The National Catholic Review
Carol Zaleski
Sitio. I thirst (John 19:28). This is the shortest of Jesus’ sayings from the cross, but it says everything. Dehydration from sweating, bleeding, shock, asphyxia and acidosis produced a thirst beyond all telling. To contemplate that thirst is to go to the heart of the paschal mystery, the culmination of humanity’s long search for living water. My soul thirsts for God, the living God (Ps 42:2). Biblical history is a chronicle of thirst. The patriarchs were nomadic well-diggers. In the desert and later in the promised land, thirst brought the Israelites time and again to the edge of mutiny, time and again to a desperate hope: Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our cattle with thirst? (Exod 17:3). Shall I now die of thirst, and fall into the hands of the uncircumcised? (Judg 15:18). The prophets saw God’s hand in drought as in pestilence and read signs of his mercy in every deliverance from thirst. The thirst of the psalmist is a longing to be admitted to God’s presence; the thirst of the sages is a longing for understanding and truth; the thirst of Dives, the rich man of Luke’s parable, is a longing for respite from hell. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and thirst is the beginning of fear of the Lord.

The King David legends include a curious anecdote about David’s thirst recounted in the noncanonical Fourth Book of Maccabees (3:17-18). During his campaign against the Philistines, David conceived an irrational desire to quench his thirst from the enemy’s springs. Two brave soldiers, risking their lives on the errand, sneaked into the enemy camp and stole water for their king; but upon their return David repented of his folly and poured out the water as an offering, thus demonstrating that the temperate mind can conquer the drives of the emotions and quench the flames of frenzied desires; it can overthrow bodily agonies even when they are extreme, and by nobility of reason spurn all domination by the emotions. Here is an ideal picture of sovereign reason conquering the thirsts of the flesh.

Christ, on the other hand, did not conquer his thirst but submitted to it, recapitulating Psalm 22 (My God my God, why have you abandoned me?... As dry as a potsherd is my throat, my tongue sticks to my palate; you lay me in the dust of death) and Psalm 69 (for my thirst they gave me vinegar), and taking upon himself the thirst of Ishmael, Abraham’s beloved and rejected son, and the thirst of Dives the damned.

What does it mean for the God-man to thirst? It is easy to imagine Jesus’ thirst being all on the human side. It is easy to imagine Christ’s parched flesh tearing away from his divine nature, like an over-dried goatskin separating from the head of a drum. Yet if our thirst is to be quenched through his, we need the whole Christ, God and man, to be thirsty for us and on our behalf. Human thirst has built-in limits; one can always pass out or die. Divine-human thirst, however, is an infinite privation and gift. He was thirsty so that we could drink. He was dried out so that we could be immersed in his life. The water of baptism and the wine-blood flowed from his side, hydrating a desiccated world. He was carrying the old Adam back to the original ocean of being, to wash him, revive him and breathe life back into his dry limbs. It is thirsty work, pouring life into the dead.

Christ’s last word is our first word, expressing the primal human need. A child is born crying and thirsty, and from this first word comes the first relationship, the first prayer, the first proof that we are not self-sustaining beings. Our lungs breathe without requiring special action or assistance, but thirst requires action to be taken: the well dug, the bucket drawn up, the drink begged and granted. Thirst is our first social need. How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?

I thirst, was Christ’s message to Mother Teresa, called to quench his thirst by tending Christ in the poorest of the poor; and to her namesake St. Thérèse, a martyr for love. Both Teresas were united to Christ’s thirst by a profound spiritual desolation, an experience reserved for heroic saints.

You and I are neither masters of our thirst nor heroic saints. Yet unless we thirst after the measure allotted to us, we cannot feel the force of the great promise: They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat (Rev 7:16); and unless Christ thirsts for us, we cannot be certain of that last, best drink.

Carol Zaleski is a professor of religion at Smith College and co-author of Prayer: A History.

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