Triumph: John 19:30: It is finished
The word ‘finished’ is ambivalent. It can mean simply ‘has come to an end’, or more positively, it can mean ‘has brought to completion’. The difference is key to understanding Jesus’ sixth Word from the Cross. His cry -- ‘It is finished’ – does not merely signal the end of his suffering. The Greek word usually translated ‘finished’ is one that would have been used on legal documents to confirm the completion of a business deal, something like the exchange of ‘missives’ in Scots law. So when Jesus cries ‘It is finished’ this is not to be understood as an expression of relief that his agony is over, but as an affirmation that his divine mission has been completed.
The completion of his mission through his sacrifice on the Cross has been the focal point of intense theological debate. It underlay the 16th century Protestant reformers rejection of Catholic teaching on the Eucharist which held that Christ’s sacrifice was repeated every time the priest said mass. This implied, the reformers thought, that Christ’s work on the Cross was not complete. The authors of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer shared this view, and the words they wrote for its communion service, hammer home the point: “Jesus Christ . . . upon the cross . . . made there, by his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction . . .”, words that are still used in the 1970 Scottish liturgy.
This emphasis on the one, perfect sacrifice, however, leaves a question about what it is we are doing when we celebrate Holy Communion time and again. Some of the reformers were content to say that the communion service is simply a memorial, a way of remembering what Christ did, like the commemoration of a great military victory. Others, though, and with them many Anglican reformers, were reluctant to say that taking communion is just a way of remembering, and accomplishes nothing in itself. For a start, Christ speaks the words of institution at the Last Supper, the night before the Crucifixion, and invites his followers to eat the bread and drink the wine as the Body and Blood that will be broken and shed next day, on the Cross. How could they have been remembering something that had not yet happened?
The issue, of course, is far too large and complex to be settled in a few paragraphs. One thought is this, though. In Jesus’ cry “It is finished” we might hear an echo of the Book of Genesis – “On the seventh day God finished the work that he had done”. God’s completion of Creation did not bring things to an end. On the contrary, with Creation’s ‘completion’ the unfolding life of the cosmos began, an unfolding life that is cyclical. It is within the cycles of night and day, summer and winter, birth and death, seed time and harvest, that human beings fashion their lives. Viewed in this way, ‘completion’ is the beginning of existence not the end, and repetition is renewal not recollection. Life always traces a pattern, and follows a path. This does not mean, plainly, that all lives and times are the same. Rather, individuality is realized again and again within the patterns God has ordained, and within the families and communities that sustain those patterns.
What is true of God’s creation is true of all creativity. The artist completes a ‘finished’ work – a poem, a play, a novel, a song. This act of completion is the start, not the end, of a work of art and it brings into existence something that enriches our lives precisely because it can be said, or acted, or read, or sung, again and again. So too with Christ’s redemptive work on the Cross. The completion of his mission inaugurates a renewed Creation within which we are offered redeeming life. This life also has, and needs, its pattern, the pattern being Christ. To pattern our lives on Christ as the incarnation of God requires repeated acts of prayer and praise, returning again and again for the spiritual nourishment that is to be found in the sacrament of the altar.
Unbeknownst to Pilate, though perceived by the penitent thief, the Cross’s mocking notice ‘King of the Jews’ contains a great insight. Contrary to common sense, the Cross truly is a throne, and the thorns really are a crown, because God has chosen to make them so. Paradoxically, it is with the cry “It is finished” that the Reign of Christ begins.
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