How Jesus’s Good Friday words call on us across the millennia.
The story told is that the sky grew unusually dark at midday. But then, this was like no other day, before or since. Atop Golgotha, Jesus of Nazareth (Iesus Nazarenus, Rex Iudaeorum, the placard declared), hung and nailed, had endured excruciating torment. The hours of agony played out against a background of insults (“the rulers scoffed at him . . . the soldiers also mocked him”), contempt (“those passing by reviled him”), and unseemly acts (“for my clothing they cast lots”).
His strength sapped, His spirit ebbed. But for divine intervention, there was only one natural conclusion to this necessary catastrophe.
The end was imminent. But the Scriptures were not yet satisfied. From Psalm 22 comes a forsaken cry that foretold this very moment, a lament projected through the centuries: “My heart has become like wax melting away inside my chest, my throat is dried up like baked clay, my tongue cleaves to my jaws.”
A desperate image. On this day, it reached its destiny. He said: “I thirst.”
But another Psalm demands attention too, the 69th: “and in my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.” Someone performed the task — who, we are not told. An act of charity? Maybe. Likely. For others though — ghouls or obtuse spectators, or both — it was an opportunity to extend the unholy drama. A delay was urged: “Wait, let us see if Elijah will come to save him.”
But Elijah did not come. Death did. From lips touched with sour wine, Jesus uttered “It is finished.” And then He perished.
I thirst. This may be the shortest statement by Jesus in the New Testament. To the practicing Christian, it deserves no less importance than anything else He said. Indeed, its brevity draws attention and curiosity — at least from this sinner.
Was it merely a statement of fact — I thirst? Surely the man hung on a tree was parched. Until vinegar was forced upon him, Scripture accounts for no slaking, nor any other thing that might be called relief but for Simon. (“They pressed into service a passer-by, Simon, a Cyrenian, who was coming in from the country, the father of Alexander and Rufus, to carry his cross.”) How to deny a soldier with one hand on a sword, and the other clutching a whip?
Relief? Yes, although Simon’s shouldering the burden and hauling the instrument of death only ensured it would be just that.
Traditions and fiction yearn for things not in any of the Gospels. Roman Catholicism tells of Saint Veronica, believed to be one of the women of Jerusalem (“weep not for me, but weep for yourselves and your children”) who wiped the Lord’s bloody and sweating face as he proceeded along the Via Dolorosa to His fate. The much-revered relic of the Holy Veil, capturing the face of the condemned Christ, is kept at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. And our cinematic culture tells a popular tale, that Judah Ben-Hur famously and poignantly offered water to the fallen Jesus. Would that it were it so. (In Lew Wallace’s novel, Ben-Hur was the man who gave the crucified Christ the sour wine: “Without minding them, he ran on, and put the sponge to the Nazarene’s lips. Too late, too late!”)
Returning to Scripture, was there a heavenly purpose to fulfilling the Psalms? Or possibly, was the Gospel writer merely reporting an anecdote — I thirst — from the scene?
And yes: More than fulfilling an Old Testament prophesy, Christ seems to have been challenging, even giving an order, one that transcends His crucifixion. Surely I thirst carries, implies, is a command of sorts, akin to I thirst . . . so do something about it.
Splayed and immobile, scourged and punctured, whipped and wounded (“His stripes”), defenseless and traumatized — thorns hideously forced into his scalp (or did the Romans crown him gingerly?), the dying Nazarene recalled Isaiah:
There was in him no stately bearing to make us look at him, no appearance that would attract us to him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of suffering, accustomed to infirmity, one of those from whom men turn away, and we held him in no esteem.
On Good Friday, Jesus is the epitome of what we call the disabled. He sought meager help, minuscule aid. He did not plead, “Save me.” He did not cry out, “Help me get me down from here.” He simply asked for a drink, a sip, to alleviate his thirst — likely the least of his sufferings.
Do something about it? Removed from the scene by centuries, free from the chaos and violence and the surging fury under Jerusalem’s blackening skies, we might very well imagine — indeed, I would have given Him water!
Yes, and Peter did not deny. Alas, this was a day of rejection, complete and ultimate.
But not eternal. In the here and now, we should harbor no fantasies: Our chance to directly respond to the Christ of I thirst . . . never was. Nor would it have been if we had been present on that hill. But we should realize the opportunities exist, in abundance, now.
For is not the suffering Savior reflected in the neighbor accustomed to infirmity, in that man who we hold in no esteem, in that woman from whom we turn away, in the relative rejected and the colleague despised? Our crucified Christ is very much present.
And He still thirsts. We are afforded this miraculous opportunity appease it, by wetting the lips of the pleaful, by showing the troubled and the plagued actual charity, in whatever way a cup of water reveals itself. That you do unto me.
There are many recurring, persistent, instructive, and echoing phenomena that resound from the Praetorium to the Arimathean’s tomb, connecting Christians in the most intimate ways to the crucifixion and death of Jesus. It may indeed be a true miracle, as we approach two millennia from that very real and altering day, that He affords us, here and now, the chance to do right by Him — the Son of God who suffered atop the Place of the Skull — to engage in what can be nothing less than a redemptive act. To slake His thirst in His torment.
One day as you pass by the way, someone suffering will call out, I thirst. On that day, remember this day, Good Friday. Stop and offer cool water.