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"Prayer: Gift and Response" Part 6: "Holy Thursday and Good Friday Prayer"

Byline: Msgr. Peter J. Vaghi
Posted: April 1, 2010

There are two settings for today’s meditation on this Holy Thursday of Holy Week 2010 -- appropriately the upper room where the Eucharist was instituted (that most famous room of the last supper), and the hill upon which Jesus died, the hill called Calvary or Golgatha. In both places, Jesus prays. He models how to pray. It is as if we were eavesdropping on the very personal prayer of Jesus, an insight into His very prayer. Hence, I have entitled this meditation: “Holy Thursday and Good Friday Prayer.”

First -- the prayer of the upper room:

The text is John 17 -- the longest prayer transmitted in the entire Gospel. It is the sublime conclusion of Jesus’ Farewell Address that  begins in chapter 14 of John’s Gospel. Called the priestly prayer of Jesus, it begins in the following way: “Father, the hour has come.” Jn 17:l

Yes, it is the “hour,” the long-awaited hour, the hour of His death towards which His entire mission was directed, the hour in which God’s glory is to be supremely revealed. Immediately before leaving the upper room for Gethsemane, Jesus and His disciples, in the traditional Jewish way, stand and raise their eyes to the Father, to Abba, and pray.

He prays for Himself, for His disciples and for those who will follow Him, for you and me. In Jesus, we have the high priest, as a representative of all humanity, presenting these prayers of petition and intercession to His Father.

First, for Himself as He faced the cross. Jn 17: 1-5. “Now glorify me, Father, with you, with the glory that I had with you before the world began.” In a word, Jesus prays that God will crown the work that Jesus undertook at His command, I.e. that God will glorify Him as He prepares to meet His death out of love for us.

Second, for His disciples. Jn 17: 6-19. “I pray for them. I do not pray for the world but for the ones you have given me, because they are yours...”Jn 17:9 He asks the Father to protect them as He will no longer be with them. He prays that they may share the “joy” which He and the Father share. He asks the Father to “keep them from the evil one.” He prays that they may be consecrated in truth, i.e. made fit for divine service, as Jesus prepares for His sacrificial offering on the cross.

Finally, for all believers in the future. Jn 17: 20-23 How comforting to know that Jesus actually prayed for you and me at the Last Supper! “I pray not only for them, (His disciples) but also for those who will believe in me through their word...” Jn 17: 20 The Gospel never forgets its readers, those who believe in Christ on the word of His disciples -- that vital contact with subsequent generations. That is also Jesus’ prayer.

This priestly, or intercessory, prayer of Jesus is the “prayer of the our high priest, inseparable from his sacrifice, from his passing over (Passover) to the Father to whom he is wholly ‘consecrated’”CCC 2747 From this prayer, Jesus was to go straight to His betayal, the trial and ultimately the cross. He would not speak to them again until the cross. In a real sense, His prayer was not one of despair but of glory.

“And I have given them the glory you gave me, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may be brought to perfection as one, that the world may know that you sent me, and that you loved them even as you loved me.” Jn17: 22-23

Now Jesus proceeds to the ultimate revelation of the cross, the resurrection and the sending of the Holy Spirit. He goes with prayer on His lips.

Second -- the prayer from the Cross:

“When the hour had come for him to fulfill the Father’s plan of love, Jesus allows a glimpse of the boundless depth of his filial prayer, not only before he freely delivered himself up (“Abba...not my will, but yours.”), but even in his last words on the Cross, where prayer and the gift of self are but one: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”; “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”; “Woman, behold your son” -- ”Behold your mother”; “I thirst.”; “My God, My God, why have your forsaken me?”; “It is finished.”; “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!”; until the “loud cry” as he expires, giving up his spirit.” CCC 2605

Jesus simultaneously speaks and acts from the pulpit of the cross. Precisely in the midst of His terrible pain and suffering, the deed of His whole life, His crucifixion, the supreme act of unselfish love, Jesus also speaks. He prays. It is, as it were, acting and speaking coming together in a dramatic way. He acted out His teaching. His words were akin to a sacred commentary on what He was doing for us on Golgatha. His words give lasting credibility to His wondrous act of love for us. This act gives a credible and meaningful context to His words, these last words, that He uttered from that most famous pulpit in all the world, the pulpit of the cross. They are words of prayer, words from the Hebrew psalms, words of communion with His Father, words of communion and solidarity with and for others to hear, words for us to hear over and over again. They are words which create an environment of faith, hope and love amid what otherwise would simply be a scene of horror, extreme brutality and human perverseness in its most ugly form.

