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The Seven Last Words of Christ

A Devotion for Holy Week

In the 17th century, Jesuit missionaries in Peru developed a service of meditations for Good Friday based on the seven recorded utterances of Jesus from the Cross. Based on the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola, this Good Friday devotion developed into a three-hour service of preaching. Haydn was asked to compose music for use on Good Friday in the Cathedral in Cadiz and he described the service thus:

At midday, the doors were closed and the ceremony began. After a short service the bishop ascended the pulpit, pronounced the first of the seven words (or sentences) and delivered a discourse thereon. This ended, he left the pulpit and fell to his knees before the altar. The interval was filled by music. The bishop then in like manner pronounced the second word, then the third, and so on, the orchestra following on the conclusion of each discourse.

Later, musical meditations based on the Seven Last Words were composed to stand on their own, rather than as an additon to or enhancement of preaching. One such composition was written by Charles Tournemire, a student of César Franck and his successor as organist at the Basilica of St. Clotilde, Paris. The following brief devotion was compiled as part of a Holy Week service that featured Les Sept Paroles du Xrist of Tournemire. The complete Tournemire composition is now available on YouTube, with readings from devotional literature, performed in the Duke University Chapel by Iain Quinn, Director of Cathedral Music and Cathedral Organist at St John's Cathedral, Albuquerque, New Mexico.

The Seven Last Words of Christ

Assist us mercifully with your help, O Lord God of our salvation, as we enter upon the contemplation of those mighty acts, whereby you have given us life and immortality; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

I.  Pater dimite illis nessiunt enim quid faciunt.
    The First Word:  Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.

O my people, what have I done unto thee?
Or wherein have I wearied thee?
Testify against me.
Because I brought thee forth from the land of Egypt:
thou hast prepared a Cross for thy Saviour.

Holy God,
Holy Mighty,
Holy Immortal, have mercy upon us.

Because I led thee through the desert forty years,
and fed thee with manna,
and brought thee into a land exceeding good:
thou hast prepared a Cross for thy Saviour.

Holy God,
Holy Mighty,
Holy Immortal, have mercy upon us.
                                                  --The Solemn Reproaches of Good Friday

At that time, Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released for them Barabbas; and having scourged Jesus, he delivered him to be crucified. And the soldiers led him away.... [Mark 15:15-16a]

When they came to the place which is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on the right and one on the left. And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”   [Luke 23:33-34a]

II. Hodie mecum eris in Paradiso.
    The Second Word:  Today you will be with me in Paradise.

I love the Lord, because he has heard the voice of my supplication,*
            because he has inclined his ear to me whenever I called upon him.

The cords of death entangled me; the grip of the grave took hold of me;*
            I came to grief and sorrow.

Then I called upon the Name of the Lord:*
            “O Lord, I pray you, save my life.”

Gracious is the Lord and righteous;*
            our God is full of compassion.

I will walk in the presence of the Lord *
            in the land of the living.
                                                  --Psalm 116:1-4,8

O Master, Lord Jesus Christ our God, You made a way into Paradise for the penitent thief, and by death destroyed death: Cleanse us, your unworthy servants, for we fall into sin continuously and are not worthy to lift up our eyes and look upon the heights of heaven. Forgive us for departing from the path of righteousness and following the desires of our own hearts.  [From the Prayers of the Ninth Hour of the Orthodox Office]

One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation: And we indeed justly; for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And he said to him, “Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”  [Luke 23:39-43]


III.  Mulier, ecce filius tuus.  Ecce Mater tua.
       The Third Word:  Woman, behold your son.

Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him…. Inspired by the Spirit he came into the temple…when the parents brought in the child Jesus….and Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also….) [Luke 2: 25,27a,34-35a]

At the cross her station keeping,
Stood the mournful Mother weeping,
Where he hung, the dying Lord.

For her soul of joy bereaved,
Bowed with anguish, deeply grieved,
Felt the sharp and piercing sword.

While Jesus was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him. But he replied to the one who told him, “Who is my mother and who are my brothers?” And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother, and sister, and mother.”  [Matthew 12:46-50]

Who on Christ’s dear Mother gazing,
Pierced by anguish so amazing,
Born of woman, would not weep?

