I had the privilege and honor to participate in my home parish’s Good Friday penitential offices today (thankfully, the IRD office has a half-day for the season). At Holy Trinity Church, we meditate on the seven last words of Christ. I was assigned the fifth. I confess I offer little original thought of my own, but I found myself strengthened by the exegesis, admonition, and encouragement of the saints before us.
St. John the Evangelist tells us in the 28th verse of the 19th chapter of his Gospel, “After this, Jesus knowing that all things were now accomplished, that the scripture might be fulfilled, saith, ‘I thirst.’ Now there was set a vessel full of vinegar: and they filled a sponge with vinegar, and put it upon hyssop, and put it to his mouth.”
What tremendous agony lies behind this simple word! The Rev. George Houghton captures the context of this phrase well:
In the agony of the preceding night our Lord’s blood had been forced from His veins, and had fallen in great drops to the ground. In that pitiless scourging and crowning with thorns in this early morning, how must He again have been bathed in His gore. From those more and more distending wounds in His hands, and from the hole which the cruel nail had torn through His feet, for three weary hours the blood had been welling. And then let us think how utterly worn and weary the dear Lord of us all must have been when He came to the cross. He had tasted neither food nor drink since the supper of the night before, nor had He slept since we know not when. He had been rudely dragged and hustled along, jeered and mocked by the way, from the garden to the house of Annas, from the house of Annas to that of Caiaphas, from the house of Caiaphas to the Judgment Hall of Pilate, from the Judgment Hall to the Palace of Herod, from the Palace back again to Pilate–and then scourged and crowned with thorns, and tottering under the weight of the heavy cross, He had been urged to go faster and faster up the steep of Calvary until He stumbled and fell.
Christ’s physical nature is being pushed to its absolute limit. Now, the Passion is coming to an end. Ede panta tetelestai as the original Greek puts it: all was now completed—all events had been set into motion which would end with Christ’s very imminent death. And as things come to a conclusion, this simple phrase—“I thirst”—says much about this Person hanging upon a tree.
First, this Jesus on the cross is a man. Christ is not a god pretending to be a human being—as the Incarnated Son, He is God truly with us. God fully enters Adam’s race and experiences the vulnerabilities, needs, and frailties of limited human existence. And as a man, our Lord experiences great torment, for, as the parable of Lazarus informs us, thirst is a misery of the wicked in the afterlife. In that story, the rich man begs Abraham, “[S]end Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue.” In Christ’s thirst, we witness the physical pain of the Suffering Servant.
Second, we notice that our Savior cherishes and fulfills the Scriptures. Just as in His temptation in the wilderness, Christ as the Word made flesh is ever mindful of God’s Word written. The Psalmist foreshadows this moment when he sings, “Reproach hath broken my heart; and I am full of heaviness: and I looked for some to take pity, but there was none; and for comforters, but I found none. They gave me also gall for my meat; and in my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.” St. John also notes the use of hyssop to lift the sponge to our Lord’s lips. Hyssop was associated with purification and sacrifices in the tabernacle and was used to sprinkle blood on the doorposts and lintels on the first Passover. In this instance, Christ is presented as a holy acceptable sacrifice while he also covers us by His blood that death may pass over us.
Third, we witness the world’s treatment of our King. St. John Chrysostom noted, “But consider, I ask you, the cursed nature of the bystanders. Though we have ten thousand enemies and have suffered intolerable things at their hands, yet when we see them perishing, we relent. But these people made no such peace with Jesus, nor were they tamed by what they saw. In fact, they became more savage and increased their mockery. They brought to him vinegar on a sponge, as one would bring it to someone condemned, and they gave it to him to drink.” He came unto His own, but His own did not receive Him.
Fourth, Christ was not simply expressing a desire to slake His physical thirst. St. Augustine of Hippo understood Jesus’ statement “I thirst” to mean Our Savior was saying, “There is one thing still you have failed to do, that is, to give me what you are. For the Jews were themselves the vinegar, degenerated as they were from the wine of the patriarchs and prophets and filled like a full vessel with the wickedness of this world, with hearts like a sponge, deceitful in the formation of its cavernous and tortuous recesses.” Augustine also teaches, “The Samaritan woman at the well found the Lord thirsting, and by him thirsting, she was filled. She first found him thirsting in order that he might drink from her faith. And when he was on the cross, he said, ‘I thirst,’ although they did not give him that for which he was thirsting. For he was thirsting for them.”
We should consider the days of the wilderness wanderings, when Moses struck the rock to bring forth water to the children of Israel. This provision by God brought forth life-giving water in a desert place. Moses disobeyed God and struck the rock not once, but twice. Because of this, God forbad Moses from entering the Promised Land. This was because 1) Moses did not trust in God’s promises (Num. 20:8-12) and 2) because this rock prefigures Christ. Christ is the one full sufficient sacrifice and oblation for us and for our salvation. He is God’s provision for us.
When He–the promised Messiah–came to mankind, they not only refused this stream of life, but also mercilessly attacked Him. Thus St. Cyril of Jerusalem contests, “Jesus says, ‘I thirst’—he who had brought forth water for them out of the craggy rock. Then he asked for fruit of the vine that he had planted. But what does the vine do? When the Lord was thirsty, this vine…having filled a sponge and put it on a reed, offers him vinegar. ‘They gave me also gall for my food, and in my thirst, they gave me vinegar to drink.’…Are these things how you reward the Lord? Are these your offerings, O vine, for your master? The prophet Isaiah was right when in times past he wailed, ‘My beloved had a vineyard in a hill in a fruitful place…and I waited for it to bring forth grapes.’ I thirsted, and it should have given me drink ‘but sprouted thorns instead.’”
And so we are left a divine irony observed by St. Gregory of Nazianus: “He is given vinegar to drink mingled with gall. Who? He who turned water into wine, the destroyer of the bitter taste who is sweetness and altogether desire.” The fount of living water thirsts on the cross. And what is more, Christian, He thirsts for you and your neighbor. Will you partake of this Stream? And will you spread news of It throughout the earth?