There are seven last words, or more accurately described, seven sets of words, a description given in the book, The Seven Last Words of Jesus, by Fr. Alfred McBride whose reflections there inspired me in my own presentation this morning.

THE FIRST WORD: "FATHER, FORGIVE THEM, THEY KNOW NOT WHAT THEY DO.''

They had scourged Him and lacerated His body. They had put a crown of thorns on His head. They had insulted Him and made fun of Him. They were now nailing Him to a tree. There was the flush of a fevor mixed with the chill of his fast approaching death. It was, if you will, a dramatic example of man's inhumanity to man -- an example of what we have seen and continue to see so often in our own world -- particularly in the last  century, a century which has produced the Battle of the Bulge, Normandy, Auschwitz (referred to in a Vatican document on the Shoah as “an unspeakable tragedy”), the Tet Offensive, Bosnia, the aweful slaughters in Africa and now in the 21st century -- the names of Iraq and Afganistan conjure up violence and death and we will never forget 9/11nor should we forget the millions of preborn babies being deprived of life in the womb. And yet, on Scull Hill, this inhumanity is being done to our God, a God who becomes crucified. There must have been great spiritual anguish as He realized that down through the ages many would reject His redemptive love.

Punctuating this evil and cruel drama, we hear the voice, His prayerful voice, a voice of divine generosity which is so very consoling -- "Father, forgive them, they know not what they do." It is as if the words of Jesus in Mt 18:21, Jesus' exhortation to forgive not simply seven times when someone wrongs you, but seven times seventy times, take on new vitality, new meaning, new credibility. Or the words of the Our Father, His prayer par excellance, "forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." Jesus now witnesses to His own teaching -- in the midst of His aweful suffering on the pulpit of the cross. His first word is not only a teaching. It is a prayerful act of forgiveness. It was a terrible scene, yet one permeated with a haunting beauty which came forth from the magnificent love of His forgiving heart.

And He forgave them because of their ignorance. What profound ignorance to pin our God to a tree! And yet the wound of ignorance results from orignal sin. Referring to original sin, the Catechism describes it as “a sin ‘contracted’ and not ‘committed’ -- a state and not an act.” CCC 404 It is the same wound, a wound caused by the sin of Adam, that brought Jesus to the cross to suffer and die for us for that wound to be healed. On the cross, You forgave the repentant sinner, O Jesus, forgive us our sins! Is ignorance not the cause of so much of our sin, our crime, our inability to love in our world?  Sin -- crying out for forgiveness and healing!

Jesus gives us  a most credible example how to deal with the root cause of ignorance, the sin of ignorance: to turn the other cheek -- even when one is suffering, precisely as one hangs dying on the wood of our crosses. Yes, our crosses also so often reflect His crucified figure, silhouetted against the darkening skies of our lives.

Were there ever words so sweet to the ears of those burdened down by sin and alienation and guilt? In each of our lives, there are things, actions, attitudes and people that need forgiving. If only we could listen to the words of Jesus who forgives them, His persecutors, and who also forgives us, we too would look again at the power of forgiveness in our lives -- perhaps that one troubling relationship, that one sin -- lots of things to be forgiven and to forgive.

THE SECOND WORD: "AMEN, I SAY TO YOU, TODAY YOU WILL BE WITH ME IN PARADISE"

It is not surprising that Jesus dies between two thieves, that He spends His last hours between two lost sheep. It is precisely the lost sheep that Jesus came to save. One was angry and made a sarcastic remark to Jesus. The other, we call Him Dismas, captures our special attention when He asks Jesus for salvation: "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom."

The scene is dramatic: three crosses. Jesus' death between them dramatically signifies His solidarity with the "world of human suffering." It is a profound solidarity with our personal suffering whatever it might be, suffering unique to each of us, physical or mental, perhaps the terrible hurt of a broken marriage or the agony of a drawn out terminal or psychological disease, the sufferings of millions under the burden of old age, the estimated 5.5 million children in our country under the age of l2 who are hungry, another 6 million who are underfed: in total the nearly 8 hundred million people who suffer from hunger and malnutrition -- all of this in the first ten years of the 21st century. Yet Jesus suffers not alone, but with two suffering thieves, with each of us.

