Christ's Last Words on the Cross

Author: Pope John Paul II

In his General Audience on Wednesday, 7 December 1988, the Holy Father said that with His final words from the Cross, Jesus expressed His “awareness of having fully accomplished the work for which He had been sent into this world (cf. Jn 17:4).”

"It is finished" (Jn 19:30). According to John's Gospel Jesus spoke these words just before expiring. They were his last words. They express his awareness of having fully accomplished the work for which he had been sent into this world (cf. Jn 17:4). Note that is was not so much the awareness of having realized his own plans as having accomplished his Father's will in obedience even to the complete immolation of himself on the cross. Openly in this way does the dying Jesus appear as the model of the death of every human being, namely, the conclusion of the work assigned to each one in fulfillment of the divine plan. According to the Christian view of life and death, every person up to the moment of death is called to fulfill the Father's will. Death is the final act, that definitive and decisive act of the fulfillment of his will. Jesus teaches us this truth from the cross.

"Father, into your hands I commit my spirit" (Lk 23:46). With these words Luke makes explicit the content of Jesus' second cry shortly before he died (cf. Mk 13:37; Mt 27:50). In his first cry he exclaimed, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Mk 15:34; cf. Mt 27:46). These words are completed by those others which are the fruit of interior reflection matured in prayer. If for a moment Jesus had experienced the terrible sensation of being abandoned by the Father, his soul reacted in the only way which, as he well knew, befits a man who at the same time is also the "beloved Son" of God, namely, by total abandonment into his hands.

Jesus expressed his feeling with words taken from Psalm 31, the Psalm of a suffering man who foresees his liberation and gives thanks to God for accomplishing it: "Into your hands I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God" (Ps 31:6). Lucid in his agony, Jesus recalled and also muttered some verses of that psalm recited often during his life. But according to the Gospel narrative those words take on a new value on the lips of Jesus.

Jesus calls God "Father" (Abba), thus showing his filial trust when abandoning himself into the Father's hands. Jesus died as Son. He died in perfect harmony with the Father's will, for the purpose of the Father's love which had been assigned to him and which the Son well knew.

In the Psalmist's perspective, the man, stricken by misfortune and afflicted with suffering, surrenders his spirit into the hands of God in order to escape death which threatens him. Jesus, however, accepted death and yielded up his spirit into the Father's hands to attest his obedience and to manifest to him his trust for a new life. His abandonment was therefore more complete and radical, more daring and definitive, more fraught with a sacrificial will.

Besides, this last cry was a completion of the first, as we noted right from the beginning. Let us take up again the two texts and see what results from a comparison between the two, first of all from the merely linguistic or, as it were, semantic aspect.

The term "God" of Psalm 22 is used, in the first cry, as an invocation which can signify the dismay of a man in his own nothingness before the experience of abandonment on the part of God, considered in his transcendence and almost experienced in a state of separation (the Holy One, the Eternal, the Immutable). In the following cry Jesus had recourse to Psalm 31, inserting into it the invocation of God as Father (Abba), a name which is habitual to him and which well expresses the familiarity of an exchange of paternal warmth and filial attitude.

Moreover, in the first cry Jesus also asked God the question "why," certainly with profound respect for his will, for his power and infinite greatness, but without concealing a sense of human dismay which such a death must certainly arouse. Now, instead, the second cry expresses trusting abandonment in the arms of the wise and kind Father who disposes and upholds everything with love. There was a moment of desolation when Jesus felt without support and defense on the part of everyone, even of God. It was a dreadful moment; but Jesus soon overcame it by entrusting himself into the hands of the Father. Jesus realized in the depths of his being the loving and immediate presence of the Father, since Jesus is in the Father as the Father is in him (cf. Jn 10:38; 14:10 f.), even on the cross!

In order to understand Jesus' words and cries on the cross, one must consider them in relation to what Jesus himself had announced beforehand in the prophecies of his death and in his teaching on man's destiny in a new life. For all, death is a passage to existence beyond the grave. For Jesus it was, rather, the preliminary of the resurrection which would take place on the third day. Death, therefore, always has the character of the dissolution of the human composite, which arouses revulsion. But after the first cry, Jesus with great serenity yielded his spirit into the hands of the Father, in view of the new life and indeed of the resurrection from the dead, which would be the crowning point of the paschal mystery. Thus, after all the agonies of his physical and moral sufferings, Jesus embraced death as an entrance into the immutable peace of the "Father's bosom" to which his whole life had been ordered.

By his death Jesus reveals that at the end of life man is not doomed to immersion in obscurity, in the existential void, in the abyss of nothingness. But man is invited to meet the Father toward whom he moved in the journey of faith and love during life, and into whose arms he threw himself with holy abandonment at the hour of death. It is an abandonment which, like that of Jesus, implies a total gift of self on the part of a soul which accepts to be despoiled of the body and of earthly life, but in the knowledge that it will find in the arms and heart of the Father the new life, a participation in the very life of God in the trinitarian mystery.

Through the ineffable mystery of death the soul of the Son came to enjoy the glory of the Father in the communion of the Spirit (the Love of the Father and of the Son). This is "eternal life," made up of knowledge, love, joy and infinite peace.

The evangelist John says that Jesus "gave up his spirit" (Jn 19:30). Matthew says "he gave up the spirit" (Mt 27:50). Mark and Luke say that "he breathed his last" (Mk 15:37; Lk 23:46). Jesus' soul entered into the beatific vision in the bosom of the Trinity.

In this light of eternity one can grasp something of the mysterious relationship between Christ's humanity and the Trinity. The Letter to the Hebrews touches on this when, speaking of the salvific efficacy of the blood of Christ, far superior to that of the blood of animals offered in the sacrifices of the old covenant, it states that in his death Christ "through the eternal spirit offered himself without blemish to God" (Heb 9:14).