When those we love die they are, in death, very often more present to us than while they were alive. This is evident when we recall memories we thought were long forgotten. It may be some words or gestures or something they did that impressed our minds more than we ever knew.
Traditionally, the words of Jesus from the cross have always been a source of strength and consolation for Christians. Down through the ages the story of Jesus life, death and resurrection has been told and retold. Our ways of meditating and remembering the resurrection bring healing and hope. The Seven Last Words certainly make Jesus more present to us and recall significant actions for our redemption.
Our life story finds true meaning only when we can relate it to Jesus. Through the creative use of our faith we imagine ourselves to one with the Lord. By visualizing and meditating on Christ's words, healing occurs. The spiritual, emotional and physical healing we need to maintain and continue our journey in life has been given to us by Jesus in His redemptive action of suffering on the cross for us once and for all. We pray that we will have eyes to see and ears to hear what this means for us, especially during critical moments.
Meditation permits us as Christians to ponder the mysteries of our existence. Meditating on the Seven Last Words is very much a ''conducted'' meditation for us and for those whom we serve. Jesus himself conducts this for us as His words, recorded through revelation, act as a commentary not only upon His own suffering but also on suffering as we have come to know it in our lives.
Meditation is a way to turn from self and empty ourselves into the love of God. This is our motivation, and it is also the healing reality while we grieve our losses in life. We need to let go of our very self and rise to the presence of the Lord. So many times the bereaved hear the words to ''let go.'' Yet they do not hear the rest of the story, which is to let go not into the void but into the love of God.
Meditating on the Seven Last Words has long been a highlight for parishes on Good Friday. However, it certainly is a meditation that extends to many other times. Retreats, support groups, special holy hours and individual prayer are other occasions where this prayerful meditation brings healing. It is especially an outline for preaching about suffering and the hope we all yearn for with our loving God who gave his Son to us on the cross.
We need to place ourselves at the foot of the cross. Our souls need to hear Jesus' words as they help us to accept and continue to live out our lives graced by what He has done for us. Our conversation with the Lord on the cross brings about not only new hope, but also ways to channel our feelings of anger, emptiness, guilt, yearning and anxiety into the context of trusting in the Lord and change for our lives.
The Seven Last Words are an expression of devotional tradition among many believers in the Church. For centuries, communities of faith have heard and pondered these words as a way of devotion and inspiration for their lives. The number seven is a meaningful scriptural number. In itself it symbolizes the fullness of life. We recall the seven days for creation, the seven diadems in the book of Revelation, the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments that, together, point toward religious fulfillment in revelation.
Spirituality of the Cross
The Seven Last Words understood correctly give deep insight into the spirituality of the Cross. In these words, Jesus gives us direction to the very end of His earthly life. He is completing His journey to the Kingdom, and His words give us ways to express our emotions as we stand at the foot of the cross.
Everything Jesus did was to give us life. The living words of this devotion put our lives into focus. We realize not only Jesus' unconditional love, but also how unselfishly He acted. The Christian life must conform to Jesus' life, death and resurrection. We experience through the cross how our journey takes on meaning only in light of what has been given to us. Jesus shows us the way to tell our story.
The following references from sacred Scripture, along with some meditative points, reflect aspects of grief which need to be addressed by those who are presently grieving. By addressing these needs in the context of faith, real healing and hope occur. At the same time, these meditations illustrate how spirituality is not something merely added on to the way we grieve.
This spirituality connected to grieving is essential for a meaningful outcome to the way we accept and manage our losses. Each meditation has a few thoughts for those who are grieving. The thoughts are not meant to be exhaustive. The Holy Spirit speaks to each one of us in unique ways. Certainly when we preach and proclaim the Seven Last Words, new awareness and new insights will be given to us.
The Seven Last Words of Jesus from the Cross really consist of seven short phrases that Jesus spoke on Calvary. In order to find all seven last words, we must read all four of the Gospels since none of the Gospel writers record all seven. These sayings would have originally been said in the Aramaic language. Only one is preserved in the original Aramaic. ''Eloi, Eloi, lama sabacthani?'' (''My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?'') This of course is a direct quotation from Psalm 22. In the Gospel accounts the Seven Words are given to us:
The First Word
''Father, forgive them, they know not what they do''Luke 23:34.
While grieving, we may find ourselves angry that others do not offer kindness and compassion. We need to forgive them and realize that they may not be aware of how deeply we hurt. Forgiveness also relates to our need for reconciliation. We may now need to be reconciled with our loved one who has died. During grief we need to seek ways to have a new relationship in the spirit with those who have gone before us. We need to meditate on ways to express our guilt or misunderstandings.
