I’ve always been a language person. Some people, like my husband, are more visual. But I’m a word girl. In junior high school, I actually enjoyed diagramming sentences. I loved learning the French language in high school and ended up majoring in French and English in college. Practical, right? Not exactly what my dad was hoping for, but…
Recently, I decided I wanted to brush up on my French language skills and came across a website offering grammar lessons and news and dialogues in French. One of the dialogues was about the dying words of famous people. I found some of the quotes amusing, and others a striking expression of deep-seated sentiments about ourselves, our life and death.
Leonardo da Vinci: “I have offended God and mankind because my work did not reach the quality it should have.”
Composer Hector Berlioz: “Ah! How talented I’ll be tomorrow! Finally people will listen to my music!”
Marie Antoinette: “Pardon me, sir, I did not mean to do it.”
Pablo Picasso: “Drink to me, drink to my health. You know I can’t drink anymore.”
It’s hard to imagine how Leonardo da Vinci, one of history’s most accomplished geniuses—inventor, artist, architect—could feel inadequate. Yet apparently even he felt as though he had fallen short and his work didn’t measure up to the level of perfection. For me, his words speak the truth that none of us achieves a perfect plumb line in honoring God or in loving others.
Unlike da Vinci, composer and conductor Hector Berlioz had confidence in his work. But during his lifetime he was unpopular and misunderstood. His final words were prophetic, because—as is often the case—years after his death his work did finally become popular and appreciated.
Spoken to her executioner after accidentally stepping on his foot, Marie Antoinette’s last words are amusing on one level. But they’re also profound, considering they were spoken by someone who was about to lose her head because she was blamed for the events leading to the French Revolution. “I didn’t mean to do it,” she said. The words of Eve come to mind….
Before his death, Picasso and his wife had been entertaining friends at a dinner party. He was 91 years old.
I’ve been thinking about how the dying words of these well-known people express our own feelings of inadequacy and regret; feelings of being ignored, unappreciated, unseen, or misunderstood; feelings of guilt or denial, of not wanting to accept blame or responsibility; or feelings of sadness at the end of life, the end of merriment, of no longer being able to participate in or enjoy life and the love and fellowship of friends.
I wonder, what will be the circumstances of my death? What will be my dying words? But these thoughts are overshadowed by the remembrance of the dying words of my Savior. Some of Jesus’ words from the Cross seem to speak directly to those sentiments expressed by others’ “famous last words”:
For Marie Antoinette: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Jesus was pierced for our transgressions. He was crushed for our iniquities.
For Berlioz: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” On the Cross, Jesus was forsaken, cut off and separated from God, so that we never will be. Because he was forsaken on our behalf, we are not forsaken—we know that we are seen, heard, known, understood, and loved by God.
For Picasso: “Today you will be with me in paradise.” The end of our mortal health is not the end. Jesus has gone to prepare a feast for us.
For da Vinci: “It is finished.” Jesus accomplished what we cannot. He lived the perfect life on our behalf. He loved God with all his heart and soul and mind and strength and loved others to the point of laying down his life for them. He is our perfect righteousness. The perfect lamb of God died once, for all—a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice for the imperfections of the whole world. It is finished.
The famous last words of famous people may be interesting, amusing, sad, ironic, or thought-provoking. But, thanks be to God, all of their words—and ours—are trumped by the words of the Word, Jesus Christ.
And, of course, Jesus’ dying words were not his last words. This living Word has defeated death and promises us eternal life. The writer of Hebrews says that Jesus came the first time to bear the sins of many and will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him. The last words of Jesus in Revelation are, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!
— Mary Berkeley Pritchard