SEVEN WORDS TO THE CROSS
Our Lord spoke seven words from the Cross; but there were also seven words spoken to Our Lord on the Cross.
THE FIRST WORD TO THE CROSS
Some never remain near the Cross long enough to absorb the mercy which flows from the Crucified. They are known as the “passers-by.”
The passers-by blasphemed against Him, tossing their heads; Come now, they said,
Thou who wouldst destroy the temple and build it up in three days, rescue Thyself; come down from that cross, If Thou art the Son of God. (Matt. 27:39, 40)
The Lord was no sooner on the Cross than they asked Him to come down. “Come down from the Cross” is the most typical demand of an unregenerate world in the face of self-denial and abnegation: a religion without a Cross.
As He, the Son of God, was praying for the executioners, “Father forgive,” they sneered: “If Thou art the Son of God.” If He had obeyed their taunt “Come down,” in whom would they believe? How could Love be Love if it costs not the Lover?
If Christ had come down, there would have been the Cross, but not the crucifix. The Cross is contradiction; the Crucifixion is the solution of the contradiction of life and death by showing that death is the condition of a higher life.
The passers-by shamelessly revived the old accusation at the trial that He would destroy the temple of Jerusalem and then make another in three days, though they knew He spoke of the Temple of His Body. It rankled so in their minds they would even revive it when Stephen, the first martyr, was stoned.
But mockery is an ingredient of the cup of sorrow, and how else would His followers draw strength in similar trials, if He had not borne it patiently? The cruelty of lips which sneer is part of the heritage of sin as much as the cruelty of hands which nail.
On the mountain of temptation, Satan used the same technique when he asked the hungry Lord to change stones into bread. It was so unbecoming the Son of God to be hungry! Now it was so unbecoming for the Son of God to suffer. Why did the passers-by not have the patience to wait for the “three days” which was implied in their taunts?
Skeptics always want miracles such as stepping down from the Cross, but never the greater miracle of forgiveness.
THE SECOND WORD TO THE CROSS
The world has room only for the ordinary; never the very good or the very bad. The good are a reproach to the mediocre and the evil are a disturbance. Hence on Calvary, Goodness is crucified between two thieves. That is His true position: among the worthless and the rejects. He is the right man in the right place.
He Who said He would come like a thief in the night is among the thieves; the Physician is among the lepers; the Redeemer is in the midst of the unredeemed. The good thief, touched by Christ, now spoke to the Savior on the Cross: Lord, remember me when Thou comest into Thy Kingdom. (Luke 23:42)
This was the only word spoken to the Cross that was not a reproach. While passers-by were judging the Divinity of Our Lord by deliverance from pain, the good thief was asking for deliverance from sin. The believer asks no proofs; nor was there a condition: “If Thou art the Son of God.” His words implied that certainly He Who could usher him into a Kingdom could assuage his pain and unfasten the nails, if He so willed.
The conduct of everyone around the Cross was the negation of the very faith the good thief manifested; yet he believed when others disbelieved. The penitent thief called Him “Lord” or One Who possessed the right to rule; he ascribed to Him a Kingdom which certainly was not of this world, for He bore no outward mark of kingship. Victim and Lord were to the good thief compatible terms. A dying thief understood it before the Apostles.
This is the only deathbed conversion mentioned in the Gospels, but it was preceded by the Cross of suffering. What the good thief asked for was to be remembered. But why be remembered, except that the pardon Christ offered to His executioners could also be offered to him? Nor was there a word of smiting or reproach to the thief, for his heart was already bruised and broken. This was the only word spoken to the Cross that received an answer, and it was the promise of Paradise to the thief that very day.
THE THIRD WORD TO THE CROSS
The third word to the Cross came from the thief on the left: Save Thyself and us too, If Thou art the Christ. (Luke 23:39) The typical selfish man who is never conscious of having done wrong asks: “Why did God do this to me?”
He judges the saving power of God by release from trials. This thief on the left was the first Communist. Long before Marx, he was saying: “Religion is the opiate of the people. If it cannot give relief from trial, what good is it?”
A religion that thinks of souls when men are dying, which bids them look to God at the moment when the courts are inflicting injustice, which talks about Paradise or “pie in the sky,” when stomachs are empty and bodies racked with pain which discourses about forgiveness when social outcasts, two thieves and a village carpenter, are dying on a scaffold—such a religion is “the opiate of the people.”
The only salvation the thief on the left could understand was not spiritual or moral, but physical: “Save Thyself and us!” “Save what? Our souls? No! Man has no soul! Save our bodies! What good is religion if it cannot stop pain? Step down from a gibbet! Rescue a class! Christianity is either a social gospel or it is a drug.” Such was his cry.
Men can be in identical circumstances and react in totally different ways. Both thieves were alike in the depravity of their hearts, and yet each reacted differently to the man in their midst. No external means, no good example, of and by itself, is enough to convert unless the heart itself is changed.
