Last January, a group from our church went to the Morgan Library to see an exhibit on Martin Luther. In the library bookstore, I purchased two volumes-- a sumptuous coffee table book about the Luther exhibit, with photos and explanations of every item...and a modest, slender volume called Famous Last Words, about what well-known people said before they died.
Which book do you think I looked at first? If you said, “The one about dead people”, you are absolutely right! There’s something fascinating about the concept of “last words”. You have one final chance to sum up your life, to say something insightful and illuminating. I can’t say that all the “last words” quoted in the book were illuminating or insightful...but many of them were very telling and, dare I say it about something as solemn as death, amusing.
I love, for instance, the last words of American patriot Ethan Allen. His doctor told him, “The angels are waiting for you.” And Allen said, “Waiting, are they? Waiting, are they? Well, let ‘em wait!” Not terribly pious, but quite understandable. Memorable too are the last words of Paulette Brillat-Savarin (no, I’d never heard of her either). She was stricken during a meal and cried out, “Quick! Serve the dessert! I think I am dying.” (This must be the source of the popular saying: “Life is short. Eat dessert first”). Showman P. T. Barnum, ever the pragmatist, asked, “How were the receipts today at Madison Square Garden?” You could almost predict the last words of distiller Jack Daniel: “One last drink, please.”
Historian Edward Gibbon, famous for his contempt for Christianity, hauntingly said: “All is dark and doubtful.” Poet Heinrich Heine approached death with a sense of optimism: “God will pardon me, that’s His line of work.”. Lenin’s final statement was made to his dog, who brought him a dead bird: “Good dog.” (Ironic considering how many dead people Lenin left in his wake.)
I am amazed that people of great accomplishment sometimes on their deathbeds speak of how much they had left undone. Alexander Graham Bell...Cecil Rhodes...Senator Huey Long...they all in their last moments said something like, “I have so much more to do!”
The book omits one of the most interesting dying statements. Dutch Schultz, dying from a gangland bullet, said, “A boy has never wept, nor dashed a thousand krim. French Canadian bean soup. I want to pay. Let them leave me alone.” (Don’t worry, nobody understands that one–but it’s as if the throes of death turned the hoodlum into an abstract, modernist poet).
We treasure the Last Words of Jesus, spoken on the Holy Cross. Ideally, last words sum up a person’s life. But so often in the throes of death, that doesn’t really happen. Pancho Villa, in his last moment, was at a loss for words, and cried out: “Don’t let it end like this! Tell them I said something!” But Jesus certainly was not at a loss for words. He spoke seven times in his death agony. Remember how hard it was for Him to say anything. To get a breath on the cross, it was necessary to take weight off the arms by putting weight on the feet–and the feet were, of course, nailed. So every breath snatched on the cross was precious. Jesus did not waste such precious breaths on small talk. Every syllable he spoke was full of meaning. More than any other Last Words, these are insightful and illuminating! Let’s reflect on these seven wondrous sayings:
Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing. (Luke 23:34 ) The whole meaning of the cross is forgiveness–Christ is dying as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. So it’s quite natural for Him to forgive those who are crucifying Him.
(Spoken to his mother about St. John): Woman, behold your son. (Spoken to St. John): Behold your mother. (John 19:26-27) Jesus loves his mother, who stood with Him to the very end. And He commends her to the care of His disciple John, who also stood with Him to the end. Thus did Jesus show his respect for the commandment, “Honor your father and your mother.”
(To the thief on the cross who said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom”): Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise”. (Luke 23:43 ) . Forgiveness is one of the fruits of Christ’s death–which we saw expressed in His “Father, forgive them” statement. Eternal life with God is another fruit of the cross–and we see that in His promise to the thief. This statement also tells us that those who repent at the eleventh hour–or even at 11:59!–still find a home in God’s paradise. So we should never give up on anyone.
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46, Mark 15:34) This is a quotation from Psalm 22. The ultimate punishment for sin is to be abandoned by God, rejected by God. This is what Jesus is experiencing as He carries the punishment for our sin. He undergoes rejection so that we sinners can find acceptance with God!
“I am thirsty” (John 19:28 ) The torments Christ went through involved a massive loss of fluid from the body. He is seized with a terrible thirst. This shows that He is human–He feels the same physical discomforts that we do.
“It is finished” (John 19:30 ). This does not mean, “Well, it was nice while it lasted, but it’s all over now, boys.” No, it’s more like: “I came into this world with a mission and now I have carried that mission out.” Interestingly, many great people in their dying words lamented that their work remained incomplete: Rhodes, Bell, Long. Christ is not haunted by any such sense of incompleteness. He proclaims that He fiinished His work and paid the full price for the world’s sin’s.
“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” (Luke 23:46 ). Another Psalm quote, from Psalm 31:5. Christ dies trustingly, placing Himself in God’s hands. This actually was the bedtime prayer of Jewish children–so it’s very much like the old, and now mostly disused, bedtime prayer: “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep, if I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take...”
And Christ did fall asleep, into the Big Sleep of death. The Lord did take His soul. But then, three days later...
God loves you and so do I!