The Fifth Last Word
Isaac Jogues thirsted for souls. In 1636 the young French Jesuit met several missionaries recently returned from New France, which encompassed much of what is now Canada and the northern United States. The men described New France — and its native inhabitants — as harsh and often unwelcoming. Their stories didn’t deter Jogues; rather, they inspired him to journey thousands of miles to serve and convert the native peoples. That same year he embarked to New France, where he was assigned as a missionary to the Huron and Algonquian, both of whom were allies of the French.
Six years after his arrival, Jogues, lay Jesuit missionary René Goupil, and several Huron were returning from Quebec City laden with supplies when they were ambushed by Iroquois warriors. Over the next several months, the Iroquois subjected Jogues and Goupil to a variety of tortures, including tearing off their hair, beards, and nails, and biting through their forefingers. They eventually tomahawked Goupil to death. While in captivity, Jogues continued to perform his priestly ministry, baptizing and hearing the confessions of other prisoners.
In 1643, after a year in slavery, Jogues escaped with the help of Dutch settlers, who put him on a ship back to France. In Europe, Pope Urban VIII proclaimed Jogues a “living martyr” and gave him a dispensation to say Mass with his mutilated hand. Yet, the following year, Jogues was back in New France, where he volunteered to serve as an emissary to the Mohawk. The tribe was suffering an outbreak of infectious disease and crop failure, which they blamed on the Jesuits. In October 1646 they invited Jogues to a meal, where they tomahawked him to death, placed his severed head on a pole, and threw his dismembered body into the Mohawk River.
In his book France and England in North America (1893), historian Francis Parkman writes:
The Jesuits had borne all that the human frame seems capable of bearing. They had escaped as by miracle from torture and death. Did their zeal flag or their courage fail? A fervor intense and unquenchable urged them on to more distant and more deadly ventures…. They burned to do, to suffer, and to die; and now, from out of a living martyrdom, they turned their heroic gaze towards an horizon dark with perils yet more appalling, and saw in hope the day when they should bear the cross into the blood-stained dens of the Iroquois.
Jogues, the “First Apostle of the Iroquois,” undoubtedly possessed that unquenchable desire to save the souls of the indigenous peoples whose language and customs he had learned. No amount of abuse, even the threat of death, could extinguish that yearning.
“I thirst” is the fifth and shortest of Christ’s last words (cf. Jn. 19:28). By this point in His Passion, Jesus of Nazareth had probably been awake more than 24 hours, perhaps longer. He had spent a sleepless night in prayer. He had been betrayed and abandoned by His closest friends, unjustly accused and delivered to the enemies of His own people, scourged almost to death by professional executioners, and forced to carry a wooden beam about a third of a mile to Golgotha, where He was being crucified. Presumably, neither the Sanhedrin, Pontius Pilate, nor the soldiers had asked Jesus if, during this terrible ordeal, He wanted a drink. It’s almost absurd even to contemplate, given the circumstances.
Blood loss increases thirst, and by the time Jesus uttered these words on the cross, He had lost a lot. It’s easy to overlook this aspect of Christ’s suffering when considering the cat-o’-nine-tails that whipped His body 39 times, the exhausting carrying of the cross, the sharp thorns pressed into His skull, and the huge nails pounded into His flesh. Yet, as St. Robert Bellarmine notes, this thirst would have been “one of the greatest pains He endured on the Cross” (The Seven Last Words from the Cross).
At the beginning of His crucifixion, Jesus was offered the customary anesthetizing drink — “wine mingled with myrrh” (Mk. 15:23) — to deaden the unbearable pain. Jesus declined to drink it, leading many biblical scholars, such as the late Pope Benedict XVI, to argue that Our Lord wanted to endure His suffering consciously.
After Jesus’ declaration of thirst, the Roman soldiers mockingly extended Him a sponge full of vinegar, which He took (cf. Lk. 23:36). “Instead of a refreshing and cooling draught, they offered Him one that was hurtful and bitter,” writes St. Cyril of Alexandria. The derisiveness of the soldiers’ gesture certainly adds to the heinous nature of their behavior. “Though we have ten thousand enemies, and have suffered intolerable things at their hands, yet when we see them perishing, we relent,” observes Cyril. But the soldiers “did not even so make peace with Him, nor were tamed by what they saw, but rather became more savage, and increased their irony.”
Another Church Father, St. Augustine, offers an allegorical explanation: “The Jews were themselves the vinegar, degenerated as they were from the wine of the patriarchs and prophets; and filled like a full vessel with the wickedness of this world, with hearts like a sponge, deceitful in the formation of its cavernous and tortuous recesses.” Benedict sees in the vinegar an allusion to Isaiah 5 — the story of the vineyard, in which Israel yields sour grapes — and thus Jesus is offered the “sour grapes of man” (Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection).
