In our Gospel today, rulers sneer and soldiers jeer at Jesus on the cross. They mock him, “Save yourself – if you are the chosen one, if you are the King of the Jews!” Right after reporting this, in what can be considered a brilliantly placed editorial comment, Luke highlights the detail of the inscription above Jesus: “This is the King of the Jews.”
A criminal crucified with Jesus taunts him, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself!” The irony is that if Jesus were to save himself, instead of confirming him as the Messiah, this would actually cast doubts on his identity. After all, as Jesus said, the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45). Jesus did not come to save himself but to save others.
Finis coronat opus – literally, the end crowns the work. This proverb has been understood as: “The goal gives the endeavor its value.” But this can degenerate to: “The end justifies the means.” I think a better way of interpreting finis coronat opusis to see it as an exhortation: “How you end should honor all your striving; your ending must illumine all your effort preceding.” One can sputter to a stop and just collapse, or one can finish in a way that gathers what has gone before and then brings everything to an even higher level.
The end should crown the work. Is it not fitting that on this feast when we crown Christ as King, the Gospel proclaims his death which validates not only who he was but how he lived?
One verse before our Gospel today, Jesus prays for his tormenters: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Throughout his earthly ministry, Christ preached about forgiveness, sharing with us the parables of the lost sheep that is found and the prodigal son who is embraced by his father again. Before bidding a paralytic to stand, our Lord first helped him rise with the words, “Your sins are forgiven.” The crowning glory of his life’s work: Until the very end, he is still forgiving.
At the end of our Gospel today, Jesus turns to the man tradition refers to as the repentant thief and promises him, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” Christ’s mission can be summarized in his message, “The Kingdom of God is at hand.” Our Lord desired to usher in God’s reign and welcome us all into it. The crowning glory of his life’s work: Until the very end, he is still opening the doors to God’s kingdom and helping others enter.
Jesus died as he lived. Finis coronat opus.
Last Thursday, November 21, was the 36th anniversary of the martyrdom of Sisters Mary Consuelo Chuidian, Mary Virginia Gonzaga, Mary Concepcion Conti, and Mary Catherine Loreto, all of the Religious of the Good Shepherd. They died when the MV Doña Cassandra sank off the coast of Northern Mindanao. Survivors of that ill-fated ship still remember the four Sisters distributing life vests, helping children put them on, and pointing passengers to the life rafts. They served others until time ran out for them. They saved others; they did not save themselves.
But it was not only during that tragedy that the four Sisters gave so generously of themselves.
Sr. Chuidian helped document the plight of Davao del Norte farmers herded into hamlets in the early 1980s. The authorities during that time claimed that the evacuation was done to protect the farmers from the NPA. The farmers protested that they were being forced to relocate so that their land could be grabbed by the same authorities. Whichever side you believed, what could not be denied was how much the farmers suffered because of the lack of food, water, sanitation, and housing in the hamlets.
Sr. Gonzaga devoted her life to slum dwellers and migrants, working with both Christians and Muslims. Sr. Conti trained rural health workers to provide basic services to the poor. Sr. Loreto advocated for the rights of detainees and other victims of Martial Law until she was suspected of being an insurgent herself.
The four sisters died as they lived. Finis coronat opus.
How do you want to die? We may not be able to choose the exact circumstances and manner of our deaths, but we can choose how to live. If you live bitter and angry and wrapped up only in your own concerns, you will die bitter and angry and alone. And if you want to die forgiving and forgiven, if you want to die welcoming and welcomed, how then should you live your life?