The earliest evidence of sermons on the ‘seven words from the Cross’ is from the Jesuits, but this is not until the seventeenth century; and it was as late as the nineteenth century that the ‘seven words’ were used in the Anglican Church. Perhaps it was influenced by other sevenfold practices – the seven sacraments, the seven deadly sins, the seven canonical hours, the seven petitions in the Lord’s Prayer, and so on. For whatever reason, it is now a well-established custom at Easter time. There is just one problem in this practice: by bringing the ‘seven words’ into one composite liturgy, it is easy to forget that they are a contrived compilation, taken from all four Gospels.
Perhaps the deeper meaning of these cries from the cross is better understood when we take into account their context within each individual Gospel. Matthew and Mark, for example, are the only two Gospels to use the cry ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?’, which is a quotation from the first verse of Psalm 22: we looked at this last week. Because this is the only cry that they use, the focus for Matthew and Mark is on Jesus’ complete ‘God-forsakenness’ at the hour of his death. Luke, by contrast, has three cries, all completely different: he believes that Jesus was not abandoned by God in his last hour, so instead Jesus’ final words are a quotation from Psalm 35: ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!’. And because Luke also sees Jesus as the man for others, he uses two other cries which show Jesus’ concern, firstly, for his enemies (‘Father, forgive them; for they know now what they do’) and secondly, for the penitent thief (‘Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise’).
John’s Gospel, like Luke’s, does not see Jesus as God-forsaken. John also uses three cries from the cross, but they are different again. Jesus’ first cry addresses the two he loved most dearly – his mother and his beloved disciple – as he commends them to care for each other after his death (‘..Behold your son… behold your mother..’). The other two cries highlight the two most important aspects of Jesus’ ministry – his humanity (‘I thirst’) and his sense of completing his God-given mission (‘It is finished’). These are poignantly brief – one word in each case in the Greek – but they reflect so concisely John’s understanding of both Jesus’ humanity and his divine calling as seen on the cross.
All four Gospels concur that Jesus died with the words of a Psalm on his lips. In part this was to show that Jesus, in his humanity, identified completely with the hopes and fears of those early psalmists. In part it was a way of demonstrating that Jesus was even greater than King David, whose name was associated with most of the psalms, by showing how Jesus’ sufferings could accomplish even more than those of the earliest ‘King of the Jews’. For Matthew and Mark, Psalm 22 was an ideal commentary on Jesus’ passion; for Luke, it was Psalm 35. However, for John, it was Psalm 69, which was our Old Testament reading tonight.
Matthew and Mark and Luke allude to Psalm 69. Each records how Jesus was offered wine to drink, mixed with myrrh, and each Gospel makes it clear that this was at the very beginning of Jesus’ crucifixion, and at that point Jesus refused to drink it, for he wanted to approach the hour of his death in full control of his senses. Their audience, who unlike us would know their psalms, would perceive the flashback to Psalm 69:21 –‘They gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink’.
John engages much more with Psalm 69. ‘After this Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfil the scripture), “I thirst”. A bowl full of vinegar stood there; so they put a sponge full of the vinegar on hyssop and held it to his mouth.’ (John 19:28-29). John tells us that Jesus was offered vinegar to drink at the very end of his three hours on the cross and that then he readily accepted it. There is an irony here: the one whose first miracle in John’s Gospel was the turning of water into wine – not only good wine, but the best wine, as the host of the wedding of Cana discovered – has in his last moments to succumb to foul vinegar to pacify his thirst. But John takes the irony even further than this: the reference to hyssop would remind John’s Jewish audience of the way they took this herb with the Passover lamb, and here at this Passover is the one whom John the Baptist called the Lamb of God, the one who would take away the sins of the world (John 1:29), who is himself becoming the Lamb about to be slaughtered- at Passover time. Small wonder that when John uses the cry of ‘I thirst’ it is to show that Jesus is both speaking from scripture –sharing with us the ‘mess and muddle’ of life – and yet expanding its meaning by ‘fulfilling’ it once and for all.
Psalm 69 is an important psalm elsewhere in John’s Gospel. It is also used at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, just after the wedding at Cana, when Jesus expels the money changers from the Temple. There we read ‘His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for thy house will consume me” ’ (Jn. 2:17): these words come from an earlier part of Psalm 69, when the psalmist complains ‘Zeal for thy house has consumed me, and the insults of those who insult Thee have fallen on me’ (v. 9). Again we may note the irony here: Jesus would indeed be (literally) consumed by his zeal for true worship of God his Father, for it drove him eventually to his death. So John uses Psalm 69 at the beginning and end of Jesus’ ministry: he does this to illustrate that the rejection of Jesus was no mere accident of history, but was something which had been spoken of in the words of Scripture and was now being fulfilled.
