Redemptorist Father Dennis Billy has authored a resource useful for inspaniduals, groups

By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T

The Seven Last Words of Christ, in English the seven sentences the Gospels tell us were uttered by Jesus as he hung dying on the cross, are much more than a suitable Good Friday homily topic.

Redemptorist Father Dennis Billy, who holds the John Cardinal Krol Chair of Moral Theology at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, gives a thought-provoking interpretation of them in his recently released Encounter the Cross: Meditations on the Seven Last Words of Jesus (Ligouri Publications, paperback $10.99; Amazon $9.34).

The seven utterances, three taken from Luke, three from John and one from Matthew are, as you are probably aware: “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do”; “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise”; Woman, behold your son … behold your mother”; “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” “I thirst”; “It is finished.” and “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” {{more}}

“Jesus’ first word from the cross reminds us of how He has gifted us with a new way of thinking and relating to God,” Father Billy writes. “It also teaches us something about the very nature of prayer itself. Prayer is nothing more than talking to God.”

In this first word, Jesus addresses God as “Abba” or “Father,” just as He had taught His followers to do.

“If this had been the only word Jesus uttered from the cross, it would have spoken volumes,” Father Billy writes.

Contrast this to the fourth word, “My God, my God (Eli, Eli), why have you forsaken me.”

This may express that Jesus was no longer able to hear the voice of the Father, as He was dying on the cross.

Father Billy also notes these are the opening words of Psalm 22, which begins as a cry of anguish and ends as a song of praise. “Jesus singles out this psalm for a reason,” he writes.

In his final utterance, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit,” Jesus returns to the more familiar “Abba.”

“As His suffering grows, however, the depth of the Father’s silence takes on deeper meaning, for Him,” Father Billy said. “Jesus, whose trust never wavers, now embraces the Father’s silence as the ultimate form of affirmation. As the Word of God made flesh and wisdom of the Father, He understands that the Father has no need to speak to Him. He and the Father are one.”

Encounter the Cross is a slender volume which can well serve for Holy Week reading.

But it can be much more than that. As Father Billy tells us, Jesus was not just speaking to the small knot of people within earshot of the cross, He was speaking to all humanity, each and every one of us.

Because the book includes prayers and insightful questions in addition to meditations on the seven words, it could become a tool for parish prayer groups who might ponder the meaning of these sacred words over the almost seven weeks of Lent.

Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.