Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit.
WITHIN THE JEWISH TRADITION the last prayer one says before dying is called the Shema (or Sh’ma) :
שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל יי אֱלֹהֵינוּ יי אֶחָֽד
Hear, Israel, the Lord our God: the Lord is one.
The recitation of this line of scripture, along with some other passages of scripture form the keystone in both the morning and evening prayer services of the Synagogue liturgy. Additionally, it is traditional to recite it just as one is going to bed and, as noted, as the last breath before death.
Before one says the Shema, one says a prayer called the Vidui. It’s a confession of sin and an acknowledgment that, before God, one is entirely without merit. It’s a prayer for mercy and grace in death. Although many of the modern versions include the verse “into thy hands…” it was not always so. In the 16th Century, the “Code of Jewish Law” (Shulchan Aruch) does not have this in the “official” Vidui. And, even in the modern versions that include that verse, it’s in the middle of the prayer – not at the end. And, again, the final thing said is the Shema.
All of that by way of saying that I find Our Lord’s choice of final words to be interesting in that it’s not the Shema. It’s something else.
As I mentioned in the last post in this series, we are meant to rest in the bosom of the Son as the Son rests in the Father. We are all called to this intimacy. The theological description of the Son resting in the Father and of the Holy Spirit proceeding is Perichoresis (from two Greek words meaning “around” and “to go, or come”) or Circumincession (from Latin). It’s often rendered as interpenetration. (Pardon me for ranting a bit: There is a modern etymology that incorrectly links the Greek root words with the word for dancing. This, however, is not valid and is more akin to the father in My Big Fat Greek Wedding finding Greek roots for english words or other such bad scholarship such as is found in certain branches of religious studies. End of Rant.) ANYWAY… Perichoresis. When Jesus prays that Christians should be one even as he and the Father are one (John 17:22), this is part of what he means. When he prays that we should be in him (and him in us) as he is in the Father (John 17:23) it’s also talking about perchoresis or circumincession. We move together, we move through and with each other and – my ranting aside – it is rather like dancing when you think about it.
This is what he means when he hands over his Spirit to the Father – this unity, this circumincession. And that brings us back to the beginning.
In saying “Father into thy hands…” instead of merely reciting the Shema, he did it.