The Goodness of Thirst

Do you approach your Lenten sacrifice on auto-pilot in the same way that you have done for years? Maybe you need to take a fresh look at this idea of "giving up" for Lent?
by Kathryn M. Cunningham, MAPS | Source:
In the Church’s continuing cycle of life, in the middle of the long grey winter we make ready for one more season of approaching light.  Lent is upon us in a few days and our habituated Catholic minds are moving toward “giving up”. This is not a bad thing, but the habit of many years and deference to a tradition of our faith.  We have been schooled that Lent is a time of sacrifice and to take advantage of emulating Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice we are encouraged to “give up” for Lent.  After many years of this practice I think that we sometimes fall into habit and really miss a golden opportunity for refreshing our faith in a real way. “Giving up” should really be about creating a situation where we have the genuine experience of longing in our body as well as our spirit.  Willingly creating the situation where we actually have “thirst” is the key to dong that.  The longing, then, can be used to remind us how God longs for us and how we, in turn, should be longing for Him.   Paul Claudel, French poet and diplomat, observes just how potent longing can be: "Such is the miracle of grace; such is [the] amalgam of love and longing (for God) that no stone has the power to resist [it]."

This is quite clear as we observe Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice and recall his final “dialogs” which are spread throughout the Gospels and sometimes referred to as The Seven Last Words.  Sometimes this can be a little confusing because these are really not seven words that Jesus spoke on the cross, but rather, seven different phrases that are recorded across different accounts of the Gospels.  John’s Gospel records one of the most poignant in 19:28: “I Thirst.”  All of the other “words” have deep spiritual and temporal meaning such as “Father forgive them…” or “Behold your mother…”  But of all the seven last words, “I thirst” is perhaps the most incarnate. What human on the face of the planet has not shared the common experience of thirst?  Sometimes thirst is literally a matter of life and death!  Survival experts tell us that one can survive for three weeks without food, but only three days without water.  No physiological process can disorient the brain and body like the simple depravation of water, thirst!  Even in Jesus’ final hour he, once again, models for us that he is fully human and knows our experience not just as an observer!

Is there anything, in the bodily experience, as intense as thirst?  It carries with it an urgency and desire that is unprecedented.  It is a driving force that includes with it an ultimate sense of mortality.  Even hunger dissipates into a kind of numbness after a while, but thirst only intensifies as time passes. So, what are the occasions when a person might experience thirst?  Thirst can come as the result of illness with a raging fever. Thirst happens when a person has done physical exertion “beyond” normal limits.  Thirst manifests when someone is out of the influence of the normal comforts like being in the dessert, living in poverty, or experiencing a natural disaster.  All are intense experiences of what is like to be incarnate.  Even Jesus, pre-crucifixion, highlights the human experience of thirst when he meets the woman at the well or instructs his followers about offering a cup of water to strangers.

So, in his ultimate act of ministry to humanity Jesus shows that, as God’s Son, he is not removed from humanity but intimately familiar with what it is like to be fully human.  But he is, after all, our Savior. In addition to his humanity, what else does Jesus’ thirst teach us? Words and words have been written on what Jesus is thirsting for in these last moments of his life.  In my opinion, that is not nearly as important as the fact that his thirst is recorded as that, thirst.  If it was necessary for us to know what Jesus was thirsting for it would be recorded or referred to in scripture somewhere, but that is not the case. The best we can do to explain His intention is simply a guess.  Who can out guess God? 

Rather, we do well to focus on what is there, that God had thirst and declared it for all to hear.  In Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict teaches that Jesus, by experiencing pain, conquered pain and by dying he conquered death. We can extrapolate then, that by thirsting he conquered thirst. In His sacrifice we see that all of the experiences of devastation which Jesus shared fully with us have been transformed into tools that conquer. This is a dimension that we could never imagine or accomplish on our own.  Jesus, in tandem with the human race, as the incarnate link between the Father and mankind willingly takes on these experiences and turns them all from disaster to victory, a totally different perspective.

Lent is the perfect occasion to recognize, experience and admit your thirst. It is a time when we can be reminded, daily, that thirst is a spiritual tool without peer, a tool that can crack open the flood gates of God’s mercy and enlightenment to us. The bible teaches us that “thirst” is the invitation to the banquet; “All you who are thirsty, who have no money, come, receive grain and eat; Come, without paying and without cost, drink wine and milk!” (Is 55:1)

So what do you thirst for?  Thirst drives the human race and thirst has shaped the world. Our society quickly teaches that thirst is the norm and we “deserve” to do anything in order to slake our thirst, make it go away: buy things, say things, consume things, ignore things, put self first, lie, cheat, steal, be greedy, use others, crave power, seek pleasure above all!  However, in the face of any pleasure or amusement that we obtain, our thirst remains in a way that we can’t really articulate. But if thirst is a fully human experience as affirmed by Jesus in his suffering, we need to look at it in a different way.  Thirst is neither evil nor noble; it is part of the human condition.  So what then is the value of thirst?  It is not something meant to be “cured” or “eliminated”.  We too often mistake a deeply challenging experience for something that we must be rid of.  What if we turned it on its head, like Jesus did?  Accept the thirst as a “guidepost” which is stirring our soul and points us toward something that is not man made or purchasable with money.  Use the thirst as a tool that helps to find out what will quench our personal dessert. Don’t shy away, experience it, pray about it, and listen to where it leads you.  Don’t be afraid to tell God that “you thirst” and don’t know the cause. Jesus did just that.  Could we have a more profound example?  During Lent, welcome all occasions of thirst and let your thirst lead you to victory just like Jesus did.

Copyright © Lent 2010 Kathryn M. Cunningham, all rights reserved.

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