Monday, March 21, 2005

The Seven Last Words

The following is an exercise I undertook in preparation for Holy Week. I hope readers find it helpful.

The Last Seven Words

Books mentioned in this article:

Cross-Shattered Christ: Meditations on the Seven Last Words, by Stanley Hauerwas. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2004. Pp. 108. $14.99 (hardcover)
The Seven Last Words from the Cross, by Fleming Rutledge. Grand Rapids: Eerdmanns, 2005. Pp. 81. $12.00 (paper)
Mysterium Paschale, Hans Urs von Balthasar. Ignatius Press, 2000. Pp. 297. $16.96 (paper)

There are books on almost every topic under the Christian sun, but certain topics, likely because of their gravity, are less frequently written about than others. For a few years now, I have gone back each Lenten season to re-read selections from von Balthasar’s Mysterium Paschale, one of the few works which explicitly reflects theologically on Holy Saturday; it is certainly the best. I study von Balthasar, and think through this darkest, loneliest day of the Christian year with him, because that study strengthens me, girds up my loins for the preaching of a word that must and can be spoken even on this quietist of days.
So I rejoiced to discover that books have arrived recently by two extraordinary preachers and theologians on another holy day of the Christian year- Good Friday. Stanley Hauerwas preached his meditations at Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue at the invitation of Reverend Andrew Mead in 2003. Fleming Rutledge delivered his meditations two consecutive years, first at Trinity Episcopalian in Columbus, Georgia in 2002, and then at Trinity Episcopalian in Copley Square, Boston, 2003. Each of them was invited to participate in a tradition that has found traction especially in Episcopalian congregations, but also in liturgical churches around the world, the Good Friday Three Hours (Tre Ore). This “main” service on Good Friday takes place between midday and three, 3 p.m. being the traditional hour of Christ’s death. In many churches this service takes the form of a meditation based on the seven last words of Jesus on the cross, with hymns, prayers, and short sermons. These two short books are thus collected examples of these meditation series.
Within the historical liturgy of the church, worship on Good Friday has never settled on one particular form. East and west agree that it is a fast day, so Eucharist is not celebrated on this day. Instead, the Triduum, the three days, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Vigil, make up one extended service, of which Good Friday is the middle member. The Roman Catholic rite, celebrated in many Protestant churches as well, includes readings from Scripture and a reading of the Passion account from St. John, which is often read dramatically. A crucifix is presented, with the people given an opportunity to venerate it. The service also includes a long series of formal intercessions known as the Bidding Prayer.
Thankfully, this last prayer has since Vatican II been revised to remove its more anti-Semitic elements. The historic prayer includes three bids, the first for all heretics and schismatics, the third for all pagans, and the second for the “perfidious Jews” (Oremus et pro perfidis Jud├Žis). It now reads, “Let us pray for the Jewish people, the first to hear the word of God, that they may continue to grow in the love of his name and in faithfulness to his covenant. (Silent prayer) Almighty and eternal God, long ago you gave your promise to Abraham and his posterity. Listen to your Church as we pray that the people you first made your own may arrive at the fullness of redemption. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.” If improvements can be made on the historic liturgy, this certainly seems one example.
In addition to these two venerable liturgies, many churches also celebrate an evening Tenebrae service, including the gradual dimming of lights and extinguishing of candles, the removal of the Christ candle from the sanctuary, and a concluding Strepitus or loud noise symbolizing the earthquake and agony of creation at the death of Christ.
So let it not be said that we have no options on Good Friday. There may be only one way and one path for Christ, to the cross, then to hell, then resurrection and ascension. But for the rest of us, we have many ways to observe divine services on this “good” day.
And now we have two new companions for the journey. Fleming the itinerant and Hauerwas the intrepid both bring something of themselves to this task. Fleming preaches powerfully; Hauerwas teaches truthfully. What follows are a few paragraphs on each of the “last words”, playing Fleming and Hauerwas as a duet.

