the penultimate WORD
Series 2006 -
The Irvine Tartan • My monthly column in The New Brunswick Anglican
We thirst at first – ’tis
Nature’s Act –
It intimates the finer want –
After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), “I am thirsty.” A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth.
John: 19: 28f.
The words are almost imperceptible. Tongue cloying to the roof of the mouth, the phase is more intimated than spoken. A little Water supplicate – please, as we die. Not water? Then vinegar. Cracked lips pressed against a sponge burn in a gesture of compassion from a Century near by.
I have not known such thirst; few of us have. I have seen it among the ill and in some who are near death. Paper cups with crushed ice and cardboard sticks with coloured sponges soothe the ill and infirm. Always the sponge is passively applied, and the beneficiary is completely dependant on the compassion of the caregiver. I have seen some patients strain to assure enough moisture. The cup returned to a side table, the medical cardboard lance with the sponge is beyond reach.
The opportunities we have to come close to the sick and dying provide us with a glimpse of Golgotha.
‘If any are thirsty,’ Jesus had said on one occasion in the Temple, ‘let him come to me and drink.’
And now he expresses his thirst in a phrase strange to most of us.
The occasion is not familiar.
This is no opportunity to share a coffee or have a beer. This is not a moment of companionship over Scottish single malt. Those occasions give rise to other needs we have and know. Such events speak to the need we have of others’ company. Those occasions provide us with a needed exchange of time and interest.
But ‘I thirst,’ stands alone.
The primordial appetite of thirst wells up from the very depth of our being and Jesus’ solidarity with all creation is echoed in his appeal. More than his need for rest, more than his need for food, Jesus strains to voice his need of water.
Elementary in life, our need of water distances us from most of the world. A tap provides clean, refreshing water that we prefer to colour, flavour, fortify, distil, steep, percolate and brew. We don’t particularly like to drink it.
Our thirst is not a need, not in the sense that Jesus expressed in the closing hours of the drama of reclamation on this holy ground. Our thirst is addressed by celebration, entertainment and recreation.
Seldom are our needs deeply felt, and when they are, seldom are they expressed to another.
Jesus’ weakness in his waning hours draws him close to those nearby – and closer to some than others perhaps. One may have heard his strained attempt and dismissed it out of hand; another may have heard something, but preoccupied, ignored it and continued with his thoughts. One however caught the word and knowing its meaning was moved to compassion.
In the darkness it is difficult to see how compassion moves amongst people. The darkness covers faces of scepticism and guilt. It is hard to make out the hesitant gesture that almost reached for a sponge. The hand that did place a sponge on a branch of hyssop belonged to one who allowed Jesus’ thirst, and responded to it.
Thirst went beyond the penalty of death. Thirst allowed a common ground to be found and went beyond the accusation of sedition or blasphemy – and what are such accusations to a Century after all? Reaching beyond race and culture and faith, thirst brought Gentile and Jew together even for a moment where Compassion was known.
And did that Century know?
Could he have ever guessed that the One who convened this assembly on this holy hill outside this holy City – could he have ever guessed that this One was known as The Compassionate?
Need expressed and need met find The Compassionate in the transaction. Not a swallow of vinegar; not even a half a cup of tepid water, but God himself – The Compassionate – in a gesture where need is met out of recognition and a heart that was now less a stranger.
Copyright © 2006 James T. Irvine
penultimate Word - the Lenten Series
Jesus’ Last Words