Darkness begins to fall upon the earth as Mary Magdalene looks up into the face of Jesus hanging from the cross…struggling for breath…shuddering under the pain of the nails in hand and feet.
This Jesus who had freed her, saved her, shown her mercy…
She could no longer wash his feet with her tears or anoint his head with oil…She was about to lose the Light that had taken away her darkness. She watched his eyes, hoping for one last sign that he knew she was there…for him…
And then the words, the dread words: “It is finished!”
Her heart seemed to break under the utter finality of these words, as a confusion invaded her soul. Jesus said them with such triumph….
“It is finished (in Greek: Tetelestai )!” There on Calvary at the bitter end of his passion as life ebbed slowly and painfully away, Jesus proclaimed, Tetelestai! You would use the word Tetelestai when you successfully reached the peak of Mt. Everest. Or won a gold medal at the Olympics against all odds after years of preparation. It means “I did exactly what I set out to do!” It is better translated as “It is accomplished!” Or even more correctly (since the word is in the perfect tense), “It is accomplished and still in effect today!”
Little did Mary Magdalene know, or anyone on the hill of Calvary that day, what exactly Jesus meant by Tetelestai. However, there is an ancient homily from the Fourth Century by St. Epiphanius, Bishop of Cyprus that paints a dramatic picture of the powerful meaning of the word.
The homily is read every Holy Saturday in the Office of Readings, because it is a dramatic telling of what happened when the body of Jesus was in the tomb, while his human soul—united to his divine person—descended to the realm of the dead. Tradition holds that Jesus descended into the limbo of the fathers where souls slept in death waiting for the gates of heaven to be re-opened on the day of salvation.
“[Jesus] has gone to search for our first parent, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, He has gone to free from sorrow the captives Adam and Eve, He who is both God and the Son of Eve. The Lord approached them bearing the Cross, the weapon that had won Him the victory. At the sight of Him, Adam, the first man He had created, struck his breast in terror and cried out to everyone, ‘My Lord be with you all.’ Christ answered him, ‘And with your spirit.’ He took him by the hand and raised him up, saying, ‘Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.
“‘I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. Out of love for you and for your descendants I now by My own authority command all who are held in bondage to come forth, all who are in darkness to be enlightened, all who are sleeping to arise. I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be held a prisoner in Hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the Life of the dead. Rise up, work of My hands, you who were created in My image. Rise, let us leave this place, for you are in Me and I am in you; together we form only one person and we cannot be separated.’”
The earth is in silence for Christ’s body lay under the earth in a tomb, while Christ is emptying Hades with solemnity. The new Adam goes to rescue the old Adam.
“‘Rise, let us leave this place. The enemy led you out of the earthly Paradise. I will not restore you to that Paradise, but I will enthrone you in Heaven. I forbade you the tree that was only a symbol of life, but see, I who am Life itself am now one with you. I appointed cherubim to guard you as slaves are guarded, but now I make them worship you as God. The throne formed by cherubim awaits you, its bearers swift and eager. The Bridal Chamber is adorned, the banquet is ready, the eternal dwelling places are prepared, the treasure houses of all good things lie open. The Kingdom of Heaven has been prepared for you from all eternity.’”
Christ’s human death transforms death for all the children of Adam. What happened with Adam in the Garden of Paradise (sin) happened for us all. Adam’s disobedience to God snapped the band of love between him and God, and as a result all humankind is held fast in sickness with sin. So too what happened in Christ’s human flesh happened for us all: “Rise, let us go hence…”
Christ’s death launched all of humankind onto the highway of heaven. We are all made for heaven, and the doors are opened there for us too and for all.
Tetelestai! “It is accomplished and still in effect today!” Christ works still in his Church, completing the healing of his brothers and sisters sick with sin. In the sacrament of Baptism and the Eucharist and the sacrament of Reconciliation, we are injected with the life of God: “Awake, O sleeper, arise from death!” Again and again the power of God’s love manifest in the life, death and resurrection of Christ heals what God has created. Our daily falls are our daily deaths. Through the sacraments we suffer and die with Christ that we might hear the words that alone can truly spiritually resurrect us to new life. In a reading from St. Maximus we hear (from the fifth century):
“Christ is Risen! He has burst open the gates of Hell and let the dead go free; He has renewed the earth through the members of His Church now born again in Baptism, and has made it blossom afresh with men brought back to life. His Holy Spirit has unlocked the doors of Heaven, which stand wide open to receive those who rise up from the earth….
“The Son is that Day to whom the Day, which is the Father, communicates the mystery of His Divinity. He is the Day who says through the mouth of Solomon, ‘I have caused an unfailing light to rise in Heaven.’ And as in Heaven no night can follow day, so no sin can overshadow the justice of Christ. The celestial day is perpetually bright and shining with brilliant light; clouds can never darken its skies. In the same way, the light of Christ is eternally glowing with luminous radiance and can never be extinguished by the darkness of sin. This is why John the Evangelist says, ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never been able to overpower it.’”
There is an oral tradition that Mary Magdalene, along with Martha, Lazarus, Maximim, Mary Jacobe, Salome, and three others arrived by boat on the shores of a region known today as France, having been exiled from their homeland during the first persecutions of the Christians in Jerusalem, in or around the year A.D. 41. Having been witness to the crucifixion of the Master and his resurrection, Mary Magdalene would have been zealous in sharing with others her love for Jesus. She was instrumental in leading those who believed in the font of Baptism.
Eventually, however, her longing for “the better part” led her to retreat to a grotto halfway up the mountain of la Sainte Baume, where she lived the rest of her days on earth. It is even today a place of perfect stillness and a place of pilgrimage. Saint Maximim, who became the father of the new Christians in the region, would bring Mary Magdalene the Eucharist, meeting her halfway down the mountain. Mary Magdalene knew as we know today, that all we celebrate in the Triduum of Jesus’ loving gift of his life on Calvary and in the Eucharist, is our direct connection to our Lord and Master, the place where we daily die and rise in him. “The light of Christ is eternally glowing with luminous radiance and can never be extinguished by the darkness of sin.”
If you would like to read the entire homilies, you can do so here: http://holycrossoca.org/newslet/1204.html
by Sr. Kathryn J. Hermes, FSP
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