Tuesday, April 12, 2011

'Father, into your hands I commend my spirit'

The gospels tell us that Jesus prayed the psalms as he hung on the cross. Matthew and Mark record the opening verse of Psalm 21(22), 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?' Scholars remind us that to refer to a psalm by its opening words is a way of referring to the entire psalm, and that we should imagine Jesus praying his way through the whole of it.

Likewise for another of Jesus' last words, 'Father, into your hands I commend my spirit'. This is recorded in Luke 23:46 as the last statement from the lips of Jesus, uttered as he breathed his last ('breathed forth his spirit'). It too is a verse from a psalm, this time Psalm 30(31), a prayer of trust in God's protection. Like 21(22), Psalm 30(31) speaks about the suffering of the one striving to be faithful to God and about the confidence with which he entrusts himself to God's protection.

There is one striking addition to it: Jesus adds the word 'Father' at the beginning. A moment earlier he prayed to the Father to forgive those who were putting him to death. In these statements from the cross, along with his promise to the good thief that he would be with him in paradise, Jesus practises what he preached, placing his trust in the Father's care and seeking to reconcile those who persecuted him even as he offered forgiveness to the repentant thief.

The psalms are the prayers of Israel and it is not surprising that they should be the prayers of Jesus for he is Israel. More intimately still, we glimpse the love between the Father and the Son which Jesus came to reveal to us, that responsiveness and attention to the Father that is the Son's existence and life and mission. St Thomas Aquinas says of the psalms that 'these prayers will for ever be the words in which the Father has taught us by His Spirit to pray for the one thing that He wishes to give us, which is His Son'. The sacrifice of Christ is rightly interpreted by the words of the psalms. We know that his sacrifice is the prayer of the humble man that pierces the clouds and in reciting the psalms we align our prayers with his, our desires with his, our existence and life and mission with his.

These last words recorded in Luke 23:46 open for us the heart of God. We come to see the love God is, a love of Father and Son in the Spirit. The disciples very quickly realised the implications of this for understanding who Jesus is. Not long after, St Stephen follows in the footsteps of Jesus. His suffering and execution parallel in many ways the suffering and execution of Jesus. All the more striking, then, that when Stephen comes to utter his last words what he says is 'Lord Jesus, receive my spirit' (Acts 7:59-60).


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