Psalm 69 is used a third time in John’s Gospel. When Jesus is trying to explain his forthcoming rejection to his disciples – just before his arrest and trial – he says to them ‘It is to fulfil the word that is written … “They hated me without a cause” ’. The quotation is deliberate: ‘More in number than the hairs of my head are those who hate me without cause’ (Psalm 69:4). So three times over, Psalm 69 is used to show how, in the life of Jesus, the words of this Psalm are now being fulfilled.
So the cry ‘I thirst’ has layers of meaning. It is certainly intended to show us a very human Jesus who needs physical refreshment in his pain: John’s Gospel is full of insights into the humanity of Jesus, who sits ‘wearied’ at a well and asks a Samaritan woman for a drink (John 4:6-8), who asks questions (John 6:5 and 11:34), who weeps at the tomb of Lazarus (John 11:35) and who is troubled as he enters Jerusalem (John 12:27). But ‘I thirst’ is also intended to show us Jesus’ divine calling as well – and here this is mainly by reference to Psalm 69.
‘I thirst’. The motif of ‘thirst’ occurs several times in John’s Gospel. Just after the cleansing of the Temple is Jesus’ encounter with a Samaritan woman, and the theme of ‘thirst’ dominates the scene. Jesus, wearied and thirsty by Jacob’s well asks this unnamed woman twice for a drink, and twice she refuses – ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’ (John 4:9). So Jesus turns the question back on her – if she had known who it was who was asking her for drink, she would have asked him instead – and he would have given her living water. ‘Whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become a spring of water welling up to eternal life’ – ‘Sir, give me this water, that I may not thirst, nor come here to draw!’ (John 4:14-15). So from very early on in the Gospel, ‘thirst’ is not only about wanting water but about needing God. The same point is made after the feeding of the five thousand, when Jesus says ‘…he who believes in me shall never thirst’ (John 6:35). This miracle thus shows Jesus is able to offer not only physical food but spiritual nourishment as well. The point is made a third time: this is at the Feast of Tabernacles, as the water was being ritually carried, in a golden pitcher, from the Pool of Siloam up to the Temple. Jesus proclaims: ‘If any one thirst, let him come to me and drink!’ (Jn.7:37); ‘Now this he said about the Spirit, which those who believed in him were to receive’ (Jn. 7:38).
So ‘I thirst’ is certainly a cry from the human Jesus, emphasising his physical agony and hence his need for drink, but it also emphasises Jesus’ spiritual needs – for that ‘spring of water welling up to eternal life’. Yet again we perceive a dreadful irony in this: the one who earlier had offered that ‘living water’ for others now cries for refreshment himself. A verse from another psalm is implied here: ‘My soul thirsts for thee; my flesh faints for thee, as in a dry and weary land where no water is’ (Psalm 63:1)
So we have seen how the cry ‘I thirst!’ affords us a deeper understanding of Jesus. But does this cry afford us a deeper understanding of ourselves? The use of the psalms, which are after all the prayers of every man and every woman, would suggest so. And John’s Gospel is full of Jesus meeting individuals whose self-understanding completely changes as a result of their encounter with him: we see this in the woman at the well, Nicodemus, Mary and Martha and Lazarus, Mary Magdalene, Mary mother of Jesus, and Philip, Thomas, Peter, Nathaniel, and the unnamed disciple (?John himself?) whom Jesus loved. So this scene at the cross must surely be as much about us as it is about Jesus.
Mother Theresa of Calcutta offers us an extraordinary contemporary insight into the meaning of this cry for us. In every house of her order, the Missionaries of Charity, the words ‘I thirst’ are written alongside the images of the Crucifix. For Mother Theresa, these two words symbolised what she called ‘the thirst of Jesus for our love’. In her public ministry she used to speak of her work amongst the poor of Calcutta as ‘saturating the thirst of Jesus on the cross for his love of souls’. Mother Theresa gave these words a radical dimension. Instead of us looking at Jesus on the cross, and observing his suffering, both physical and spiritual, we find that Jesus is looking down at us: he is not the object of our gaze, but rather we are the object of his. The cry of ‘I thirst!’ was not only directed to God his Father but to us as well, so that we too may be drawn into this mystery of Jesus’ thirst for humanity. “Diyw/Å” – the Greek for “I thirst” . This was not just a cry from Jesus to God; it was a cry to us- to plead for our response to his love expressed on the cross. The question is, are we really prepared to drink from his cup of his suffering, too?
Dr. Susan Gillingham, Fellow and Tutor in Theology
17th February 2008