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Jesus' Prayer facing death

Catecheses by Papa Benedict XVI during his series on Prayer
- in Croatian, English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese & Spanish

"Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Today I would like to reflect with you on the prayer of Jesus when death was imminent, pausing to think about everything St Mark and St Matthew tell us. The two Evangelists record the prayer of the dying Jesus not only in Greek, in which their accounts are written but, because of the importance of these words, also in a mixture of Hebrew and Aramaic. In this way they have passed down not only the content but also the sound that this prayer had on Jesus’ lips: let us really listen to Jesus’ words as they were. At the same time, the Evangelists describe to us the attitude of those present at the crucifixion who did not understand — or did not want to understand — this prayer.

St Mark wrote, as we have heard: “when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour. And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’”. (15:33-34). In the structure of the account, the prayer, Jesus’ cry, is raised at the end of the three hours of darkness that shrouded all the earth from midday until three o’clock in the afternoon. These three hours of darkness are in turn the continuation of a previous span of time, also of three hours, that began with the crucifixion of Jesus. The Evangelist Mark, in fact, tells us that “it was the third hour, when they crucified him” (15:25). All the times given in the narrative, Jesus’ six hours on the Cross are divided into two parts of equal length.

The mockery of various groups which displays their scepticism and confirms their disbelief fits into the first three hours, from nine o’clock in the morning until midday. St Mark writes: “Those who passed by derided him” (15:29); “So also the chief priests mocked him to one another with the scribes” (15:31); “those who were crucified with him also reviled him” (15:32). In the following three hours, from midday until “the ninth hour” [three o’clock in the afternoon], the Evangelist spoke only of the darkness that had come down over the entire earth; only darkness fills the whole scene without any references to people’s movements or words. While Jesus is drawing ever closer to death, there is nothing but darkness that covers “the whole land”. The cosmos also takes part in this event: the darkness envelops people and things, but even at this moment of darkness God is present, he does not abandon them. In the biblical tradition darkness has an ambivalent meaning: it is a sign of the presence and action of evil, but also of a mysterious presence and action of God who can triumph over every shadow. In the Book of Exodus, for example, we read “The Lord said to Moses: “Lo, I am coming to you in a thick cloud” (19:9); and, further: “the people stood afar off, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was” (20:21). And in his discourses in Deuteronomy, Moses recounts: “And you came near and stood at the foot of the mountain, while the mountain burned with fire to the heart of heaven wrapped in darkness, cloud, and gloom” (4:11); you “heard the voice out of the midst of the darkness, while the mountain was burning with fire” (5,23). In the scene of the crucifixion of Jesus the darkness engulfs the earth and the Son of God immerses himself in the shadows of death in order to bring life, with his act of love.

Returning to St Mark’s narrative, in the face of the insults of various categories of people, in the face of the pall of darkness that shrouds everything, at the moment when he faces death, Jesus, with the cry of his prayer, shows that with the burden of suffering and death in which there seems to be abandonment, the absence of God, Jesus is utterly certain of the closeness of the Father who approves this supreme act of love, the total gift of himself, although the voice from on high is not heard, as it was on other occasions. In reading the Gospels we realize that in other important passages on his earthly existence Jesus had also seen the explanatory voice of God associated with the signs of the Father’s presence and approval of his journey of love. Thus in the event that follows the Baptism in the Jordan, at the opening of the heavens, the words of the Father had been heard: “Thou art my beloved Son, with thee I am well pleased” (Mk 1:11). Then in the Transfiguration, the sign of the cloud was accompanied with these words: “this is my beloved Son; listen to him” (Mk 9:7). Instead, at the approach of the death of the Crucified One, silence falls, no voice is heard but the Father’s loving gaze is fixed on his Son’s gift of love.

But what is the meaning of Jesus’ prayer, of the cry he addresses to the Father: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”: doubt about his mission, about the Father’s presence? Might there not be in this prayer the knowledge that he had been forsaken? The words that Jesus addresses to the Father are the beginning of Psalm 22[21], in which the Psalmist expresses to God his being torn between feeling forsaken and the certain knowledge of God’s presence in his People’s midst. He, the Psalmist, prays: “O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest. Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel” (vv. 3-4). The Psalmist speaks of this “cry” in order to express the full suffering of his prayer to God, seemingly absent: in the moment of anguish his prayer becomes a cry.

This also happens in our relationship with the Lord: when we face the most difficult and painful situations, when it seems that God does not hear, we must not be afraid to entrust the whole weight of our overburdened hearts to him, we must not fear to cry out to him in our suffering, we must be convinced that God is close, even if he seems silent.

