Just before he dies on the cross, Jesus utters these words: “It is finished!”
These words can be spoken in different ways: They can be words of defeat and despair (“It’s over, hopeless, I give in!) or they can be words of accomplishment and triumph (“I’ve done it, succeeded, I’ve held out!”).
Obviously, for Jesus, these are not words of defeat. He has triumphed, succeeded, run the toughest race of all to its finish. When he speaks these words, he’s like the winner in the Olympic marathon throwing up his arms in triumph at the finish-line; except in this case both his exuberance of spirit and his arms are nailed down so that his utterance of triumph is not like the pumped-fist of an Olympic winner, but like the cry of an newborn baby that’s finally succeeded in pushing itself through the birth-canal; a startling triumph, but one that, for a time, has you lying in blood, tears, and helplessness.
And his triumph here left him precisely in blood, tears, and helplessness. He’s won, but it’s cost him his life, tested his faith to the limit, lost him his popularity, scattered his friends, shrouded his life in misunderstanding, left him looking compromised, and isolated him in an unspeakable loneliness.
It’s not easy then to pump your fist in triumph, even when you’ve won, especially since your victory isn’t evident to anyone who isn’t journeying inside of this with you. To everyone else, this looks like defeat, the worst kind of defeat.
So what’s “finished”?
At one level, what’s finished is Jesus’ own struggle with doubt, fear, and loneliness. What was that struggle? The painful, lonely, crushing discrepancy he habitually felt between the warmth and ideals inside his heart and the coldness and despair he met in the world.
Everything inside of him believed that, in the end, always, it is better to give yourself over to love than to hatred, to affirmation than to jealousy, to gentleness of heart than to bitterness, to honesty than to lying, to fidelity than to compromise, to forgiveness than to revenge. Everything about him too was a testimony that the reality of God, immaterial and fanciful though it can seem, is in the end more real than the undeniable reality of our physical bodies and our physical world. And finally, everything about him pointed uncompromisingly towards the “road-less-taken” and revealed that real love means carrying your solitude and chastity at a high level.
But, for him, as for us, it wasn’t easy to live that out. As scripture says, sometimes it gets dark in the middle of the day, we find ourselves very much alone in what we believe in, and God seems far away and dead. Faith and love aren’t easy because they feel empty and fanciful whenever they’re betrayed and they only work and prove that they’re real when they’re persevered in.
Jesus, though, did persevere in them and when he utters those famous words:”It is finished!”, it’s a statement of triumph, not just of his own faith, but of love, truth, and God. He’s taken God as his word, risked everything on faith, and, despite the pain it’s brought, is dying with no regrets. The struggle for faith, for him, is finished. He’s crossed its finish line, successfully.
But there’s second level of meaning to his words. “It is finished” also means that the reign of sin and death is finished. An order of things (wherein we live our lives believing that, eventually, everyday joys give way to darkness and the underworld; that paranoia and sin unmask trust and goodness as naive; that the reality of the physical world and this life is all there is; that compromise and infidelity trump everything else, and that death is more real than hope) is also finished. It is exposed as unreal, as a lie, by love, fidelity, gentleness, trust, childlikeness, vulnerability, and the paradoxical power of a God who, in the deeper recesses of things, works more by underwhelming than by overpowering. “
It is finished!” Jesus uttered those words when he realized that, despite all the pain and sin in the world, the center does hold, love can be trusted, God is real, and, because of that, in the end, “every manner of being will indeed be well.” The forces of sin and death are finished because we can, in full maturity and utter realism, believe in the sun even when it isn’t shining, in love even when we don’t feel it, and in God, even when God is silent. Faith and God deliver on their promise.
Mohandas Gandhi, in a remarkable passage, once wrote: “When I despair, I remember that all through history, the way of truth and love has always won. There have been murderers and tyrants, and for a time they can seem invincible. But in the end they always fall. Think of it, always.” Many things were finished on the cross, including rule of tyranny and murder.