“It is finished.” John 19:30.
One of the things people look for when they consider death is closure. The dying look for it, and the bereaved look for it for as well. Closure, depending on who you talk to, means many different things. Sometimes it means making amends with others. Sometimes it means completing a job of a lifetime. And sometimes it means making provisions for the safety and well-being of those who depend on us.
But most of all, closure means finishing life with a sense that the life lived had a meaning, a purpose, extending all the way to the last moment. Closure implies that the life lived was worth something. No one wants to think that he or she lived for nothing.
Ultimately, Christianity says that none of us can live for nothing, because we are loved by God, and God’s love is never meaningless. But most of us yearn for something beyond that. We want to be able to say that we took the life God gave us and made something meaningful out of it.
All of this hints at the centuries-old Catholic-Protestant conflict: Are we justified — that is, saved by God — simply because we believe in Him, or do we need to perform acts of goodness as well to make it to heaven?
The words “it is finished” provide an answer. And the answer is that both views are correct. Jesus’ death — the death of a slave, in a far-flung province of the Roman Empire, on a nondescript day, at the hands of an otherwise obscure Roman governor — is extremely remote from our experience. So remote that it shrinks into insignificance. Nothing about the the death of Jesus, from a historical perspective comes across as special. Tragic and unjust, yes. But special? No. No city was won, or war decided with Christ’s death. No empire was created. No earthly victory of any kind was achieved. Yet his death was an act of universal redemption. It was extraordinary not because of the bare facts, but because God wanted it to be. In other words, Christ’s life and mission had meaning because God’s love made it so. This is another way of saying that faith in God is enough to justify a life.
And yet, Jesus’ last words also illustrate how his entire life was centered around acts of goodness. “It is finished” reminds us that Jesus’ death was the final sentence of a lifelong story. The moment of his death was only part of his act of sacrifice. His entire life was the rest.
This thinking is reflected in the theology of the Eucharist. When the priest at Mass says the words “this is my body, which was given up for you,” that instant is not, as many believe, the moment of consecration. The entire Eucharistic prayer is the act of consecration. It is not the act of holding the host aloft that consecrates the bread, it is the entire Mass that does so.
As humans, we tend to put a premium on specific moment — the moment the ring goes on the finger, the moment the trigger is pulled, the moment the diploma is placed in the hand, the moment the paper is signed. But “it is finished” reminds us that this is not so.
Yes, the crucifixion is the heart of Christ’s sacrifice. But in truth, his entire public life was his sacrifice. Every moment he spent away from home, every night he slept outdoors, every sermon he gave, every time he was chased from a town by an angry mob — these were all sacrifices. They all are part of the moment on the cross, when Jesus gave up the last of himself.
So there isn’t really any separation between justification through faith and justification through good acts. A good act is faith itself. It would be impossible for us to just believe and not do anything about it, and it would have been impossible for Jesus to climb up on the cross and simply take his punishment unless an entire life had been spent in devotion to God, in preparation for exactly that moment. Jesus’ entire life is the sacrifice we see come into its fullness on the cross.