Seven Last Words: 5. I thirst (John 19:28)

After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfil the scripture), ‘I am thirsty.’

In the Gospel of John from which this fourth word comes, Jesus is not a passive victim on the cross, but remains in charge. John the evangelist presents this statement as a deliberate, even a calculated one; “he said in order to fulfill the scripture, I am thirsty.” For John, the Cross is Jesus’ moment of triumph - it is in this Gospel that Jesus had, long before when speaking with Nicodemus, said that "just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (3:14). Later Jesus says "I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all to myself” (12:32). So the cross for the Fourth Gospel is not failure or abandonment, nor merely a necessary if unpleasant step on the way to something else, but is here that Jesus triumphs.

Pieter van Mol, St. John the Evangelist (Flemish, 1599-1650)
So the statement “I thirst” is prefaced carefully by John with the note that Jesus spoke “in order to fulfill the scripture” - not, in other words, merely to reflect the incidental needs of the tortured body, but to achieve something, to accomplish and to create. This fifth word of Jesus’ new creation from the cross arises from human need, but illustrates divine purpose.

What follows his statement needs to be read as well: "A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth" (19:29).

The scripture in question that has to be fulfilled is not stated, and not completely clear. It is usually taken to refer either to Ps 69, which states "for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink” and to Ps 22, already quoted by Jesus according to Mark and Matthew in the cry of abandonment, where it goes on to say:
my mouth is dried up like a potsherd,
   and my tongue sticks to my jaws;
   you lay me in the dust of death. 
The Psalmist provides many such pictures of the righteous sufferer who experiences pain and seeks God’s vindication, expressing the depths of their own need, while recalling and hoping for better times. Yet when John says that Jesus spoke to fulfill “scripture,” he does not help us decide which text Jesus meant. Those just mentioned may be understood, but perhaps there are others too.

Jesus died at Passover.

Each of the Synoptic Gospels - Matthew, Mark, and Luke - presents the famous story of Jesus eating and drinking with his friends a few hours earlier, the Last Supper, as a Passover seder in the stricter sense, including the actions of Jesus commemorating his coming death and committing its remembrance to us in the sacrament of the Eucharist.

And each of those three includes a vow of renunciation by Jesus of the fruit of the vine; as Luke puts it, "I tell you that from now on I shall not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes” (22:18). Mark and Matthew also record a related incident at the point of Jesus being crucified, where he is offered wine drugged with gall or myrrh as a sort of primitive anesthetic, but refuses it, presumably in the spirit of this vow of renunciation.

In the chronology John’s Gospel presents however, the main feast or Seder of the Passover has not yet taken place when Jesus is crucified - there may have been a difference in ancient reckoning of the day, and the evangelists take these different possibilities up in their portraits of the passion.

For John, the Last Supper is a Passover meal only indirectly, placed slightly before, and no reference is made to Jesus taking and giving bread and wine as his body and blood at the supper. In John’s Gospel the Passover begins only when Jesus is already on the Cross. While Jesus and his disciples celebrate a Last Supper together, there is no reference to Jesus taking bread and wine, but instead to his taking off his outer garment and washing their feet. Differences of historical reminiscence aside, what do we make of this?

It is not that the Passover is less important here. Throughout John’s Gospel, the Passover, Israel’s feast of liberation and renewal, plays an important part. The ministry of Jesus takes place across a cycle of Passovers, and of visits to Jerusalem for the feast. But Jesus has himself been marked as a Paschal lamb from a very early point; when John the Baptizer refers to him at the beginning of the Gospel as the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (1:29), this may include a sense in which Jesus is a Paschal lamb who will free his people from sin and death.

This Passover is the fateful one, where the identity of Jesus as lamb of God is revealed in its deepest sense; not as in the other Gospels, via him participating in the Paschal lamb of the feast with his friends, but by becoming the lamb himself. Here in John, Pilate’s sentence of condemnation had been issued at the time the lambs were being slaughtered in the Jerusalem Temple in readiness for the feast that would take place only that night, after Jesus has been taken down from the Cross. As he hangs on the Cross this process continues, and the preparations for the formal banquet, the seder, of the coming evening are being made.

Jesus’ thirst then, is part of his fulfillment of this extraordinary feast, this fateful Passover. Jesus has eaten and drunk festively throughout his ministry, earning himself the designation as a “glutton and a drunkard.” Jesus in saying “I am thirsty” acts true to form, and now inaugurates the feast as he gives himself as food for the world, fulfilling the command to keep the Passover in his body, and with his body. He fulfills scripture, not just by alluding to the Psalms, but by keeping the feast committed to the Israelites of old in scripture. He inaugurates the feast, as a seder is begun even now, with the cup of liberation. It comes to him not in a silver chalice but in a sponge on a hyssop branch, not a sweet and rich vintage well-paired to the feast, but the sour wine of the everyday diet of the poor; but with it nonetheless he keeps his Passover feast, and shows himself to be the Lamb of God.

Saying “I am thirsty” and drinking, Jesus fulfills scripture, not just the Psalmist’s bitterness and need, but the whole story of scripture which has led from creation to Exodus, in fulfilling the ordinance to keep the Paschal feast. This, in the Fourth Gospel, is his real Eucharist, his sharing with us of himself on the Cross as the feast is being prepared. As he drinks, Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us; let us celebrate the Feast.

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