indicated. He then allowed his body to incline down and over the group beneath the cross, so that his face so to say came close to their upturned faces. He died face to face with them.
It is in this position that he died, or, in the exact words of the 4th evangelist, ‘passed across the life-breath (the Spirit)’. John never actually uses the word ‘died’. The Greek words are ‘paredoken to pneuma’. The Spirit, the life-principle that made Jesus who he really was as a person, was passed across in the dying breath of Jesus to the group of faithful ‘beloved disciples’ at the foot of the cross. At no moment is that Spirit lost to the flesh: it passes immediately from the crucified body of Jesus to the bodies of the believers, who were with him to the end, and having hovered over them, enters into them. From this moment, and through the efficacy of this act, the Spirit is their life-principle, as it was his. More than that: Jesus, in the very act of dying by crucifixion, is glorified, is enthroned as Lord and is with the Father. Thus he can and does impart their Spirit to his own. Having loved in a human way those who were his own in the world, he now demonstrates how consummate his love can be: the full meaning of love, transformed in this way, is the inSpiriting of one’s own, in and through the act of one’s dying. Death too is transformed.
This is the same symbolism the Johannine writer has used at the last supper. The disciple there was leaning, being supported, being inSpirited. At the cross, the group of disciples is leaning, is supported by his gaze, and is inSpirited and paracleted by his final breath over, upon, and into them, and by what that breath symbolises and 'contains', the holy Spirit by which he lived. It is their 'pentecost'. But it is the Spirit of the crucified, which enables them to live and die as he has done, not a spirit of extraordinary phenomena. In the Jewish Passover seder, when the story of Exodus has been completely told, the listening group is directed to bow its head. Passover is complete. Here it is more than just Passover : in one mystery we have, simultaneously, the dying, the exaltation, the being-with-the-Father, and the imparting of the Spirit. Irenaeus was not wrong in seeing here also the birth of the church as an inSpirited people.
John is a good educator, and offers alternative symbols for the same insight. After the death of Jesus, the soldiers wished to ascertain if death had truly occurred. They broke the legs of those crucified with Jesus, but not those of Jesus. Realising that he was already dead, they pierced his side, and with it presumably the pericardium, with a lance. 'Immediately there flows blood and water'. From a physical point of view, we can easily imagine that the build-up of fluid in the lungs has been released, and with it, some congealed blood. But the point is not physical, but symbolic. In classic biblical symbolism, the flow of living water has always signified the imparting of the Spirit. At the feast of tabernacles in Jn 7, Jesus said that if anyone thirst, he should come to him, and that the believing person should drink from him. John then explained that Jesus said this of the Spirit. 'Out of his interior (koilias) will flow rivers of living water'. John also explained that as yet there was no Spirit (given), for as yet Jesus was not yet glorified. Now, in his death, he has entered into the glory of the cross, and the Spirit, as living water from his interior, flows over and upon his own. Rabbinic teaching said that unless water flowed, there could be no true purification, and unless blood flowed, there be no true and valid sacrifice. Water had flowed at the Jordan, at Jesus' baptism. Water had become flowing wine at Cana in Galilee, at the wedding feast, the first of the 'signs'. On the cross, he has taken 'wine' to drink, and it has become flowing water from his side. In Jerusalem, water flowed from the temple: now, in Jerusalem, a fountain of water is opened to the inhabitants of the City, and the Spirit of grace and pardon is poured out upon them.
We are meant to imagine the group at the foot of the cross, still standing there, not having moved from their position of faithful presence. We are meant to 'see' the crucified body, now dead, still bent over them. The flow of water is then abundant over them; it showers upon them. It is their baptism in the Spirit. They are being immersed in the experience given to Jesus himself on the occasion of his own baptism. John, in the
use of continuous present tenses in the verbs he chooses, suggests that this flow has never ceased : in a mystical sense, it is still flowing upon any beloved disciple who may still be standing there.
Tetelesthai. Consummatum est. No, it is not over. It is The fullness. It is the all. It can never be over. It is all there is.
Stand in it. Be inspirited there. And live.