There are many other correlations to Old Testament prophecies and typologies in the Passion narrative. Notably, in Jesus’ statement we see specific fulfillments of the Davidic prayers for deliverance: “My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue cleaves to my jaws; thou dost lay me in the dust of death” (Ps. 22:15), and “They gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink” (Ps. 69:21). In a thirst unsatiated by vinegar, the song of the just, suffering, prayerful prophet is fulfilled.
Moreover, biblical scholars Scott Hahn and Curtis Mitch see an explicitly salvific theme in this event. The use of hyssop to lift the sponge indicates a connection with the original Passover, “when the Israelites used hyssop branches to smear blood on their doorposts as a mark of divine protection,” they write (Ignatius Catholic Study Bible). Jesus’ blood, like that of the lambs, is a means of salvation (cf. Exod. 12:13-28).
Beyond these biblical allusions and fulfillments, there is a strange irony to Jesus’ declaration of thirst. Across the Gospels, it is typically Jesus who is the one satiating the thirst of others. For example, He tells the Samaritan woman that He has “living water” and that “whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst” (Jn. 4:1-15). And on the last day of the Feast of Booths, Jesus proclaims, “If any one thirst, let him come to me and drink” (Jn. 7:37). Now, on the cross, it is Jesus the fountain who thirsts.
That the Son of God would thirst — as He also grew tired, wept, and expressed frustration — is undoubtedly emblematic of His union with the human condition in its weakest and most vulnerable moments. And it offers more credence to the ancient orthodox teaching that His suffering was not imagined, as the Gnostics taught, but terribly genuine.
We should not, however, overlook a combination of the tropological (i.e., moral) and anagogical (i.e., prophetic) interpretations of Jesus’ declaration. St. Thomas Aquinas explains: “It also indicated his intense desire for the salvation of the human race: ‘God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved’ (1 Tim 2:4); ‘For the Son of man came to seek and to save the lost’ (Lk 19:10).” Jesus’ thirst is not only a human, corporeal thirst but a spiritual, divine one: a thirst for souls. The salvation of souls, writes Bellarmine, is that “after which He so ardently longed…. The one comfort He sought after, this He desired, this He hungered for, this He thirsted for.” Incomparably greater than His human thirst, Bellarmine argues, is Jesus’ desire that all men should know that He is the true fount of living water.
Of course, for those few faithful watching Jesus expire at Golgotha, that would have been a perplexing message to contemplate. Only a post-Resurrection Church can make sense of a thirsty, naked, humiliated Christ somehow giving us water that will forever quench our thirst. Today we can perceive the beauty of this interpretation. The unparalleled degree of Christ’s torment, His union with our suffering, and the brutal reality of it all make clear that this was done for us.
We followers of Christ are likewise called to thirst for souls, to burn with desire to see others saved — not only our family and friends but everyone we meet. Our doing so in a sense quenches the thirst of our Savior. “We want to satiate the thirst of Jesus on the cross for the love of souls,” urged Mother Teresa.
This is difficult, whether you have a secular career or are engaged in full-time ministry. Our secular culture’s skepticism of and sometimes open antagonism toward the faith can enervate our missionary zeal, not only for fear of embarrassment but fear of retribution if coworkers or neighbors were to know what we think about certain controversial subjects. Even for those of us openly living our Catholic faith, going in search of opportunities to talk about religion seems daunting: What if we say the wrong thing or fail to answer some objection? We worry that we might cause more harm than good. And those in ministry must often walk a tightrope of ensuring they are pastoral and winsome — while not compromising doctrinal truth — when handling both potential converts and their flock.
Nevertheless, this is our calling. Pope St. Paul VI, in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi (1975), acknowledges the “lack of fervor which is all the more serious because it comes from within.” In response, he declares:
Multitudes have the right to know the riches of the mystery of Christ — riches in which we believe that the whole of humanity can find, in unsuspected fullness, everything that it is gropingly searching for concerning God, man and his destiny, life and death, and truth…. This is why the Church keeps her missionary spirit alive, and even wishes to intensify it in the moment of history in which we are living. (no. 42)
As Catholics, we believe that Christ works in and through His Church to bring about the salvation of souls. And the Church is not simply bishops, priests, and deacons. The Church is all of us, regardless of our expertise in theology, biblical studies, or ecclesial history.