Repeating from the Cross the first words of Psalm 22[21] “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” — “My God my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt 27:46); uttering the words of the Psalm, Jesus prays at the moment of his ultimate rejection by men, at the moment of abandonment; yet he prays, with the Psalm, in the awareness of God’s presence, even in that hour when he is feeling the human drama of death. However a question arises within us: how is it possible that such a powerful God does not intervene to save his Son from this terrible trial? It is important to understand that Jesus’ prayer is not the cry of one who meets death with despair, nor is it the cry of one who knows he has been forsaken. At this moment Jesus makes his own the whole of Psalm 22[21], the Psalm of the suffering People of Israel. In this way he takes upon himself not only the sin of his people, but also that of all men and women who are suffering from the oppression of evil and, at the same time, he places all this before God’s own heart, in the certainty that his cry will be heard in the Resurrection: “The cry of extreme anguish is at the same time the certainty of an answer from God, the certainty of salvation — not only for Jesus himself, but for ‘many’” (Jesus of Nazareth, II, p213-214). In this prayer of Jesus are contained his extreme trust and his abandonment into God’s hands, even when God seems absent, even when he seems to be silent, complying with a plan incomprehensible to us. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church we read: “in the redeeming love that always united him to the Father, he assumed us in the state of our waywardness of sin, to the point that he could say in our name from the cross: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’” (n 603). His is a suffering in communion with us and for us, which derives from love and already bears within it redemption, the victory of love.

The people present at the foot of the Cross of Jesus fail to understand, thinking that his cry is a supplication addressed to Elijah. In the scene they seek to assuage his thirst in order to prolong his life and to find out whether Elijah will truly come to his aid, but with a loud cry Jesus’ earthly life comes to an end, as well as their wish. At the supreme moment, Jesus gives vent to his heart’s grief, but at the same time makes clear the meaning of the Father’s presence and his consent to the Father’s plan of salvation of humanity. We too have to face ever anew the “today” of suffering of God’s silence — we express it so often in our prayers — but we also find ourselves facing the “today” of the Resurrection, of the response of God who took upon himself our sufferings, to carry them together with us and to give us the firm hope that they will be overcome (cf. Encyclical Letter Spe Salvi, nn. 35-40).

Dear friends, let us lay our daily crosses before God in our prayers, in the certainty that he is present and hears us. Jesus’ cry reminds us that in prayer we must surmount the barriers of our “ego” and our problems and open ourselves to the needs and suffering of others. May the prayer of Jesus dying on the Cross teach us to pray lovingly for our many brothers and sisters who are oppressed by the weight of daily life, who are living through difficult moments, who are in pain, who have no word of comfort; let us place all this before God’s heart, so that they too may feel the love of God who never abandons us. Thank you."

BXVI - General Audience, Wednesday 8 February 2012, Paul VI Audience Hall - © Copyright 2012 - Libreria Editrice Vaticana

2nd Catechesis by Papa Benedict XVI on Jesus's Prayer facing death
- in Croatian, English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese & Spanish

"Dear Brothers and Sisters,
At our school of prayer last Wednesday I spoke of Jesus’ prayer on the Cross, taken from Psalm 22[21]: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”. I would now like to continue to meditate on the prayer of Jesus on the Cross in the imminence of death. Today, I would like to reflect on the account we find in St Luke’s Gospel. The Evangelist has passed down to us three words spoken by Jesus on the Cross, two of which — the first and the third— are prayers explicitly addressed to the Father. The second, instead, consists of the promise made to the so-called “good thief”, crucified with him; indeed, in response to the thief’s entreaty, Jesus reassures him: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Lk 23:43). Thus in Luke’s narrative the two prayers that the dying Jesus addresses to the Father and his openness to the supplication addressed to him by the repentant sinner are evocatively interwoven. Jesus calls on the Father and at the same time listens to the prayer of this man who is often called latro poenitens, “the repentant thief”.

Let us reflect on these three prayers of Jesus. He prays the first one immediately after being nailed to the Cross, while the soldiers are dividing his garments between them as a wretched reward for their service. In a certain sense the process of the Crucifixion ends with this action. St Luke writes: “When they came to the place which is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on the right and one on the left. And Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do’. And they cast lots and to divide his garments” (23:33-34). The first prayer that Jesus addresses to the Father is a prayer of intercession; he asks for forgiveness for his executioners. By so doing, Jesus is doing in person what he had taught in the Sermon on the Mount when he said: “I say to you that hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you” (Lk 6:27); and he had also promised to those who are able to forgive: “your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High” (v. 35). Now, from the Cross he not only pardons his executioners but he addresses the Father directly, interceding for them.

Jesus’ attitude finds a moving “imitation” in the account of the stoning of St Stephen, the first martyr. Indeed Stephen, now nearing his end, “knelt down and cried with a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them’. And when he had said this, he fell asleep” (Acts 7:60): these were his last words. The comparison between Jesus’ prayer for forgiveness and that of the protomartyr is significant. St Stephen turns to the Risen Lord and requests that his killing — an action described clearly by the words “this sin” — not be held against those who stoned him. Jesus on the Cross addresses the Father and not only asks forgiveness for those who crucify him but also offers an interpretation of what is happening. According to what he says, in fact, the men who are crucifying him “know not what they do” (Lk 23:34). He therefore postulates ignorance, “not knowing”, as a reason for his request for the Father’s forgiveness, because it leaves the door open to conversion, as, moreover, happens in the words that the centurion was to speak at Jesus’ death: “Certainly this man was innocent” (v. 47), he was the Son of God. “It remains a source of comfort for all times and for all people that both in the case of those who genuinely did not know (his executioners) and in the case of those who did know (the people who condemned him), the Lord makes ignorance the motive for his plea for forgiveness: he sees it as a door that can open us to conversion” (Jesus of Nazareth, II, p 208).

