“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit,” Jesus says at the moment of his death on the cross. Jesus returns to the Father everything that has been given to him. The last words of Jesus powerfully reflect the whole of Jesus’ mission of mercy.
Sunday we begin Holy Week with the celebration of Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion. At the beginning of Mass we hear the Gospel passage of Jesus’ preparation for and entry into Jerusalem. He is greeted as a king. The crowds lay their cloaks on the road over which he travels. They proclaim: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord. Peace in heaven and glory in the highest.” The peace they proclaim is the fruit of mercy, a mercy that will be fully experienced in Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection.
The Gospel proper for Sunday’s liturgy is the passion account from the Gospel according to Luke. The passage begins with the Last Supper account. Jesus takes the bread, breaks it and offers it to the apostles saying: “This is my body, which will be given for you; do this in memory of me.”
The words and actions foreshadow his complete offering on the cross. His own words indicate that he is offering himself on our behalf. As he takes the cup he says: “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which will be shed for you.” Jesus’ blood is poured out for us. His self-offering is for us, for the forgiveness of sin; his is the mission of mercy.
Confronted with sin and evil he does not give in to sin or evil. He remains obedient to the Father in love.
One way of describing sin is a turning away from God. Jesus never turns away from the Father but keeps his gaze upon him. He remains obedient in love as St. Paul writes: “Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
The intensity of his love and his impending offering are seen in the garden as he prays to the Father. Fully aware of what is about to happen, Jesus asks that “this cup might pass” but he ends the prayer “still, not my will but yours be done.” He surrenders himself to the Father in faith. The intensity is seen in his sweat which “became like drops of blood.”
The cruelty which Jesus undergoes in his arrest, trial, torture and crucifixion highlights the gravity of sin. Jesus willingly allows the passion to unfold. He becomes the suffering servant who Isaiah prophesied and is referenced in the first reading. He is the gentle one who offers a word to the weary that will rouse them. He is the meek one who takes on the torments, completely relying on the Lord for deliverance: “I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; my face I did not shield from buffets or spitting. The Lord God is my help, therefore I am not disgraced; I have set my face like flint, knowing that I shall not be put to shame.”
The mission of mercy culminates on the cross. This mission is encapsulated in his first and last words after being crucified. Immediately after Jesus is nailed to the cross He says: “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” His prayer is for mercy. While the words apply to those crucifying him they also apply to all humanity. Jesus takes on the sins of all as he is nailed to the cross. He offers himself on our behalf. He gives himself so that we might be forgiven.
In this the cross becomes the Mercy Seat — the locus of God’s merciful love. Through his death we have the forgiveness of sin. Jesus’ last words, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit,” bring to completion the “turning back” of mankind to the Father. Jesus offers himself in complete faith to the Father. In faith he places himself at the mercy of the Father, a mercy that will be further manifest in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville.