The Loneliness of the Cross: Meditations on the Seven Last Words of Christ in a Time of Pandemic [Audio]
Music credit: “Aspirato,” “Meekness” and “Daedalus” by Kai Engel, used under Creative Commons Attribution License.
For LGBT Christians who have been separated from their families and worship communities by fear and prejudice, holidays can always be a time of isolation. But now, in this strange Lenten season overshadowed by a pandemic, it seems that the entire planet is coping with the challenge of not being able to be with—or even near—those we love.
Of course, despite our picture-perfect ideals of gathering to pray, celebrate and egg-hunt as a nuclear family, a fundamental theme of Holy Week is being apart. The period of mourning between Jesus’ death on the cross and the Resurrection epitomizes the agony of being alone and uncertain—not to mention Christ’s suffering itself.
On Good Friday, it is traditional in many Christian denominations for preachers to address the “seven last words of Christ.” These are the final statements made by Jesus during the Crucifixion, as recorded in the four Gospels. We imagine them being uttered in total agony.
And yet for thousands of years, the seven last words have carried messages of hope, love and spiritual strength.
“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” – Luke 23:34
The world has its defenses up right now, with good reason. But where there is precaution, there can also be fear, prejudice, anger and blame. The worst in people can come out when their sense of safety is at risk—whether it’s their basic material needs or the entire belief system and power structure from which they benefit. In the crucifixion, the latter bears out with devastating consequences. Yet in the midst of this, stunningly, is Jesus’ forgiveness. From the cross, Jesus models the impossibility of forgiving our broken world and its broken systems.
We have grace even in the midst of devastation—even when we feel like we have no idea what we’re doing.
“Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” – Luke 23:43
Picture Christ on the cross. Do you see him totally alone, suffering for our sins in a vacuum, disconnected from all humanity? Luke’s Gospel reminds us that, even at the end under these fatal constraints, Jesus is finding community with a fellow condemned prisoner who asks to be remembered in the kingdom of Heaven.
We may feel isolated, but we can reach out to others—and listen to others who are reaching out to us.
When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, “Woman, here is your son,” and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” – John 19:26-27
These two verses in John 19 have special resonance for LGBT Christians: by connecting his “beloved” disciple John with his mother Mary, Jesus creates what those in the queer community know as chosen family—those we are related to not necessarily by blood, but by trust, love and compassion.
We may not be connected to our biological roots, but we can find new families to call our own—and find support in them during troubled times.
“Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lemasabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). – Matt. 27:46 / Mark 15:34
It’s hard to read this outcry, which appears in both the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, without falling into despair. Jesus is in the greatest possible physical pain—and he also suffers in spirit, taking on the sins of all humankind. Though God’s love is all-encompassing, ever-present, in this moment, Jesus isn’t feeling it. He is giving voice to sorrow, to anguish, to anxiety, depression and sadness.
We are allowed to articulate our despair, to feel it fully.
“I am thirsty.” John 19:28
This simple statement comes as Jesus nears the end. Many read the thirst here as spiritual, metaphysical; and indeed, Jesus refers to that kind of thirst earlier in John’s gospel. But the material reality of his suffering cannot be cast aside: in this moment, even knowing the transcendence to come, we are reminded of Christ’s human body and human needs.
We are entitled to care and nourishment. We can ask for help.
“It is finished,” John 19:30
It doesn’t sound like it, but Jesus’ penultimate statement is one of hope. Yes, it’s not a loud, proud “Mission, accomplished” shouted from the rooftops; but Jesus’ time on earth has been no series of easy triumphs. He has been challenged at every turn, betrayed by those he loves. Mocked. Beaten. He may be victorious in fulfilling his work, but he is exhausted.
We will come to the end of this. We will be tired, and we may have lost many things. But we will make it through, and we will be changed.
“Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” Luke 23:46
It can be hard to see God in times like these—when we are divided, scared, confused, rejected, sick and suffering. Even Jesus found it hard to see God on the cross. But God is there. Jesus, moving from self-doubt to trust in himself and his purpose, commits himself to the Divine.
We too can learn to trust ourselves. We can look beyond the noise of anxiety and fear and hatred and division, straight into the God who knows us and gives us strength.