“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”

Fleming in her first meditation emphasizes the shame dimensions of crucifixion. Crucifixion, a gruesome form of punishment, was made even more horrific by its public and de-humanizing nature. Although we may be “used to” the cross, incorporating it in our art and jewelry, venerating and even kissing it on holy days, contemporaries of Christ were used to it in a different sense. It was a not uncommon form of execution performed publicly for all to see. So Lamentations 1:12: “Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?” Where we blithely use the cross in art and literature without reflecting on its obsceneness, those who regularly witnessed crucifixion were inured to it. It is our and their inhuman hearts that are callous, responsible for the crucifixion of Christ, and so Fleming in his first meditation personalizes Christ’s first word from the cross- it is our shame, we the enemies of God, for which Christ prays, “Father, forgive them.” By my fault, by my own fault, by my own most grievous fault.
Hauerwas, being Hauerwas, takes a completely different tack. He says: “We think it is really very simple: Jesus had to die because we needed and need to be forgiven. But ironically, such a focus shifts attention from Jesus to us. This is a fatal turn, I fear, because as soon as we begin to think this is all about us, about our need for forgiveness, bathos drapes the cross, hiding from us the reality that here we first and foremost see God” (27-28). Hauerwas worries that we will turn this first word into an opportunity to reflect on the human condition, rather than see it for what is truly is, the interior life of the Trinity on full display, naked on the cross, revealed to the eye and ear in faith. In Fleming’s meditation, the Son reaches out from a distance and extends forgiveness; for Hauerwas, this word draws us into the life of God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, so that we might ourselves be made “for the world the forgiveness made ours through the cross of Christ” (33). Fleming here reads declaration; Hauerwas sees participation.

“Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise”

Hauerwas believes this second word continues to frustrate our attempts to drape the cross in bathos. It leaves too much silent and unsaid, too many questions unanswered. Why one criminal and not the other? Why a savior on a cross? The gospels are reticent and spare, and this on purpose in order to draw us into, “make us participants in, the silence of redemption wrought by the cross” (39). We fear silence, because we fear we may be forgotten. Like the thief, we wish to be remembered. But in order to be remembered, we must be re-membered, made members of the body of Christ through baptism, what Hauerwas calls God’s “enfleshed memory.” Since it is God who accomplishes this, we need not know and remember all. We needn’t know the whole story, because Jesus remembers it all already.
Fleming focuses not on memory but on malefaction. The two thieves are the dregs, “bad elements”, transgessors, and Jesus is nailed up between them. We are to see ourselves in those two thieves, and so, in a way different from but commensurate with Hauerwas, we are re-membered in Fleming’s telling as well. Invoking the Old Testament’s distinct meaning of memory, Fleming reminds us that God does not simply call to mind, but actually acts for and saves us. Fleming continues his personal appeal, asking us if we can see ourselves in one of the thieves. Fleming’s turn towards the personal may not surprise when we read the hymns he is working from and between. Paul Gerhardt’s “O Sacred Head, Sore Wounded,” and Elizabeth Clephane’s “Beneath the Cross of Jesus,” two hymns that represent the shift in Christian hymnody towards the personal, poetic use of “me” and “I”.

“Woman, behold thy son!…Behold thy mother!”

