Friday, 29 March 2013

I Thirst

A homily I preached in St David's Cathedral, Cardiff, two weeks ago as part of a series "Seven Words for the 21st Century."
Over these weeks of Lent we are hearing the extraordinary words of Jesus from the Cross. This Friday, we are invited once more to stand there at Calvary with Our Lady, St Mary Magdalen and the other women, and St John. It is John who tells us in the nineteenth chapter of his Gospel that at this last stage of his Passion Jesus was now fully aware that “everything had been accomplished” (Jn 19:28). He had wrestled with the will of his Father at Gethsemane and carried his Cross, he had reached out to the criminals and taken care of his Mother and John himself. He had even asked his Father to forgive “them” – and that them includes you and me – for we know not what we do.  He had followed his Father’s will to the letter.
Having taken care of everyone else, he now cries out, “I thirst.” So what are we to make of this cry? Isn’t it a little shocking to think of our God-Man being thirsty? In order to help us, St John points out that these words were uttered “to fulfil the scripture perfectly”, and the notes in my Bible referred me to Psalm 22. There we read
I am like water draining away,
my bones are all disjointed,
my heart is like wax melting inside me;
my palate is drier than a potsherd
and my tongue is stuck to my jaw. (Ps 22:14-15)
“My palate is drier than a potsherd” – the top of my mouth feels like a lump of dry old clay pottery. These graphic words remind us how desperately thirsty Our Lord was, and that is surely our first problem with this dryness of Jesus. Because it is quite likely that we have never been really thirsty. Yes, we have the odd dry moment. There is that long, difficult wait of several hours before or after some operations when we are “nil by mouth”, forbidden to drink anything. But that is probably the nearest most of us get to the terrifying thirst that Jesus was experiencing as his Passion came to its end. So, first and foremost, this cry is deeply human, and therefore understandable, the gasp of a human being at the end of his tether, stretched to the utmost limit of endurance, hung up to die. And if we imagine that Jesus felt all emotions with a divine depth, then what he was experiencing at that moment becomes, well, unimaginable.
But the Church has always seen much more in these two simple words, “I thirst”. As Jesus speaks them out over Jerusalem, and over the world, we can ask for what is he thirsting, beyond the obvious something to drink? Is he thirsting for more than water, more than the vinegar which he is offered? Traditionally we have indeed understood that he was calling for a lot more, that his thirst was for something much deeper.
Many have said that he was thirsting for our souls, that he was desperate for our salvation, for people to seek and find him. He had said “Come to me all you who labour and are overburdened and I will give you rest”(Mt 11:28). Others have sensed rather that it was our love for which our Saviour was crying out. It is at this thirst that I would like to look a little more closely - this thirst of Jesus for our love. I want to open up this understanding of the thirst of Jesus by seeing it in the light of some of his most famous words about love. You will remember the Pharisee who asked Him, “Master, which is the greatest commandment of the Law?” In answer, Jesus said, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment.” To this first commandment he quickly added a second, which he said resembled it: “You must love your neighbour as yourself” (Mt 22:34f). So Our Lord’s commandment to love appears to be in two parts – first our love of God, and then our love of our neighbour. But if we look more closely we can see a third part, a hidden love if you like, because Jesus commands us to love our neighbour “as ourself”. So we are to have a healthy and appropriate love for ourselves too. This, then, makes three commandments, three directions for our love - in our relationship with God, with our neighbour, and with our deepest selves. To me, it seems Jesus is thirsting for our love in all three of these places, so let’s have a look at them.
First, Jesus thirsts for our love of God. As he nears his death, he is profoundly aware of his dependence on the Father.  He has already been pushed to a place of desolation by  experiencing the sum total of the sins of the world. From that place he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mk 15:34). Now he is preparing to proclaim that everything is ready, all is accomplished, and only then will he finally commit his spirit into the Father’s hands. So, here we witness him crying out in thirst for God, his Father. Perhaps we could say that he is desperate for a return to the fullness of that divine communion and intimacy with the Father and the Spirit, which he never lost, but which must have been affected by his thirty three years here on earth. In human terms he can do no more, in divine terms he wants to go home. So in this first thirst for love, love for God, I imagine Jesus being alongside us, urging us, with him, to thirst for God, for the unconditional love of our Father. Like him, we too need to yearn with all our heart, all our soul and all our mind for the will of the One for whom he himself sweated blood at Gethsemane. This thirst we can see so beautifully summarised in the opening words of Psalm 41: "As the deer that yearns for running streams, so my soul is yearning for you, my God."
Next, I imagine Jesus thirsting for us to love our neighbour. In fact, we can go further and say that he thirsts for our love as our neighbour. What do I mean? Not long before his Passion, he gave us the challenging image of the separation of the human race into sheep and goats. He told us “in so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me"(Mt 25:31f). So when we reach out to the least of his brethren, we reach out to him. The hungry and the thirsty, the sick and imprisoned, the lonely and suffering, poor and needy show us what Blessed Mother Teresa called the distressing face of Jesus. Those gaunt eyes staring out from the posters of charities or television documentaries, the hidden face of the prisoner, the pale face of the patient, and the more familiar brokenness of those with whom we share our lives – in all of these we are to make out the face and voice of Jesus. In and through all these people and situations, Jesus thirsts for our love.
Lastly, Jesus thirsts for our love from within ourselves. Perhaps this is the one that we are least likely to acknowledge. When we look at ourselves in the mirror each morning – not always a pretty sight perhaps – who is that staring back at us? In fact, as Christians we have quite a lot to say about ourselves as human beings. We know that we are created by God, and that we were created in his image and likeness. We know that we ourselves, too, are part of all that God declared to be “good.” We know, however, that the one in the mirror is a sinner. Like the Prodigal Son in Sunday’s Gospel we have wasted the inheritance we have received from our Father. Sometimes we have ended up in the pigsty that is the result of sin, or we have made pigsties out of other people’s lives. And yet, and yet, as soon as we make that decision to leave the pigsty, Jesus tells us that our Father-God still insists on running out to meet us. He wraps his strong gentle arms around us and holds us to his chest, to his heart.   No matter what we feel about ourselves, we too are his child, his beloved daughter or son. Somebody once said that when we contemplate Jesus on the Cross, we must remember that if necessary Jesus would do all this again, just for me. Just for me. Yes, somewhere in that face in the mirror I am to find a beloved son or daughter of the Father, redeemed by Christ. There too I am to find the voice and face of Jesus – and to love that face, love that person, love myself.
To me it is clear that Jesus was thirsting – is thirsting - for our love. He calls out from within ourselves – to find him and love him there. He calls out to us through the voice and eyes of our neighbour. And he calls out as the Son of the Father, and our brother – to love the one who is his Father and ours. In order to hear and answer that cry “I thirst” – from whatever direction it may come - let us ask the help of the Holy Spirit, who is the love between the Father and the Son, poured into our hearts.
The four images of the Crucifixion are: a drawing by St John of the Cross; the "Volto Santo" or Holy Face in Lucca, Tuscany, that we visited in September; an ivory from the National Gallery of Wales, Cardiff; and a medieval Deposition in the cathedral at Tivoli, outside Rome.

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