A homily delivered April 18, 2014, as part of Luther Memorial's annual three-hour reflection on the last words of Jesus.
It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’ Having said this, he breathed his last (Luke 23:44–46).
This is the hour of the death of our Savior. Jesus gives up his spirit and breathes his last. “Father,” he says, “into your hands I commend my spirit.” The Son of God has died.
This moment belongs to darkness, to the chaos of the spirit that, once upon a time, had hovered over waters, untamed and raw; the darkness that predated those first words of creation: “Let there be light.” In this moment, this chaos, that sunlight fails, and the failure of the sunlight identifies the One who speaks the words, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” For this prayer comes from the lips of the very Word first spoken over all of creation in the beginning, his spirit now surrendered. Creation grieves her Lord.
Strangely, it is the darkness, foretold by Amos, announced by Isaiah, that is the sign by which the we finally see, by which we learn the truth about this man. This man who calls God, “Father,” and pours our his spirit for us and the world, birthing hidden, new creation. “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”
As the cry of God’s Son to the Father, these words and this prayer are, on the one hand, utterly foreign to us. They do not belong to us; instead, the cosmic darkness of this day confirms the distance we rightly perceive between ourselves and the Crucified One. We feel displaced.
And yet, the words Jesus speaks are familiar, even intimately known to us, coming from Israel’s psalter, the song of the psalmist, repeated in the prayer book tradition’s prayers for the end of each day, in the prayers we call Compline. In the context, the rhythm, of these daily prayers, the words have become almost comfortable. “Into your hands, O Lord, I commend…” Even so, coming as they do at the end of day, before the necessary surrender that is our sleep, these words signal a daily preparation for death, our own deaths, recalling - if implicitly - Christ’s death, this prayer, this day, and this hour - and our share in the same. Not for nothing does the beloved antiphon of Compline borrow language from the grave: “Guide us waking, O Lord, and guard us sleeping; that awake we may watch with Christ, and asleep we may rest in peace.”
In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” To be confronted by Christ’s death with our own mortality and death is to see rent in two the veil of the illusions we live out a thousand times a day and so many more across a lifetime - illusions that we might yet be our own salvation, that perhaps we *have* been saving ourselves and the world all along - one good deed, one well written email, one politeness, one achievement at a time - assurance of our self-importance. But salvation is to look on the One we have pierced and to have no hope but him. To have no prayer but him. To hunger and thirst for a share in Christ’s prayer to the Father. And Christ himself is our share in that prayer. So we, like St. Stephen, the Church’s first martyr, are learning to pray, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”
In this way, Jesus is the Father’s Psalm for us, the prayer by which is opened new life and belonging in the heart of the Father. Light in the darkness. Fire in the night. New dawn. New creation. The psalm by which the whole of creation will learn by these days to sing God’s praises, will learn, in God’s time, to call this Friday “good.” And even now, in the hour of darkness, curtain torn, illusions shattered, his body dead as hell - even now the melody is forming, voices rising. Even on this day and in this hour, heaven prepares the song.
Let us pray.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, we pray you to set your passion, cross, and death between your judgment and our souls, now and in the hour of our death. Give mercy and grace to the living; pardon and rest to the dead; to your holy Church peace and concord; and to us sinners everlasting life and glory; for with the Father and the Holy Spirit you live and reign, one God, now and forever. Amen.