Who on Christ’s dear Mother thinking,
Such a cup of sorrow drinking,
Would not share her sorrows deep?
                                                  --Stabat Mater (Latin, 13th century)

Standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!”  [John 19:25b-27a]


IV.  Eli, Eli, lamma sabacthani.
       The Fourth Word:  My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by? Behold and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow which was brought upon me, which the Lord inflicted on the day of his fierce anger. [Lamentations 1:12]

I am the man who has seen affliction under the rod of his wrath; he has driven and brought me into darkness without any light; surely against me he turns his hand again and again the whole day long. He has made my flesh and my skin waste away, and broken my bones; he has besieged and enveloped me with bitterness and tribulation; he has made me dwell in darkness like the dead of long ago…. He has made my teeth grind on gravel, and made me cower in ashes; my soul is bereft of peace, I have forgotten what happiness is; so I say, “Gone is my glory, and my expectation from the Lord.” Remember my affliction and my bitterness, the wormwood and the gall! [Lamentations 3:1-6, 16-21]

Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour. And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” [Matthew 27:45-46]

V. Sitio.
     The Fifth Word:  I thirst.

As the deer longs for the waterbrooks,*
            so longs my soul for you, O God.

My soul is athirst for God, athirst for the living God;*
            when shall I come to appear before the presence of God?

While my bones are being broken,*
            my enemies mock me to my face;

All day long they mock me*
            and say to me, “Where now is your God?” 
                                                  --Psalm 42:1-2, 12-13

Reproach has broken my heart, and it cannot be healed;*
            I looked for sympathy, but there was none,
           for comforters but I could find no one.

They gave me gall to eat,*
            and when I was thirsty, they gave me vinegar to drink.
                                                  --Psalm 69:22-23

O my people, what have I done unto thee?
Or wherein have I wearied thee?
Testify against me….
What more could I have done for thee that I have not done?
I indeed did plant thee, O my vineyard, with exceeding fair fruit:
and thou art become very bitter unto me:
for vinegar mingled with gall, thou gavest me when thirsty:
and hast pierced with a spear the side of thy Saviour.

Holy God,
Holy Mighty,
Holy Immortal, have mercy upon us.
                                              --The Solemn Reproaches of Good Friday

After this Jesus, knowing that all was now accomplished, to fulfill the scripture said, “I thirst.” [John 19:28]


VI. Pater, in manus tuas commendo spiritum meum.
      The Sixth Word:  Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.

“I called to the Lord, out of my distress,
          and he answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried,
          and thou didst hear my voice.
For thou didst cast me into the deep,
          into the heart of the seas,
          and the flood was round about me;
all thy waves and thy billows passed over me.
Then I said, ‘I am cast out from thy presence;
          how shall I again look upon thy holy temple?’
The waters closed in over me,
          the deep was round about me;
weeds were wrapped about my head
          at the roots of the mountains.
I went down to the land
          whose bars closed upon me for ever;
yet thou didst bring up my life from the Pit,
          O Lord my God.
When my soul fainted within me,
          I remembered the Lord;
and my prayer came to thee,
          into thy holy temple.
Those who pay regard to vain idols
          forsake their true loyalty.
But I with the voice of thanksgiving
          will sacrifice to thee;
what I have vowed I will pay.
          Deliverance belongs to the Lord!” 
                                                  --Jonah 2:1-9

There was darkness over the whole land…while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” [Luke 23:44b-46a]


VII. Consummatum est.
        The Seventh Word:  It is finished.

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” …And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, a sixth day.  Thus the heavens and the earth were finished…. [Genesis 1:26-28, 31—2:1a].

Sunset to sunrise changes now,
For God doth make his world anew;
On the Redeemer’s thorn-crowned brow,
The wonders of that dawn we view.

Here in o’erwhelming final strife
The Lord of life hath victory,
And sin is slain, and death brings life,
And earth inherits heaven’s key.
                                                  --Clement of Alexandria

When Jesus had received the vinegar, he said, “It is finished”; and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. [John19:30]


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