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A Practical Commentary On Holy Scripture by Frederick Justus Knecht D.D.

[Mat. 27:46. Mark 15:34. Luke 23:34–46. John 19:26–30]

1. The First word

MANY of those who passed that way, and saw Jesus hanging on the Cross (Fig. 91, p. 694), blasphemed Him and said: “Thou that destroyest the Temple of God, and in three days buildest it up again, save Thyself. If Thou be the Son of God, come down from the Cross.” The chief priests also, and the scribes and the ancients mocked Him, saying: “He saved others, Himself He cannot save.” But Jesus prayed: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke).

Even as a dying father’s last words are indelibly imprinted on his children’s memory as a precious legacy, so ought we to observe and take to heart the words which our Lord spoke on the Cross. His first word thus uttered was one of intercession for His deadly enemies. Robbed of His liberty of action, and nailed to the Cross, it might have been thought that He was powerless to do anything more for His people. His Hands, which had distributed benefits, are made fast to the Cross; His Feet, which went about so untiringly in search of sinners, can move no more; His Head is incapable of further movement, being bowed down under His crown of thorns. But His bleeding Heart is till unconquered, still beats with love for His tormentors; His Eyes, too, are free, and are raised pleadingly to His Father; His Tongue is unfettered, and with that He prays aloud for His enemies. In the midst of the turmoil of mockery and blasphemy, Jesus prays that His murderers may be forgiven. His Blood, innocently shed, cries to heaven for vengeance, but His loving Heart cries out for pardon. He does not remember that it is through His murderers that He is suffering, He only remembers that He is suffering and dying for them, and prays that even for them His Precious Blood may not be shed in vain. This first utterance of our Lord on the Cross shows us, then, 1. that He is the Redeemer of all men, and that He suffered and died as our Advocate and Mediator with the Father; 2. that Jesus is the Son of God, for even on the Cross He speaks as a Son to His Father, and the consciousness of His divine dignity never left Him even when He was brought most low. He suffered and died as the Son of God. It shows us 3. the infinite love of Jesus for His enemies. By forgiving His enemies and praying that they might be forgiven, He proved Himself to be the Son of God, more than if He had come down from the Cross; for love such as this had never been seen on earth, and did not spring from earth but from heaven, from the bosom of the Eternal Father. Our Blessed Lord thus teaches us not only by His words, but also by His example, that we should “love our enemies, do good to them that hate us, and pray for them that persecute and calumniate us”.


Fig. 91. Golgotha in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. (Phot. Bruno Hentschel, Leipzig.)

The fruit of our Lord’s prayer was that the Jews were given a long reprieve (till the year 70), in which interval many thousands were converted to the Christian faith, and were saved. Only a few weeks later, on the Feast of Pentecost, three thousand were baptized, among whom were, no doubt, many of those who scoffed at Jesus on the Cross, and for whom He had therefore especially prayed.

Blasphemy. The scoffers spoke contemptuously of the power of Jesus, of His Divinity, and of His royal dignity as the Messias or king of the Jews.

Unbelief. Now, would the chief priests and scribes have believed if Jesus had come down alive from the Cross? No! They saw the wonders which accompanied His death, and were convinced of the truth of the most wonderful of all miracles, namely His Resurrection from the dead, but in spite of all, they hardened their hearts and would not believe.

2. The Second Word

And one of the thieves who were crucified with Him, blasphemed Him like the others, saying: “If Thou be Christ, save Thyself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying: “Neither dost thou fear God, seeing thou art under the same condemnation. We, indeed, justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this Man hath done no evil.” Then he said to Jesus: “Lord, remember me when Thou shalt come into Thy kingdom!” Jesus replied: “Amen, I say to thee, this day thou shalt be with Me in paradise” (Luke).

