It is finished. He is dead. The struggle is over, and the very last words he said from the cross were showing that even to the last moment, he is in charge: “It is finished.”
Barbara Brown Taylor, Episcopal priest, author, and professor, says that when she was a hospital chaplain, her supervisor said that the best way to get a patient to talk was simply to sit down and say, “Tell me about it.”
“Tell me about what?” she asked him, and he said, “That’s the point. You don’t know yet, so don’t pretend you do. Just say, ‘Tell me about it,’ and the other person will let you know what ‘it’ is.”
So. It is finished. What is “it,” exactly? Well, the dying, for one thing. There was no lethal injection in Jesus’ day. There was no attempt to make execution less painful, since it was intended as a deterrent. The whole point was to make it hurt as much as possible, and with crucifixion, that was a lot.
Some physicians who have examined the accounts of Jesus’ death suggest that he died of suffocation. He would have had to pull himself up to be able to breathe, and in time, the strength to do that gave out, and so he died of suffocation. Blood loss is another possibility. Heartbreak, maybe. Whatever finally killed him, it came as a friend and not an enemy. Death is not painful. It is the dying that hurts.
What else was finished? The project he had begun three years ago, when he saw what kind of explosion it would take to break through the rock around the human heart. Simply teaching would not be enough, nor would prayer. If he was going to get through that rock, he had to use something stronger, and he had to stake his own life on its success. Otherwise, why should anyone believe him?
Self-annihilating love was the dynamite he chose – dynamite, a word which in Greek means “power.” No one has greater love than this, he said on the last night of his life, than to lay down one’s life for his friends. He explained it to his friends, then left the room. Less than twenty-four hours later, it was finished.
Something else that was finished: the religious system that he so opposed: the temple with its careful distinctions between clean and unclean; the posturing officials making decisions on which was which; the whole idea that a lamb or a goat or a calf was an acceptable substitute for a surrendered human heart.
During the same hour when he died, the parade of Passover animals into the temple began. For the rest of the afternoon, their owners slaughtered them while priests caught the blood and poured it on the altar. Outside in the courtyard, the bodies were skinned and cleaned according to the law of Moses while Levites sang psalms of praises to God.
So there were two bloody places in Jerusalem that day – Golgotha and the temple – both presided over by religious people who believed they were doing God’s will. That was one thing the clergy and the politicians agreed on: that by putting Jesus to death, they were doing God’s will. When it was all over, some realized for the first time who the scapegoat had been, and the system that put him to death was doomed. Its tactics were exposed. Its motives were revealed: not to defend God but to defend the system. He was the last lamb of God who would die for the people.
So that was finished too. At least one of the reasons Jesus was killed was to prevent a Jewish revolt, but thirty-some years later the revolt happened anyway. The Romans turned on the Jews. Jerusalem was destroyed, and temple Judaism and animal sacrifice were over forever.
One more thing was finished that day: the separation between Jesus and God. The distance was only temporary, but when Jesus gave up his spirit, his thirst for God’s immediate presence was slaked. He dived back into the stream of living water from which he had sprung, and he swam home.
Those whom he left behind saw nothing but a corpse. He was not a teacher anymore. He was a teaching – a window into the depths of God that some could see through and some could not. Those who held out hope for a strong God, a fierce God, a God who would brook no injustice – they looked upon a scene where God was not, while those whose feet Jesus had washed, whose faces he had touched, whose open mouths he had fed as if they were little birds – they looked on a scene in which God had died for love of them.
He had put his own body between them and those who meant to do them harm. He had demolished the rock around their hearts. He had shown them a dangerous new way to live. It was dark by the time they got him down and found a place to lay him. It was the Sabbath, his turn to rest. His part was over. His work was done. Their work – and ours – begins.