Christian behavior, the example of the innocent One going to slaughter, is a silent, effective and powerful proclamation of the Good News. It is wordless witness. It is Jesus' kind of witness.

Such witness uniquely triggers the power of conversion. It is never too late for any of us. Dismas' conversion is akin to a deathbed conversion. "Jesus, remember me."

It is never too late to embrace the Gospel. His word gives us hope: "Today, you will be with me in Paradise." The second last word of Jesus is as much about Dismas as what was said by Jesus. Seeing Jesus, the innocent One, He must have developed a "silent bond"  of affection for Him. He felt the need for spiritual life and Jesus satisfied that need by the power and humility of His obedient suffering. Dismas experienced a religious conversion on the cross.

Do we give witness to the love of Jesus in our families, in our workplaces, with our friends, with those we meet? One never knows where such witness of love  can have a spiritual and lasting effect. Who would have thought that one would experience conversion in the midst of dying on a cross? Jesus' second word reassures us and encourages us never to give up our efforts at strong and moral and courageous Christian example. As Pope Paul VI wrote in that magna charta apostolic exhortation on Evangelization: “‘Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.’” EN 41

THE THIRD WORD: When Jesus saw His mother and the disciple there whom He loved, He said to His mother -- "WOMAN, BEHOLD YOUR SON." Then He said to the disciple -- "BEHOLD YOUR MOTHER."

Focus on the use of the word "woman." It is the same word used at the Wedding Feast of Cana. Unlike the word "mother" which would imply only her physical parentage, the use of "woman" both at Cana and at the foot of the cross -- both recorded by St. John -- speaks to Mary's unique and mysterious maternal role in the history of salvation, her role at Bethlehem, Cana, Calvary and finally in the upper room at Pentecost on the birthday of the Church.

At Cana, the beginning of His public ministry, Mary invited Jesus to save a newly married couple from terrible embarrassment. More importantly, she invited Him to begin His saving work by changing water into wine -- to manifest His glory. Now she was present at the foot of the cross as His saving work was being brought to its conclusion -- His Hour had come and His mother was there.

Stabat Mater. Mary, the Mother, stands at the foot of the cross. There, too, are John, the beloved disciple, and other relatives and friends. The cross challenged her to let go in a way she could never have anticipated. No mother wants to let her son die. Mary must have felt the wounds and suffering of her Son as if they were her own.

Speaking to her and to John, Jesus was in effect communicating His last will and testament. Witnesses were present. He was concerned about the care of His mother and He was concerned about the care of His Church, His living body -- each of us -- you and me.

The words uttered by Jesus from the Cross signify that the motherhood of her who bore Christ finds a "new" continuation in the Church and through the Church. The Church, all of us, is symbolized and represented by John who is told "Behold your mother." Mary is our Mother, too. 

As the Catechism teaches us: “Jesus desires to associate with his redeeming sacrifice those who were to be its first beneficiaries. This is achieved supremely in the case of his mother, who was associated more intimately than any other person in the mystery of his redemptive suffering.” CCC 618

Stabat Mater. Mary stands at the foot of the cross. And Mary prays in the upper room at Pentecost.  Mary is a woman of deep faith, a faith that never faltered. Mary is also a woman who never ceases praying, communicating with God, praying for each of us as a mother does her child.  She is a powerful intercessor.

No other human being in history spent more years, days and hours in such personal proximity to Jesus than Mary -- from birth until death on a cross. How close are we to Jesus? Are we with Him only in the good times or do we stand by Him when we experience the pains and suffering of our crosses?

THE FOURTH WORD: "MY GOD, MY GOD, WHY HAVE YOU FORSAKEN ME?"

Even with His mother and dearest friends close to His side, this overwhelming sense of abandonment, isolation and loneliness overcame Jesus. Above all, He even felt the absence of God's presence. That emptiness, when God is not in our lives, or so it seems, causes terrible pain. It had to have been the most crucifying of all pain for Jesus. How He, who was God, could know such abandonment, such emptiness, we do not know. We do know from St. Paul that "He emptied Himself, took the form of a slave, being born in the likeness of men." (Phil 2: 7) He took on our human condition. He emptied Himself to that point where even the presence of God is denied Him. That is the ultimate emptying. These words reveal that most poignantly from the cross.

