THE DEATH OF JESUS CHRIST.
Jesus dies, and triumphs over Death.
St. John writes that our Redeemer, before he breathed his last, bowed his head.1 He bowed his head as a sign that he accepted death with full submission from the hands of his Father, and thus accomplished his humble obedience: He humbled himself, and was made obedient to death, even the death of the cross.2
Jesus upon the cross, with his hands and feet nailed upon it, could move no part of his body except his head. St. Athanasius says that death did not dare to approach to take away life from the author of life; wherefore it was needed that he himself, by bowing his head (which alone he then could move), should call death to approach and slay him.3 On St. Matthew’s words, Jesus again crying with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost,4 St. Ambrose remarks that the Evangelist used the expression yielded up to show that Jesus did not die of necessity, or through the violence of the executioners, but because he voluntarily chose to die.5 He chose willingly to die, to save man from the eternal death to which he was condemned.
This was already foretold by the prophet Osee in the words, I will deliver them from the hand of death, from death I will redeem them. O death, I will be thy death; O hell, I will be thy bite.6 This is testified by the holy Fathers St. Jerome, St. Augustine, St. Gregory; and St. Paul, as we have seen, applies the prophecy literally to Jesus Christ, who, with his death delivered us from death, that is, from hell. In Hebrew also (as the interpreters explain) the word sheol, which is rendered death, properly signifies hell.
How, then, was Jesus Christ the death of death? O death, I will be thy death! Because by his death our Saviour conquered death, and destroyed the death which had resulted from sin. Therefore the Apostle writes, Death is swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is thy victory? Where, O death, is thy sting? The sting of death is sin.7 Jesus, the divine Lamb, by his death destroyed sin, which was the cause of our death; and this was the victory of Jesus, since by dying he banished sin from the world, and consequently delivered it from eternal death, to which all the human race was subjected.
To this corresponds that other text of the Apostle, That through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil.8 Jesus destroyed the devil, that is, the power of the devil, who, through sin, had the power of death; that is, who had power to inflict temporal and eternal death on all the sons of Adam who were corrupted with sin. This was the victory of the cross, on which Jesus, the author of life, dying, by his death acquired life for us. Whence the Church sings of the cross that by it “Life endured death, and by death brought forth life.”9
And all this was the work of the divine love, which brought this Priest to sacrifice to the Eternal Father the life of his only-begotten Son for the salvation of men; for which reason the Church also sings, “The Priest, who is love, sacrifices the limbs of his tender body.”10
And therefore St. Francis de Sales cries out, “Let us look upon this divine Saviour stretched upon the cross, as upon the altar of his love, where he dies for love of us. Ah, why do we not cast ourselves in spirit upon the same, that we may die upon the cross with him who has been willing to die for love of us?”11
Yes, O my sweet Redeemer, I embrace Thy cross; and holding it in my embrace, I would live and die ever lovingly kissing Thy feet, wounded and pierced for me.
Jesus Dead on the Cross.
But before going farther, let us stay to contemplate our Redeemer now dead upon the cross. Let us first say to his divine Father:
“Eternal Father, look, upon the face of Thy Christ,”’12 look upon this Thy only-begotten Son, who, in order to satisfy Thy will that lost man should be saved, came down upon earth, took human nature, and with that flesh took upon him all our miseries, save sin. In a word, he made himself man, and lived all his life among men, as the poorest, the most despised, the most troubled of all; in the end he was condemned to death, as Thou seest him, after these very men had torn his flesh with scourgings, wounded his head with thorns, and pierced his hands and feet with nails upon the cross. Thus he died on this tree of unmixed anguish, despised as the vilest of men, derided as a false prophet, blasphemed as a sacrilegious impostor for having said that he was Thy Son, and condemned to die as one of the most guilty of malefactors. Thou Thyself didst give him up to endure this terrible and desolate death, depriving him of all relief. Tell us, what fault did Thy beloved Son commit that he should deserve so horrible a punishment? Thou knowest his innocence and his sanctity; why hast Thou thus treated him? I hear Thee reply, “For the wickedness of my people have I stricken him.”13 No, he did not deserve, he could not deserve, any punishment, being innocence and holiness itself; the punishment was due to you for your sins by which you deserved eternal death; and that I might not see you, the beloved creatures of my hand lost eternally, to deliver you from so dreadful a destruction, I gave up this my Son to so mournful a life, and to so bitter a death. Think, O men, to what an excess I have loved you. God so loved the world, says St. John, that He gave His only-begotten Son.14
Let me now return to Thee, O Jesus, my Redeemer. I behold Thee upon this cross, pale and desolate; Thou speakest no more, nor breathest, for Thou art no longer alive; Thou hast no more blood, for Thou hast poured it all forth, as Thou didst Thyself foretell: This is My blood of the new covenant which is shed for many.15 Thou hast no longer life, for Thou hast given it in order to give life to my soul, which was dead through its sins. But why didst Thou destroy Thy life and pour forth Thy blood for us miserable sinners? Behold, St. Paul tells us: He loved us and gave Himself for us.16
The Fruits of the Death of our Saviour.
Thus this divine Priest, who was both priest and victim, sacrificing his life for the salvation of the men he loved, completed the great sacrifice of the cross, and accomplished the work of human redemption.
