Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Jesus' Final Words from the Cross: "iThirst" (John 19:28-29)

28After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), "I am thirsty." 29A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth.

“I am thirsty.”
I’m going to come right out and say it: of all the words Jesus utters from the cross, I find these the most realistic. That’s not to say, of course, that Jesus didn’t say all the other things, too, or that the other words from the cross about forgiving his executioners and pardoning the thief aren’t equally important or true. Scripture is a reliable source of truth even if the gospel accounts are not direct eye-witness recordings, and those other final words from Jesus on the cross we’ve already heard about this Lent are vital for our faith in and understanding of who Jesus Christ was. It’s just that all of those other words—for example, “Woman, behold your Son,” or, in Luke’s gospel, “Today, you will be with me in Paradise”—all sound like things you’d expect a Son of God to say. They all seem to come from a deeper and more eternal point of view, spoken through the wisdom and experience of someone who is divine. They ring of godliness.
“I am thirsty”: well, that sounds like something a Son of Man would say. It sounds surface-oriented, borne of primal mammalian response. It echoes a need of the body, not so much of the soul. When Jesus looks at his tormentors and asks his Father to forgive them, “for they do not know what they are doing,”  that sounds like a matter of the spirit. It deals with something that has long-term implications. “I am thirsty,” sounds rather elemental, right-here-right-now. It is such a simple, humble, earthy request: I am dying and my mouth is dry. The other words place Jesus, in some way, almost above the people around him. This one places Jesus underneath them, simply asking for a drink.
Crucifixion (Diego Velasquez, 1632)
So this all seems more realistic to me, given the realities of a crucifixion. Crucifixion was a death sentence specifically designed to humiliate the victim and draw out death for as long as possible. In fact, it’s where we get the word “excruciating.” Scientists and historians disagree when it comes to the precise way that a crucifixion actually did someone in. Some say victims bled to death or died as a result of infection in the blood. Others say that they died from extreme dehydration. Still others say that they most likely died through asphyxiation, because their permanently outstretched arms made it difficult to expand their lungs properly and breathe. Regardless of how it happened, long and humiliating exposure was the objective, so it is entirely believable—realistic— that, at some point, Jesus, man on the cross, would feel the need to re-hydrate.
As it so happens, for the gospel writer John, Jesus’ desire for something to drink—and the subsequent offer of sour wine—was also a fulfillment of one of the Hebrew Scriptures. John sees an echo of Jesus request in the words of the 69th Psalm, which was a prayer for deliverance from enemies, and we, like John’s initial readers, can use the words to paint the picture Jesus of the cross:
                        “I looked for pity, but there was none;
And for comforters, but I found none.
                        They gave me poison for food,
                        and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.”

Historians tell us that this vinegar or sour wine that the soldiers offered would likely have been on-hand. It was a crude, cheap version of wine that had basically already gone bad, and so it could offer some relief, but not much. They offer it on a sponge extended on a branch perhaps because no soldier wanted him drinking out of one of their cups. For those who’ve paid close attention to Jesus’ life, the irony is overwhelming. Jesus’ first miracle had involved changing water into wine at a wedding at Cana. He had said then that his hour for glory had not yet come, yet the wedding guests then had made special mention of the wine’s high quality. The best wine had been saved for last! Here we find Jesus in his hour of glory, lifted on the cross, and the wine is almost undrinkable. But Jesus drinks it anyway, as I assume any human would.
This is more important than we might initially think. Many of the earliest and thorniest controversies in the Christian faith actually had to do with the relationship between Jesus’ divine and human natures. We think little of this these days, aware of the teaching that Jesus was somehow totally human and totally divine at the same time.  However, some early believers could only make sense of Jesus and his life by saying that he was not truly human at all, that his body was some type of illusion. They looked at the crucifixion and denied that if God was actually hanging there he would be feeling anything at all. People with this viewpoint eventually lost their argument, partly because of Jesus’ human desire and ability to drink while he was dying.
As it turns out, not a single word from Jesus is insignificant. If Jesus says he’s thirsty, it means something huge, even if it just means he’s thirsty. Because if he’s thirsty, he is feeling human pain. He is looking around and feeling the effects of this torment. He is looking for comforters and finding none. And if he is feeling human pain, looking and finding little comfort, then he can be truly with us…not above us or outside of us, but with us, beneath us, in us. That is the miracle of Christ. That is the gift of Son of God: that he is also a son of men.
Early Church theologian, a man named Gregory of Nyssa, put it this way:
“God’s…power is not so much displayed in the vastness of the heavens, or the luster of the stars, or the orderly arrangement of the universe or his perpetual oversight of it, as [it is] in his condescension to our weak nature.  We marvel at the way the sublime entered a state of lowliness and, while actually seen in it, did not leave the heights.”[1]
It’s important that we listen to such words, especially when we’re prone to place our wonder at God in anything other than the cross. It’s important that we listen to Jesus words, even when he’s just telling us he’s thirsty, because when he does, it means God is in human lowliness with us.
And that means, for example, when a cancer patient aches for respite from the chemo and radiation, Jesus aches for that respite, too. Or that when a protester on the street somewhere in the Middle East thirsts for her basic civil rights to be honored, then Jesus is somehow thirsts for human dignity with her, as well. When an abused child craves the love of a parent who will truly care for them, Jesus craves that love alongside of them. When famine strikes an African village, and people hunger for basic necessities, Jesus is present, thirsting and hungering, too.
There was a memorable editorial in The Lutheran magazine a few years ago written by David Miller, then its editor-in-chief . In it he describes a visit to a refugee camp in southern Sudan where people were dying of starvation and disease because the food convoy had not yet showed up. While he was there he crawled into a makeshift hospital, which was little more than a dirt hut with no beds and no medicine—fifteen gaunt people were lying on the floor in some stage of dying.
“I came upon a woman in her twenties,” Miller writes, “sitting by a small lump under a fray, dirty cloth. With one hand she absently fingered a braided string hung around her neck; with the other she held the cloth close around the ‘lump’—a little girl, shrunken by hunger and disease. We sat together helpless, looking at the extinction of her beloved. Then I noticed that she was fingering a cross, crudely fashioned from a piece of twisted wire. Touching her arm, with my other hand I made the sign of the cross full and large across my chest. Her eyes widened, and immediately she pulled at my hands, drawing them to her child. I didn’t know what she was trying to show me. Then I knew: she wanted me to bless her child—as if for dying. I placed my hands on the little girl’s head and commended her to the gentleness of God.
I prayed that in the next life this precious child would find a mercy that had so badly escaped her in this life.” Miller continues, “A power had been released in the bunker’s darkness, and the tears we brushed from our eyes were not only of sorrow, but of joy, hope, and gratitude. We were transported beyond the dismal present to a future where everything was shaped—finally—by the mercy of the One whose pleasure it is to wipe every tear from every eye.”[2]
Miller’s reflection on that experience illuminates perfectly the power of a God who condescends to human weakness. The world needs a savior who forgives from the cross…who offers words of pardon, words of eternal hope and Paradise where, yes, every tear will be wiped away. But, as we know, we thirst for a savior who himself can thirst like us, who can somehow be in that tent with that mother in her pain and sorrow as he can in heaven’s heights. It is a savior who, even as he sips this sour wine—in fact, the worst around—at this final hour is serving up for us what will turn out to be his resurrection finest.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] St. Gregory of Nyssa, “The Address on Religious Instruction,” Christology of the Later Fathers, ed. by E. Hardy, 300-301 in David Yeago’s typescript, vol. 1, The Faith of the Christian Church.
[2] “Even Here, Even Now,” David Miller in The Lutheran, April 2000

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