Father, Into Your Hands I Commend My Spirit
According to Luke, Jesus' dying was not only painful to him. It was also
painful to the whole creation, which twisted and gasped in its own way as he did
on the cross. As his light began to go out, darkness came over the whole land.
The sun hid its face and for three hours the world lay sleepless through this
unnatural night as Jesus' breath grew shallower and shallower. Finally there was
the sound of something ripping—a cloth, a shroud, the sky itself?—followed by
a loud voice from the cross: "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit." Then
he let out his last breath and every creature left alive learned the meaning of
For Luke, Jesus' last words are not a cry of abandonment but a giving of himself back into the hands that made him. At an ordinary funeral, this is called the commendation. The officiant stands near the body and commends the person who has died to God. "Receive him into the arms of thy mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light."
There was no one to do that for Jesus, which may have been why he did it for himself. He was the rabbi at his own funeral, and at least some of those who heard it were scandalized. He had no business commending himself to God. He was a blasphemer, a heretic, who had presumed upon God's name and trespassed on God's sovereignty. That was why he was being put to death, and scripture was very clear about people like him. According to the book of Deuteronomy,
When someone is convicted of a crime punishable by death
and is executed, and you hang him on a tree,
his corpse must not remain all night upon the tree;
you shall bury him that same day, for anyone hung on a tree is under God's curse. —Deuteronomy 21.22-23
under God's curse, which rendered his last words absurd. How could he commend
himself to the God he had defied? It was as if a murderer were commending
himself to the family of the person he had murdered, or a traitor were
commending himself to the ruler he had betrayed. As far as the authorities were
concerned, this was no funeral service, with time out for the dying person's
last delusion. It was an execution, for God's sake, at which the prisoner ought
to have been gagged.
But the prisoner was not gagged, and by saying what he did, he shifted the entire context of his death. Until he said it, it looked to everyone as if his life were being taken away from him. His perverse religious cult had been stopped. His sinful scheme had failed. He was on the receiving end of the worst punishment the empire knew how to inflict, which should have made him their victim.
But by saying what he did, he took himself out of their hands. By commending himself to the God whose enemy they said he was, he redefined what was happening to him. He gave away what they thought they were taking away from him, and the whole scene lost its balance. One moment there was a tug of war going on between the good guys and the bad guy. The next moment Jesus simply opened his hands and those who thought they had him nailed fell right on top of each other.
Thus Jesus introduced us to the shocking power of sacrifice, which can turn something that looks for all the world like loss into something that feels for all the world like gain. According to Frederick Buechner, "To sacrifice something is to make it holy by giving it away for love." Even if someone is trying to pry it out of your hands. Even if those standing around you laugh and shout that you have no choice, you have a choice. You can still decide how you will let go. You can still open your hands at the last moment and give up what others thought they were taking from you. You can even make it holy by doing it for love.
This miracle can happen anywhere, at any time. Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl says he even saw it in the Nazi death camps, where people were made to stand in line for the ovens. Even there, he says, he watched them exercise choice—some of them turning into wild animals in their fear, while others ministered tenderly to those around them.
They all suffered, and they were about to suffer more, but some of them would not allow the punishment being inflicted on them to become the meaning of their lives. Even there, with so few choices left, they reserved the right to make their own meaning—and the meaning was what they made out of what was happening to them. It was how they stood there. It was whom they loved while they stood there. It was what they said before they died.
Copyright ©2000 Barbara Brown Taylor
This homily was delivered at the Lenten Noonday Preaching Series at Calvary Episcopal Church, Memphis, Tennessee, on April 21, 2000. An earlier version of this sermon appeared in Home By Another Way (Cowley 1999).