• 29 March 2015

The First Word from the Cross

Over the seven days from Palm Sunday to Easter Eve, we will reflect on one of the Seven Last Words from the Cross. The last words anyone utters before their death are of great power and value, and nowhere is this more clear than with our Lord Jesus Christ. They may be used in devotion alongside ‘A Good Friday Three Hours Service’ in ‘Week of all Weeks – A Prayer Book for Holy week and Easter Day’, which will be used in many parishes in the Diocese of Down and Dromore, and beyond. It is available to purchase from The Book Well.

The First Word from the Cross

Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing. Luke 23:34

None of us can really imagine the view Jesus had from the cross. But we know that, at this point, at the place called ‘The Skull’, he is crucified with a criminal on either side. We know from this passage in Luke’s Gospel, that lots are being cast from his clothes, and that all sorts of ‘actors’ have gathered around in the scene:

            –The people, ‘watching’

            –The rulers, ‘scoffing’

            –The soldiers, ‘mocking’

            –One of the criminals, ‘railing’

Those powerful verbs say so much, but no verb is used of the disciples, who are somewhere in the background.

So, about whom does Jesus speak this prayer for forgiveness? Well, which of those groups needs his forgiveness? The truth is, every single one of them.

It is interesting that, with all this before him, Jesus is actually focused on his Father in heaven. His first ‘word’ is a conversation – and internal but revealed conversation within the fellowship of the Holy Trinity. The Son speaking with his Father. What a precious revelation! And it is a conversation about those whom he came to save. He stretches out, as it were, one hand to the Father in heaven, and the other to us, as he becomes the bridge to bring sinners into fellowship with God.

His first ‘word’ is also about forgiveness. And it reveals to us something important about the true nature of forgiveness. Note what he does not say. He does not say ‘I forgive you’. Would those words not have been simpler? Rather, he prays that the Father might forgive us. The essential forgiveness of God comes to us from the Father, through the cross of the Son. And there is no mention at all, at this point, of repentance on our part. The beginning of forgiveness is never found is something we do! The beginning of forgiveness is found in the mercy and grace at the heart of a loving God, which is there before we do anything. That is what breaks us. That is what converts us. That is what moves us to receive his forgiveness in repentance and faith.

The first ‘word’ is completed by this unusual phrase, ‘for they do not know what they are doing.’ Reading those words, at first it may appear that Jesus is employing every possible excuse on our behalf. He is making the kindest judgement on the situation, as in Faber’s hymn There’s a wideness in God’s mercy:

There is no place where earth’s sorrows

            are more keenly felt than heaven;

            there is no place where earth’s failings

            have such gracious judgement given.

When we think about it, there was a lot they did know. They were crucifying this man, probably an innocent man, cruelly. They were mocking him and jeering at him. They were rejecting his message of love. They were protecting politics and the religious institution; they were fearfully saying nothing about what they knew to be right. Are all these things excusable?

But at the deepest level, they did not really grasp that they were crucifying the incarnate Son of God.

When people do not know what they are doing, we don’t think them culpable in the same way as when they do. But this prayer for forgiveness has a twist in the tail. It is a reminder that we do not only need forgiveness for the sins we commit knowingly. We also need forgiveness for the sins we commit in ignorance or carelessness – the ones we do not know we are committing, but which still would cut us off from a holy God, if it were not for the sacrificial prayer of a mediating Christ.