The second word spoken by Jesus on the Cross recorded by St Luke is a word of hope, it is his answer to the prayer of one of the two men crucified with him. The good thief comes to his senses before Jesus and repents, he realizes he is facing the Son of God who makes the very Face of God visible, and begs him; “Jesus, remember me when you come in your kingly power” (v. 42). The Lord’s answer to this prayer goes far beyond the request: in fact he says: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (v. 43). Jesus knows that he is entering into direct communion with the Father and reopening to man the way to God’s paradise. Thus, with this response, he gives the firm hope that God’s goodness can also touch us, even at the very last moment of life, and that sincere prayer, even after a wrong life, encounters the open arms of the good Father who awaits the return of his son.

But let us consider the last words of Jesus dying. The Evangelists tells us: “it was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!’. And having said this he breathed his last” (vv. 44-46). Certain aspects of this narrative differ from the scene as described in Mark and in Matthew. The three hours of darkness in Mark are not described, whereas in Matthew they are linked with a series of different apocalyptic events such as the quaking of the earth, the opening of the tombs, the dead who are raised (cf. Mt 27:51-53). In Luke, the hours of darkness are caused by the eclipse of the sun, but the veil of the temple is torn at that moment. In this way Luke’s account presents two signs, in a certain way parallel, in the heavens and in the temple. The heavens lose their light, the earth sinks while in the temple, a place of God’s presence, the curtain that protects the sanctuary is rent in two. Jesus’ death is characterized explicitly as a cosmic and a liturgical event; in particular, it marks the beginning of a new form of worship, in a temple not built by men because it is the very Body of Jesus who died and rose which gathers peoples together and unites them in the sacrament of his Body and his Blood.

At this moment of suffering, Jesus’ prayer, “Father into your hands I commit my spirit”, is a loud cry of supreme and total entrustment to God. This prayer expresses the full awareness that he had not been abandoned. The initial invocation — “Father” — recalls his first declaration as a 12-year-old boy. At that time he had stayed for three days in the Temple of Jerusalem, whose veil was now torn in two. And when his parents had told him of their anxiety, he had answered: “How is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Lk 2:49). From the beginning to the end, what fully determines Jesus’ feelings, words and actions, is his unique relationship with the Father. On the Cross he lives to the full, in love, this filial relationship he has with God which gives life to his prayer.

The words spoken by Jesus after his invocation, “Father”, borrow a sentence from Psalm 31[30]: “into your hand I commit my spirit” (Ps 31[30]:6). Yet these words are not a mere citation but rather express a firm decision: Jesus “delivers” himself to the Father in an act of total abandonment. These words are a prayer of “entrustment” total trust in God’s love. Jesus’ prayer as he faces death is dramatic as it is for every human being but, at the same time, it is imbued with that deep calmness that is born from trust in the Father and from the desire to commend oneself totally to him. In Gethsemane, when he had begun his final struggle and his most intense prayer and was about to be “delivered into the hands of men” (Lk 9:44), his sweat had become “like great drops of blood falling down upon the ground” (Lk 22:44). Nevertheless his heart was fully obedient to the Father’s will, and because of this “an angel from heaven” came to strengthen him (cf. Lk 22:42-43). Now, in his last moments, Jesus turns to the Father, telling him into whose hands he really commits his whole life. Before starting out on his journey towards Jerusalem, Jesus had insisted to his disciples: “Let these words sink into your ears; for the Son of man is to be delivered into the hands of men” (Lk 9:44). Now that life is about to depart from him, he seals his last decision in prayer: Jesus let himself be delivered “into the hands of men”, but it is into the hands of the Father that he places his spirit; thus — as the Evangelist John affirms — all was finished, the supreme act of love was carried to the end, to the limit and beyond the limit.

Dear brothers and sisters, the words of Jesus on the Cross at the last moments of his earthly life offer us demanding instructions for our prayers, but they also open us to serene trust and firm hope. Jesus, who asks the Father to forgive those who are crucifying him, invites us to take the difficult step of also praying for those who wrong us, who have injured us, ever able to forgive, so that God’s light may illuminate their hearts; and he invites us to live in our prayers the same attitude of mercy and love with which God treats us; “forgive us our trespasses and forgive those who trespass against us”, we say every day in the Lord’s prayer. At the same time, Jesus, who at the supreme moment of death entrusts himself totally to the hands of God the Father, communicates to us the certainty that, however harsh the trial, however difficult the problems, however acute the suffering may be, we shall never fall from God’s hands, those hands that created us, that sustain us and that accompany us on our way through life, because they are guided by an infinite and faithful love. Thank you."

BXVI - General Audience, Wednesday 15 February 2012, Paul VI Audience Hall - © Copyright 2012 - Libreria Editrice Vaticana