JESUS SAID: "IT IS COMPLETED.", AND BOWING HIS HEAD HE HANDED OVER THE SPIRIT. (John 19:30) St. John very carefully chose his words in writing his Gospel; he gave particular care to expressing the truths about Jesus and his teaching for he had learned by a long pastoral experience how readily readers derived different meanings than he intended from the words he spoke and wrote. In studying the meaning of a passage it often is just as significant to advert to expressions an author avoided using as to reflecting on the words he actually wrote. That is surely the case in this instance. If John regularly was attentive to his choice of terms surely he would have been in describing our Lord's last moments on earth and in particular his departure from this world. Accordingly, we are justified in finding his avoidance of the word "death" or "die" in reference to Jesus' end to be a deliberate indication of how we are to understand the meaning of this event.
The expression he employs, "handed over the Spirit" conveys the sense that Jesus is not passive at this decisive moment. His life is not taken from him, snuffed out with his last breath. He is not the helpless victim he seemed to be in the eyes of those who were observing his final hour in life. Rather, he actively "gives over the Spirit." Earlier in his ministry he had already affirmed this would be the case. "No one takes my life from me; I lay it down of myself." St. Augustine commented on this manner of dying.
Who so sleeps when he wills as Jesus died when he willed? Who so takes off his coat when he wills as he put off the flesh when he willed? Who so departs when he wants as to die when he wishes? How much the power of the judge is to be hoped for and feared when such great power is at his disposal as he dies? (In Johannis Evangelium 119.6 BAC ed., Madrid 1957, p. 710)
Jesus gives over his Spirit to the Father in dying, until the day, after the resurrection, he and the Father will send that same Spirit upon his followers. What Jesus hands over to the Father, then, is the divine person in whom he is one with the Father and by means of whom he becomes one with each of us who put our faith in him. This handing over, this traditio, as the Latin text puts it, is the very purpose of his death, for it is by giving over the Spirit as he returns to the Father in death that he reconciles us to God, undoing the alienation resulting from sin. When we speak of fidelity to the tradition, it is not simply a matter of living within the boundaries set by the Church's official dogmas; rather, it means so assimilating the content of the preaching and teaching of the Church as to remain united with the Lord in the Spirit that makes us one with the Father. Ultimate what is handed over to each generation of Christians is the Spirit of God, whom Jesus delivered up as he died on the cross on our behalf.
This is the truth that accounts for St. Paul's burning concern, repeatedly expressed in his epistles, that the men whom he had set over the Churches guard the deposit and abide in the traditions he had taught them. I referred to these passages yesterday. They bear repeating here for they relate to the Eucharist precisely because they apply to Jesus' death on the cross as well. "Stand firm and hold on to the traditions that you were taught, whether by word or by our letter.", he wrote to the Thessalonians (2 Th 2:15) He goes on to add "I exhort you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to withdraw from every brother who lives in a disorderly way and not according to the tradition you received from us." (3: 6) Toward the end of his life these concerns preoccupied him even more. His final warning to Timothy, whom he had appointed bishop is "Guard the deposit, avoid profane discussions, resist false knowledge." (1 Tim 6: 20)
Jesus showed us by example as well as taught us in his words that perseverance in carrying out the Father's plan is essential. "He who perseveres to the end will be saved." He refused to save himself by coming down from the cross though he had the power to do so. It has always been the case that perseverance in following Christ requires perspicacious discernment at times.
From the times of the apostles there have been false teachings and erroneous practices put forth as legitimate expressions of the revelation brought by the Lord. Our own times are increasingly marked by such distortions, supported by specious reasoning, and justified by the age-old arguments that have been the refuge of the uninformed and the lukewarm. "Be modern; move with the times; what so many intelligent people believe and live cannot be wrong." Discernment is a gift of the Holy Spirit. It requires a fervor of intent for its adequate exercise. We must be willing to follow where the truth leads even when it leads to suffering through being criticized, isolated or socially ostracized. That is the way the followers of Christ have through the centuries taken up their cross and accompanied the Lord to glory. May our celebration of the Paschal mystery this year and our commemoration of the death of Jesus in particular, effect in us a renewed life in the Spirit of the Lord, handed over to us from the Father that we in turn might hand over our spirit to him in life and in death.
Abbot John Eudes Bamberger
© Abbey of the Genesee
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