Another point for meditation may be our disorientation due to loss. We need to be more accepting and reconciled with the fact that our loved one is no longer physically present. Grieving entails letting go of our physical relationship and welcoming a new spiritual relationship. We too must cry out to God the Father as Jesus did, and in His words seek hope in the Kingdom.
The Second Word
''Amen I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise''Luke 23:43.
These words remind us that, for the Christian, life is not ended, but changed. We need to pray for trust that everything ultimately will be all right in Paradise. As Christians we must first seek the Kingdom of God; then everything else follows. We need to be called back to our understanding of our shared journey -- a journey we all must take en route to the Kingdom. These words bring comfort and consolation that there is Paradise and the heavenly reunion.
We recall the words ''Life is not taken away, it is changed.'' There is, then, the transformation of our souls as they cross over the waters of death. In our age there is a constant need to emphasize that life is eternal and that we all hope for the Kingdom. This for us while we mourn is an assurance in faith.
The Third Word
''He said to His mother, 'Woman, behold your son'''John 19:26-27.
Then he said to His disciple, ''Behold your mother.''
Mary is the Mother of Consolation. In her life she suffered the seven sorrows. We seek Mary's intercession as our mother who brings that kind of gentle love to each person who is brokenhearted. She who knew the pain of loss intercedes for us. We may want to picture her loving embrace not only for ourselves, but also for our loved ones gone before us in faith. How consoling it is to have this beautiful faith image in our minds to lift us up while we grieve.
The Fourth Word
''My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?''Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34.
Feelings of abandonment often accompany our grief. We feel lost and alone. We cry out like a lost child. Spiritual abandonment means that, even though we feel lost and are crying, we still surrender ourselves to God. This surrendering is essential for spiritual well-being and growth. Unless we surrender ourselves to God's love, we are forever chained to our attachments. Our faith allows us in our woundedness to surrender, and in surrendering to experience the love of God that gives solace and healing. Letting go means trusting again that only goodness and kindness are with us all the days of our lives.
The Fifth Word
''I thirst'' John 19:28.
Yearning and searching are so very descriptive of grief experiences. We thirst for meaning, we search for our loved ones, we long for their presence. We must admit with Jesus that, while we thirst, we need to drink deeply from the spiritual waters of everlasting life. We need to call upon the grace of that moment when water gave us new birth with the Holy Sprit.
We must seek through prayer a quenching of our thirst. We are reminded of St. Augustine's words:'' What the parched soul longs for may be found in a quiet place.'' We too feel parched and dry, and these words speak to our need to be still and experience the Lord's love while we meditate.
The Sixth Word
''It is finished''John 19:30.
Again we must accept that the journey on earth has an end. The eternal life in the Spirit is everything; it is the very source and ground for our being. There is a wonderful grace to see that this transformation is occurring. We ''walk by faith, not by sight.'' It is our faith that leads us to see that our loved ones are called, as we are, to cross over the waters of death into the Kingdom. Our loved ones are born to eternal life while we still await the kingdom of Heaven.
The Seventh Word
''Father, into your hands I commend my spirit''Luke 23:46
The Word of God is dynamic within the believing community. When we hear the Word, we experience the healing presence of the Holy Spirit. As hearers of the Word we explore ways to relate revelation to our needs as we journey through life. Our loneliness, emptiness, feelings of abandonment, searching and longing for fulfillment and many other emotions cry out for purpose. These words speak to the brokenhearted, as well as to those who are compassionate healers. All of us find ourselves in either place at various times during our lives.
Dying, death, and bereavement are in our culture's consciousness more so than in the past. Along with constant reports of terrorism and wars comes this new awareness of the need to relate these losses to the realities of faith. The person for others is Jesus, and his message is continually revealed among believing communities.
It is only fitting that meditation of this great depth be formed in our faith communities. What we struggle with in our lives is what defines who we are in the context of faith. The Seven Last Words are appropriate and effective for both personal and communal meditation. Paradoxically, what has been in our traditional devotion called the last words are the first words needed in helping us sort out our emotional and spiritual responses to life itself. TP
FATHER CURLEY is the former President of the National Catholic Ministry to the Bereaved. He is a member of the faculty for St. John Seminary Master of Arts in Ministry program for the Archdiocese of Boston where he teaches Pastoral Studies. He has written numerous books and articles on the subject of loss. His books may be found on amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com.