“Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” – Luke 23:46
It is a beautiful paradox that the Last Gospel of the Mass takes us back to the beginning, for it opens with the words ‘-In the beginning”. And such is life: the last of this life is the beginning of the next. Fittingly indeed, then, that the Last Word of Our Lord was on His Last Gospel: “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit”. Like the Last Gospel of the Mass, it too takes Him back to the beginning, for He now goes back to the Father whence He came. He has completed His work. He began His Mass with the word: “Father”. And He ends it with the same word.
Everything perfect, the Greeks used to say, travels in circles. Just as the great planets only after a long period of time complete their orbits, going back again to their starting points as if to salute Him who sent them on their way, so the Word Incarnate who came down to say His Mass now completes His earthly career, and goes back again to His Heavenly Father who sent Him on the journey of the world’s redemption. The Prodigal Son is about to return to His Father’s House; for is He not the Prodigal Son? Thirty-three years ago He left the Father’s House and the blessedness of Heaven, and came down to this earth of ours, which is a foreign country – for every country is foreign which is away from the Father’s House. For thirty-three years He had been spending His substance. He spent the substance of His Truth in the Infallibility of His Church; He spent the substance of His Power in the Authority He gave to His apos- tles and their successors. He spent the substance of His Life in the Redemption and the Sacraments. Now every drop of it was gone, and He looks longingly back again to the Fathers House, and with a loud cry throws His Spirit into His Father’s arms, not in the attitude of one who was taking a plunge into the darkness, but as one who knew where He was going – to a homecoming with His Father.
In that Last Word and Last Gospel which took Him back to the Beginning of all beginnings, namely, His Father, is revealed the history and rhythm of life. The end of all things in some way is to get back to their beginnings. As the Son goes back to the Father; as Nicodemus must be born again; as the body returns to the dust – so the soul of man which came from God must one day go back to God, Death is not the end of all. The cold clod falling upon the grave does not mark “finis” to the history of a man. The way he has lived in this life determines how he shall live in the next. If he has sought God during life, death will be like the opening of a cage, enabling him to use his wings to fiy to the arms of the Divinely Beloved. If he has fled from God during life, death will be the beginning of an eternal flight away from Life and Truth and Love – and that is Hell. Before the Throne of God, whence we came on our earthly novitiate, we must one day go back to render an account of our stewardship. There will not be a human creature who, when the last sheaf is garnered, will not be found either to have accepted or rejected the Divine Gift of Redemption, and in accepting or rejecting it to have signed the warrant of his eternal destiny. As the sales on a cash register are recorded for the end of the day, so our thoughts, words, and deeds are recorded for the Final Judgment. If we but live in the Shadow of the Cross, death will not be an ending, but a beginning of Eternal Life; instead of a parting, it will be a meeting; instead of a going away, it will be an arriving; instead of being an end, it will be a Last Gospel – a return to the beginning. As a voice whispers, “You must leave the earth”, the Father’s voice will say, “My child, come unto Me”.
We have been sent into this world for only one purpose, namely, to assist at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. We are to take our stand at the foot of the Cross, and like those who stood under it the first day we are asked to declare our loyalties. God has given us the wheat and the grapes of life, and as the men who, in the Gospel, were given talents, we must show return on that Divine Gift. God has given us our lives as wheat and grapes. It is our duty to consecrate them and bring them back to God as bread and wine – transubstantiated, divinized, and spiritualized. There must be harvest in our hands after the springtime of the earthly pilgrimage. That is why Calvary is erected in the midst of us, and we are on its sacred hill. We were not made to be mere on-lookers, shaking our dice like the executioners of old, but rather to be participants in the great Drama of Redemption. If there is any way to picture Judgment in terms of the Mass, it is to picture it in the way the Father greeted His Son, namely, by looking at His hands. They bore the marks of labor, the callouses of redemption, and the scars of salvation. So too when our earthly pilgrimage is over, and we go back to the beginning, God will look at each of our hands. If our hands in life touched the Hands of His Divine Son, they will bear the same livid marks of nails; if our feet in life have trod over the same road that leads to Eternal Glory through the detour of a rocky and thorny Calvary, they too shall bear the same bruises; if our heart beat in unison with His then it too shall show the riven side which the wicked lance of jealous earth had pierced. Blessed indeed are they who carry in their Cross-marked hands the bread and wine of consecrated lives signed with the sign and sealed with the seal of Redemptive Love. But woe unto them who come from Calvary with hands unscarred and white.
God grant that when life is over, and the earth is vanishing like the dream of one awakening, when eternity is flooding our souls with its splendors, we may with humble and triumphant faith re-echo the Last Word of Christ: “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit”.
And so the Mass of Christ ends. The Confiteor was His prayer to the Father for the forgiveness of our sins; the Offertory was the presentation on the paten of the Cross of the small hosts of the thief and ourselves; the Sanctus was His commending ourselves to Mary, the Queen of Saints; the Consecration was the separation of His Blood from His Body, and the seeming separation of Divinity and human- ity; the Communion was His thirst for the souls of men; the Ite Missa Est was the flnishing of the work of salvation; the Last Gospel was the return to the Father whence He came.
And now that the Mass is over, and He has commended His Spirit to the Father, He appears to give back His Body to His Blessed Mother at the foot of the Cross. Thus once again will the end be the beginning, for at the beginning of His earthly life He was nestled on her lap in Bethlehem, and now, on Calvary, He will take His place there once again.
