“It is finished!” (John 19:30): three of the most wonderful words in all of Scripture. Though we read them and rejoice, I sometimes wonder if we truly grasp the awesome significance they have for us. There is high theology in those words, and yet their message is as simple as the faith of a child. They speak to every Catholic Christian, to the Church, and to the lost world looking for salvation. They speak of the love and power of the Son of God, and of the divine truth that divides the souls and the minds of men. How can we come to terms with the meaning of those words spoken on that First Good Friday? The answer lies in the depths of the deeper story of salvation, told through the witness of history and the people who lived out that story.
Back when I worked in Christian radio, I produced an audio Passion Play for our local audience, “The Witnesses: Through the Eyes of Faith.” It was presented like a documentary on the death of Jesus as told through the voices of those who were there. The imaginative testimonies of these men and women based on the words of Scripture described the awesome and immutable power that led the Son of God to the suffering and shame of the cross — the same power that moved these witnesses to find truth and meaning as well. The whole purpose of the play was to drive home the point that Christ’s crucifixion, burial, and resurrection was the high point of human history, the fulfillment of the divine drama of salvation. Christ’s words, “It is finished!” were the culmination of God’s great plan for mankind.
Sharing in the Salvation Story
Redemption was always in the mind of God. From the first breath poured into the soul of Adam to the last breath spilled out from the lips of the Son of Man, all of history has been about the Love that spoke the Word of Life into this world to rescue us from our sin and draw us back into the arms of the Father.
We are called to be witnesses of this marvelous gift. When we share the salvation story, there are only two responses: surrender or rejection. Either our eyes are opened and we fall at the throne of mercy or they are blinded and we spit in the face of the Savior.
In writing “The Witnesses,” the words I placed into the mouths of the characters allowed me to take different facets of the Passion story and show how they were brought to bear upon humanity. And alongside each spoken revelation of truth, there was another voice raging against the reality of the cross.
Silent Servants, Raging Rulers, Righteousness Revealed…
One such character was Malchus, the servant of the High Priest. His was an inner testimony, the witness of garden screams and reluctant obedience. He stood in contrast to his master, who tore his garments in the presence of Jesus, effectively abdicating his priestly position by making himself an unfit representative before the people.
This man who lost his ear to Peter’s impulsive sword-wielding moment was healed by the Savior who was bathed in the light of an angel. His mind was moved enough by that healing to let Peter and John into the High Priest’s courtyard to stand watch as Jesus was maltreated by the mob. He stood for those outside the kingdom who are obedient to worldly masters, yet come to recognize that the rage of proud men against the Savior is sheer madness. Those who experience the healing touch of the true Master find release from the pain and pride of sin’s cruel bondage.
Throughout the trial, there was Nicodemus, the Pharisee who had come to Jesus at night to speak with Him and share his heart. Here was one who arrived at the meeting under the cover of darkness but was called to put his trust in the Light. The words Jesus spoke to him about the love of God, about being born from above, and about the wind blowing wherever it will, pointed Nicodemus to realities outside his learning and earthly knowledge. The more he came to the Light, the more he opened his mind to the reality of Jesus as the fulfillment of prophecy.
As Jesus was dying on the cross, I had Nicodemus recall the words of Isaiah 53, the Song of the Suffering Servant. Those verses stood in contrast to those in the world who allow the darkness to blind them to the truth, who see the cross as folly and absurdity. Nicodemus was a man who saw the Light canceling out the darkness as Jesus fulfilled His mission of love.
Faithful Followers, Tears of Release…
John, the Disciple, who in the play was the first to speak and the last to respond to the message of Christ’s sacrificial love, brought the innocence of faith to bear against the cynicism of unbelief. His great love carried the story along, giving a gentle and sobering context to the harsh events of the crucifixion.
Likewise, Peter the Rock, the man who showed both folly and faith, brought his weakness and strength into the narrative, as he moved from confusion and pride to repentance and submission. His steadfast loyalty to the Savior, broken for a short while by a moment of weakness, was a reminder that the journey to the cross is a human journey of stumbling and standing, failing and finding our way. His mistakes came up against the love and forgiveness of his Master and he was turned from an impulsive loudmouth to a rock-solid leader, never to be the same again.
Then there were the two beautiful women of the story: Mary of Magdala and Mary the mother of the Lord. Their gentle devotion and steadfast love were a soothing balm against the horrific pain of the events of the crucifixion. Mary Magdalene, from whom 7 demons had been cast, spoke of the tears of surrender, rather than the tears of despair. Mary, the mother of Jesus, spoke of her mother’s heart that was breaking for her Son, even as His heart was broken for the world. Their gracious testimonies showed the kind of strength that recognizes the higher purpose of salvation. They shared how gentle, submissive love allows one to see the events of the Passion as the end of a long road to salvation and peace.
Seeking Hearts, Witnesses to Worldliness…
The Centurion and Simon of Cyrene represented those who come to the cross from outside the faith with an open attitude and a seeking heart. While the world refused to see what was happening as anything more than the harsh reality of another day in the Roman Empire, these men chose to look into the eyes of the Savior and see not a man condemned, but a Man of Sorrows fulfilling a holy purpose. It was a purpose that they could not fully grasp but somehow could sense in their open hearts. They came to see the duties and services they performed as a necessary part of the unfolding, intentional will of God. Their view of the convicted criminal on the cross transformed until all they could see was the Righteous Son of God!
Claudia, the wife of Pilate, watched as her husband faced the mob enraged and the silent Savior who spoke of Divine Truth. She saw, perhaps most completely, the ultimate contrast between human authority and heavenly power. Jesus, the bloodied and beaten prisoner, stood as the noble Messiah before the impotent Roman official who slowly watched as his authoritative voice was slowly drowned out by the cries for crucifixion. Claudia’s testimony revealed the extreme differences between the Kingdoms of men and the Kingdom of Heaven, and her troubling night vision testified to the fact that, in order for Christ’s Kingdom to enter the world, all earthly Empires must eventually fall. Salvation’s authority would soon crush the weak and ineffectual power of mankind.
The Witness of the Church
Throughout the Passion Play, the words and deeds of the Lord were presented for all to hear. Those with open hearts could receive the Gospel message of Love fulfilled in the Savior’s suffering on the cross. The Scriptures were laid bare before the listeners, and the testimonies were meant to speak to the inner turmoil of humanity in each seeking soul. It left the audience with a question and a challenge. The question: Is this man, witnessed to by so many, the eternal Son of God? The challenge: To accept or reject the witness – to let it speak to one’s heart and bring surrender or to refuse to listen and reject the message of the Gospel. There were no other options.
As Resurrection Sunday approaches each year, the Church re-presents the story of the Passion to the believing and unbelieving world. Because we are witnesses of God’s salvation in Jesus, we are called to testify to the world that the death and resurrection of Christ are the fulfillment of the eternal salvation story. Let us remember that our witness to the resurrection stands in stark contrast to the rejection of Christ by the lost, and our saving stories serve to share the hope of heaven with a desperate and weary world. Through our witness, we share how the words, “It is finished!” are the crowning moment of the journey of mankind toward heaven and eternal hope. God bless.