Fr. René J. Butler, M.S.
Provincial Superior, La Salette Missionaries of North America
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There is something fascinating about famous last words. Some are merely interesting: “All my possessions for a moment of time” (Queen Elizabeth I); “Josephine” (Napoleon Bonaparte); “I have tried so hard to do the right” (Grover Cleveland). Some are even humorous: “I should never have switched from scotch to martinis” (Humphrey Bogart), while others are troubling: “Don’t you dare ask God to help me” (Joan Crawford).
We often speak of the “Seven Last Words” of Jesus on the cross. Where are they in today’s reading of the Passion? As it happens, Matthew has only one. Three are unique to Luke; three more are unique to John; there is only the one in Matthew and Mark, “last words” in the usual sense of the term. It is the most troubling of all, an expression of despair: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Jesus is quoting the 22nd Psalm (the one that comes just before “The Lord is my Shepherd”), which goes to the heart of the question asked by all who suffer: “Why?”
One answer might be simply that such is the human condition. That is true enough, but not really good enough. It’s like saying, “Well, it’s just—because!”
Sometimes the question “why” is not actually a request for an explanation. It can also be a protest.
The Suffering Servant of the first reading does not protest, but says, “I have not rebelled,... not turned back. I am not disgraced,... not put to shame.” And St. Paul reminds the Philippians that Jesus “humbled himself,” accepting “even death on a cross.”
The question “why” could be repeated many times as we read the story of the Passion. Judas “looked for an opportunity to hand him over”—why? Peter, James and John “Could not keep watch”—why not? Why did Peter insist, “I do not know the man”? Why did Pilate think himself “innocent of this man’s blood”? And why on earth would the people call a ferocious curse on themselves—a curse used or, rather, abused over centuries to justify persecution of the Jews, including the Holocaust.
Psalm 22 ultimately ends on a note of hope and trust, starting in verse 23 with the words, “I will proclaim your name to my brethren; in the midst of the assembly I will praise you.” Whether Jesus recited the Psalm to the end we cannot know, but it hardly matters; what is more important is that he lived it to the end, and we know why. As St. Peter wrote in his first letter, “Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in his footsteps... so that free from sin, we might live for righteousness.”
As Christians “living for righteousness” we might imagine that our last words will be of comfort and hope, but very few of us will even know that our last words are in fact our last. As interesting as they may be, they are—like the words uttered by Jesus on the cross— actually less important than the life that has come before.
And they are nothing compared to the life that will come after.