Our Lord’s “seven last words” include three prayers that teach us much about how we should pray, especially when we suffer for the sake of the Kingdom.
Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. (Luke 23:34)
In this prayer offered by our suffering Lord, both of the Tables of the Law find full expression. By acknowledging that it is God alone whose Law has been transgressed by His accusers and persecutors, Jesus fulfills the first Table, which requires that we acknowledge the sovereignty and righteousness of God. Then by what Alfred Edersheim calls an act of “utter self-forgetfulness,”* Jesus fulfills the second Table by not condemning those who had falsely condemned Him. He also demonstrates one of the purposes of His Incarnation: to set aside His own glory for our sake. With the perfect self-forgetfulness that is the essence of love, Christ teaches us not only how to pray but how to live in His love, focused on the needs of others rather than our own needs and desires. Just as He did not consider the need to protect His position as God’s Son, we can accept the slights of others, since we are assured of the love of God.
Like this brief but perfect prayer, our prayers should spring from a Christ-like heart that loves our neighbor as ourselves. This summary of the second Table of the Law necessarily includes our forgiveness of others, even when they persecute us without cause. He who knew no sin forgave those who whipped Him and spat upon Him. As Edersheim observes, “In the moment of the deepest abasement of Christ’s Human Nature, the Divine bursts forth most brightly.”* His merciful treatment of His persecutors shows us the very nature of God, whose property is always to have mercy and who is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance. Our prayers should conform to this mindset, as we forgive others and trust in God’s infinite goodness.
My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? (Matthew 27:46)
Because we were born estranged from God, we can never experience the depths of distress from which our Lord uttered this prayer. He who had enjoyed perfect fellowship with God the Father from before the foundation of the world was for a time in His human self completely cut off from God, and all because He bore our sins. Every Old Testament shadow and type comes into focus in this one moment in history. The ram that replaced Isaac, all of the animals that were sacrificed in the Temple, the scapegoats to which the sins of the people were passed—all of these innocent but still inadequate sin-bearers find their fulfillment in Jesus Christ through this lament. But what they could not accomplish, He did. His brief estrangement from God reversed the worst penalty of sin, which is permanent separation from God. For a brief period of time at the cross, God refused to commune with His own dear Son so that He might restore the communion our first parents lost with Him and with each other.
Jesus’ loss of fellowship with God the Father became the very reason that we can pray! Jesus was forsaken temporarily so that our fellowship with God might be restored permanently. God stopped His ears to Jesus for a while so that our prayers might be heard forevermore. Now, through the work of Christ and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, we have the privilege of walking with God in holiness every day for the rest of our lives. Praise His glorious Name!
Father, into your hands I commit My spirit (Luke 23:46)
Christ’s final words are the perfect resolution of the previous prayer. No longer separated from His Father by the weight of our sins, He cries out in assurance that their relationship has been restored and that He can now be received without impediment. What has caused this drastic turnaround? His assessment that “it is finished.” The payment for sin has been exacted, atonement made. Only then does He return His spirit to God by an act of His own will. In this way, He shows Himself to be the Great High Priest, the only One who has both the right and responsibility to dispose of the Sacrifice.
Edersheim observes that the meaning of the Greek word translated as commit in this passage is “to deposit for safekeeping.”* The beautiful application for Christ’s people is that through His death we can also utter these words that were the final words of such saints as Polycarp and Martin Luther. But like those saints, we do not wait until our death to commit our spirits to God. Every day our wills and our ways, our souls and our bodies, should be offered up as a sacrifice to Christ, as the Eucharistic prayer so beautifully reminds us, based on St. Paul’s exhortation in Romans 12:1.
I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.
The One who taught His disciples how to pray shows His perfect submission to the will of His Father. How much more should we, who have been redeemed by His sacrifice, turn our faces toward heaven in prayer to the Father who sent the Son to be the Savior of the world!
*Quotations are from Edersheim, Alfred. The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah: New Updated Edition. Hendrickson, 1993.
A Prayer for the Church for which Christ Died
O God, our Father, we pray for thy Church, which is set today amid the perplexities of a changing order, and face to face with new tasks. Baptize her afresh in the life-giving spirit of Jesus. Bestow upon her a greater responsiveness to duty, a swifter compassion with suffering, and an utter loyalty to the will of God. Help her to proclaim boldly the coming of the Kingdom of God. Bid her cease from seeking her own life, lest she lose it. Make her valiant to give up her life to humanity; that, like her crucified Master, she may mount by the path of the cross to a higher glory; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
(From The Pastor’s Prayerbook by Robert Rodenberry. New York: Oxford, 1960)