OUR LORD'S SEVEN WORDS.
PSALM cxix. 11.
"THY WORDS HAVE I HID WITHIN MY HEART, THAT I SHOULD NOT SIN AGAINST THEE."
THE last words of dying heroes have ever been treasured up by those who admired them. They have generally revealed the secret spring of action which, through many a long day of misrepresentation and calumny, animated their hearts and cheered their labours. When the dying statesman exclaimed, "Oh, my country!" we know how pure was that flame of patriotism which had burnt within his heart. When one of GOD'S greatest Bishops in expiring exclaimed, "I have loved righteousness and hated iniquity, therefore I die in exile," all acknowledged that the reformation of the Church had been the labour of his life, and the cause of his death. When Julian, the apostate, wounded by the Persians, in defeated spite and malice threw dust into the air, and exclaimed, "Nazarene, Thou hast conquered;" his attendants at once acknowledged that his whole life had been a combat with CHRIST, and that CHRIST had indeed overcome him.
And even when there has not been a mighty cause for good or for evil in the case, the last words of private individuals have generally something characteristic about them. The ruling passion is strong in death; men have died with a jest upon their lips; tradesmen have described their feelings by some technicality in their daily avocation; while the peculiar bent of the pious Christian, his hope, his humility, his assurance, or his trembling submission have been marked in the last words which he uttered, before yielding up his spirit to GOD Who gave it.
Holy Scripture bears out this view. The last words of Jacob were directions that he should be buried with his fathers. He would not lie in Egypt, neither did he desire to rest beside his beloved Rachel, but he knew the destinies of his race, and his last injunction was fraught with the conception that he had a duty to the cause of the sons of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the favoured people of the LORD. Then how grand are the last words of the patriot Moses. Forbidden for one sin to enter the holy land, he had yet made the people the mighty nation which they had become.
In spite of all their backslidings they had grown prosperous under his fostering care. Well might he after blessing each tribe individually say, "Happy art thou, O Israel: who is like unto thee, O people saved by the LORD, the shield of thy help, and who is the sword of thy excellency! and thine enemies shall be found liars unto thee; and thou shalt tread upon their high places." Or consider the last expressions of David, "the man after GOD'S own heart." How plainly do they assert his belief, beyond all experience, of the justice and goodness of GOD, of the misery of the wicked, and of the everlasting covenant that was to be fulfilled in CHRIST.
Or take the last words of S. Stephen, the first martyr of CHRIST. What burning love for his very murderers! Who shall not say that here was not the fruit of the Gospel of CHRIST? It was the practical obedience of all Christianity, summed up into one little word.
But as might be expected, the last words of CHRIST, the pattern Man, exceed in depth and awfulness the words of all His servants. Nay, reverent minds have dwelt with adoring love, on each of the seven expressions, which proceeded from that Sacred Mouth convulsed and distorted by the agonies of the passion. Be it our duty to follow in these footsteps.
Let us stand beneath the cross in the spirit of the Maries. Let us listen to the expiring words of Him Who is the Captain of our Salvation. It is an awful hour; the sun has hid its light. A supernatural darkness has overspread the land; nothing is heard amid that gloom, save the clanking of the Roman soldiers' arms; the suppressed murmurs of hatred and angry fear of the Deicidal multitude; the groans of the excruciated thieves, and the sobs of those faithful few, who with love stronger than death, have stood by Him in that hour of terror. The soldiers sitting watch Him there; the blinded multitude unawed by the supernatural signs hang round the awful scene to await the event. The silence of excited passion broods over all the scene, and it is broken by the voice of the CREATOR.
And what are the first words which He utters? is it a complaint at the treatment He endures from His FATHER and from man? Is it another deprecation of the bitter chalice; that if it be His FATHER'S will it may yet be removed? No, my brethren, it is not that. It is a prayer for His executioners. "FATHER, forgive them, for they know not what they do." Pater, dimitte illis, non enim sciunt quid faciunt. They have haled Him along the dolorous way, and driven Him on when exhausted by the weight of His Cross; they have dragged Him out of the city gate up the steep of Calvary; they have rudely stripped Him of His bloody clothes, and have exposed Him, Who is perfect Modesty, to the rude gaze of the infuriated mob; they have cast Him upon His Back upon the Cross, extended on the ground, and pierced His tender hands and feet with cruel nails; they have hoised the burdened Cross into mid air, and let it drop into the place prepared for its reception, and there hangs the Son of Man lifted up, a mockery to the exulting fiend and to the fiend-like crowd around Him, yet in that hour, as it was prophesied, drawing all hearts to Him. And now, amid the infuriated yells of the multitude, these gentle words are uttered, " FATHER, forgive them, for they know not what they do." Forgive these executioners; forgive the insensate multitude; forgive all those who in time to come shall crucify Me afresh and put Me to an open shame. And as if to give further proof of this same abundant charity that burned in His heart and had brought Him to the accursed tree; He next assures His agonized but repentant fellow-sufferer of a consort with Him in Paradise. These two malefactors, how well do they represent the condition of the world--the same circumstances, to what a different end do they come. Both up to that hour hardened and sinful--both in the beginning, untouched by the unmerited sufferings of the Divine JESUS; they cast the reproaches of the multitude in His teeth; yet one is taken and the other left; one has the grace of repentance, the other remains in his sins; one confesses the Divinity of CHRIST, in the midst of squalor and pain and ignominy of a public execution; the other is hardened and dies in his sins. Thus is it with the world. One makes his sufferings a means of knitting him to CHRIST; another suffers, repines, rebels, and loses the value of them. One works out his salvation with fear and trembling; another goes in the broad road to destruction. Yet, trust we in the SAVIOUR'S mercy: it is our own fault if we perish. He was ready to extend His grace to both thieves, had He found in both the fitting dispositions; therefore, to every one of us, who truly turn to Him and confess Him, He promises Paradise. It is only our impenitence, and our want of faith, and the coldness of our affection which keep us away from Him. It is our own fault if we do not some day appropriate to ourselves these blessed words, "To-day thou shalt be with Me in Paradise." Amen dico tibi, hodie mecum eris in paradiso.