This thief was certainly a Jew, for he based his acceptance of the Messiah or Christ solely on His power to take him down from the Cross. But suppose that the Christ did unpinion the nails, dry up the fountains in his hands and feet, restore him to freshness and newness of life, would the rest of his earthly life have been a demonstration of faith in Christ—or a continuation of his life as a thief?
If Our Lord were only a man who had to sustain his reputation, He would have had to show his might then and there; but being God, Who knows the secrets of every heart, He kept silence. God answers no man’s prayer merely to show His power.
THE FOURTH WORD TO THE CROSS
This word came from the intelligentsia of the time, the chief priests, Scribes, and Pharisees. “He saved others, He cannot save Himself. If He is the King of Israel, He has but to come down from the cross, Here and now, and we will believe in Him. He trusted in God; let God, if He favors Him, succour Him now; He told us, I am the Son of God. (“Matt. 27:42, 43)
The intelligentsia always know enough about religion to distort it, hence they took each of the three titles which Christ had claimed for Himself—“Savior,” “King of Israel,” and “Son of God,”—and turned them into ridicule.“Savior”: So He was called by the Samaritans. Now they would admit He had saved others, probably the daughter of Jairus, the son of the widow of Naim, and Lazarus. They could afford to admit it now, for the Savior Himself stood in need of salvation. “He saved others, He cannot save Himself.” The conclusive miracle to them was still lacking.
Of course, He could not save Himself! The rain cannot save itself, if it is to bud the greenery. The sun cannot save itself, if it is to light a world; the soldier cannot save himself, if he is to save his country. And Christ cannot save Himself, if He is to save His creatures!
“King of Israel”: That title the crowd gave Him after He fed the multitude and fled into the mountains alone. They repeated it again on Palm Sunday, when they strewed branches beneath His feet. Now that title was mocked as they sneered: “If He is the King of Israel, He has but to come down from the Cross.” Must all the kings of earth be seated on golden thrones?
Suppose Israel’s King decided to rule from a Cross, to be King not of their bodies through power, but of their hearts through love? Their own literature suggested the idea of a King Who would come to glory through humiliation. How foolish then to mock a King because He refused to come down from His throne. And if He did come down, they would be the first to say, as they had before, that He did it through the power of Beelzebub.
Irreligious forces have their holiday in moments of great catastrophe. In wartime, they ask: “Where is thy God now?” Why is it that in time of trouble, God is always put on trial, and not man? Why in war, should the judge and the culprit change places as man asks: “Why does not God stop the war?” Thus did Christ hear Himself mocked!
They did not know they were already lost. They thought He was. Therefore they, the really damned, mock One Whom they believed to be damned. Hell was triumphing in the human! Truly this was the hour of the power of the devils of hell.
They said they would believe if He came down. But they did not believe when they saw Him raise Lazarus from the dead. Nor would they believe when He would rise from the dead. They then would prohibit the Apostles from preaching the Resurrection which they knew to be a fact. No descent from the Cross would have won men. It is human to come down; it is Divine to hang there!
THE FIFTH WORD TO THE CROSS
When there was darkness over the earth, Our Lord let ring out a cry that prompted the fifth word to the Cross: “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” (Mark 15:35) which meant “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” Hearing this, some of those who stood by said: Why, He is calling upon Elias… Let us see whether Elias is to come and save Him. (Mark 15:35, 36)
Whether there was a willful misinterpretation of the Lord’s cry so that they mistook Eloi for Elias is not certain. But there was certainly mockery, for it was a belief of the Jews, because prophesied by Malachias, that Elias must come before the Lord came. Their words meant that He certainly could not be the Lord, for Elias had not yet come.
Thus they made the self-vaunted Messiah appear as if He summoned a man who was to precede His coming. Actually, Elias had come in spirit in the person of John the Baptist. Before John was born, the angel appeared to his father Zachary, saying that the son to be born of him: Shall bring back many of the sons of Israel To the Lord their God, Ushering in His advent in the spirit and power of an Elias. (Luke 1:16)
That the spirit of Elias rested in John was evident, for the first sermon the Baptist preached was “Repent.” This was the way Malachias had prophesied the forerunner of the Lord would announce Him. Furthermore, John’s mode of life and dress pointed up his inner resemblance to the great Thesbite. The Lord was on the Cross; Elias had come in spirit.
The mockers undoubtedly recalled Our Lord’s reference to Elias during His public life. He was telling the messengers from John that the reception of any truth He taught depended upon one’s state of will. Hence to accept John as Elias meant the acceptance of the repentance John was to bring about in souls: This I tell you, if you could make room For it in your minds, That he is that Elias whose coming was prophesied. (Matt. 11:14)
If their consciences were right, He told them, they would have accepted John in the spirit of Elias. Two years passed, and their consciences were revealed as Christ hung on the Cross. They reproached John with asceticism and self-denial; they now reproached Jesus for hanging on the Cross. As the people expected a different Elias as His forerunner, so they expected a different Christ.