This doesn’t necessarily mean we are all called to become professional apologists capable of effortlessly quoting Scripture or Aquinas. I’d bet many of the Church’s greatest witnesses couldn’t differentiate Chrysostom from Cajetan, or anathema from aseity. What makes the saint, and the most effective witness, is being closely united to Christ. Those most fervent in prayer, most humble in attitude, and most diligent in love are best equipped to share the Gospel — those who, in their thirst for God, make Psalm 42:1-2 their daily prayer:
As a hart longs
for flowing streams,
so longs my soul
for thee, O God.
My soul thirsts for God,
for the living God.
When shall I come and behold
the face of God?
That’s not to say evangelism is encapsulated only in the overused aphorism falsely attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the Gospel at all times, and if necessary use words.” How many times has this commendation been used to avoid awkward, embarrassing, and perhaps even dangerous conversations about Christ and the Church? Rather, evangelism can be as simple as sharing stories about your Catholic faith and life with neighbors and coworkers, inviting them to Mass or a Catholic lecture, or giving them a book you think might intersect with their personal interests.
Unfortunately, if we are honest, our thirsts for the things of this world often move us more than do things divine. “It is not only Israel, but the Church, it is we ourselves who repeatedly respond to God’s bountiful love with vinegar — with a sour heart that is unable to perceive God’s love,” writes Benedict. We are often forgetful of God, impatient with His timing, or stubbornly resistant to His will. Even if we don’t scoff at Christ hanging on the cross, our laziness or willful sinning expresses the same sentiment.
And yet there He still hangs, in every Catholic parish in the world, the perfect sacrifice to atone for our sins and reconcile us to the Father. Bellarmine, in his typical exegetical brilliance, connects Jesus’ thirst to our own:
All these blessings we owe to Christ, Who satiated our thirst at the price of His own suffering, and so watered the arid hearts of men that they will never more thirst, unless at the instigation of their enemy they willfully withdraw themselves from that everlasting spring.
Thus, our first — and last — task is to seek Him at the cross, in penitent prayer and praise that, by a curious grace, bring solace to Him in His grief over sin. “If then anyone desires to comfort and console Christ hungering and thirsting on the Cross, and full of sorrow and grief, let him in the first place show himself truly penitent; let him detest his own sins,” declares Bellarmine. Our worship, amazingly, amounts to a real quenching of Christ’s thirst during His Passion.
This is perhaps no more acute than in our own final days, when pain and loneliness are often most deeply felt. Yet, as Christ shows us, our suffering, if directed toward Heaven, can be salvific. The very thirst we feel as we approach our final days — a thirst for the restoration of our bodies, the satisfaction of our deepest emotional and spiritual longings, and communion with God — can be offered up for the sake of the world. “We express our intense desires in terms of thirst,” observes Aquinas. Our human thirst, like His, can be, as Servant of God Fulton Sheen describes, a thirst for a perfect love only realized through union with God.
Nobel laureate François Mauriac’s book Viper’s Tangle (1932) is a story about, among other things, the thirsts that drive us. The protagonist, M. Louis, is an avaricious, social-climbing member of the French bourgeoisie who is vocally antagonistic toward Christianity. His family, ostensibly Catholic, is obsessed with wealth and status and eager to ensure they are beneficiaries of his legacy. M. Louis’s observations of their greed only intensifies his bitterness toward them and God. His heart “had become a nest of vipers,” filled with a “lust for vengeance and a grasping love of money.”
Yet M. Louis is confounded by strange graces. A beloved young daughter, struck by typhoid fever, murmurs her wish to die “for Papa.” He is beset by feelings of guilt and unworthiness. A devoted granddaughter, Janine, who spends many hours with M. Louis in his final days, has a softening effect on him. One evening, writing in his journal, he muses, “Something is making my heart feel as though it would burst — it is the Love whose name at last I know, whose ador—.” Those are M. Louis’s last words, the man dying at his desk.
Reflecting on her grandfather’s last days, Janine considers his relationship with the family. “I feel that he was right in his attitude toward us. Where our treasure was, there were our hearts also,” she notes. “We never let our principles interfere with our lives. Our thoughts, our desires, our actions struck no root in the faith to which we paid lip service.” The Christians who surrounded M. Louis were thirsty more for inheritance than for Christ, and they offered such a poor example of the faith that their hypocrisy instilled in the protagonist a deep cynicism toward religion.
How many opportunities to share the faith, even if imperfectly and embarrassingly, have we missed, opportunities that might have set a lost soul on the path to conversion? That, my friends, is our mission: to thirst for souls, manifested in our prayers, sacrifices, and works of charity. “Christ thirsted for the glory of God and the salvation of men, and we ought to thirst for the glory of God, for the honor of Christ, for our own salvation, and the salvation of our brethren,” Bellarmine exhorts us.
Two simple words: “I thirst.” Yet therein is enough of a prayer to change the world.
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