Jesus Christ, by his death, stripped our death of its terrors; until this it was but the punishment of rebels; but by grace and the merits of our Saviour it became a sacrifice so dear to God that when we unite it to the death of Jesus, it makes us worthy to enjoy the same glory that God enjoys, and to hear him one day say to us, as we hope, Enter thou into the joy of thy Lord.17
Thus death, which was an object of pain and dread, was changed by the death of Jesus into a passage from a state of peril, of eternal misery, into one of security, of eternal blessedness, and from the miseries of this life to the boundless delights of paradise.
Therefore the saints have ever regarded death with joy and desire, and no longer with fear. St. Augustine says that they who love the crucified one “live with patience and die with joy.”18 And common experience shows that they who in life have been most troubled with persecutions, temptations, scruples, or other painful events, in death are most comforted by the crucified one, conquering with great peace of mind all the terrors and pains of death. And if it has sometimes happened that some saints, as we read in their lives, have died in great fear of death, the Lord has permitted this in order to increase their merits; because the sacrifice that they made, the more painful it was to themselves, the more acceptable was it to God, and the more profitable to them for eternity.
Oh, how much harder was the death of the faithful of old before the death of Jesus Christ! Then, when the Saviour was not yet come, they sighed for his coming, they waited for his promise, but they knew not when it would be fulfilled; the devil had great power upon earth; heaven was closed to men. But after the death of the Redeemer, hell was conquered, divine grace was given to souls, God was reconciled to men, and the country of Paradise was opened to all those who die innocent, or who have expiated their sins by repentance. And if some who die in grace do not immediately enter heaven, this only results from the faults of which they are not yet cleansed; and death merely bursts their bonds, in order that they may go free to unite themselves perfectly to God, from whom they are far away in this land of banishment.
Let us, then, take heed, O Christian souls, while we are in this exile, not to look at death as a misfortune, but as the end of our pilgrimage, which is full of difficulties and dangers, and as the beginning of our eternal happiness, which we hope one day to attain through the merits of Jesus Christ. And with this thought of heaven, let us detach ourselves as much as possible from earthly things, which may cause us to lose heaven, and give us over to eternal pains. Let us offer ourselves to God, declaring that we wish to die when it pleases him, and to accept death in the manner and at the time which he has appointed; ever praying him that, through the merits of Jesus Christ, he will cause us to depart from this life in his grace.
O my Jesus and my Saviour, who, to obtain for me a happy death, hast chosen for Thyself a death so painful and desolate, I abandon myself into the arms of Thy mercy. For many years passed I have deserved to be in hell, for the sins that I have committed against Thee, and to be separated from Thee forever. But Thou, instead of punishing me as I deserved, hast called me to repentance, and I hope that now Thou hast pardoned me; but if Thou hast not already pardoned me through my fault, pardon me now that in sorrow I ask for mercy at Thy feet. O my Jesus! I could die of grief when I think of the injuries that I have offered to Thee! “O blood of the innocent one, wash away the penitent’s sins!” Pardon me, and give me help to love Thee with all my strength till death; and when I shall reach the end of my life, make me to die burning with love for Thee, that I may go on to love Thee forever. Jesus, henceforth I unite my death to Thy holy death, through which I hoped to be saved. In Thee, O Lord, have I hoped; I shall not be confounded forever.19
O thou great mother of God! next to Jesus thou art my hope. “In thee, O Lady, I have hoped; I shall not be confounded forever.”
1“Et inclinato capite, tradidit spiritum.” – John, xix. 30.
2“Humiliavit semetipsum, factus obediens usque ad mortem, mortem autem crucis.” – Phil. ii. 8.
3“Mors ad ipsum non audebat accedere; ideo Christus, inclinato capite, eam vocavit.” – Interpr. par. q. 41.
4“Jesus autem, iterum clamans voce magna, emisit spiritum.” – Matt. xxvii. 50.
5“ ‘Emisit,’ quia non invitus amisit: quod enim emittitur, voluntarium est; quod amittitur, necessarium.” – In Luc. xxiii.
6“De manu mortis liberabo eos, de morte redimam eos: ero mors tua, o mors! morsus tuus ero, interne.” – Osee, xiii. 14.
7“Absorpta est mors in victoria. Ubi est, mors, victoria tua? ubi est, mors, stimulus tuus? Stimulus autem mortis peccatum est.” – 1 Cor. xv. 54.
8“Ut per mortem destrueret eum, qui habebat mortis imperium, id est, diabolum.” – Heb. ii. 14.
9“Fulget Crucis mysterium, / Qua Vita mortem pertulit, / Et morte vitam protulit.” – Off. de Pass.
10“Almique membra corporis / Amor sacerdos immolat.” – Off. de Temp. Pasch.
11Love of God, bk. 7, ch. 8.
12“Respice in faciem Christi tui.” – Ps. lxxxiii. 10.
13“Propter scelus populi mei percussi eum.” – Isa. liii. 8.
14“Sic enim Deus dilexit mundum, et Filium suum unigenitum daret.” – John, iii, 16.
15“Hic est sanguis meus Novi Testamenti, qui pro multis effundetur.” – Mark, xiv. 24.
16“Dilexit nos, et tradidit semetipsum pro nobis.” – Eph. v. 2.
17“Intra in gaudium Domini tui.” – Matt. xxv. 21.
18“Patienter vivunt, delectabiliter moriuntur.” – In 1 Jo. tr. 9.
19“In te, Domine, speravi; non confundar in aternum.” – Ps. xxx. 2.