"Father, into your hands we commend our spirits."
As we reflect on the crucifixion and death of Jesus today, I would like to reflect on a verse that does not appear in Matthew’s version of the crucifixion, but rather in Luke’s version. Across the 4 Gospels, Jesus speaks different words in his dying moments on the cross. In Luke’s version, the last words spoken by Jesus appear in Luke 23:46 “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” It is these words that I will be focusing on today.
And as we do so, I would like to begin by first reading the words of an American Medical Doctor and writer, Lisa Rankin, who has been reflecting on the theme of death, in light of the current world crisis. I include just a portion of what she writes (The link to her article will appear below for those who would like to read it in full). Her work as a medical doctor has taken her to some of the poorer places of the world, like the country of Peru in South America. And so I read a section of her article entitled: “Death in the Q’eros.”
Death in the Q’eros
In the village I visited in Peru, the chief’s wife was pregnant, and the night I arrived, just before settling into the hut I was sheltered in along with ten villagers, his wife went into labor. I asked if she needed my help, telling him I was an OB/GYN. He said no, that the women of the Q’eros just went to their huts and delivered on their own. Not wanting to impose my Western ways on their peaceful way of life, I trusted all was well.
The next morning, I asked the chief how his wife was. How was the baby? Boy or girl? He said, “Baby died.” I started to cry, but he waved off my tears. “Pachamama gives. Pachamama takes back.” Pachamama is Mother Earth, their feminine nature deity, who they worship with many ceremonies.
Where was his wife, I asked, wanting to offer my comfort.
“In the alpaca fields,” he said, “tending to the alpacas.”
“Isn’t she sad?” I asked.
He nodded. Yes, of course, he told me, but then he explained that she will be sad with everyone else during their quarterly grief ritual, when everyone grieves together over anything they’ve lost over the past few months.
I was shocked by this cultural relationship to death, so vastly different from the way my people experience and view death. Curious what else was different, I asked what happened when someone got very ill and might die. I was told they call the paqo, the shaman or spiritual leader of the tribe. The paqo attends the sick person in order to help them die well, to help the sick person go home. “Then we are happy our loved one got to go home.” They are also sad, he said, but only sad for themselves. “Pachamama gives. Pachamama takes back.”
This was inconceivable to me. In my experience in US hospitals, if a woman lost a baby, she was wrecked for life. She would grieve for years, maybe start a blog about it, maybe write a book about it, maybe join a support group for other moms who have lost babies. She might also sue her doctor, because surely, every life can be saved by modern medicine, and if a baby died, some doctor must have [messed] up.
The loss of her baby would become a defining event in the life of an American woman who feels she is entitled to a “healthy mom, healthy baby” outcome to childbirth, something most women worldwide are not entitled to. When an American woman loses her baby, our hearts go out to her and we cradle her in her despair, rallying around her, maybe having a fundraiser to help support her because she might not be able to go back to work due to her understandable distress. People would bring casseroles, as they would to a wake. She would definitely not be back in the alpaca fields the next day, nor would she have a communal grief ritual to help her process her pain. She’d be more likely to hold her grief inside and never have it witnessed.
I’m not intending to diminish the distress an American woman might have if she lost a child. If I lost my daughter, I’m sure I’d be one of those women who is wrecked by grief in a way that would define the rest of my life. It’s part of my inculturation, to cherish the preciousness of every life, especially a child’s life, and to feel entitled to out-live my child. Such is our cultural expectation, and I’m not intending to judge anyone who responds this way. I’m only pointing out that this is a particularly privileged, modern interpretation of death and not the only one currently active in the world.
I’m not intending to suggest that American women who lose a child shouldn’t respond with such intense suffering. I also don’t mean to suggest that we should bully someone who loses a loved one into “bucking up.” Nor do I intend to suggest that Q’eros women don’t also deserve grieving time and caretaking. I certainly needed a lot of coddling when my mother died two years ago, and if my daughter were to die—of this virus or anything else—I would be wrecked and might never fully recover. I’m just pointing out the differences in how cultures respond to death, inviting us to have compassion for every human, not just the privileged and underprivileged who will suffer from of this virus, either through death or from economic instability, hunger, domestic violence, child abuse, suicide, overdose, or some other unexpected cause of death we may not anticipate. All death deserves our sensitivity and compassion.
On this Good Friday, as we pause to remember the death of Jesus, we hear the words of the dying Jesus as written in the Gospel of Luke where before he breathed his last he called out in a loud voice: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”
Father, into your hands, I commend my spirit. For Luke, Jesus’ last words were a surrendering of himself into death and beyond that, into the hands of the Eternal Father.
I wonder if within those words, we hear an invitation, of how we as followers of Jesus might contemplate our own deaths… that at the moment when each of us will die, the invitation will be for us also to commend our spirits into the hands of the Father, the Great Spirit from whose life we have come.
The truth is that at the time of our death, there will be little else that any of us will be capable of doing. The only thing that we will be able to do is to surrender into the Great Mystery of Life and Love from which we have come, in whose presence we have lived every moment of our lives, and to whom we will all return.
But if that might be the only prayer left for each of us to pray when it comes time for us to depart from this life and this world, it is also true that in many ways, it is also a prayer by which we can live each day. For each and every day we live could indeed be our last. Such is the fragility of life.
If each and every day we begin and end our day with the last prayer of Jesus, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit”, not only will it be a reminder to live our lives in gratitude for each day we have here with our loved one’s, but it will also be a preparing of our hearts and minds for that day when we will all have to leave them behind and return to the Loving Source from which we have come.
On this Good Friday, as we remember the passion and death of Jesus our Master and Lord, so we pause to remember those close to us who have died. Father into your hands we commend them. We also remember especially at this time those who have died from the coronavirus. Father, into your hands we commend them. And then we hold ourselves and our loved one’s into the infinite love and compassion of God: Father, into Your hands, we commend our loved one’s and ourselves. Help us to know, whether in this life or the next, we belong to you and are held in your love.