It is not insignificant that where Fleming concludes his meditations with quotations from hymnody, Hauerwas selects wood block prints to begin each of his. Art and icon delineate a subtly different piety than hymn and song. Rick Beerhorst’s work, in black and white, is art that avoids any descent into the sentimental, romantic, or slick. His print of the woman and son illustrates the third word without manipulating us. We come away with no illusions that Christ is pro-family in the way so much of American Christian rhetoric argues it is. Christ is not “looking out for his mom.” Instead, He addresses her as the woman she is in faith, the firstborn of the new creation, the New Abraham, the New Eve. The beloved disciple is not to treat Mary as Jesus’ mother, but rather as “his own” mother. She is the one who, unlike Abraham, who’s son was spared, witnesses the death of her Son, and just so becomes the mother of a great nation, the church, and the firstborn member of that family.
Fleming joins Hauerwas in challenging the traditional interpretation of this third word, a tradition that reaches as far back as Augustine, that goes, a) Jesus cared for his mother, b) he is concerned about her future, c) he therefore wants to do something to ensure her future security, and d) we are called to do the same for our mothers. Instead, Fleming insists that these words are leading us into an understanding of how the church, beginning with Mary and her relationship to the Beloved Disciple, “represent[s] the way that family ties are transcended in the church by the ties of the Spirit” (32). Fleming therefore includes a verse from Samuel Stone’s “The Church’s One Foundation”, which in rich poetry proclaims a new creation by water and the Word, and a church that is now the new holy Bride of Jesus Christ. A radical new family indeed. In this word we are called to “focus” on this new family.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Fleming and Hauerwas agree. Although this is the fourth word, it should have been first (says von Balthasar), and is the one to have if you’re only having one. In spite of this pre-eminence, it is the saying that makes us tremble. It “asks too much of us,” says Hauerwas (26). It is the one saying from which Bach withdraws his halo of strings in the Matthaus Passion. It is also the most difficult saying to find words for. Fleming, for example, comments on and draws stories from the U.S. government’s current military engagements to fill the space the halos left (our current militarism runs as a sub-text through both of these meditations). These he mentions to remind us that there is a thing like Sin still active in our lives and the world, even if this word sin is more and more frequently excised from our liturgies and public language of faith. Somehow this sin, and the curse of God (or wrath of God), is responsible for Christ’s derelict cry from the cross, for “he who knew no sin” “was made sin.” Fleming sneaks in “his human nature absorbed the curse of the Law” (45), so that the cry of dereliction is largely about Christ’s identification with us in and under the power of Sin through some form of exchange.
Hauerwas has little time for this facile move towards traditional theories of Atonement. Hauerwas floats a significant “maybe”: “Maybe God does understand our suffering. Maybe God even suffers with us, which some seem to think comforting given the fact it is very clear God is incapable of doing anything about our suffering” (60). Here Hauerwas’s razor-sharp wit emerges in spite of himself. We might as well be ironic if Christ is truly godforsaken. But no, for Hauerwas, Christ’s cry of Eloi, Eloi Lama Sabachthani does not prove a theory of Atonement, but is rather an expression of the outworking of the mystery called Trinity. Contra Fleming, Hauerwas believes there is not a god whose wrath must be satisfied that we might be saved. God “refuses to let our sin determine our relation to him” (65).
“I thirst”

This fifth word is an enigma, not because it is difficult, but more because it seems so simple. Such a sudden shift from existential prayer to subjective need. Nevertheless, water and thirst find place in John’s Gospel at two significant points. Jesus declares to the Samaritan woman at the well that he will give water that will gush up to eternal life (John 4). In the seventh chapter of John, this same image appears, now as rivers of living water flowing from the believer’s heart. Hauerwas reads this language as grounded in desire, drinking of the Lord for which we desire, giving living water to others who thirst for God’s kingdom.
Fleming riffs better on this word than Hauerwas. Like Hauerwas, he sees from an historical critical perspective how the words of the Psalms shape the gospel-writers memory of the events surrounding the cross. This puts a new and helpful spin on Scripture and its fulfillment in Christ. For Fleming, Christ is about his work, the work he has spoken of throughout God’s gospel, but this work is now accomplished dry-mouthed. The One who saves by way of water thirsts. The end is near.

“It is finished”

Consummatum est. The Latin serves better than the English equivalent, because this is not an end, but something completed and perfected. Fleming knows that we have trouble believing that everything is accomplished at this point. There must be something more to do. Fleming continues to paint Christ’s death as a once-for-all sacrifice, one that accomplishes forgiveness for those deeds we believe unforgivable.
Hauerwas agrees that the “it is finished” is a cry of victory rather than defeat. The work or task Christ set for him self is completed. This is not to say that the resurrection is ancillary to or additional to the total work of Christ on the cross (though this has been much debated). Jesus will be resurrected, but the resurrected is still the crucified. On Good Friday, at this sixth word, Hauerwas rightly stays with the crucifixion, just as Jesus remains the crucified, the one whom Pascal remarked would be “in agony until the end of the world.”
But Hauerwas reminds us that this agony is the agony of birth pains, for on the day of crucifixion, Christ was crucified, conceived, and the world was made. Or, in Hauerwas’s paraphrase of Nicholas Lash, on the day of crucifixion “God brings all things alive, creating ex nihilo, making a home in our sin-scarred world. Like the sixth day of creation, everything has been made, it is very good, and “it is finished” (85).
So Christ’s death is not capitulation, giving in, but rather re-capitulation, new creation. Richard Neuhaus gets it just right in another reflection on the seven words. “’It is finished.’ But it is not over.” There is still the seventh day of creation, the day of God’s kingdom, the day of the church’s everlasting rest and peace. The seventh day commences at these words, “It is finished.”

“Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit”

The wood block for the seventh word in Cross-Shattered Christ depicts two hands extended from the top of the painting down to receive a flower emerging from the fertile head of Jesus crowned with thorns. O blessed Trinity! Nevertheless, as comforting as this icon of the Trinity may be, it is not meant to hide from us the reality that Jesus truly dies and descends to hell. With Jesus dead, there is a day we must face, Holy Saturday, the day when the Son, without whom no on can see the Father, is inaccessible.
Even at this moment when the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit seem most involved in a conversation that does not involve us, we remember that these words are not original to Jesus, but are instead from the psalms, specifically Psalm 31. The Psalms were foundation for Israel’s prayer, are quoted often by Christ in his prayers, and are the prayers prayed almost constantly by Christian communities throughout the world yet today. Unfortunately, as perichoretic as this last act of Jesus is, Fleming, though keeping the language of participation, makes Christ’s last act a model of our own personal prayer of conversion. “Even as you read, you can give yourself up in this hour to the prayer of our Redeemer and commit yourself to our Father through him” (79).
If Christ’s last words are a model for Christian prayer, then Hauerwas comes closer to praying it right. They are prayed on our way to death, or in commendation of those who have died. They are words less of commitment than of comfort. Christ has done something here that makes possible, not as an act of will, but by way of baptism, our participation in his life and death. Even Hauerwas has trouble not tipping over into language of enablement. But mostly, he speaks of “being made part of,” we only now “begin to understand what we pray and sing when we pray and sing the Psalms” (100). Jesus has become the Father’s Psalm for the world, and we, in our prayer, though Hauerwas does not say it, become Christ’s Psalm for the world, singing “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.”


  1. Clint - thank you for your reflections - they must have taken quite some time in a week where there is very little. I especially appreciated the one on the seventh word, since I must preach on that (and words one, three, and five) on Friday.

    Blessed Triduum to you and your congregations.


  2. Clint,

    I am working through your piece as I read Rutledge. (Just a side note: Fleming is a woman, not a man.) I welcome your juxtaposing these two works. (I don't have the Hauerwas book: I thought it was on order, but I have learned that there was some misunderstanding. So I must limit myself to Rutledge -- and Urs von Balthasar, who is not the easiest read in the world.) And I especially welcome your "take" on Rutledge. I find that she leaves me sort of hanging -- I don't follow her to a new point or perspective.

    I'm not sure why that is. But maybe you'll help me to work it out.

    Thank you for this effort.

    You've made me reflect on the old Tre Ore, words-from-the-cross offices that I knew when I was young. Now there seems to be nothing similar. In our parish, Good Friday is not a preaching office, and friends say that "no one would come to a community or ecumenical three-hour thing." I'd like to test that notion: When I preached them in the good old days, people didn't have to come, nor did they feel compelled to stay, for the whole three hours. The important thing is that the service occurred.

    But I'm going off on another tangent.

    A Blessed Pasch to you, Brother Clint.


  3. Thanks to you both, and a blessed Easter to all!

  4. Personally, I feel that Christians have long been dodging, "Why have you forsaken me?" If we had the courage to face those words rather than apologize for them, I think our understanding of the gospel message would deepen, as I've intimated on my, "Facing God-Forsakenness on the Cross" post.

    Facing God-Forsakenness on the Cross

  5. Anonymous11:02 PM

    thanks a lot!!!