On the Seventh “Sêmeion” of the Gospel according to John

31 March 2018

Many people are familiar with one or more settings of the “Seven Last Words of Christ,” a compilation of the final words of Jesus as presented in the four canonical gospels. Such a cross-sectional reading of the gospels is common to the liturgical tradition (e.g., the Roman Catholic lectionary practice of reading all four passion narratives during Holy Week). Sometimes it’s helpful to complement that fusional reading by focusing on the uniqueness of each gospel presentation. Since the Passion according to John is the designated text for Good Friday, and since GJohn provides a dramatically different take on the passion than the three “synoptic” gospels, I’m going to focus this brief reflection on Jesus’ last words in the fourth gospel (GJohn 19:30).

First, a little background. GJohn enumerates seven “sêmeia” throughout Jesus’ public ministry, the last of which is his exaltation-via-the-cross (see 12:32). Usually English texts use “sign” to translate “sêmeia” (sing. “sêmeion” [σημεῖον]), but that’s a pretty anemic and potentially misleading choice of words. “Sêmeion” in GJohn refers to an event that provides an entrée into the fullness of the Divine Reality through encounter with the Logos incarnate. A sêmeion comprises an utterly transfiguring event of divine power bursting forth into human (and cosmic) experience, whether that be relatively mundane and quotidian (as in Cana, ch. 2) or profane and horrific (as on Golgotha, ch. 19). Let me repeat that: for GJohn, the Cross itself manifests an utterly transfiguring event of divine power bursting forth into human (and cosmic) experience. That’s why the church has appointed this passion story for Good Friday: The Cross is the vehicle of Jesus’ exaltation while “drawing all things” to the Divine Self.

Second, another key word has to be unpacked. [Grammar trigger-warning: skip this paragraph if you go cross-eyed, get apoplectic, or experience other risky physical symptoms when listening to people parse verbs.] GJohn is the only NT book that uses the verb tetélestai (τετέλεσται); it appears in GJohn twice, both times in this chapter (19:28, 30). Such repetition of a rare term unmistakably draws attention. So, what does the evangelist mean by this term? Related to the noun télos (reason/purpose, goal, end/ outcome), tetélestai is the third-person singular perfect passive indicative form of the verb teléô (τελέω). Biblical texts use the passive voice to denote “G*d” as the subject without risking abuse of the divine Name; in other words, whatever the action here, G*d has done it. The indicative mood conveys a statement of fact: such-and-such is the case. The perfect tense indicates a completed (past) event that has results in the present. The translation “it is finished” tends to lose sight of the continuing-results-in-the-present aspect of the perfect tense. I prefer the translation “it is accomplished,” since we tend to think of “accomplishments” as having some forward momentum. A freer but still legitimate translation would be “G*d’s purpose is achieved.” And remember, keep looking forward for the results of this accomplishment.

So, finally after all this prelude…

Foot_of_the_CrossPicture yourself as the unnamed “beloved disciple,” near the foot of the Cross with the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, and other women disciples (19:25–26a). Jesus having made one last attempt to assuage his thirst, now speaks one final word: Tetélestai! G*d’s purpose is achieved! With that word, GJohn says, Jesus “having inclined his head, handed over the Spirit” (19:30; Ἰησοῦς … κλίνας τὴν κεφαλὴν παρέδωκεν τὸ πνεῦμα). There you are, at Jesus’ feet, while he gives you the nod and hands over the Spirit who has funded all his words and deeds, leading him to this very moment of exaltation. And as he marks his return to the Holy One of Israel, Jesus commissions you to carry forward the achievement of the Divine purpose that has formed the driving force for Jesus life.

Spirit_DescentOn our own power? No, certainly not. In the power of the Spirit, which is active in the community of disciples, and (looking ahead to the next scene) funded by the sacramental grace of Baptism and Eucharist (19: 34–35). But that’s the story of the Great Vigil. For Good Friday, I invite you sit with that sacred Face inclining toward you. See Jesus bending down and “handing over” the Spirit of justice and truth, the power of holiness, to this small huddled band of disciples. Now what? Where do you “pay it forward”?

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The Bible According to McGinn

People, places, and other points of interest relating to the Biblical texts

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