The Conversion of the penitent thief was a miracle of grace won by the merits of Jesus Christ. When this great criminal saw the patience and gentleness with which Jesus suffered, and how He repaid injuries with love, and when he heard Him address God as His Father, he opened his heart to grace and believed that Jesus was the Messias and the Son of God. With this faith there was awakened in him hope and confidence in the power of the Redeemer to pardon him, and he prayed Him to have mercy on him. He had committed very great crimes in his past life, and had done no penance for them; but now, though he was on the point of dying, he hoped to receive pardon and eternal life from Jesus. Love for Jesus also entered his heart, and impelled him to do what he could to protect Him from the insults of the other thief, whom he upbraided for his blasphemies. From a robber and murderer he suddenly became zealous for God’s glory and the welfare of his companion’s soul. From his love for Jesus proceeded a deep contrition, which he made known by a sincere confession of his great guilt, whereby he had deserved the punishment of death. He accepted his punishment and suffering willingly and resignedly, in satisfaction for his sins. He did not ask to be delivered from his temporal punishment, but acknowledged that his sufferings were no more than his due. His conversion therefore was very real and perfect, and our Lord remitted all his sins, and promised him the immediate possession of paradise. The fervour of his penance shortened its duration.

The Divinity of our Lord. This wonderful conversion of the thief crucified at His right hand is a further proof of our Lord’s Divinity. His enemies purposely crucified Him between two thieves, so as to increase the ignominy of His Death; but their intentional insult turned to His honour and glory, and Jesus, while still hanging on the Cross, drew the hearts of men to acknowledge Him as their Lord and King. “This thief”, says St. Chrysostom, “saw our Saviour in torments, but prayed to Him as if He were in glory. He saw Him stretched on His Cross, and prayed to Him as if He were seated on His throne in heaven. He saw One condemned, and called Him Lord. He saw One crucified, and confessed Him to be a King. O wonderful conversion!” All in a moment Jesus turned the sinner, whose crimes had merited death, into a Saint! This conversion shows, indeed, the might of the divine grace of our Lord Jesus Christ! And how, moreover, could He have promised paradise to the penitent thief, had He not been God?

To convert sinners is a spiritual work of mercy.

He who corresponds with grace will be saved, while he who resists grace will be lost. This important truth is illustrated by the conduct of the two thieves, in the same way that it is illustrated by the conversion of St. Peter and the despair of Judas. The thief on the left hand received quite as much grace as did the other, for Jesus prayed for both, and shed His Precious Blood for both. He saw the patience and love of Jesus as well as the other, but he resisted grace, hardened his heart, and thus died in his sins, and was eternally lost. On the contrary, the thief on the right hand corresponded with grace and was thereby saved. He left the cross for paradise, whereas the other left it for hell.

3. The Third Word

Near the Cross stood Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and John, His beloved disciple, and Mary Magdalen. Looking upon them with tender affection, He said to His Mother: “Woman, behold thy son!” Then, addressing John, He said: Behold thy Mother!” (John.)

The Mother of sorrows. Words cannot describe what Mary suffered when she heard of the scourging and condemnation of her Divine Son; when she saw Him dragging the Cross along and heard the strokes of the hammer which were driving the nails through His Hands and Feet; and when, finally, she stood beneath the Cross, watching His Precious Blood trickling down to the ground, and heard the words of blasphemy which were hurled at Him. No mother’s heart has ever suffered so much as did Mary’s, for never did mother love her son with such a holy love as that with which Mary loved her Son, who was at the same time her God. To see His sufferings, and to be separated from Him, gave her unspeakable pain. Truly Simeon’s prophecy was now fulfilled: “Thine own soul a sword shall pierce” (see chapter VII).

Mary’s fortitude. In spite of the furious crowd, raging with hatred and envy, Mary fearlessly avowed herself to be the Mother of the Crucified One, and was eager to share His shame. She did not sink down, fainting and helpless, but “stood by the Cross”, and with a perfect resignation offered up her Son to the heavenly Father. It was as if she said to God: “Take Him, even if my heart break! Only let the world be saved, and Thine honour restored!” Under the Cross Mary won the title of Queen of Martyrs.

