Volume > Issue > The Sixth Last Word

The Sixth Last Word

REVERT'S ROSTRUM

By Casey Chalk | April 2024
Casey Chalk is a Contributing Editor of the NOR. His latest book is The Obscurity of Scripture: Disputing Sola Scriptura and the Protestant Notion of Biblical Perspicuity (Emmaus Road Publishing). He is a regular contributor to The American Conservative, The Federalist, Crisis Magazine, Catholic World Report, and more. His website is caseychalk.com.

Caterinetta was born in 1447, the fifth and final child of James Fieschi, viceroy of Naples for King René of Anjou, and his Genoese wife, Francesca di Negro. Through her father, the girl descended from the brother of Pope Innocent IV (r. 1243-1254). From an early age, Caterinetta, or Catherine, was deeply attracted to religious life; her sister was an Augustinian canoness regular. The chaplain of the convent, however, put off 13-year-old Catherine’s request to enter on account of her youth. Shortly thereafter, Catherine’s father passed away.

Another prominent family, the opportunistic Ghibellines of Adorni, saw in Catherine a means of restoring their waning fortunes. Thus, at the age of 16, Catherine was wed to Ghibelline Julian Adorno. She was quite the catch: Besides coming from an illustrious Italian family, Catherine was beautiful, intelligent, and sensible. Julian, alternatively, was a shamefully dishonorable character, which became apparent soon after their wedding.

By his own admission, Julian was unfaithful to Catherine and rarely at home. He was a hedonist, hot-tempered, undisciplined, and profligate. For the first five years of their childless marriage, Catherine brooded in solitude. For another five, she attempted to find comfort and distraction in the merriment and recreations fitting to her station in life.

Despite the hardships of a scoundrel husband, the patient Catherine never lost her faith. On the eve of the Feast of St. Benedict in 1473, the exasperated woman begged the saint to make her sick in bed for three months. Two days later, kneeling before the chaplain at her sister’s convent, she was overcome by a piercing, mystical love for God and a recognition of her own unworthiness. She quickly made a general confession of her whole life and became a daily communicant, an uncommon practice for laypersons in the Middle Ages.

Contemporaneous to Catherine’s religious experience, Julian’s extravagance brought the family to financial ruin. Yet his wife’s prayers brought about his conversion, too, and the couple moved from their palazzo into humbler accommodations. They agreed to live in continence and devote themselves to the sick and the poor. Eventually, they moved into a hospital. Julian, who would become a Franciscan tertiary, died in 1497, and Catherine in 1510. Her writings, especially those on Purgatory, were deemed by the Holy Office to be enough to prove her sanctity, and she was canonized by Pope Clement XII in 1737.

Catherine and Julian’s story is not one we often find in our contemporary world, which displays little patience for the bad behavior of spouses. A few years ago, a female reader described to popular Washington Post advice columnist Carolyn Hax her caddish husband’s tendency to refer to her jokingly as retarded. “I am really tired of this. What can I do to get him to stop?” the woman queried. “Divorce him,” Hax curtly replied.

In today’s America, women divorce men over dirty dishes left by the sink, annoying personality quirks, or financial stress. Men divorce women for getting too fat, incessant nagging, or “disrespecting” them. Rare is the advice columnist or psychotherapist who would exhort someone to stay with an unfaithful, spendthrift spouse for ten years. Yet that’s exactly the kind of longsuffering to which Christ calls His followers, exemplified so beautifully in the story of Catherine and Julian.

Jesus offers the perfect example of what this pious, persistent patience looks like. We read of Christ’s Sixth Last Word in John’s Gospel: “When Jesus had received the vinegar, he said, ‘It is finished’; and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit” (19:30). Yet what, precisely, is finished? His human life, certainly, but is that all? Is He simply making an exasperated observation regarding a terrible ordeal now consigned to the past, akin to our colloquialism, “Well, that’s finally over with”? Or is He referring to the entire Passion narrative? Or something else?

