Christ’s Sixth Word from the Cross
There was a vessel filled with common wine. So they put a sponge soaked in wine on a sprig of hyssop and put it up to his mouth. When Jesus had taken the wine, he said, “It is finished.” And bowing his head, he handed over the spirit.
These two verses from John’s Gospel (John 19:29-30) are steeped in ancient Hebrew symbolism. The first Christians immediately grasped the ritual signs from their Jewish heritage in this passage, as they related Christ’s passion to the celebration of the Eucharist. The rich salvific heritage, rooted in the covenant God made with Moses, finds its full meaning in every Mass we celebrate today.
To the Jewish listeners, the word “tetelestai” — it is finished — signified the completion of the Passover feast. During that ritual meal, they drank from four cups of wine at their prescribed moment. When Jesus said to his disciples, “I shall not drink this fruit of the vine until the day when I drink it with you new in the kingdom of my Father” (Matthew 26:29), he had just given his disciples the Cup of Blessings (see 1 Corinthians 1:16), which is the Third Cup. The message to his disciples at that moment was clear. When he said I will not drink this fruit of the vine until… they understood, I will not be drinking the Fourth Cup this evening — the significance of that statement was huge.
The Fourth Cup in the Passover ritual was called the Cup of Acceptance. After everyone had consumed the fourth and final cup, the host of the Passover meal would announce, “It is finished!” (or fulfilled). In Greek, the word he used would be “Tetelestai!” The final word of the Passover meal meant two things: that the meal was concluded; and that their covenant with God, who delivered them from death in Egypt, was sealed for another year.
At the Last Supper, Jesus told his disciples when he handed them the Cup of Blessings to drink (i.e., the third cup), “this is my blood of the covenant” (Matthew 26:28). That is, the New and Everlasting Covenant. But when he said that he would not drink of the fruit of the vine again until… he made them understand that they were not going to conclude the Passover meal there in the upper room, which meant they were not going to seal the covenant, just yet.
The New Covenant was sealed the moment before Jesus died when:
“they put a sponge soaked in wine on a sprig of hyssop and put it up to his mouth. When Jesus had taken the wine, he said, “It is finished.”
The hyssop stick they used for this purpose is significant too. At the first Passover, a hyssop stick was used to smear the blood of the first Passover lamb on the lintel and doorposts, as a sign for the angel of death to spare their first-born sons (Exodus 12:22). St John specifies that the branch they used to elevate the sponge filled with wine up to Christ’s mouth was hyssop, because he wants to indicate that it is a sign of God’s New Covenant with his people.
The sponge filled with wine, the hyssop stick, and, “It is finished,” Jesus’ last words before he handed over his spirit, are all signs of the New Covenant between God and his people through the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. By considering these symbols which refer also to the Jewish Passover, we can see how his sacrifice on the cross is intimately bound to the sacrifice of the Eucharist, which the Lord initiated in the upper room during his Last Supper.
Tomorrow, when I complete this series of reflections on the 7 Last Words, with the Lord’s final words from the cross, “Into your hands I commit my spirit,” I want to talk about the other signs and symbols at the end of the passage we considered today, as well (namely, “And bowing his head, he handed over the spirit”).
Tomorrow is also the feast of God’s love for us in the Eucharist, Holy Thursday. As we recall these words and symbols, pondering them in our hearts, let us recall the great sacrifice our Lord made for our salvation, sealing the New Covenant with his death on the cross. And let us also recall his words at that first Eucharist, and how we continue to honor his words when we celebrate that sacred mystery today: “Do this in memory of me.”