5th Word From the Cross: ‘I Thirst’

The Corporal Works of Mercy

Fray Juan del Santísimo Sacramento (1611–1680), “Calvario con Carmelita”
Fray Juan del Santísimo Sacramento (1611–1680), “Calvario con Carmelita” (photo: Public Domain)

After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), “I thirst.” A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. (John 19:28-29)


Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever.

The fifth word, I thirst, is the only time that Jesus speaks of his physical suffering and pain. It is a reminder that the Passion is not only a spiritual reality, a cosmic happening. It is a bodily act, the crucifixion of a man’s body. He suffers, he falls, he bleeds, he thirsts.

The suffering, sweating, bleeding, thirsty body of Jesus is not an abstraction or a principle; it is a reality. That reality puts us in touch with all of reality. A time of pandemic reminds us that we are bodily creatures, that our bodies can suffer. We are told that one of the symptoms of the coronavirus is a shortness of breath, and crushing pressure upon the chest. Jesus experiences something similar, if more extreme, hanging upon the Cross.

The bodily thirst of Jesus reminds us immediately of the exchange in Matthew 25 (37, 40): “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’”

The judgement of Matthew 25 is the great charter for the corporal works of mercy. There are seven of them (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2447):

  1. To feed the hungry
  2. To give drink to the thirsty
  3. To clothe the naked
  4. To shelter the homeless
  5. To visit the sick
  6. To visit the imprisoned
  7. To bury the dead

One measure of the diabolical character of this coronavirus is that exactly when the corporal works of mercy are most necessary — to visit the sick, to bury the dead — we are unable to do so.

How then we might continue these works of mercy when we are not able to gather with others? The first step in the corporal works of mercy is to meet the suffering and the afflicted, which is difficult, even impossible, to do in these days. We might form a resolution to be more zealous in the corporal works of mercy when the pandemic passes, but what about now?

We can be more generous, if circumstances permit, to send money and resources to those who are continuing the Church’s works of charity and solidarity. We might also apply the advice we find in the Liturgy of the Hours from Saint Gregory Nazianzus. He invites us to use our imagination as a sort of spiritual itinerary for Holy Week. And when celebrating the Passover at home, we need our imagination more than usual. Listen to St. Gregory’s words, in which he points to that day when Jesus — and those united to him — will drink not sour wine but the new wine in the heavenly kingdom.

We are soon going to share in the Passover… Before long, however, when the Word drinks the new wine with us in the kingdom of his Father, we shall be keeping the Passover in a yet more perfect way, and with deeper understanding. He will then reveal to us and make clear what he has so far only partially disclosed. For this wine, so familiar to us now, is eternally new. It is for us to learn what this drinking is, and for him to teach us.

[Office of Readings, Saturday of the Fifth Week of Lent]

That’s looking ahead to the wedding feast of the Lamb in Revelation. But what about this year, celebrating the Passover at home? St. Gregory encourages to imagine ourselves as characters in the Passion, characters who did the corporal works or mercy:

So let us take our part in the Passover …

If you are a Simon of Cyrene, take up your cross and follow Christ. If you are crucified beside him like one of the thieves, now, like the good thief, acknowledge your God… If you are Joseph of Arimathea, go to the one who ordered his crucifixion, and ask for Christ’s body. Make your own the expiation for the sins of the whole world. If you are a Nicodemus, like the man who worshiped God by night, bring spices and prepare Christ’s body for burial. If you are one of the Marys, or Salome, or Joanna, weep in the early morning. Be the first to see the stone rolled back, and even the angels perhaps, and Jesus himself.

Just a few days before Holy Week, our Holy Father Pope Francis commented about the corporal works of mercy in his daily Mass, now being celebrated privately:

These days of pain and sadness underline many hidden problems. In the newspaper today there is a photo which moves the heart: many homeless people from a city lying in a parking lot, under observation... There are many homeless people today. We ask St. Teresa of Calcutta to reawaken in us the sense of closeness to so many people who, in society, in normal life, are hidden but, like the homeless, in a moment of crisis, are pointed out in this way.

Mother Teresa is our great model and patron of the corporal works of mercy. She never separated them from the Cross of Christ, for she and her sisters sought above all to serve Christ, as she often put it, “in the distressing disguise of the poor.”

The convents of the Missionaries of Charity are hardly decorated; poverty is lived there very rigorously. But in every convent, beside the crucifix is written the simple words: “I thirst.”

Once the pandemic is over, we shall rush back to our churches for the sacraments, for our spiritual nourishment in the sacraments. At the same time, we ought to rush back — or perhaps for the first time — to the corporal works of mercy. The suffering are always with us. We are more aware of them now, as Pope Francis reminds us. Everyone speaks about “vulnerable persons.” Vulnerability will still exist after the pandemic. If we notice it now, let us not forget it then.

I thirst

In your house I shall celebrate the Passover

We adore Thee, O Christ, and we praise Thee, because by Thy holy cross Thou hast redeemed the world.