John 19:30 — When he had received the drink, Jesus said, “It is finished.”
I’d never been so relieved, so exhausted, so exhilarated, and in so much pain at the same time. Night had fallen, and I sat weeping at a campfire deep in the woods of Central Pennsylvania. This was at the end of a 10-hour day of steep hiking into and out of a valley.
At the campfire, I was surrounded by 11 of my colleagues from the college where we worked. Our boss had decided that a 5-day, off-the-grid, backpacking trip would be a great team-bonding exercise to get us ready for the new academic year. I never would have chosen this kind of “adventure” for myself. I’m a self-proclaimed “indoorsy” person. Though I enjoy exercising outside every day, hiking and camping are among the last things I would choose to do for fun or for bonding.
I wept at that campfire, not because I was afraid of the dark, or of spiders, or of having to go to the bathroom in the woods, but because I had been hiking all day with a 60 pound pack on my back. I’d had low-back pain for a few months, but by the time of our trip, I hadn’t yet seen a specialist for diagnosis. What I didn’t know is that I was hiking with a herniated disc. What I did know was the constant, fiery pain in my low back and my hips that often shot down my right leg like a lightning strike.
As we hiked down, down into a deep valley that first day, all I could think about was that hours going down eventually means hours going up. And I was right. After a short break for lunch, we began a grueling 4-hour ascent out of the valley. When you ascend, you naturally shift your center of gravity forward. Unfortunately for me, that shift put even more pressure on the injured disc, and my pain intensified.
That 4-hour ascent was the most painful experience of my life to-date. I couldn’t catch hold of any positive perspective because the pain was so intense. Tears slipped down my cheeks and soaked my shirt as I put one foot in front of the other.
Looking up at the horizon brought no comfort because I couldn’t ignore the never-ending hill that I still had to climb. I knew I would survive the hike, of course, but that thought evaporated like a mirage when compared to the pain I knew I must endure first. So when we finally made it out of that valley, made camp, and gathered in front of the campfire, I collapsed — physically and emotionally.
It was finished. I never had to enter, endure, and overcome that valley of pain again! I was so deeply relieved that I cried for a good hour. (It’s a wonder I had any tears left!) As I cried, I processed so many thoughts and emotions.
I was grateful for, and surprised by, the grit and physical fortitude I used to hike out. At the same time, I was keenly aware of the fragility and weariness of my body. I confess, I was resentful of my boss for forcing this adventure on us. And I was disappointed in myself for not saying “no” to this backpacking trip in the first place — when would I finally learn to speak up for legitimate personal needs, instead of sacrificing my own wellness because I don’t want to ruin things for others?
Even as all these things filtered through my exhausted brain, the pain continued to throb and disturb my relief. The worst of the hike was finished, but residual pain would continue. I still had a few more days of walking to get out of those woods. Relief, pain, and resolve were always churning within me. Perhaps it’s that very mix that helped me hang on until we were out of the woods entirely.
No human experience can ever truly compare to the excruciating weight that Jesus bore on the cross. I know hiking with a herniated disc is almost nothing compared to the physical pain of crucifixion, or the emotional strain of the task set before Jesus. My task and my pain were but a slight hint of Jesus’ task and his intense physical and emotional suffering. But even a hint can be a beginning.
To grasp the meaning in Jesus’ words, “It is finished” we must do the mental work of going back and answering the question, “What?” What was finished as Jesus hung on the cross? And, what might he have been feeling and thinking that led him to say, “It is finished”? We can only begin to understand those things when we remind ourselves of the task he was given.
We remember that the first time Jesus stood up to preach in his hometown synagogue, he read these words from the Prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Lk 4:18-19)
All along, Jesus made his mission very clear. How many times did he say the phrase “I have come” in his public ministry?! We hear him proclaim his mission throughout the gospels using this phrase repeatedly. Here are a few examples:
- I have come to fulfill the law and the prophets (Mt 5:17)
- I have come to call sinners to repentance (Lk 5:32)
- I have come to seek and save the lost. (Luke 19:10)
- I have come down from heaven, in the Father’s name, to do the Father’s will (Jn 5:43, 6:38)
- I have come to bring judgement so that the blind will see (Jn 9:39)
- I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness (Jn 12:46)
Jesus taught about a kingdom of heaven that was coming, and had come. This kingdom is a way of living that is based not on societal hierarchies and power struggles, but on a foundation of love, mercy, justice, forgiveness, and generous service to others.
And as we read the stories of the gospels — as we see Jesus heal sick and broken bodies, as he casts out demons, as he shows love and compassion for the outcasts, the untouchables, and for the undervalued — we see him be true to his mission and exemplify the nature of his Father’s kingdom.
Jesus came to earth on a holy, heavenly mission. He inaugurated his Father’s kingdom on earth through his teaching, his actions, and ultimately, by sacrificing his life on the cross. Only then, could Jesus say, “It is finished.”
Jesus once said to his disciples, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work.” (Jn 4:34) As Jesus prays to the Father in John 17, he acknowledges that he has “brought [the Father] glory on earth by finishing” the work he was given to do.
“It is finished.” In these words, in these moments, the awesome fortitude of Jesus is unveiled to us.
Jesus endured the emotional pain of Judas’ betrayal; the swift abandonment by his other disciples when he was arrested; and the harsh rejection of the Jewish people he came to call back to his Father.
He endured the pain of unjust accusations; of public ridicule from a crowd of the self-righteous calling for his death; and the humiliation of being stripped of his clothes and forced to walk the streets of the city on carrying the very tool that would kill him.
Jesus endured the varied physical abuses done by the Roman soldiers and then the pain of gradual suffocation that comes with crucifixion.
Jesus suffered all this pain because he was dedicated to, and focused on, the end — the ultimate goal. He knew that only his death would fully show the world how much he, and his Father, loved. Dying for the sake of others is the ultimate show of love. If the people didn’t believe after seeing Jesus bravely move toward the cross and endure it’s pain, then they never would believe.
Maybe it was a mix of relief, pain, and resolve churning in Jesus as he hung on the cross. Perhaps it’s that very mix that helped him endure such unthinkable suffering. All this, so that we too might know the freedom and joy of a life lived with him in the Kingdom of God.
“…Jesus said, ‘It is finished.’ With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.”
I’ve never been so relieved, so exhausted, so exhilarated, and in so much pain at the same time. Thank you, Lord, for what you finished for us. Amen.