The thirteenth Station of the Cross is the actual death of Jesus. The NRSV reads:
It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, 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.’ Having said this, he breathed his last.
And The Message says:
By now it was noon. The whole earth became dark, the darkness lasting three hours—a total blackout. The Temple curtain split right down the middle. Jesus called loudly, “Father, I place my life in your hands!” Then he breathed his last.
It is hard to know what to say, now. I began following the Way of the Cross twelve days ago, and have spent time reading and learning and reflecting about each one. Some days I’ve had more to say than others — mostly because some days I had more questions than answers. Some of the scripture behind an individual station along the way had more body to it, more depth. Sometimes it was a few paragraphs of action. Today, it is only a few short sentences.
This last statement of Jesus — into your hands I commend my spirit — is spoken at funerals, and is also spoken each night in the office of Compline. In a monastic community, Compline is traditionally the last office of prayer that is prayed before the brothers and/or sisters retire for the night; often, silence is kept between Compline and the first prayer office of the morning. During Compline, we pray for a peaceful rest, for God’s protection from the snares and dangers of the night. We examine our day, repent and confess our sins, and we pray for those who work or watch or weep this night while angels take charge over those who sleep. And then, we repeat these words: Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.
I remember one of the first times I prayed Compline. I got to these words, and I could not say them. My entire body balked at those words. My mouth would not form them, and my throat closed up. See, I’m rather fond of my spirit. It’s what makes me me. If I give my spirit up to God… then what happens to me? Would I… die? I’d really rather not, not just yet. There’s plenty that I’d like to see and do and experience first. I ended up sitting in silence, staring at those words in the prayer book, struggling with them. Finally, I just kept going, and my voice started to work again on the next line.
The next night, even before I sat down with my prayer book to pray Compline, I thought about this line: Father, into your hands I commend my spirit. I will confess that I wasn’t even thinking about the crucifixion; I was still selfishly fixed on my own spirit, my own death. And I decided that, well, if people had been praying these words for so long, then I could pray them, too. See, I also know a little bit about monasticism, and about worship in general. I know that yes, sometimes we just mouth the words, just go through the motions, and don’t really feel them or mean them. But sometimes, this is just what we have to do. Sometimes, the virtue comes in the fact that we just bothered to show up. I mean: who even bothered to show up for the crucifixion? It was the Marys and John — that was it! No Peter, no James (John’s brother), no James (Jesus’ brother), no Matthew, no Andrew. Only one of his closest (male) friends even showed up. So, I decided, I could say the words, even if I wasn’t sure I meant them.
I kept on saying them, night after night, and eventually I found peace with them. The words worked their way into my mind, into my heart, into my spirit, and I came to realize that this was not a prayer asking God to kill me now. No, this is a prayer of trust. When we say these words at night, we are praying, God, I’m placing myself in your care. Please watch over me and take care of me tonight. And when we pray these words at a funeral, we are praying, God, I’m placing my loved one in your hands. Please take her and love her and care for her until I can join you both.
Jesus gave us the example of trust in God, as he gives us the example of love. Jesus trusted God the Father completely — so completely that he allowed himself to be tried and tortured and killed, based on God’s promise of eternal life. Jesus may have been more certain of this promse than the rest of us, given that he was both fully human and fully divine, but sometimes I wonder. In Gethsemane, Jesus admitted to being troubled. He was afraid. His human self feared the pain and death to come. Perhaps, in his very humanity, Jesus had his own questions and doubts about what would come after. We won’t know until we leave this world, too, when we can ask Jesus ourselves.
In the meantime, I will commend my spirit to God, just as Jesus did.