But what does Jesus do at that moment?

He turns to prayer, to Psalm 22, in His hour of abandonment -- the first line of that psalm -- "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Jesus prayed from the cross, prayed this Hebrew psalm. By choosing to pray these words out loud -- in a brutal shout -- Jesus reveals how much He had integrated that Hebrew prayer into His own life. It is a model for each of us also.

It is a model for us when we find ourselves in the same situation, as we so often do, when we feel abandoned, lonely, isolated, a lack of love, yes even the lack of the presence of God.

The phenomenon of spiritual aridity is not uncommon even among those of us who regularly seek Him with a humble heart. Jesus has not abandoned us. More likely, we have abandoned Him. In those situations, it is time to look more closely to Jesus on the cross, to listen to His fourth word from the cross and identify with Him who so clearly identified with us. His darkest moment, and ours, are one darkness.

And yet, in that darkest hour, Jesus did not give up discouraged. Nor should we. He was basically telling God: I want to feel Your presence. He did not let His desolation absorb Him in self-pity. He chose instead  to continue to submit obediently to the Father's will. There is a momentum to the work of salvation. As He prayed that psalm, the last invocation of Psalm 22 "May your hearts be ever merry!" it seemed to stir in Him already the smell of the Easter lily, a scent that should always be with us at every moment and hour of the day.

THE FIFTH WORD: "I THIRST"

Heavy blood loss causes severe dehydration. The scourging at the pillar and the crowning with thorns is the principal reason for Jesus' physical thirst. It is important to meditate on the suffering and blood-letting which Jesus endured for us. By your own blood, O Jesus, you brought us back to God!

He shed much blood for us beginning with the scourging at the pillar. As the soldiers repeatedly struck Jesus’ back with full force, the iron balls would cause deep contusions. He was severely whipped. And the crowning with thorns -- a cap of thorns covering His whole head -- caused His head to bleed profusely. Amused that this weakened man had claimed to be a king, the soldiers began to mock Him by placing a robe on His shoulders and a crown on His head. A major cause of His physical thirst, that brutal scourging and crowning, evidences dramatically what Jesus would undergo to make the everlasting covenant of love possible. His beatened figure is an everlasting reminder that to live is to love, and that to love involves not only joy, but suffering. Oh how precious and life-giving is the blood of Jesus. "Take this, all of you, and drink from it: this is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant. It will be shed for you and all so that sins may be forgiven."

It is the same blood that Jesus shed during His passion, this same blood, His blood which heals our sins. Every time we confess our sins in confession, we are covered with the life-giving blood of Jesus poured out for us in the scourging, the crowning and ultimately the crucifixion. How can we not confess our sins and confess them regularly. It is our duty of love to one who loved us so much that He gave His blood for us.

This loss of blood caused Jesus to be thirsty. But there is a deeper cause of His thirst. It is the reason for His whole life, His whole ministry that found its fulfillment on the cross. Jesus thirsts for each one of us. If any single theme dominated the ministry of Jesus, it was His desire for souls. This is the key to this fifth word from the cross. Even from the cross, particularly from the cross, Jesus reminds us of His thirst for us, His desire for us.

The physical thirst, realistic as it was, is but a sign of a deeper thirst, the thirst to be able to give God's most precious gift to us, His love, a share in His wonderful life. The words "I thirst" are the most personal and intimate of all the words from the cross precisely because they speak to each of us -- to those of us who seek Him regularly and to those who reject and despise Him.

In our pain, in the pain that life gives us from time to time, focus on the love-thirst of Jesus, a thirsting love revealed from the midst of His suffering and pain -- so important is that thirst to Him for each one of us. And each of us thirsts for Him: "Athirst is my soul for God, the living God. When shall I go and behold the face of God?"

THE SIXTH WORD: "IT IS FINISHED"

Consummatum est -- it is achieved, it is completed. His "hour" had finally come. The "hour" that had not arrived at Cana, at a wedding feast. It arrived instead on a cross, a wedding of reconciliation between God and each one of us forever. Yes, the will of His Father was completed: to restore in the second Adam, Jesus, what had been lost by the first Adam.

