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Sour Wine, Hyssop, and Jesus’ Crucifixion
by Meghan Sullivan

After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), “I am thirsty.” 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. When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” – John 19:28 – 30 (NRSV)

Every spring, Christians around the world hear the familiar passage of Jesus’crucifixion, death, and resurrection. These events are observed in a fitting time of year – the cold, cloudy days of winter have given way to the warm, sunny days of spring. Bushes and trees that seemed dead have sprung to life, sprouting, budding, and blooming. When Easter comes, we can wholeheartedly participate in the joy of Jesus’ resurrection because we are also participating in the resurrection of nature all around us.

Before we celebrate resurrection, though, we must experience Jesus’ death on the cross. We must speak the words of Jesus, “I thirst.”

The brief scene in which Jesus announces His thirst from the cross is rich in biblical references.

Jesus’ cry, “I am thirsty,” is an allusion to Psalm 69:21. Psalm 69, often linked to Jesus’ suffering, is a prayer for deliverance from one’s enemies. Verse 21 reads, “They gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink” (NRSV). After Jesus voices his thirst, a sponge full of sour wine, or vinegar, is raised on a hyssop branch and held towards His lips.

The hyssop branch is also biblically significant. In the Old Testament, hyssop is sprinkled over the blood of sacrificed animals, which sinners offer to God in exchange for forgiveness. Leviticus 14:6-7 provides an example of this ritual. In this passage, God gives Moses instructions for cleansing a leper; in biblical times, lepers were thought to be unclean and impure. God tells Moses to sacrifice a bird. The blood of the bird and hyssop are then sprinkled over the leper.

After this sprinkling, the leper is pronounced clean. Psalm 51 also illustrates the cleansing quality of hyssop: “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean, wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow” (Psalm 51:7). St. Augustine drew a connection between Psalm 51 and the hyssop-wrapped sponge that is given to Jesus as He hangs on the cross. According to St. Augustine, Jesus Himself is hyssop, cleansing us from our sins through His death on the cross.1 It is significant that wine (viewed as the Blood of Christ by many) and hyssop are involved in Jesus’ death; Jesus’ sacrificial suffering and death on the cross cleanses us from our sins, just as hyssop and the blood of animals in ancient Judaism cleansed sinners.

Another biblical passage, John 18:11, is also referenced in the Beloved Disciple’s narration of Jesus’ crucifixion.2 This verse describes Jesus’ words to Peter,

after he has cut off the ear of the high priest’s slave: “Put your sword back into its sheath. Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?” Jesus’ consumption of the sour wine on the cross represents His drinking of His Father’s mission. This interpretation is further validated by Jesus’ next words, “It is finished” (John 19:30). These words, Jesus’ last, demonstrate that Jesus has finished the mission that the Father sent Him to accomplish.

When I visited Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta, India, last June, I noticed the words“I thirst”inscribed beside a crucifix. Every home of the Missionaries of Charity contains a crucifix with these words. For Mother Teresa, Jesus’ cry of thirst on the cross was not only a cry of physical suffering but was a cry for souls, a cry for love. Mother Teresa understood how to say, “I thirst” with Jesus, and she understood that suffering is necessary to experience joy. “Lent,” she wrote, “is a time of preparation for Easter. But Easter comes only after the pain, suffering and death of Holy Thursday and Good Friday. That is exactly like our life. We look forward to rising with Jesus, but each one of us must go through pain, sorrow, suffering, sickness and death. Because of the promise of the Resurrection, we do not have to be afraid. We can accept all suffering as a gift of God. We may shed a few tears, but inside we will be at peace, and have a deep sense of joy.” 3

1Rettig, John W., trans. St. Augustine: Tractates on the Gospel of John 112-24; Tractates on the First Epistle of John, The Fathers of the Church, vol. 5. ( Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1995), 48.
2See Raymond E. Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, and Roland E. Murphy, eds. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1990).
3Mother Teresa, My Dear Children: Mother Teresa’s Last Message. (New York: Paulist Press, 2001), 49.

 


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