“It is finished.”
Jesus’ last words from the cross.
It is finished.
That could mean a lot of things, in theory. It could mean something like “Thank God it’s finally over. No more suffering!” because, John’s gospel tells us, right after he uttered those words, Jesus bowed his head and exhaled one final time; he surrendered his life’s breath. Thank God it’s over. That’s certainly not a sentiment that we would want to begrudge Jesus, is it? I mean, after all he’s been through, he deserves to be relieved at the prospect of the pain coming to and end, even if the vehicle of that deliverance is death.
But if we look at St Jerome’s Latin translation of these words, we get a glimpse of another possibility, a deeper way of understanding these final words from the cross. In Latin, they are rendered “consummatum est”—in English, in a very literal way, “It is consummated.” Or, more colloquially, “Done deal.” Or perhaps something like “signed, sealed, delivered.” Or, if we want a symbolic non-verbal equivalent, it would be like a judge or the chairman of a meeting banging a gavel: the Ayes have it, the motion carries, done deal. Consummatum est. It is finished.
For Jesus and those who loved him in that time and place, it was a dark moment. His disciples, most of whom had abandoned him anyway—in John’s account, not surprisingly, it’s John alone among them who is found at the foot of the cross—his disciples had expected him to lead a successful insurrection against the Roman occupation, and they would each be assigned to a key cabinet position in the new government. Well, when Pilate condemned Jesus to death, that was the end of those fantasies, so his death was certainly a dark moment for them. And his mother—who can even begin to tell the pain that she bore? Yes, it was a dark moment. John doesn’t mention this, but Matthew and Luke tell us that the sky grew unusually dark as Jesus hung on the cross. Matthew recounts an earthquake at the moment of his death, and all three of the synoptic evangelists include the information that the veil of the temple—the curtain that screened off the inner sanctum, the Holy of Holies—this curtain was torn in two, evidently as a result of the earthquake. In Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ, the earthquake itself is initiated by a giant teardrop falling from Heaven. The cosmos itself weeps. It is a dark moment.
But for the general population of Jerusalem, the great majority of whom were Palestinian Jews, the crucifixion of Jesus was just another item that showed up on Headline News—maybe in one of those crawlers that scroll across the bottom of the TV screen—it was a topic of conversation around the neighborhood well as people gathered to draw water, but it wasn’t something that actually interrupted their day all that much. They were busy just going about their regular work, which on this particular Friday meant that somebody in the family had to slaughter a lamb—or buy one and pay somebody else to slaughter it—in preparation for the celebration of Passover.
Passover, of course, was, and still is, a Jewish festival that commemorates the final plague that led to the liberation of the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt, when the angel of death moved through the land, claiming the lives of every firstborn human and animal, but “passing over” the homes of the Hebrews who had covered the frames of their doors with the blood of a freshly-killed lamb. God looked on the blood of the lamb as an identifying mark, setting his people apart from the other residents of Egypt, and as a sign of atonement for their sins.
Is this picture beginning to come together for you yet? The people of Jerusalem are busy slaughtering Passover lambs, participating in the system of ritual sacrifice by which they were continually reconciled to God, and of which the temple was both the actual and the symbolic center. They were taking care of business; they were fulfilling their end of the deal that God had made with them. When they finished preparing the lamb for the Passover celebration, any of them could have said, “It is finished.” Consummatum est. Done deal. Signed, sealed, delivered.
And at the very same hour, Jesus is going about the very same work. His blood is being shed on the cross in atonement for the sins of the world, making him the very Lamb of God. Only his sacrifice, unlike the sacrifice of all the other lambs that were slain that day, Jesus’ sacrifice is offered once, for all. It eliminates the need for the entire system of ritual sacrifices around which Jewish religious life revolved. And when his work is accomplished, he says, “It is finished.” And he breathes his last. He has taken a direct hit from all that the forces of evil, sin, and death can hurl at him. He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows. All human suffering is wrapped up with him on the cross, and he literally takes it to his grave. It is finished.
Good Friday indeed feels like a dark time, but it is the kind of darkness that comes just before dawn. In the words of St Clement of Alexandria, written barely 200 years after the event, and put in the form of a hymn that we sang just a few days ago, at the end of the Palm Sunday liturgy:
1 Sunset to sunrise changes now,
for God doth make his world anew;
on the Redeemer’s thorn-crowned brow
the wonders of that dawn we view.
2 E’en though the sun withholds its light,
lo! a more heavenly lamp shines here,
and from the cross on Calvary’s height
gleams of eternity appear.
3 Here in o’erwhelming final strife
the Lord of life hath victory,
and sin is slain, and death brings life,
and earth inherits heaven’s key.