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Sunday, February 28, 2016

To His Last Breath

(I wrote this last year for Lent. If you didn't see it, here it is again).
The last seven words (statements, actually) of Jesus as He hung on Golgotha's cross are among the most encouraging of all Scripture. Here is the third of the seven:

When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home. (John 19:26-27)

Most representations of the crucified Jesus are remarkably sanitized. Rarely have I seen more than a few streaks of red paint around the wounds in His hands, forehead, feet, and side. But that is not at all what Jesus looked like when He died.

It started with flogging. Soldiers tied Jesus’ hands to the whipping post and stripped off his robe. Then one of them swung rock and bone- embedded whips against Jesus’ back, buttocks, and legs, slicing into His flesh until strips of skin hung from his body. Small veins and arteries oozed and spurted blood with each heartbeat and dripped down His back, His thighs, His legs. The pavement at His feet was moist with dirt and congealed blood.
Jesus was so weakened by the vicious beating, He was unable to carry His cross along the road to Golgotha. Soldiers forced Simon of Cyrene to drag it for Him. When they got to the top of the hill, they tossed the wood to the ground and threw the Lord onto it. The spikes they hammered through His wrists and feet tore through exquisitely sensitive nerves. Electrifying pain exploded along His limbs.

As He hung between heaven and earth, breathing became an all-consuming struggle. Gravity pulled relentlessly on His diaphragm, forcing Him to repeatedly push against His feet and flex His arms to breathe. Yet, every movement intensified the strain on His ravaged nerves, and each breath forced His bleeding back against the splintered wood, reopening the raw wounds. Every breath, every movement, every moment on the cross inflamed His torture.

It is that picture in my mind of His horrific and bloody death that makes His Third Word – this one to His mother and His disciple – so poignant. And it is there that I so often miss the significance of the moment.

Jesus – his eyes alternately glazing over from dehydration, exhaustion, and throbbing pain, and then focusing on the soldiers gambling for his clothing, and the mob cursing and jeering – at one point His eyes locked with His mother’s.

I have sometimes wondered what she was thinking as she watched her only Son suffer. It must be a parent’s worst nightmare to bury a child, and Mary was living that nightmare. Surely Simeon’s prophecy bit at her memory, “A sword will pierce through your own soul” (Luke 2:35).

Jesus gathered His rapidly waning strength and, in the language and culture of the day, fixed His eyes on hers and spoke tenderly, “Woman, here is your son.” And to John, He said, “Here is your mother.”  In 21st century language, He said, “My dear mother, My work is nearly done. John will now take care of you.” And to His beloved disciple He said, “John, I am counting on you to take care of My mom. Treat her as your own mother.”

St. Paul would say decades later, “Whoever does not provide for relatives, and especially for family members, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8).  St. James would write, Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress . . .  (James 1:27).  And speaking to those who thought themselves religious, Jesus responded, Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban’ (that is, an offering to God) —  then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, thus making void the word of God” (Mark 7:10-13).

Despite his nearly incomprehensible agony, Jesus continued to do what was right and necessary. In one of His last acts in life,HH He made certain His parent would be taken care of after His death.

True religion is not simply attending Mass, receiving the Sacraments, devoting ourselves to prayer and the study of the Scriptures. True faith requires we take care of others – and especially our parents, if they are still alive.

Are we tender toward them? Patient toward them? Do we treat them with dignity and respect? Do they need financial help? Do we often call or visit? Do we model the Christian lifestyle they taught us and lived before us during our years in their home?  St. John, in his third epistle wrote: I have no greater joy than to hear of my children walking in the truth (3 John 4). Oh, how great a joy it is for aging parents to know their children walk in Truth.

To His last breaths, Jesus took care to take care of His mother. How ought we who follow in Christ’s footsteps behave toward our parents?

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