Francis Cardinal George, O.M.I.

Lent 2011: ‘I thirst’

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Lent, a time for spiritual renewal, is a time for spiritual reading. This week, “Jesus of Nazareth, Part Two” by Pope Benedict XVI is being published (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2011). Since the book covers the Holy Father’s reflections on the last week of the life of Jesus, from the entrance into Jerusalem to the resurrection, it is ideal spiritual reading for Lent.

The pope begins this book, as he began the first part of his presentation on the mysteries of the life of Jesus, published in 2007, with a few words about the relation between Scripture in its original historical context and Scripture in the context of faith. The figure and the message of Jesus can be fully understood only from within the church that tells us that Scripture is the inspired word of God. How else would we know? And like Scripture itself, the pope’s reflections are written by a person of faith for the community of faith in order to deepen our faith. Pope Benedict systematically examines the biblical narratives and, interpreting them in the light of faith, gives the reader a compelling portrait of Jesus in his passion, death and resurrection.

Part of that portrait is the picture of Jesus hanging on the cross on Calvary. From the cross, Jesus speaks; and his words reverberate through the centuries. A word that speaks loudly and insistently today is Jesus’ cry, “I thirst” (Jn 19:28). This was the word from the cross that shaped the life of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, the founder of the Missionaries of Charity. Her thirst to assuage Jesus’ thirst for the salvation of the world is the key to understanding her life’s mission among the world’s poor and the spirituality of her Sisters.

Pope Benedict’s few pages on Jesus’ thirst draw the scriptural portrait of the just man exposed to suffering. In the midst of his suffering, Jesus prays. To pray while suffering breaks the hold that pain has when it wrenches the body and leaves the sufferer trapped in the prison of physical desolation. When we feel well, praying is sometimes distracted by our own thoughts and desires, and we try to keep focused on God; when we are suffering, praying is a welcome distraction from the pain that has a stranglehold on us and won’t permit us to focus on anything else. Praying in one’s suffering shows a determination to remain always focused on God’s will.

Jesus’ word is also a lament. It echoes God’s lament in the fifth chapter of the prophet Isaiah, who portrays God complaining that the vineyard he planted, the people of Israel, yielded only vinegar rather than wine. The soldiers at the foot of Jesus’ cross offered him vinegar in response to his cry about thirst. Israel, the church, and those who are primarily concerned for themselves and not for the kingdom of God respond to God’s love with sour hearts unable to appreciate God’s goodness.

The Gospel according to John records Jesus’ cry and portrays the Roman soldiers’ attempt to offer Jesus the vinegar usually administered to those crucified as their body was drained of its fluids. But Jesus wasn’t thirsting for vinegar; he was thirsting for souls. Jesus’ cry and the matter of fact response by the soldiers carry an echo of Psalm 69, in which the suffering just one cries, “for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.”

Prayer to God, God’s lament, our response: this is the dynamic of this Lenten season. As we enter Lent, let us listen again, with the help of Pope Benedict, to Jesus’ cry, “I thirst.” We should honestly portray to ourselves our own deepest thirsts. What do we desire above all? How do we go about assuaging our various thirsts? For what should we thirst and do not? Do we thirst for what Jesus thirsts for: the salvation of the world?

The words of Scripture carry multiple layers of meaning. A good theologian will help us unpack these meanings and will explain how they are interrelated. Pope Benedict does this with a simplicity that is profound; and this new book will bring any prayerful and reflective reader into a deeper understanding of Jesus of Nazareth in his passion, death and resurrection. It’s good reading anytime, but especially during Lent 2011.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Francis Cardinal George, OMI
Archbishop of Chicago