The love for parents. Peter and John were the two Apostles singled out and most confided in by Jesus. To the former He committed the charge of His Church, and to the care of the latter He consigned her who was to Him the dearest on earth, His Mother. To the last moment of His life Jesus observed the fourth commandment, and left an example to all children how they are to love their parents even unto death, and do for them all they can.

Mary our Mother. In the person of John, who at the foot of the Cross represented the apostles and the whole Church, Jesus gave Mary to be the spiritual mother of all Christians, of the whole Church and of all its members. In a far higher sense than Eve she is the mother of all the living, for she is the mother of all those who by the Blood of Christ are born again to eternal life. We ought therefore to love and honour Mary and turn with confidence to her as our mother.

4. The Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Words.—The Death of Jesus, and the Wonders which accompanied His Death

Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over the whole earth until the ninth hour, while Jesus was in His agony. That He might drink the chalice of sorrow even to the dregs, our Divine Lord was abandoned at that awful moment by His Eternal Father. This was the crowning point of His terrible agony; for He exclaimed: “Eli, Eli, lamma sabacthani”, that is “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” (Matthew, Mark.)

After a few moments’ silence, He said: “I thirst” (John.) Then one of the soldiers took a sponge, and steeping it in vinegar and gall, put it on the end of a reed and presented it to His lips. But when He had tasted the vinegar, He said: “It is consummated!” (John.) Then He cried out with a loud voice: “Father, into Thy Hands I commend My spirit!” (Luke.) And bowing down His Sacred Head, He expired.

And behold the veil of the Temple was rent in two from the top even to the bottom, and the earth quaked, and the rocks were rent. And the graves were opened, and many bodies of the Saints that had slept arose. Now the centurion and they that were with him, watching Jesus, were sore afraid1, saying: “Indeed this was the Son of God.” And all the multitude of them that were come together to that sight returned to Jerusalem striking their breasts.

The vicarious Sacrifice and Death of Jesus. The great work entrusted by the Eternal Father to His Son is consummated! That which the types foreshadowed, which the just longed for, and the prophets foretold, is accomplished! Jesus Christ was born in poverty and humility, lived a life of toil and hardship, poverty and persecution for thirty-three years, and at the end of it died a painful and disgraceful death. Those Eyes which beamed with gentleness and kindness are shut; that Mouth which spoke comfort to the afflicted and peace to all men is closed; those Hands which bestowed benefits all around are powerless; those Feet which left traces of blessings wherever they went are stiff; that Heart which beat with love for all men is cold and dead! The Good Shepherd has given His life for His sheep; the true Paschal Lamb has been slain, and has delivered us from the slavery of sin and of Satan, and opened to us the way into the Promised Land of heaven. He gave Himself over to a violent death in the very prime of His Manhood and in the height of health and strength, to redeem us from sin and eternal death, and to win for us grace and eternal life. The guiltless died for the guilty; and the Most Holy for the sinner. We have indeed been “bought with a great price” (1 Con. 6:20).

The Divinity of our Lord was made manifest at His Death by His words and His deeds. a) Jesus, when dying, addressed God as His Father, and thus, with His last words, testified to His Divinity. b) Inanimate nature bore witness that the most terrible of crimes, even the murder of God, had taken place on Calvary. The sun hid itself so as not to witness the death agony of the “Sun of justice”; the earth heaved and the rocks rent themselves asunder, for He who laid the foundations of the earth and built the mountains was dying! Even the kingdom of the dead (by the opening of the graves) testified that the Lord of life had conquered death by His Death.

The abandonment by God was suffered by our Lord in satisfaction for our sins, whereby we have forsaken God and deserved to be eternally separated from, and rejected by Him. By this suffering He merited precious graces for us, by means of which we can overcome temptations to faint-heartedness or despair.

