Seven Last Words

“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”

Original film poster for the 1973 version of Jesus Christ Superstar

My first memories of the Passion of Christ come not from church, but from listening to the rock opera, Jesus Christ Superstar, with music by Andrew Lloyd Weber and lyrics by Tim Rice.

When I was a child my family traveled to Israel and Palestine where my father, a priest, was enrolled in St. George’s College in Jerusalem to study the life of Jesus in the Holy Land. My brother and sister and I would ride the public bus from our home to school and then summer camp during the three months we lived there.

Throughout those months, the soundtrack of Jesus Christ Superstar played constantly on Israeli radio and now is the background music to many of my memories of that time. As it happens, the 1973 film version of Jesus Christ Superstar was likely being filmed in Israel at the time we were there, which might explain why the soundtrack was getting so much radio play. To this day, I watch or listen to Jesus Christ Superstar almost every year during Holy Week.

There are many problematic aspects to the 1973 film version, not least among which is the racial stereotyping of the cast, so I don’t necessarily recommend the film. However, in preparing for this sermon I watched the 2018 version starring John Legend as Jesus, which is much better on many levels.

In a piece of inspired casting, Alice Cooper plays King Herod.  The scene when Jesus, played by Legend, and Herod, played by Cooper, encounter each other manages to be comic, ironic and tragic. We see a Superstar from the past meeting the Superstar of the present and future and Cooper/Herod and Legend/Jesus both know it. I won’t say anymore for those of you who have not watched it.

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Jesus Christ Superstar ends at the cross with Jesus’s last words: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” 

The scene is searing, just as it is rendered in the text today from Luke, who is every bit as gifted a librettist and scene painter as Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Weber.

Jesus, ever the teacher, takes his final words from Psalm 31:

In you, O Lord, have I taken refuge; let me never be put to shame; * deliver me in your righteousness.

Incline your ear to me; * make haste to deliver me.

Be my strong rock, a castle to keep me safe, for you are my crag and my stronghold; * for the sake of your Name, lead me and guide me.

Take me out of the net that they have secretly set for me, * for you are my tower of strength.

Into your hands I commend my spirit, * for you have redeemed me O Lord, O God of truth.

Given the scene that Luke describes and all that we have heard leading up to this final moment, one can imagine the emotions that Jesus is feeling: fear, anger, hopelessness. However, by quoting Psalm 31, attributed to King David, Jesus flips the script. The crowd standing at the foot of the cross would have understood Jesus’s reference to Psalm 31 and its full meaning.

Taken out of context, Jesus’s last words can come across as conveying that he has given up, or as words of surrender, which is often how I have tended to hear these words and how Legend acts them in Jesus Christ Superstar.

However, if we turn to the words that come earlier in the Psalm, we can see that Jesus is calling on the LORD in confidence and hopefulness, knowing that as he traverses from his life here on earth to the next, he can have faith in his father’s love and protection and his ultimate victory over death on the cross.

By taking refuge in the LORD, Jesus will not be put to shame.  

The LORD will be his strong rock and castle and keep him safe.  

The LORD will lead and guide him.  

The LORD will free him from the secret traps set for him.  

The LORD will be his tower and strength.

So, while he addresses his last words to his father, he is instructing all of us as well.

We, too, by taking refuge in the LORD, will not be put to shame.  The LORD will keep us safe, lead us and guide us.  The LORD will free us and be our tower of strength.

Jesus is not surrendering.  

No. 

He is calling us to hope.

He is calling us to victory.

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We are now well over a year into the COVID-19 Pandemic and while the vaccines have given many of us hope, the last year has been filled with unspeakable tragedy and despair. For those of us who may see the light at the end of the tunnel, we must remember that for many, the pandemic rages on. Early on in the pandemic I took comfort in the Old Testament prophet Zechariah’s admonition: “Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope.”

Yes, we are “prisoners of hope,” but we are called to be more than that.

The great South African theologian Steve De Gruchy took the concept of hope a step further and once said that as Christians “We are called to be midwives of hope” and to bring hope to others.

Despair is not an option.

Indeed, Jesus’ last words on the cross are not words of despair or surrender.  They are words of hopefulness and victory.

If Jesus can be hopeful and victorious under those circumstances, we have no excuse, even in the face of what we all have endured this last year.

Jesus was telling his followers, just as he is telling us today, that as darkness comes over the whole land, while the sun’s light fails and the curtain of the temple is torn in two, and as he breathes his last, that not only must we have confidence in the LORD and remain hopeful ourselves, we must bring hope to others so they can see that there is victory after the cross.

As Jesus sings in Jesus Christ Superstar: To conquer death you only have to die.”

AMEN

This meditation was presented as part of the Good Friday service at St. Bartholomew’s Church in the City of New York. The full service, including this meditation, can be found on the parish’s YouTube channel.

Prisoners of Hope

Crocuses_in_the_snow_(8504467548)
Credit: Magnus Hagdorn (https://www.flickr.com/photos/hagdorned/8504467548/)

It has been almost two weeks since the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic.  

I don’t know about you, but that seems like a lifetime ago.  So much has changed so quickly I’m not sure what to feel at any given point. 

I woke up a few mornings ago and realized that not knowing what to feel actually provides me with the opportunity to choose how I’m going to feel.

Last week, a colleague reminded me of the Old Testament prophet Zechariah’s admonition:

Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope;
    today I declare that I will restore to you double.

(Zechariah 9:12)

The great South African theologian Steve De Gruchy took the concept of hope a step further and once said that “We are called to be midwives of hope.”

The COVID-19 Pandemic is testing us in ways that few imagined just a few weeks ago.  The cost—human, economic, social—is huge and growing.  It is easy to lose hope in these times.  But as the prophet Zechariah and De Gruchy remind us: despair is not an option.  

Not only must we remain hopeful ourselves, but we must also bring hope to others.  We can do this through our own acts every day—with our coworkers, our family members and our neighbors.  By doing so we are united with one another through our common humanity.  

Moreover, that is where we will find God.

It is through that strength of unity that we can be of real service to those in need even as we face challenges like the COVID-19 Pandemic. We are only going to get through this by working together. 

My prayer for each of you is that you can find the hope of which Zechariah reminds us so that you can continue to be a midwife of hope for others.

So, each morning when I get up, I choose hope.

One billboard outside Sandusky, Ohio

Each year my wife and I attend St. Bartholomew’s three-hour Good Friday service.  Each year I wonder how on earth I will sit through three hours of music, extended periods of silent prayer, readings on the seven last words of Christ, and a homily on each.  Each year the time disappears. Continue reading “One billboard outside Sandusky, Ohio”

Sinking into Silence

0EE325D5-71E6-4199-9E41-E36950CDD34C.jpegEach year I try to spend a week in silent retreat. With my travel schedule, that can be a challenge. However, if I attach the retreat to other travel, so that I’m already away from the temptations of the office and the “to do” lists of home, I can sometimes swing it. Continue reading “Sinking into Silence”