Seven Last Words: 6. It is Finished (John 19:30)
When Jesus had received the wine, he said, ‘It is finished.’ Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.
On the sixth day of creation in the Genesis account, God calls forth living creatures into being to populate the earth, beasts and cattle; God then makes humankind according to God’s likeness. Then the narrator says:
As in the sixth day of creation, Jesus with his sixth word from the Cross reaches the point where all has been accomplished. He has done what was necessary, from beginning to end, from the Angel’s word to Mary, to journeys taken through Bethlehem and Galilee, to Samaria and the towns of the Decapolis, and even to Jerusalem the great city. He has taught and he has healed; he has sought out the lost and consoled the broken; he has spoken truth to power and to the powerless, offering the light of God’s truth into places and to people darkened by sin and despair.
Consummatum est - it is finished. The meaning of the statement is not so much that something is over, but that is has been brought to completion, fruition, or that it has reached a goal. It is like the divine creative statement, a blessing in effect, on the sixth day - "God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good."
What has been accomplished? Jesus’ life and ministry indeed, but also the whole scheme of creation and salvation.
John Donne again, in that poem reflecting on the concurrence of Annunciation and Good Friday in 1608, puts it thus:
All this, and all between, this day hath shown,
The abridgement of Christ’s story, which makes one
(As in plain maps, the furthest west is east)
Of the Angels’ Ave and Consummatum est.
But what has Jesus actually done, and why? Why has all this been necessary? What difference does this cross in particular make? It is a question more and more Christians have asked during the 20th and 21st centuries, finding themselves unconvinced or even disturbed by some articulations of the doctrine of the atonement. In crudest form, there are those who say that Jesus died to assuage the Father’s wrath, as a substitute for a penalty otherwise due to humankind. At its worst this becomes a view of God that implies a cosmic psychopath, determined to kill his own son because of rules he will not break. This view we must reject firmly - not because it is distasteful to us but because it is not true to the Gospel.
All this does not mean that we do not need a doctrine of the atonement, as some would go so far as to say. This is merely to misunderstand what atonement is, or to hand its reality over to the caricatures of some fundamentalisms. We need atonement because we need God and we need forgiveness and we need liberation from sin and death.
Jesus does not then have to die because of a vengeful God, but because of a broken world. God did not kill Jesus, people did. Jesus suffers because of human inhumanity as so many still do today, in the spectacular results of war and or untrammeled gun violence as well as in the often-unnoticed deaths of the lonely, the addicted, the marginalized. A cross is at first and second glance no more a thing to celebrate than a gun or a syringe or an explosive belt; but a man on the cross whom we see God is another matter.
The whole work of Christ, from incarnation to cross and beyond, is necessary because of the depth of sin and brokenness that is the human condition. In Genesis God creates by word; in the Gospel we are told the creative Word becomes flesh and dwells among us. In Christ humankind is remade, and we find in him both a model for life but more importantly we encounter the reality of of God entering human existence and recreating what has been broken. The pattern for this is not divine violence or vengeance, but divine love and gift.
The key to God’s saving work is that God enters fully into human reality, and redeems it by participating fully in it, across the full extent of our condition, as St Gregory Nazianzen put it: "What [he has not] assumed has not been healed; it is what is united to his divinity that is saved."
This means the whole of life, from beginning to end; conception and birth, growth in personhood and learning, but also vulnerability and mortality. God's completed creation is the recapitulation in Jesus of human life as intended, in all ways like us but without sin (cf. Heb 4:15). This life becomes an example to us of course, but not merely an example; that alone would merely underline our frailty and failure, for we do not and cannot live as he did. Our hope lies in the fact that in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself (2 Cor 5:19) and that his life changes all life. Placing our hope in him, baptized into his death, we participate in him and his renewed human reality.
What is completed on the cross is this full and complete self-giving of God. What was once created is now recreated. It is finished.