Earth had been cruel to Him. His feet wandered after lost sheep and we dug them with steel; His hands stretched out the Bread of Everlasting Life and we fastened them with nails; His lips spoke the Truth and we sealed them with dust. He came to give us Life and we took away His. But that was our fatal mistake. VV’e really did not take it away. We only tried to take it away. He laid it down of Himself. Nowhere do the Evangelists say that He died. They say: “He gave up the ghost”. It was a willing, self-determined relinquishment of life. It was not Death which approached Him, it was He who approached Death. That is why, as the end draws near, the Savior commands the portal of death to open unto Him in the presence of the Father. The chalice is gradually being drained of its rich red wine of salvation. The rocks of earth open their hungry mouths to drink as if more thirsty for the draughts of salvation than the parched heart of man; the earth itself shook in horror because men had erected God’s Cross upon its breast. Magdalen, the penitent, as usual clings to His feet, and there she will be again Easter morn; John the priest with a face like a cast moulded out of love, listens to the beating of the Heart whose secrets He learned and loved and mastered; Mary thinks how different Calvary is from Bethlehem. Thirty-three years ago Mary looked down to His Sacred Face; now He looks down to her. In Bethlehem Heaven looked up into the face of earth; now the roles are reversed, and earth looks up into the face of Heaven – but a Heaven marred by the scars of earth. He loved her above all the creatures of earth, for she was His Mother and the mother of us all. He saw her first on coming to earth; He shall see her last on leaving it. Their eyes meet, all aglow with life, speaking a language all their own. There is the rupture of a heart through a rapture of love. Then a bowed head, a broken heart. Back to the hands of God He gave pure and sinless His Spirit, in loud and ringing voice that trumpted eternal victory. And Mary stood alone a Childless Mother. Jesus is dead!
Mary looks up into Hiseyes which are so clear even in the face of death: “High Priest of Heaven and earth. Thy Mass is finished I Leave the Altar of the Cross and repair into Thy Sacristy. As High Priest Thou didst come forth from the Sacristy of Heaven, panoplied in the vestments of Humanity and bearing Thy Body as Bread and Thy Blood as Wine. Now the Sacrifice has been consummated. The Consecration bell has rung. Thou didst offer Thy Spirit to Thy Father, Thy Body and Thy Blood to man. There remains now nothing but the drained chalice. Enter into Thy Sacristy. Take off the garments of mortality and put on the white robes of immortality. Show Thy Hands, and Feet, and Side to Thy Heavenly Father and say: ‘With these was I wounded in the house of those that love me’. Enter High Priest into Thy Heavenly Sacristy, and as Thy earthly ambassadors hold aloft the Bread and Wine do Thou show Thyself to the Father in living intercession for earth even unto the consummation of the world. Earth has been cruel to Thee; but Thou wilt be kind to earth. Earth lifted Thee on the Cross, but now Thou shalt lift earth unto the Cross. Open the Door of the Heavenly Sacristy, O High Priest. Behold it is now we who stand at the door and knock.
And Mary, what shall we say to Thee? “Mary, Thou art the Sacristan of the High Priest! Thou wert a Sacristan in Bethlehem when He did come to Thee as Wheat and Grapes in the crib of Bethlehem. Thou wert His Sacristan at the Cross, where He became the Living Bread and Wine through the Crucifixion. Thou art His Sacristan now, as He comes from the altar of the Cross bearing only the drained chalice of His Sacred Body. As that chalice is laid in your lap it may seem that Bethlehem has come back again, for He is once more yours. But it only seems – for in Bethlehem He was the chalice whose gold was to be tried by fire; but now at Calvary He is the chalice whose gold has passed through the fires of Golgotha and Calvary. In Bethlehem He was white as He came from the Father, now He is red as He came from me. But Thou art still His Sacristan! And as the Immaculate Mother of all hosts who go to the altar, do thou O Virgin Mary, send us there pure, and keep us pure, even unto the day when we enter into the Heavenly Sacristy of the Kingdom of Heaven, where Thou wilt be our eternal Sacristan and He our eternal Priest”.
And you, friends of the Crucified, your High Priest has left the Cross, but He has left us the Altar. On the Cross He was alone; in the Mass He is with us. On the Cross He suffered in His Physical Body; on the altar He suffers in the Mystical Body which we are. On the Cross He was the unique Host; in the Mass we are the small hosts, and He the large host receiving His Calvary through us. On the Cross He was the wine; in the Mass, we are the drop of water united with the wine and consecrated with Him. In that sense He is still on the Cross, still saying the Confiteor with us, still forgiving us, still commending us to Mary, still thirsting for us, still drawing us unto the Father, for as long as sin remains on earth, still will the Cross remain.
“Whenever there is silence around me
By day or by night
I am startled by a cry.
It came down from the cross –
The first time I heard it.
I went out and searched –
And found a man in the throes of Crucifixion.
And I said: ‘I will take you down’.
And I tried to take the nails out of His Feet,
But He said: ‘Let them be
For I cannot be taken down
Until every man, every woman, and every child
Come together to take me down.’
And I said: ‘But I cannot bear your cry.
What can I do?’
And He said: ‘Go about the world –
Tell every one that you meet
There is a Man on the Cross’.”
– Elizabeth Cheney