And now His thoughts turn to Her, from whom for three whole years He had been separate. From the time of His first miracle, till His hour was come, He had nothing to do with His Mother; but were those two gentle hearts never again to blend together? Was He Who was thirty years subject to Her, never again to repay those many years' solicitude and love? Yes, my brethren, for our sakes they were separate, that He might fulfil His mission of mercy; but now that that is over, in the hour when the sword passed through her soul, she is again beside Him, and He commends her to the care of the beloved disciple, teaching us how sacred is the parental tie, when the mutual love of Son and Mother are not obliterated in the agonies of death. "Mulier, ecce filius tuum."
Neither was friendship then forgotten, the disciple whom He loved, the man who rested on His Bosom, at the Mystic Supper of the night before, stands by Him then--that disciple was losing Him in whom his soul delighted, and to assuage his grief, the holy and sacred trust--the trust most near to his Master's heart, is committed to him. How we treasure a commission given us by those dear to us on their death-beds; with what scrupulous exactitude do we attempt to carry out their behests. And how honoured must John have felt in the great trust reposed in him, that he should be the one selected to guard the declining years of Her, who was thus commended to him, in the hour of his Master's agony. "Ecce mater tua."
But the great end for which He came was never out of the SAVIOUR'S mind. He turns away from His own sorrows, and those of them whom He loved, to the object for which He came into the world. Agonized and parched as He was, He uses His corporal sufferings as the vehicle for expressing that sacred desire that burned within His soul. It was not the miseries of the noonday heat--it was not the exhaustion and fever of that long restless, miserable night that had preceded--it was not the loss of blood from the cruel scourging--it was not the agony of the Cross itself, which wrung from Him those words, "I thirst," sitio, so much as the earnest thirst for souls which then overpowered Him. Being GOD, He could look through His Passion; being man, He expressed the desire of His soul, in the language of the suffering of His Body.
What confidence and what comfort should these words of the Redeemer give us. The strong desire that straitened Him from the first moment of His conception, deserts Him not in the hour of His agony. As from the beginning, His word was, "Lo I come to do Thy will," so now His desire is that that will should be accomplished, for the FATHER willeth that all men should come to the knowledge of the truth. His ardent love for the sons of men, who at that moment were driving Him to an ignominious death, deserted Him not even then. He poured out the last drop of His Blood for them, and their conversion and salvation is the ardent thought of His Sacred Heart.
But the mystery of the Passion is not yet completed. The sufferings of the LORD are not yet at their height. The chalice of the FATHER'S wrath has to receive another ingredient. It is not enough that He is torn and afflicted in Body and Soul--the exhaustion, and pain, and thirst, and racking of the Body--the shame, and the agony, and the grief of the Soul, are not sufficient to evince the SAVIOUR'S Love. There is another and more awful sorrow in store for Him. Hitherto the Light of His FATHER'S countenance has shone on Him: in the darkest hour of the agony in the Garden an angel was sent to comfort Him; but now, the horror of all horrors is upon Him--the consolation which His Soul, personally united to the Divinity ever had, in its mysterious intercourse with the Eternal FATHER, has ceased; and the very omniscience it possessed is only exercised in knowing the desolation and the woe of that separation. Even men, imperfect as they are, know that GOD is the light of their life, and that in His presence is fulness of joy; they also know, in a faint way, that the loss of GOD is the loss of all losses; but the human soul of CHRIST alone was able to recognize the unutterable bitterness of this, in all its intensity. And now this was laid upon Him, and it was this that wrung from His Heart that awful cry--"My GOD, My GOD, why hast Thou forsaken Me?" Deus, Deus meus, utquid me dereliquisti?
