The Last Breath of Jesus – Br. Keith Nelson

Good Friday
John 18:1-19:42

lanterns, torches, & weapons
a sword
a severed ear
a charcoal fire
a crown of thorns
a purple robe
a cross
an inscription
an untorn tunic
a jar of sour wine
a sponge
a branch of hyssop
a spear

These are the non-human witnesses of the passion of Jesus Christ. Most are what a materialist culture would call inanimate objects, witnesses without agency, intention, or sentience. But these disparate, created things have been joined in the devotional mind of Christians over the centuries under the banner Arma Christi – the weapons of Christ, the things he uses to conquer death. They are listed in litanies, depicted on altarpieces, and cluster around roadside shrines. The cross is given the central place, “an instrument of shameful death” transformed by Christ’s passion and resurrection “to be for us the means of life.”

In a lesser fashion, these other created things also share participation in Christ. Drawn into the purposes of the prince of Peace, these so-called “weapons” become by his passion implements of peace and Life. By their strange constellation in the same place, at the same time around Jesus of Nazareth, their Maker has conspired to set us free.

At the center of all these things stands the one who in John’s gospel is the agent of creation: “All things came into being through him” (John 1). They bear witness to his greatest gift: the delivering up of his life, his breath, his spirit. He who is the source of all true animacy willingly becomes a corpse: an inanimate body. His solidarity with our world of things – seen and unseen, living and non-living – reaches its deepest.

When Jesus had received the wine, he said, ‘It is finished.’ Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

The last breath of Jesus.

Our breath, our breathing itself, is pure process. Yet its constancy is such that human cultures intuitively link the breath with the spiritual essence of a being.

Our breath does not belong to us; it is constantly coming into and going out of us. Yet it is utterly intimate to us and without it, we expire.

Our breathing is particular to our body, our personhood. Yet it is held within a vast matrix of dependency encompassing the beings and elements whose breathing totality we call earth.

The breath that nourished the life of the very human Jesus was no different.

Without the eyes of faith, the last breath of Jesus would seem the least likely weapon – or implement – or tool – or key – to open the immovable door of death. How could something so insubstantial, so easily lost as a dying breath be an instrument of the world’s salvation?

Without the eyes of faith it is easy to interpret the bowing of Jesus’s head and the giving up of his spirit as a gesture of ultimate defeat, a final resignation, a letting go beneath the tidal wave of violence directed against him.

But the breath of Jesus was not lost.

With calm, quiet purpose, the last breath of Jesus was entrusted: to God – and to you and me. Entrusted: handed over with deliberate care in the face of the greatest risk.

The last breath of Jesus is the first moment of the outpouring of the Spirit.

The Jesus of John’s gospel continually reads the signs around him, hears the words of his Father directing him, and is attuned to how each moment does or does not present the opportunity to do his Father’s will.

He knows when to act, and when to refrain from action. He knows when to speak, and when to remain silent. He knows who he is and how God has called him in the midst of each encounter: “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice” (John 18:37).

He knows far in advance that he will die and he has given his full consent: “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father” (John 10:17-18).

He knows that he will die by crucifixion and what purpose that death will fulfill: ‘And I, when I am lifted up, will draw all people to myself.’ He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die” (John 12:32).

He knows and carries the terrible weight of all this knowledge for our sake, “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3).

Finally, he knows that after he has passed through the gate of death, the Spirit will be with and among those whom he loved in this world: “This is the spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you”(John 14:17).

When we hear that “Jesus bowed his head and gave up his spirit,” we encounter one of John’s many double meanings. The Spirit is the one who will glorify Jesus as Jesus has glorified the Father. The gospel’s repeated earlier references to this Spirit now resonate alongside what we have come to know of the human spirit of Jesus. Each implies and amplifies the other. It is not yet fully the Spirit’s hour. But for John’s gospel, Jesus inaugurates a new relationship between present and future: “the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth” (John 4:23). Just as the cross reveals the glory that will be made evident in the resurrection, the last breath of Jesus reveals the Spirit that the risen Jesus will breathe forth.

The quiet, calm purpose of Jesus is sealed by the confidence of his final words: “It is finished.” It is finished with great suffering, and with great love. It is completed, whole, and offered up in glory.

With him, at long last, we exhale and are drawn to our knees – not in defeat, but in awe. There is nothing more for us to do, but ask for the spirit of Jesus to aid us as we make a fresh return of such great love.

The final breath of Jesus is a promise from the cross. Drawn into the purposes of the prince of Peace, each last jar of sour wine and branch of hyssop we lay down before him this night can become, by his Passion, a means of grace. Each weapon can become an implement Christ will use to draw us to himself. By our sacred gathering in this place, in this moment, around the Crucified, the Spirit has conspired to set us free.

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