Seven Last Words: 7. Father, into your hands I commit my spirit (Luke 23:46)
Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’ Having said this, he breathed his last.Jesus’ labor completed on the cross, like that of God in creation, gives way to a time of rest. What comes next, in Gospel as in Genesis, is the Sabbath.
So God “finished" the work he had done on that seventh day, the Sabbath - even though it was on the previous day, the sixth, that God already “saw everything that he had made, and it was good.” What then remained to be done on the seventh, or could be done, that amounted to “finishing”?
Creation, it seems, was not complete in the making; the last thing, the Sabbath itself, was the very fact of creation existing in its completeness before God. On the Sabbath, God and creation enjoy the reality of what has been made, and the very fact of being related as creator and creation. This is now the finished work. The point of creation was not just the divine sovereignty manifest in the making in the six days, and the divine “let there be," but the relationship that is its result; God’s creation is not merely a task, but a state of being. God blesses that result, in and on the Sabbath rest.
So what is created on the Sabbath is that time itself, that rest, which celebrates the fact of creation and makes its enjoyment, not activity for its own sake, the goal of life.
As Jesus dies, he enters the Sabbath literally, as Friday draws on to a close. St Augustine of Hippo suggested that the rest of Jesus in death between this time and the first day of the week was the observance of Sabbath, like that given by God in Genesis and in the Law of Moses, and that the interval between his death and resurrection reflects his observance of the Sabbath according to law (Contra Faustum 16.29). To have risen before that would have been to work, and to defile the Sabbath. So even in death Jesus will be fulfilling the law, complete in his obedience to the God of creation.
The rest of Jesus in death is therefore not about passivity. Having worked on the cross, Jesus now rests, as the Creator rested on the Sabbath, to bless and enjoy what has been made. Jesus’ work too is done, and the failed and broken creation is renewed by his embodied word: creation is forgiven, loved, redeemed, and more, and he himself is now fully a part of what he had both made and remade, not despite death, but in it.
Although there will be a further day, an eighth day of creation as the ancient Christians saw it, when Jesus will see new life, this Sabbath rest is not to be passed by lightly as a mere hiatus.
Human existence is so often frenetic activity or unceasing labor; we tire of meaningless work and the world itself groans under our efforts to sustain ourselves. As Ecclesiastes says:
What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest (2:22-3)Although we must work to live and, properly understood, our work can be a contribution to God’s continuing work in creation, there is a sense in which we are all seeking a rest beyond our present labors. All our work and all our quests are truly oriented towards this rest, whether we know it or not. Augustine again said, “you [Lord] have made us for yourself and our heart is restless until it rests in you (Conf. 1.1). Jesus also anticipates this desire for rest speaking during his ministry, "Come to me, all you that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt 11:28).
So as Jesus breathes his last and is taken to his Sabbath rest, we too find ourselves praying for true rest; not merely the end of labor, but the opportunity to enjoy its fruit. The Sabbath that many in this city will observe in a few hours is a sign of that deeper Sabbath that is both embedded in the good creation, and now for us restored in a new creation; what God has done, once and again and still today, is very good, and blessed. That rest is a truth in our present life, and a hope for our future; for the end of pain and suffering, and for the fulfillment of hope and love.
At the end of Bach’s great St John Passion, a lullaby is sung as Jesus is taken to the tomb: Ruht wohl, ruht wohl, ihr heilige Gebeine;
Rest well, rest well, you sacred limbs,
I will weep for you no more
rest well, and bring me also to rest.