The “Seven Last Words of Christ” can seen as the verbal expression of an interior reality: namely, the mind of Christ, as formed according to a deeply ingrained, habitual life practice of living mindfully according to the Lord’s Prayer…
Holy Week is an especially fruitful time for prayerful meditation. There are many liturgical events at which one may engage in the practice. In my neck of the woods, there are also many public concerts that offer musical compositions appropriate to the season.
One of my favorites is Haydn’s The Seven Last Words of Our Savior on the Cross, which I always find to be an extraordinary and moving experience whenever I get the chance to hear it live. It is very powerful in the version Haydn adapted for string quartet, which I find to be absolutely perfect music for meditative reflections. This year I will again be seeking it out wherever I can find it being played on Good Friday. Haydn is reported to have considered this piece his greatest achievement, and I concur.
I find it interesting to reflect on the “Seven Last Words” because the Gospels give varying accounts of Christ’s death on the cross. Viewed as a whole, however, the Gospel testimony may be woven together into a musical synthesis providing a single narrative:
Luke 23:34: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.” (Pater, dimitte illis, non enim sciunt quid faciunt.)
Luke 23:43: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Amen dico tibi: Hodie mecum eris in paradiso.)
John 19:26–27: “Woman, behold your son. Son, behold your mother.” (Mulier, ecce filius tuus. Ecce mater tua.)
Matthew 27:46 & Mark 15:34 “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Deus meus, Deus meus, utquid dereliquisti me?)
John 19:28: “I thirst.” (Sitio.)
John 19:30: “It is finished.” (Consummatum est.)
Luke 23:46: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” (Pater, in manus tuas commendo spiritum meum.)
While I find this ordering to be a convincing reconstruction, as it provides a unified view of the multi-angled perspectives of the evangelists, I also like to explore further. What significant connections could there be between these seven “words” (dimitte, hodie, mulier, Deus, sitio, consummatum, and manus), which occur at the time of his death, and the rest of the life and teachings of Jesus?
This year, as I have been reflecting in Lent on this question, two things happened. First, I attended a concert on Sunday, April 2, at which the Trinity Western University Masterworks Chorus and Renaissance Singers performed “God So Loved the World” by Canadian composer Timothy Corlis (b. 1972), which also includes cello and organ, and which is also a setting of the “Seven Last Words” that, as with Haydn’s work, I found most conducive to my meditative reflections. Second, I read a book by the scholar Bruce Chilton, The Way of Jesus, which is structured chapter-by-chapter according to the inner structure of the Lord’s Prayer.
Prof. Chilton has articulated, on the basis of the Greek New Testament versions (Matthew 6:9b–13; Luke 11:2b–4), a retroversion of the Lord’s Prayer into Aramaic. Because Jesus would have spoken Aramaic with his disciples, and since there are many examples of how the Greek of the New Testament bears odd features due to the Aramaic origin of many its expressions, this is a fascinating linguistic exercise. It is also theologically most stimulating.
Prof. Chilton reconstructs the Aramaic original, articulated into six parts (of three addresses and three petitions), like this:
my father/source (‘abba)
your name will be sanctified (yitqadash shemakh)
your Kingdom will come (tetey malkhuthakh)
give me today the bread that is coming (hav li yoma lakhma d’ateh)
and release me my debts (ushebaq li yat chobati)
not bring me to the test (ve’al ta’eleyni lenisyona)
Hewing closely to this inner structure, in his book The Way of Jesus, he has seven chapters that discuss seven key ideas in interesting detail:
Now, it seems clear enough that the origin of this structure for the book was prayerful mediation on the Lord’s Prayer. In fact, Prof. Chilton tells us his plan for the book by drawing an explicit connection between his seven ideas (up for discussion) and the Lord’s Prayer itself:
“God’s power as father and creator brings the response of the Soul (chapter 1). The holiness of his name excites the answer of Spirit within human beings (chapter 2). The promise of his Kingdom pushes believers to realize divine justice in their lives (chapter 3). As people pray for bread each day, they also develop the insight to see that sustenance when it arrives (chapter 4). God’s forgiveness is a force that develops new resources within each of us (chapter 5). And finally, coming to terms with how God judges us—releasing sin, and opening potentials for mercy (chapter 6) and glory (chapter 7)—provides strength for the continuing resilience for prophetic action.”
The book even contains an interesting discussion of how Jesus’ “dark night” (of Satan’s temptation of him in the desert) can be understood as the crucible in which the Lord’s Prayer was forged in its earliest form. As I reflected on that insight, I came to see how the Lord’s Prayer can also, in similar fashion, be connected to the “Seven Last Words”.
That is, the “Seven Last Words” can seen as the verbal expression of an interior reality: namely, the mind of Christ, as formed according to a deeply ingrained, habitual life practice of living mindfully according to the Lord’s Prayer. Here is how I think we could, in a highly significant way, connect the “Seven Last Words” with the seven themes that Prof. Chilton finds underpinning the Lord’s Prayer:
- Soul: “Woman, behold your son” / “Our Father…”
- Spirit: “My God” / “Hallowed be…”
- Kingdom: “It is finished” / “Thy Kingdom…”
- Insight: “I thirst” / “…our daily bread…”
- Forgiveness: “Father, forgive them” / “…as we forgive those…”
- Mercy: “Father, into your hands” / “Lead us not into temptation…”
- Glory: “Today you will be with me in paradise” / “Deliver us from evil”
It would take an argument the length of a book to justify these connections, since they are made on the basis of a meditative reflection upon Prof. Chilton’s book, but nonetheless I can state briefly some main reasons behind the connections. Hopefully that will be enough for you, in order to make your own prayerful contemplation of the subject matter in Holy Week, and to perhaps fill in the rest for yourself:
Soul is the fragile reality of our individual, embodied lives; with each breath we draw, we can view how closely we are connected to our family, friends, and Creator.
Spirit is God’s gift to us, allowing us to feel how we share in the holiness of the divine, through wisdom and virtue.
Kingdom comes when we act justly, without reservations, even if the complete enactment of justice means that some would respond to that complete life of justice by sentencing us to a crucifixion.
Insight is what we truly crave, what we truly need in order to survive. Given enough foresight, we can be content that even only a little bit of food or drink will suffice to get us through the day.
Forgiveness is an amazing power that can completely transform situations by transforming our way of looking at them, in order to bring them wholly within the loving embrace of forgiveness.
Mercy can happen when we give ourselves over to trust in God’s providence concerning the ultimate outcome of anything. At any moment, we can trust that we will face no unendurable test, i.e., a trial that would compel us to set our actions at odds with our values. Instead, we can always choose mercy in response to any apparent provocation.
Glory is the ultimate destination, the City of God, at which all of our prayerful contemplations and efforts aim. It is also the more substantial reality that enables them.
In gratitude, in Holy Week, let us say to each other in a heartfelt way: Pax vobis.
“The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood—
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.”
—T.S. Eliot, “East Coker,” Four Quartets
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 Bruce Chilton, The Way of Jesus: To Repair and Renew the World (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2010).
 Bruce Chilton, Jesus’ Prayer and Jesus’ Eucharist: His Personal Practice of Spirituality (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1997). See also Chilton, The Way of Jesus, 16.
 Chilton, The Way of Jesus, 17.
 Chilton, The Way of Jesus, 65.