The cry to the Cross, on the part of those who misinterpreted a word, was typical of many who think religion always means something other than it actually does. All through the Crucifixion, the one unifying motif was: “Come down from the Cross.” Satan did not want Him to mount it, Peter was scandalized at the very mention of it. Even those who believe Christ was a human person do not want His Cross. The world is always waiting for Elias to take Him down.
The uncrucified Christ is the worldling’s desire. The refusal to come down will forever be the reproach to those who want a lily Christ with hands unscarred and white.
THE SIXTH WORD TO THE CROSS
The sixth word to the Cross came from soldiers: The soldiers, too, mocked Him, When they came and offered Him vinegar, By saying, “If Thou art the King of the Jews, Save Thyself.” (Luke 23:36, 37) These men were not Jews, nor citizens of conquered Israel; they were proud legionnaires of Rome. Why then did they refer to Him mockingly as the King of the Jews?
Because in keeping with the spirit of paganism, they thought all gods were national gods. Babylon had its gods; the Medes and Persians had theirs; the Greeks had theirs; and so did the Romans have their own. The implication was that of all the national gods, none seemed poorer and weaker than the God of Israel Who could not save Himself from a tree. It is likely, too, that the soldiers’ ridicule was inspired by the inscription on the Cross in three languages which read: “This is the King of the Jews.” (John 19:19)
Others had asked Him to come down from the Cross or to save Himself, but the soldiers, like the thief on the left, challenged Him to “save Himself.” They, too, were interested in salvation, but only physically, not spiritually. There was a hidden boast in how well they had done their job of execution so that He could not extricate Himself from the Cross.
The soldiers had already shaken dice for His seamless robe. Caiphas rent his priestly robes, but the robes of the High Priest on the Cross were not rent. He left to His military revilers His seamless robe and their belief that He could not save Himself. They would be stationed at the tomb on Easter morning to see how wrong they were and why He would not save Himself. These soldiers belonged to an Empire where a general who sacrificed thousands of soldiers for temporal glory was held in high repute; but they scorn the Captain of salvation Who Himself died that others might live.
This is one of the few passages in the New Testament where soldiers are spoken of unfavorably. Little did they see that His refusal to save Himself was not weakness but was obedience to the law of sacrifice. Their lives committed them to the duty of dying, if need be, to save their country. But that same sacrifice lifted above the military plane they could not grasp. They could see events only in succession; but He had ordained all from the beginning.
He came to “give His life as a ransom for many.” If in obedience to their command He had saved Himself, man would have been left unsaved.
THE SEVENTH WORD TO THE CROSS
When Christ was crucified, the sun hid its light; when He died, the earth shook in grief. In that earthquake, the rocks were rent, graves were opened, and many bodies of the saints that had been asleep rose and came out of the tombs and appeared to many in the Holy City. If the earth gave signs of recognition when God was delivering His people from the slavery in Egypt by the parting of the waters of the sea, with how much greater reason now did it manifest recognition as the Lord liberated man from the slavery of sin.
Though the hearts of the people could not be rent, the rocks could. The centurion, who had charge of the soldiers, noting the earthquake and recalling the manner in which the Man on the central cross had died, began to reflect. Then this sergeant in the Roman army gave testimony, not in the realm of dreams as did Claudia, the other pagan, but with the expression of an honest and reasonable man: “This was the Son of God.” (Mark 15:39)
The Christ Who had been utterly abandoned by His disciples, save one, at the foot of the Cross; Who had not a single voice raised in His defense except that of a woman; and Who had no one to come forward courageously to acknowledge Him—He is finally owned in His death by a battle-scarred soldier who had commanded and presided over the execution.
Doubtless the centurion had crucified many before, but he felt there was something mysterious in this Sufferer, Who prayed for His enemies and was so strong in His last breath, as to prove that He was Master of the life He was surrendering. Seeing all nature become animated and vocal, his mind saw the refutation of the foul calumnies and the innocence of the righteous man; aye, even more, he proclaimed His Divinity.
The Cross was beginning to bear fruit: a Jewish thief had already asked for and received salvation; and now a soldier of Caesar bowed in adoration of the Divine Sufferer. That strange combination which was everywhere in the public life of Our Lord is now manifested on the Cross: humiliation and power. While others condemned Him of blasphemy, the centurion worshiped Him as the Son of God.
[From: Venerable Archbishop Fulton. J. Sheen, “Life of Christ”. ]
Thank you for reading!
Praying for your fruitful Lent and holiest Easter ever.
from evensong with love.,