In his catechesis in Italian, to a packed Paul VI audience hall, the Holy Father said “In our school of prayer last week I spoke about Christ’s prayer on the Cross, taken from Psalm 22 “My God, my God why have you forsaken me”. Now I would like to continue to meditate on the prayers of Jesus on the cross in the imminence of death and today I would like to focus on the narrative that we encounter in the Gospel of St. Luke. The Evangelist has handed down three words of Jesus on the cross, two of which – the first and third – are explicitly prayers to the Father. The second one consists of the promise made to the so-called good thief crucified with him, answering, in fact, the thief’s prayer, Jesus reassures him: “Truly I tell you today will be with me in Paradise” (Lk 23 , 43). The two prayers of the dying Jesus and the acceptance of the repentant sinner’s supplication to Him are suggestively entwined in Luke’s account. Jesus both prays to the Father and hears the prayer of this man who is often called latro poenitens, “the repentant thief.”
Let us dwell on these three prayers of Jesus. The first pronounced immediately after being nailed to the cross, while the soldiers are dividing his garments as sad reward of their service. In a way this gesture closes the process of crucifixion. St. Luke writes: “When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him and the criminals there, one on his right, the other on his left. [Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.”] They divided his garments by casting lots “(23.33 to 34). The first prayer that Jesus addresses to the Father is one of intercession: He asks forgiveness for his executioners. With this, Jesus in person carries out what he had taught in the Sermon on the Mount when he said: ” But to you who hear I say, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you ” (Lk 6:27) and also promised to those who can forgive, “then your reward will be great and you will be children of the Most High ” (v. 35). Now, from the cross, He not only forgives his executioners, but speaks directly to the Father interceding on their behalf.
This is attitude of Jesus’ finds a moving ‘imitation’ in the story of the stoning of St. Stephen, the first martyr. Stephen, in fact, coming to an end, “knelt down and cried with a loud voice:” Lord, do not hold this sin against them”. That said, he died “(Acts 7.60). It was his last word. The comparison of the prayer for forgiveness of Jesus and that of the martyr is significant. Stephen turns to the Risen Lord and calls for his murder – a gesture clearly defined by the expression “this sin” – is not imputed against those who stone him. Jesus addresses the Father on the cross and not only asks for forgiveness for his executioners, but also offers a reading of what is happening. In his words, in fact, the men who crucify him “know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). He gives that ignorance, “not knowing” as the reason for the request for forgiveness from the Father, for this ignorance leaves the way open to conversion, as is the case in the words that the centurion spoke at Jesus’ death: ” This man was innocent beyond doubt”(v. 47), he was the Son of God”. It is a consolation for all times and for all men that the Lord, both for those who really did not know – the killers – and those who knew and condemned him, gives ignorance as the reason for asking for forgiveness – he sees it as a door that can open us up to repentance “(Jesus of Nazareth, II, 233).
The second prayer of Jesus on the cross as told by St. Luke is a word of hope, is His answer to the prayer of one of the two men crucified with Him. The good thief before Jesus returned to himself and repents, he feels himself to be before the Son of God, who reveals the Face of God, and prays: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (v. 42). The Lord’s answer to this prayer goes far beyond the supplication, he says: ” Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (v. 43). Jesus is aware of entering directly into communion with the Father and of reopening the path for the man to God’s paradise. So through this response gives the firm hope that the goodness of God can touch us even at the last moment of life and that sincere prayer, even after a life of wrong, meets the open arms of the good Father who awaits the return of his son.
“no matter how hard the trial, difficult the problem, heavy the suffering, we never fall from the hands of God”
But let us pause on the last words of the dying Jesus. The Evangelist says: ” It was now about noon and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon because of an eclipse of the sun. Then the veil of the temple was torn down the middle. Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit”; and when he had said this he breathed his last.”(vv. 44-46). Some aspects of this narrative are different than the picture offered in Mark and Matthew. The three hours of darkness are not described in Mark, while Matthew they are connected with a different set of apocalyptic events, such as the earthquake, the opening of graves, the dead raised to life (cf. Mt 27.51-53). In Luke, the hours of darkness are caused by the eclipse of the sun, but at that moment is the veil of the temple is also torn. In this way Luke’s account has two signs, in some way parallel, in heaven and in the temple. The sky loses its light, the land sinks, while in the temple, the place of God’s presence, tears the veil that protects the shrine. The death of Jesus is explicitly characterized as a cosmic and liturgical event, in particular, it marks the beginning of a new worship in a temple not built by men, because it is the very Body of Jesus dead and risen, that brings together the people and they are joined in the Sacrament of his Body and his Blood.
The prayer of Jesus in this moment of suffering – “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit” – is a loud cry of extreme and total trust in God. This prayer express the full awareness of not being abandoned. The opening invocation – “Father” – recalls his first declaration as a twelve year old boy. Then he remained for three days in the temple of Jerusalem, the veil of which is now torn. And when his parents had expressed their concern, he replied: ” Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s ho “(Luke 2.49). From beginning to end, what completely determines the Jesus’s sentiments, his words, his actions, is His unique relationship with the Father. On the cross He also fully lives, in love, his filial relationship with God, which animates his prayer.
The words spoken by Jesus, after the invocation “Father,” are taken from the expression of Psalm 31: “Into your hands I commend my spirit” (Ps. 31.6). These words, however, are not a simple quote, but rather show a firm decision: Jesus “delivers” himself to the Father in an act of total abandonment. These words are a prayer of ‘custody’, full of confidence in the love of God. The prayer of Jesus before his death is tragic as it is for every man, but at the same time, it is pervaded by the deep calm that comes from trust in the Father and the will abandon himself totally to Him. In Gethsemane, when he entered the final fight and intense prayer and was about to be “delivered into the hands of men” (Lk 9.44), his sweat became “like drops of blood falling to the ground” (Luke 22:44). But his heart was fully obedient to the will of the Father, and “an angel from heaven” had come to comfort him (cf. Lk 22.42 to 43). Now, in his last moments, Jesus addresses the Father saying into which hands he really surrenders his whole life. Even before leaving for the journey to Jerusalem, Jesus had insisted with his disciples, ” Pay attention to what I am telling you. The Son of Man is to be handed over to men.” (Lk 9.44). Now, that life is about to leave him, he seals his final decision in prayer: Jesus allowed himself to be delivered “into the hands of men”, but it is into the hands of the Father that He raises his spirit, so – as stated by the Evangelist John – it is finished, the supreme act of love is brought to an end, to the limit and beyond the limit.
Dear brothers and sisters, the words of Jesus on the cross in the last moments of his earthly life offer challenging indications to our prayers, but also open them to a quiet confidence and a firm hope. Jesus by asking the Father to forgive those who are crucifying him, invites us to the difficult act of praying for those who do us wrong, who have damaged us, knowing always how to forgive, so the light of God may illuminate their hearts, inviting us, that is, to live in our prayers, the same attitude of mercy and love that God has towards us: “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive our those who trespass against us,” we say every day in the “Our Father.” At the same time, Jesus in the final moment of death, by placing himself entirely in the hands of God the Father, communicates to us the certainty that, no matter how hard the trial, difficult the problem, heavy the suffering, we never fall from the hands of God, those hands that created us, support us and accompany us on the journey of life, because guided by an infinite and faithful love.