Thursday, 2 April 2015

It is finished: Τετέλεσται

It is finished. Consummatum est, as proclaimed on status after status of Catholic students finishing their exams. Or the single word in the Greek – Τετέλεσται, ‘It is finished,’ which also has echoes of fulfilment. The verb tense is significant – the perfect tense in Greek, meaning that a completed action has continuing consequences – in this moment, this word, the sacrifice of Our Lord, now completed, continues to redeem humanity today.

The perfect tense applies to our lives as well. All that ends in our life - school, jobs, relationships, ways of being - has continuing consequences in the present, finding a way to new beginnings in the future.

But in this moment, beneath a darkened sky, as G-d hangs on the cross, speaking a word of utter finality, no new beginning seems possible – simply an endless, bleak emptiness into eternity. But even so, this end must come.

Our endings must come too: we lose people we love. We lose jobs in a world that identifies us by what we do, rather than who we are. We can no longer live in a way, in a story, that is now far too small for us: ‘I was abused.’ ‘Nothing good ever happens to me.’ ‘I am a Christian, so the world will always persecute me.’ Those stories may no longer suit us, but they have become our identity, the only way we know ourselves. And so, even though we know the ending must come, we hold on tightly to what we know, fists clenched, arms wrapped around ourselves, keeping the known old in and the mysterious, frightening new out – frozen like Lot’s wife: desperately unable to hold on to what must – or wants to - leave, and with closed hands, desperately unable to receive the grace we need, to trust that a new beginning will come.

We are in good company: in Gethsemane, Jesus too, tries to hold on, depicted vividly in Jesus Christ Superstar:

I only want to say if there is a way
Take this cup away from me
For I don't want to taste its poison
Feel it burn me, I have changed
I'm not as sure as when we started

In Our Lord’s agony, we find echoes of our own journey when endings come upon us: betrayal, anger, doubt as He bargains for things to remain as they are: 

Listen, surely I've exceeded expectations
Tried for three years, seems like thirty
Could you ask as much from any other man? 

As he progresses to contemplating the ending – ‘BUT if I die’ – he begs for the certainty that we seek in our lives:

Can you show me now that I would not be killed in vain?
Show me just a little of your omnipresent brain
Show me there's a reason for your wanting me to die
You're far too keen on where and how and not so hot on why

Before finally accepting the ending that is coming:

Why then am I scared to finish what I started?
What You started, I didn't start it

God, Thy will is hard, but You hold every card
I will drink Your cup of poison

Or as we know the more traditional, acquiescent line from the gospel, not my will, but thine be done. Our Lord, fully human as we are, wants to cling to what He knows: bargaining, raging, grieving, but finally accepting, because He knows that to do more, to carry on when it is time to move on, will have grave consequences for the future. This sacrifice does not just end something: it consummates a marriage between Him and His bride, the Church, consummatum est – ending one story in preparation for a new, larger one. It is not just finished, it is fulfilled: Τετέλεσται.

For us too, in ways large and small, Τετέλεσται – though we so often cannot see the seeds of fulfilment through our devastation at the finishing – and the fulfilment may be some way in the future. We may resist finishing because we are afraid that the end means that the love, the joy, even the difficulties of the situation will vanish from our lives – but the perfect tense reminds us that life is not so; even if the situation is ended, its essence has woven itself into our being. Or we may try to make an ending sharp, short, surgical, denying it matters, pretending it never happened, locking it away. Both keep us bound, but Our Lord shows us the way to live an ending that sets us free: a way of grieving, of unfolding our arms and opening our hands through intimacy with the Father, sharing with Him our darkest, deepest, most uncomfortable feelings at this loss, from resistance to rage to abandonment, asking ‘Why hast thou forsaken me?’

After the storm, in that barren, uncertain place where we thirst, when we finally know the truth, accepting that it is finished – even feel ourselves unravelling as we open our arms on the Cross with Our Lord and let go – let us remember that though the relationship, job, time that is ending may be the stuff of our lives, it is not our lives – it did not form us in our mother’s womb, breathe life into us, it does not know the number of hairs on our head. Our lives are elsewhere, and every single one of these smaller acts of letting go prepares us for the ultimate act of surrender, where we give up our lives – Τετέλεσται - so that we may truly live, through the words Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.

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