‘It is finished’ … the Cross on a sandbank between the sea and the church in Laytown, Co Meath (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)
6, John 19: 30
Reading: John 19: 29-30.
The words: “It is finished.”
Reflection: (6) Triumph
‘It is finished’
This statement is traditionally called “The Word of Triumph,” and it is interpreted as the announcement of the end of the earthly life of Jesus, in anticipation of the Resurrection.
Every year, for many years now, I have led a service of reflection on Holy Saturday in Whitechurch Parish, contemplating the Tomb of Christ.
So often we move too quickly from the afternoon of Good Friday to the morning of Easter Day, without thinking of what has been accomplished.
When I first suggested such a service, the rector of Whitechurch, Canon Horace McKinley, pointed out that there is no provision in the Book of Common Prayer for anything on Holy Saturday, until the Easter Eve Eucharist, which is the beginning of Easter itself.
On Holy Saturday, we use our churches for children’s clubs, or to decorate the church with eggs and little fluffy yellow chickens.
But do we allow Christ’s Crucifixion to come to its proper end – in the tomb?
Do we contemplate what has been finished, what has been accomplished?
Each year, in Whitechurch Parish, at that Holy Saturday service, we have reflected on great works of music, art and poetry that allow us to wait by the tomb.
One year, I chose for that reflection Mozart’s Requiem. This composition, written at the end of Mozart’s life when he was pressed with other work and in poor health, contains some of his most sublime music. Yet he did not complete it. He died leaving instructions to his friend to finish it off.
On the Cross, now that his life is coming to a close, Christ knows that all has been completed. “It is finished!” he cries out before he dies.
What is finished? What has been completed?
After his conversation with Samaritan woman at the Well of Sychar, Christ tells the Disciples: “My food is to do the will of him who has sent me and to complete his work” (John 4: 34). Later, after his great final discourse at the Last Supper, Christ lifts his eyes up to heaven and prays to his Father: “… this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do” (John 17: 4).
What was this work which the Father gave his Son to do?
In the New Testament, seven principal titles are given to Christ:
● 1, Son of Man;
● 2, The Lamb of God;
● 3, The New Adam;
● 4, The Son of God;
● 5, Lord;
● 6, Prophet;
● 7, Messiah.
But when it comes to his own self-description, Christ constantly talks about himself in terms of his relationship with us. There are seven “I AM” sayings in Saint John’s Gospel, seven ways in which he talks about who he is, gives himself a self-description, but always in terms of relationship:
He says he is
● 1, Bread: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me shall will never be hungry” (John 6: 35).
● 2, The Light: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8: 12).
● 3, The Gate: “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture” (John 10: 9).
● 4, The Good Shepherd: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10: 11).
● 5, The Resurrection and the Life: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live” (John 11: 25).
● 6, The Way, the Truth, and the Life: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14: 6).
● 7, The True Vine: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower” (John 15: 1).
It is no wonder that at his death, Jesus cried out “It is finished!” His death makes those relationships complete, brings his work to completion.
His death shows not just that these were poetic or literary devices on the part of Christ; he totally identifies with us, in life, in death, and in the grave. Death shows us how completely his identification with us is.
It is finished. Not that it is over, but is complete. His relationship with us has not come to end. It has come to its God-planned fulfilment.
‘It is finished’ … the East Window in Kenure Parish Church, Rush (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
There is a popular story from the Mexico Olympics and how at 7 p.m. on 20 October 1968, a few thousand spectators were left in the Olympic Stadium. It was cool and dark. The last of the marathon runners, each exhausted, were being carried off to first-aid stations. More than an hour earlier, Mamo Wolde of Ethiopia – looking as fresh as when he started the race – crossed the finish line, the winner of the 26-mile, 385-yard event.
As the remaining spectators prepared to leave, those sitting near the marathon gates suddenly heard the sound of sirens and police whistles. All eyes turned to the gate. A lone figure wearing number 36 and the colours of Tanzania entered the stadium.
This was John Stephen Akhwari, the last man to finish the marathon. He had fallen during the race and injured his knee and ankle. Now, with his leg bloodied and bandaged, he grimaced with each step as he hobbled around the 400-meter track.
The spectators rose in applause.
After crossing the finish line, Akhwari slowly walked off the field. Later, a reporter asked him the question on everyone’s mind: “Why did you continue the race after you were so badly injured?”
He replied: “My country did not send me 7,000 miles to start the race. They sent me 7,000 miles to finish it.”
There is a prayer ascribed to Sir Walter Raleigh that says: “O Lord God, when you give your servants to endeavour any great matter, grant us also to know that it is not the beginning, but the continuing of the same to the end, until it be thoroughly finished, which yields the true glory; through him who for the finishing of your work, laid down his life, our redeemer, Jesus Christ.”
The incarnation makes no sense without the crucifixion. In Christ God fully identifies with the plight of suffering humanity. Birth is not enough, there must be death too.
“It is finished” is not a death gurgle.
“It is finished” is not “I am done for.”
“It is finished” is the last words of Christ on the cross.
“It is finished” is a cry of victory.
“It is finished” is the triumphant cry that what Christ has come to do has been done.
All is accomplished, completed, fulfilled.
Archbishop Rowan Williams reminds us of Pascal’s stark remark that “Jesus will be in agony until the end of the world.”
Of course, we live in the time between the times – the kingdom is begun in Christ but will not be seen in its perfection until the end of the world.
The Archbishop of Canterbury observes that Pascal’s comment on Christ’s continuing agony is an exhortation to us not to become nostalgic for a supposedly less compromised past or to take refuge in some imagined purified future, but to dwell in the tension-filled time between times, to remain awake to our inability “to stay in the almost unbearable present moment where Jesus is.”
Christ in Majesty ... John Piper’s window in the Chapel of the Hospital of Saint John Without the Barrs, Lichfield ... the Cross illustrates the Triumph of God
Saint John’s Gospel makes explicit what all the Gospels assume – the cross is not a defeat but the victory of God.
The Crucifixion is kingdom come. This is the great long-awaited apocalyptic moment. Here the powers of this world are forever subverted. Time is now redeemed through the raising up of Christ on his cross. A new age has begun. The kingdom is here a-born, a new regime is inaugurated, creating a new way of life for those who worship and follow Christ.
God’s work, the work of the Trinity, is consummated in Christ’s great declaration from the cross: “It is finished.”
His life, his death, his resurrection, as Irenaeus insists, recapitulates creation, recapitulates God’s covenant with his people, unites creation and redemption in the Incarnation. The new creation is complete.
As Richard Neuhaus puts it in his reflections on the seven last words in his Death on a Friday Afternoon: “‘It is finished.’ But it is not over.” God remains at work making us, his creatures, divine.
Now it is possible for us to live at peace, to be God’s agents of reconciliation, in a violent world. We are able so to live not because we have answers to all the world’s troubles, but because God has given us a way to live without answers.
Our sins have been consumed, making possible lives that glow with the beauty of God's Spirit. What wonderful news: “‘It is finished.’ But it is not over.” It is not over because God made us, the Church, the “not over.”
We are made witnesses so the world – a world that has no time for a crucified God – may know we have all the time of God's kingdom to live in peace with one another.
Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This is the sixth of seven reflections on “the Seven Last Words” on Good Friday, 22 April 2011, in Saint Mark’s Church, Armagh, where the Rector is Canon John McKegney.