My brethren, there is in these words a desolation which must touch the hardest heart, and yet the thought of compassion in the SAVIOUR'S pains is not the only one it suggests. It speaks to us of that great law of trial, whereby the LORD, in mercy and to perfect them, tries His dearest children. How often in the spiritual life are there hours when prayer is not answered, when comfort is withheld, when spiritual dryness overcomes us, and we feel as if our faith were failing, and our love waxing cold; in that hour let us turn our thoughts to that stern discipline, to which our Holy LORD was subjected, and let us take to ourselves comfort.
And now the hour of the evening sacrifice approaches, the ninth hour when the victim bled on the altar of the temple of Jerusalem. "All things being now accomplished," the satisfaction being now complete, the victim being ready, the Redemption achieved--these facts are announced by the SAVIOUR Himself,--"It is finished." Consummatum est. The deed is nobly, holily, unflinchingly performed. Not a pain has been avoided; not a sorrow shrunk from. Every type has been fulfilled; every sorrow has been undergone; a full and superabundant penitence has been wrought for the expiation of a world's sin--"It is finished." Consummatum est. All that justice required, all that charity demanded, all that could make love shine forth. Doubtless, as He said so, there passed before His mind the whole course of His life--the weariness, the poverty, the pains, the ignominy, He had suffered; all these were, as it were, concentrated into one, for the salvation of the universe. Doubtless He felt that He had borne the heat and burden of the day, and that now He might enter into His rest, and so He said, "It is finished."
And in so saying He crowned and commended the perseverance of His Saints. It is the end that proves each thing. Present prosperity is no guarantee of happiness. Present sorrow may yet be alleviated; present sin may, by penitence, be destroyed; present grace may be fallen from and frustrated. It is the end alone that is decisive. Pray we then specially for that grace, beyond all other graces, the grace of perseverance; take we good heed that we rest not where we are now, or fall into complacent ways, that we are doing enough, and so need not strive, and pray, and labour; yet take we also good comfort from the sorrows of our LORD, and unite our efforts to the work of Him, Who in the sacred words He then pronounced, has given us the pledge of the fulfilment of the work of Salvation, by the power of His Passion, and by the might of His merits.
And now no more remained for Him but to resign into His FATHER'S hand that trust and that Soul which had been committed to Him. "FATHER, into Thy hands I commend My Spirit." Pater, in manus tuas commendo spiritum meum.
I have finished upon earth all that Thou hast required of Me, and there remains nothing for Me but to die; nevertheless, if Thou wilt that My Soul remain longer to suffer in the Body, I yield to Thy good pleasure: if Thou wilt that I pass out of this life, to enter into My rest, I equally yield Me to Thy paternal will. My Heart is ready, O GOD, My Heart is ready. O, what a beautiful example is this of self-surrender to GOD, and of entire conformity to His will. How blessed is it to commit our spirits absolutely and unreservedly into the hands of His Divine Goodness. Be it ours to say, with our Blessed Master, "My GOD, I commit my spirit absolutely and unreservedly into Thy hands; teach me what Thy will is; and when revealed to me, give me grace to do it; give me grace to say, Come weal, come woe, all is alike to me, provided I may do Thy will."
Such, my brethren, are some of the lessons which our LORD teaches us from His Cross; for that Cross has become the Teacher's chair, whence a law of love, and gratitude, and lowliness, and endurance is taught us till time shall be no more. For every tongue must give thanks unto the FATHER for the superabundance of His love, in that He spared not His own SON, that we might have in Him a faithful advocate before Him in Heaven. For behold, crowned with glory and honour, He standeth at the right hand of the Majesty on High, our Flesh and our Brother.
And to Him, the Mediator of the new law, GOD and Man, what can we, His unworthy creatures, render? What more could He have done to save our souls? The deep waters of His Passion drowned Him; they covered Him wholly from the sole of His Feet and passed over His Head, so that He might draw us out of them, for they had entered even into our souls.
He has bound us by a two-fold obligation; He has given us our own souls; He has also given us His own.
Our own souls He gave us in Creation and Redemption; His own most precious Soul, He hath poured out for us.
And what can we render for that? for anything worthy we find not; not though we were to give the heaven, and the earth, and all their glory, we have nothing to pay--the gift is inestimable; and were we to do so, we have got nothing to give but what is His already.
We must therefore love Him, with our whole soul and strength; we must follow, out of loyal gratitude, the footsteps of Him Who hath vouchsafed to die for us; we must incline our whole being to that glorious Passion, wherewith He hath wrought our salvation; cherishing within our inmost hearts the thought of that victorious Cross, those sacred Wounds, and bruised Form; for the odour of life breathes in these, raising our spirits from the death of sin; and the virtue of these saves us from the wiles of Satan, and strengthens us to find the yoke of His commandments sweet, and the burden of His law light unto our souls; and the grace of these conforms us to His image, and makes us go from strength to strength, and weans our souls from earthly joys, and knits us close to Him.