The thirst of Jesus. The cry: “I thirst”, revealed not only the torturing bodily thirst which our Blessed Lord was suffering, but also His burning desire for our salvation and our love. The desire for our salvation was the cause of all our Lord’s pain. It is our business—not that of His executioners—to quench His burning thirst by appreciating and responding to His infinite love, and by caring for the salvation of our own souls.

The wonderful rending of the veil of the Temple showed 1. that Jesus by His Death had opened to all men the way into the real Holy of Holies, even heaven; 2. that the Temple of the Old Covenant, with its typical laws and sacrifices, had lost its meaning, and that from henceforth substance and fulfilment would take the place of shadows and types.

The rending of the rocks gives us an idea of the effect which the contemplation of our Lord’s sufferings and death ought to produce on us. At the sight of our crucified Saviour, our hearts ought to “quake” with terror at the evil of sin, and “heave” with pain at the thought of His sufferings; and they ought to be “rent” with contrition, even if they be as hard as stone! They ought to open and cast off their dead works and sins by a good confession, and rise to a new life with Jesus Christ (St. Bernard).

Holy week. Good Friday is a day of mourning and penance, for on that day sin caused the death of the Incarnate Son of God. On the sixth day of Creation God made man; and on the sixth day of the week, God Incarnate redeemed fallen man.

A summary of the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ. The sufferings of our Blessed Lord were caused by men, Jews, Gentiles and even His own apostles (Peter and Judas); by the light which revealed His nakedness; and by the air which inflamed His wounds. He suffered in His honour, by false accusations, insults, and unjust judgment; in His liberty, by being seized, bound and fastened with nails. His Soul suffered from fear, sadness and complete desolation, and from the scorn, mockery and ignominy that were heaped upon Him; His whole Body was tortured by the innumerable bruises and wounds of the scourging; His Head by the crown of thorns; His Face by the blows and spittle; His Hands and Feet by being pierced with nails; His Knees by being wounded and torn by His falls; and His Neck by the halter laid round it. His Eyes were wounded by the looks of His enemies who hated Him, as well as by the sight of His sorrowful Mother; His Ears were lacerated by the curses, cries of execration and blasphemy of His tormentors. Truly “from the sole of His Foot unto the top of His Head, there is no soundness therein” (Is. 1:6). Added to all these sufferings we must remember this, that the Body of our Blessed Lord, conceived by the Holy Ghost in a wonderful and perfect manner, was much more sensitive to pain than our bodies; and that the more innocent, holy and noble a person is, the more intolerable to him is ingratitude, injustice, and malice. The sufferings of Jesus were, therefore, inconceivably great. All this ought to serve to fill us with a horror of sin, on account of which our dear and Blessed Lord suffered so much, and impress us with the greatness of His love, which made Him endure all this for us!

To die a good death, we must do as our Lord Jesus did, i. e. resign ourselves entirely to the will of God, and commend our souls to the care of our heavenly Father, with a childlike love and confidence.

APPLICATION. Just think what it cost your Saviour to redeem you! Will you not, therefore, make some effort to save your own soul? Jesus accomplished His work; He gave His Blood and His Life to save you. Do your part now: watch and pray; avoid and resist sin.

Our Lord suffered all this for you individually, as much as if you were the only human being on earth. You can, therefore, say with St. Paul (Gal. 2:20): “He (my Saviour) hath loved me (a sinful, ungrateful creature), and delivered Himself for me.” But how have you hitherto loved Him? “If any man love not our Lord Jesus Christ”, says St. Paul, let him be anathema” or accursed (1 Cor. 16:22). And if you picture to yourself all that your Saviour has done and suffered for you, you will understand the meaning of the Apostle’s words. In order that this curse may not fall on you, try (especially when you are looking at a crucifix) to awaken in your heart a deep love for your crucified Lord.

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