“The work of the Passion was now perfected and completed,” writes St. Robert Bellarmine in The Seven Last Words from the Cross. Pope Benedict XVI notes that tetelestai, the Greek phrase for “It is finished,” refers to the beginning of the Passion, when Jesus washes the feet of the Apostles. There we read that Jesus loved His own “to the end,” or telos (Jn. 13:1). “This ‘end,’ this ne plus ultra of loving, is now attained in the moment of death,” Benedict writes in Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection (2011). “He has truly gone right to the end, to the very limit and even beyond that limit. He has accomplished the utter fullness of love — he has given himself.” The phrase It is finished, otherwise translated as It is accomplished or It is consummated, is a declaration that Christ’s redemptive work has been completed.

What is finished, in this sense, is the one, true sacrifice of which all those under the Old Law were mere shadows and figures. Pope St. Leo the Great writes, “Thou hast drawn all things to Thyself, O Lord, for when the veil of the Temple was rent, the Holy of Holies departed from unworthy priests: figures became truths: prophecies became manifest: the Law became the Gospel.” Jesus is both the priest offering the sacrifice and the victim, the “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” His altar is the Cross, “the fire for the holocaust is charity, and the fruit of the sacrifice is the redemption of the world,” as Bellarmine beautifully puts it.

More than just the Passion, Jesus’ accomplishment encompasses His entire laborious sojourn among us. “What,” asks St. Augustine, “but all that prophecy had foretold so long before?” All Christ’s life, inasmuch as it fulfills the many prophecies of the Scriptures, is included in what He considers to be “finished.” And that, of course, begins with the Annunciation to Mary (cf. Lk. 1:26-38), the beginning of what C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity memorably terms a sabotage operation in “enemy-occupied territory.” In Christ’s death, the power granted to men and demons over the person of Christ has been definitively withdrawn, reassumed by the victorious Son of God.

It is finished points not only backward but forward. Benedict sees a connection to Hebrews 5:8-10, which reads, “Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and being made perfect he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchiz′edek.” In this reading, Jesus’ statement is an act of consecration, “the priestly handing-over of himself and the world to God — right to the end (cf. Jn 17:19),” Benedict writes. Christ initiates a “new cosmic liturgy” around His Cross, replacing “all other acts of worship as the one true glorification of God, in which God glorifies himself through him in whom he grants us his love, thereby drawing us to himself.”

There is ample scriptural evidence in favor of this interpretation: the darkening of the sun, the tearing of the Temple veil, the quaking of the earth, and the rising of the dead (cf. Lk. 23:44-45; Mt. 27:51-53). “At the foot of the Cross, the Church of the Gentiles comes into being,” Benedict writes. “Through the Cross, the Lord gathers people together to form the new community of the worldwide Church. Through the suffering Son, they recognize the true God.”

This interpretation is also found in patristic sources. St. Epiphanius in his third book against heretics, and St. Augustine in City of God, both argue that Eve, created from Adam’s rib while he slept, typifies the Church, built from the side of Christ while He slept in death. Elsewhere in City of God, Augustine proposes that the building of the Church commenced with the baptism of Christ. Thus, argues Bellarmine, “The building of the Church was completed when Christ said, ‘It is consummated,’ because nothing then remained but death.”

To wit, what Christ accomplished was the greatest, most strenuous, and most wonderful work ever done. And He performed it with perfect patience and perseverance. “Do you see how He does all things calmly, and with power?” asks St. John Chrysostom (Homily 85 on the Gospel of John). This could have been achieved only by someone who clearly and faultlessly perceived the telos toward which His life and mission were directed. “Our Lord labored in hunger and thirst, in the midst of many griefs, of insults without number, of blows, of wounds, of death itself,” observes Bellarmine. “But now He drinks from the fount of joys, and His joy shall last forever.”

Our contemporary culture resists the idea of being patient in death, in ways that at first glance appear to be in irreconcilable tension. In one sense, we aggressively act to resist death, to prolong our life and especially our youth. In another sense, we believe that once we are no longer happy or fulfilled, perhaps because of a terminal illness or some debilitating psychological malady, we should have the right to pre-emptively end our lives, evidenced by the growing popularity of euthanasia in the West. What unites these perspectives is a prioritization of physical and emotional comfort. Pain is a problem to be solved, not patiently endured, and certainly not embraced as a means of realizing our salvation or that of another.

