The Seven Last Words of Christ

Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do

The Seven Last Words of Christ, or more literally, the seven last phrases of Christ, are believed to have been uttered by Jesus while on the cross. They are words that have inspired artists of all kinds since the 17th century – poets, painters and more than two dozen composers.  Not to mention books and sermons and a variety of discourses.

“Verily I say unto thee, this day shalt thou be with me in paradise”

Beginning as a response to earthquakes in Peru in 1687, a Jesuit priest introduced a Good Friday service based on these seven phrases, pulled from the four Gospels. As it became more popular, the service of seven last words often merged with a Three Hours service, in use since the 4th century, marking the time from noon till 3:00 on Good Friday when Jesus hung on the cross.  Eventually the tradition of a service on the seven last words migrated from Peru to Spain.

Woman, behold thy Son.  Son, behold thy mother

In 1785, the most popular composer of the day, Franz Joseph Haydn, was commissioned for a musical setting of The Seven Last Words for the Cathedral in Cadiz, Spain. He wrote an orchestral work of nine movements that would serve as an introduction and conclusion, together with meditative movements between sermons on each of the phrases. He later transcribed his orchestral piece for string quartet, and others created choral and even piano arrangements of Haydn’s work.

Eli, Eli, lama sabacthani?

It is the string quartet version, together with brief introductory chorales, that will be part of the Three Hours service at St. Alban’s tomorrow, Good Friday. This is not the Haydn of The Creation or his 100+ symphonies, but Haydn at his most intimate and prayerful. It is not music that seeks to do any “text-painting”, but an attempt to create an emotional correlation, unrelated to actual text, between the words of a dying Christ and the abstract notes of instrumental music.

I thirst.     It is finished

Since its creation, however, performers have seen the need for words to expand on the music. Sometimes accompanied by poetry of John Donne, George Herbert and others, sometimes by readings taken from theologians. Those who are able to be at St. Alban’s this Friday at 2:00 (the third hour of our Three Hours service), might want to meditate on the seven last words of Jesus, listening to the music alone, or while contemplating the poetry of Canadian-American poet Mark Strand, whose seven poems on these “words” stem from his doubts and the inspiration he found in the Gospel of Thomas. Seven Last Words – poems

Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit

This represents a unique opportunity at St. Alban’s to watch and pray with Jesus and I hope you are able to share in this time of contemplation on suffering and redemption tomorrow afternoon.



This entry was posted in Sonya Subbayya Sutton and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Seven Last Words of Christ

  1. Christian says:

    Wow… Sonya — what a wonderful explanation of the history of the Seven Last Words.

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