In the words of St.  Alphonse Liguori, in saying it is consummated, Jesus speaks at the same time to us and His Father, “As if he had said, O men, I have done all that I can do, in order to save your souls and to gain your love. I have done my part; do you now yours. Love me, and be not unwilling to love a God who has gone so far as to die for you.”

Consummatum est. On the cross, Jesus also made a bread offering of his broken body. He seemed like the loaf of sacrificial bread burnt and transformed into a new reality. On the cross, the body of the crucified and dead Jesus was becoming for us the Bread of Life.

By the sacrifice on the cross of His body and the pouring of His most precious blood, Jesus realized, Jesus effectuated, the Sacrament of the Eucharist -- that friendship-sacrificial meal, that memorial of His passion and death, celebrated at the Last Supper and continuing throughout the world each second of each day somewhere and everywhere in this world of ours. This saving act was a supreme act of sacrificial love for us, pro nobis.  It lies at the heart of our faith. What wondrous Love Jesus gives us at Mass, the Sacrament of Love. How can we live without the Eucharist, the great gift of Calvary!

On the cross, Jesus has profoundly touched our human experience. To this day, the image and likeness of our God will forever be seen in children distorted by hunger, in men and women disfigured by torture and war, in the destruction of human life -- particularly the most defenseless -- the preborn and the helpless elderly.

The fruits of His passion and death continue through signs and words in our day, above all in the Eucharist, but also in that special anointing sacrament of the sick. It is the sacrament that unites us--in special fashion -- with the passion of Christ. The catechism states: “By the grace of this sacrament the sick person receives the strength and the gift of uniting himself more closely to Christ’s Passion: in a certain way he is consecrated to bear fruit by configuration to the Savior’s redemptive Passion.  Suffering, a consequence of original sin, acquires a new meaning; it becomes a participation in the saving work of Jesus.” CCC 1521

On the cross, Jesus leads us from darkness to light, from death to a new and better life, to a life of which there is no end and where the desires of all human beings are finally and completely fulfilled. For such is His work completed and brought to perfection.

Consummatum est.

THE SEVENTH WORD: "FATHER, INTO YOUR HANDS I COMMEND MY SPIRIT"

At the time of final surrender, the surrender of His Spirit, Jesus again turns in prayer to a Hebrew psalm, a psalm which His mother taught Him as a child, Psalm 31 -- "Into your hands I commend my spirit." This night prayer taught to the child Jesus thus becomes on the cross His final prayer, His night-of-death prayer.

That final prayer has been the prayer of countless saints and martyrs throughout the ages, men and women who have died with the name of Jesus on their heart and in their minds. It has been said by parents mourning the death of a young child, by lovers broken by debilitating divorce, by men and women whose lives are marked by love and patience in the face of the most trying circumstances. It is the prayer of peaceful surrender to the God who made us and the Christ who redeemed us on the wood of the cross.

In his beautiful encyclical, The Splendor of Truth, that magna charta of the Church’s teaching on morality, our late Holy Father John Paul II spoke of martyrdom as an outstanding sign of holiness in the Church. Understood as "bearing witness" after the example of Jesus' total surrender on the cross, the martyrs went to their death shedding  their blood because of the power of the living Truth within them.

Understood as "bearing witness," testifying to the Truth about Jesus, particularly to His obedient surrender to His Father on the cross, martyrdom does not always end in the shedding of blood.

You and I, after the example of Jesus on the cross and empowered by the living power of the cross, are called each day in our walk with Jesus to be martyrs for the faith, living witnesses of the faith "which is a lived knowledge of Christ, a living remembrance of His commandments, and a truth to be lived out"--even at the cost of suffering and grave sacrifice. It is the call to a holy life, a call which lived will lead to a holy death and life eternal.

At the beginning of this Triduum 2010, I invite you to spend time in the upper room, listen again to Jesus’ prayerful words from John 17 -- perhaps today, this Holy Thursday. Spend time also on Calvary -- perhaps tomorrow Good Friday. It is an extension of that upper room. Listen also to the prayers that Jesus utters, those seven sets of unforgettable words from the cross.

A blessed Triduum and a Joyous Easter!

Amen