Distress: John 19:28: I am thirsty.
Jesus’ fifth Word from the Cross is brief and simple, -- ‘I am thirsty’. Only John’s Gospel records these words, but all the gospel Passion narratives recount Christ’s being offered vinegar or sour wine to drink. John (like Matthew) picks up on the resonance between this brief episode and Psalm 69 - “They put gall in my food and gave me vinegar for my thirst”., Luke makes the offer of sour wine part of the soldiers’ mockery. In Mark’s account it looks more like a fleeting, if ineffectual, act of kindness on ‘someone’s’ part. Which is it? There is no answer, and the fact that it is sour wine or vinegar that Jesus is offered doesn’t settle the matter. Probably, this was the only thing available and in any case soldiers, like the poor in general, would not have had anything better to drink themselves. Mockery or kindness? We can take the actions of the by-standers either way.
Is there a deeper meaning to be read into the words themselves? Any attempt to find one runs the risk of side-lining the reality of Jesus’ physical distress, and thus failing to appreciate the profound sense of his humanity that this desperate cry conveys. Taken simply as an expression of thirst, it is a further sign of God’s incarnation, which is to say, the full biological embodiment of the divine in the human on the Cross. Viewed as a statement of physical distress, this fifth Word provides an essential corrective to the heresy known as ‘Docetism’ – the tendency to think that since it makes no sense to suppose that an almighty and everlasting God can suffer, the sufferings of the earthly Jesus must have been apparent rather than real. Docetism appealed to some newly converted Christians very early on, as several of the Epistles suggest. But it strikes so radically at the doctrine of the Incarnation, it has long been condemned as heretical.
Behind Docetism lies the still greater heresy of Gnosticism, the belief that reality is made up of two separate worlds – the physical and the spiritual. For Gnostics, the physical is inferior to the spiritual, and so truly religious people must spurn the physical in order to embrace the spiritual. Against this, orthodox Christianity has always held that through God’s unique presence in the Man Jesus, the material world is sanctified, made holy. Nor is this sanctification confined to the biological person of Jesus. Through him, water becomes a means of spiritual cleansing in baptism, bread and wine become the means of communion with God by spiritually incorporating the faithful into the body of Christ. The fifth Word from the Cross should serve as a reminder of these truths. Jesus himself, at the crisis of his Crucifixion, has a compelling desire to drink. He shares our need for physical things like water and wine.
The issue at stake here is not a matter of arcane theology. Indeed, it has particular relevance this Holy Week and Easter when gathering together for holy communion through bread and wine, even on Maundy Thursday, has been forbidden. Almost every church is offering some form of worship online, and encouraging congregations to ‘tune in’, or simply ‘prayer along’ at home. The hope, of course, is that even in these difficult times of enforced isolation, intending to share -- without actually sharing – the bread, the wine, the peace, the responses, can sustain the spiritual community that is the Church. The danger, though, is that we fail to remember, even perhaps to see, that this is no minor adjustment in difficult circumstances. Christians can indeed be united at a distance in time and space through prayer, but the essence of the Eucharist lies in its being shared, as Jesus first shared it with his disciples. To think otherwise, to think that purely ‘spiritual’ or ‘intentional’ communion is an adequate substitute, is to drift into Gnosticism.
Even when it comes to prayer, the communal seems essential. Every soul can reach out to God, of course, but Jesus’ own words reveal the spiritual limitations of social isolation. His explicit promise has an essentially communal dimension: “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst” (Matthew 18:20).
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