The Christian conception of pain and death, exemplified most perfectly in Christ Himself, is patently different. Though pain and death are certainly something to be grieved and prudently avoided, they can, counterintuitively, work for our good. Christ did not flee His Passion but welcomed it, and He secured our salvation in the process. Though a single drop of the God-man’s blood would have been sufficient to atone for the sins of the world, Christ chose the Cross specifically to demonstrate the degree of His love for His heavenly Father and for us.

We, in turn, are called to embrace that same Cross, to play a role in our Savior’s redemptive work. St. Paul writes, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Col. 1:24). Through the universal priesthood (cf. 1 Pet. 2:5-9) we are able to make spiritual sacrifices and present our bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God (cf. Rom. 12:1). Thus, says Bellarmine, “It is just and proper that the disciples of a crucified God, who are desirous, as far as they can, of imitating their Master, should offer themselves as a sacrifice to God according to their weakness and their poverty.”

There is no better time to make such atoning sacrifices than when our death approaches. Will our thoughts be aimed at how to defeat it or how to make the experience an extension of the redemptive work of the Cross? Of course, these two perspectives need not be mutually exclusive. Indeed, through our union with Christ’s sufferings, even the nonterminal illnesses we battle are an opportunity for participation in His salvific work. “Our bodies should be victims consecrated to God, which we should use for the honor of God,” writes Bellarmine. “For we must not look upon our bodies as our own property, but as the property of God, to Whom we were consecrated in Baptism, and Who has bought us at a great price.”

In 1963, when Pope St. John XXIII was dying, daily news bulletins reported on what he was offering up one day’s suffering for: cancer, homeless refugees, mothers with difficult pregnancies, and so on. John understood his physical death not only as an evil defeated by Christ through the Resurrection but as an extension of his vocation as a Christian. The Bishop of Rome believed that even the crosses that afflict us occur under the supervision of our loving Father. “At the foot of the cross we recognize that we are not merely victims of a senseless fate; we are implicated in the mystery of sin and redemption,” writes Fr. Richard John Neuhaus in Death on a Friday Afternoon: Meditations on the Last Words of Christ from the Cross (2000). “We are participants in this drama, although exactly how we do not know. We have not seen the entire script; our lines are given us one at a time.”

As with Christ’s other last words, this lesson is not only for the days of our approaching death but for all those that precede them, even when we are young and in relatively good health. We all have crosses to bear, crosses from which it often seems we are incapable of escaping. It is easy to curse these troubles, to view them as a hindrance to our happiness. Yet that attitude, if left to fester, will only fill us with bitterness and resentment, harming and warping our souls. “Those who refuse to carry the Cross of Christ, are obliged to carry the bonds and the chains of Satan,” warns Bellarmine. We neglect to consider, or we forget, that such frustrations are actually gifts from God to deepen our faith and hone our virtue.

No Christian is expected to ask for such difficulties or to relish them — to do so would border on the masochistic. But when they come, we must seek the good in them, trusting that Christ remains present in the darkness and remembering that we are in the refiner’s fire rather than playing bit parts in some morbid story concocted by a sadistic deity.

The Venerable Servant of God Fulton J. Sheen in The Seven Last Words offers this prayer in reflection:

My work, then, is not finished until I take Your place upon the Cross, for unless there is a Good Friday in my life, there will never be an Easter Sunday; unless there is a garment of a fool, there will never be the white robes of wisdom; unless there is the crown of thorns, there will never be the glorified body; unless there is the battle, there will never be the victory; unless there is the thirst, there will never be the Heavenly Refreshment; unless there is the Cross, there will never be the empty tomb. Teach me, Jesus, to finish this task, for it is fitting that the sons of men should suffer and thus enter into their glory.

Let us model our lives after Christ’s perfect patience and endurance, exemplifying a humble trust amid our trials and crosses so that, at the end, whenever it may come, we, too, can say with confidence, “It is accomplished.”

 

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