April 10, 2020
Seven Last Words of Christ – “After this Jesus, knowing that all things have already been finished, in order that the Scripture might be accomplished, says, ‘I thirst’” [John 19:28, R.C.H. Lenski, trans].
These words, “I thirst,” are not surprising in the course of Jesus’ death; and they attest to the full humanity of the “Word who was with God and was God – who became flesh and dwelled among us.” Crucifixion was a process developed and implemented in the ancient world – perfected by the Romans –intended to bring about death slowly with agony. Bleeding unhurriedly to death was the essential purpose. Death by blood loss and exposure would lead inexorably to dehydration and the attending sense of a parched mouth and throat. In becoming fully and truly human –like us in every way, as the writer of Hebrews says –the Incarnate Eternal Son of God was subject to physical agonies as are we. There is no other allegorical or deeper spiritual meaning to be discerned beyond these words. The Word made flesh – as St. John describes Him in chapter one of his gospel – is dying and now experiencing the most basic human need.
Part of the Roman procedure of crucifixion included keeping close by the crosses of the crucified a vessel containing what John describes in verse 29 as vinegar, which was the cheapest kind of sour wine, commonly served to soldiers, to allay inevitable thirst of the condemned. This sour wine is not the same as the drink of wine mixed with gall or myrrh, of which both Matthew and Mark tell us, that he was offered as he was being nailed to the cross. The purpose of that drink was to be an anesthesia for those doomed to death by crucifixion to lessen the pain of the spikes. Jesus had refused this. I can only surmise that Jesus willfully chose to keep his conscious faculties and awareness fully in place in order to be sensitive and attentive to every moment of the agonizing process which lay ahead.
Had he not refused the narcotic drink, we would not have heard him say, “Father, forgive them,” nor know of his kindness toward the thief –“This day you’ll be with me in paradise” –nor his words to Mary and to John, much less the moving cry “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” Maintaining his alertness and experiencing each moment of the agony was critical to Jesus. Only then could he truly and completely trust His Father’s goodness through the whole ordeal and willfully engage every moment of pain as an act of self-giving love of Himself for the world and a gift to His Father.
But here, almost at the end, when he is fully mindful that the work is now complete – “knowing that all things have already been finished” – he now asks for a drink to quench his thirst. Something that is so simply physical without any deeper theological meaning. (All of the gospel writers are clear that the drink is only the sour wine, not the sedating mixture, which was given to ease the desiccated lips of the crucified.) In just moments after this request, Jesus will give up his spirit with a loud shout, which is filled with theological meaning, but here we have only the most basic of purely human requests.
John tells us, however, in a cryptic phase that Jesus asks for this drink, “in order that the Scripture might be accomplished.” Any reference to a psalm such as Psalm 22:15, which Jesus proclaims in His previous declaration, or Psalm 69:21 are ruled out for in the first instance no request for drink is mentioned and in the last the gall and vinegar described has already been refused by Jesus. Exactly how is this request tied to the accomplishment of the Scripture?
We can know that Jesus had to have been thirsty the whole time, for he had been refused any food or drink since the day before. Why at this moment mention the thirst from which he had to have been suffering for all the hours he was hanging on the cross? In this request, we see Jesus wanting to ease the parchedness of his throat and rally His last bit of strength and life so that He can perform the pronouncement the Matthew, Mark, Luke reference and John quotes. The Scriptures will be accomplished not in some abstract or interpretive sense, but in the loud, clear, and unmistakeable declaration and testimony of the Son of God. Jesus wants a touch of wetness in his mouth and esophagus to moisten his vocal cords so that in this moment of His self-giving sacrifice as the Word of God “through whom all things were made” and in whom “all things hold together He can fulfill all the prophesies of God’s redeeming work. He does it by proclaiming the work is done.
Throughout the entirety of the Passion, Jesus is no passive victim. As he declares in John 10, “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.” He refused to be anesthetized and made insensible, so that he might be completely engaged in the agony of dying. He intended to be aware of those around Him, to announce forgiveness, promise Paradise, establish the new relationships in Himself, declare His messiahship and trust in God by the cry from Psalm 22, and here at the end to request a sip of sour wine so that he can then announce to all of Creation the work is done. Only after announcing this does He die.
Jesus is the Incarnate Son of God – the God-Man. He knows our physical, human needs. He lived through a human torture for our sakes. He asked that His thirst might be soothed so that He could shout the victory He had won for You.
Never doubt the love God has for you.