Death on a Friday Afternoon
Quote from "Meditations on the Last Words of Jesus From the Cross" by Richard John Neuhaus, in his book Death on a Friday Afternoon.
"Good Friday is not just one day of the year. It is a day relived in every day of the world, and of our lives in the world. In the Christian view of things, all reality turns around the "paschal mystery" of the death and resurrection of Christ.
As Passover marks the liberation from bondage in Egypt, so the paschal mystery marks humanity's passage from death to life. Good Friday cannot be confined to Holy Week. It is not simply the dismal but necessary prelude to the joy of Easter, although I'm afraid many Christians think of it that way. Every day of the year is a good day to think more deeply about Good Friday, for Good Friday is the drama of the love by which our every day is sustained."
Neuhaus' book has been part of my Holy Week reading for a few years now. I come back to it during the course of this week for the keen spiritual, pastoral, and social insights that Neuhaus provides from this sustained examination of Good Friday.
During the course of Holy Week, Good Friday forms part of what Christians have long called the Triduum Sacrum, the three sacred days of: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday. Some scholars speculate that "Good Friday" comes from "God's Friday", as "good-bye"
was originally "God be by you." But as Neuhaus remarks, it is just as odd that it should be called God's Friday, when it is the day we say good-bye to the glory of God.
In "Death on a Friday Afternoon," Neuhaus offers reflections on the Seven Last Words of Jesus from the Cross, although they are really Seven Statements of varied perspective:
- "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."
- "Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise."
- "Woman, behold your son. Son, behold your mother."
- "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"
- "I thirst"
- "It is finished."
- "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit."
In the course of reading "Death on a Friday Afternoon," each year, I find honest reflections about the strength of faith and the struggle for faith offered up by Neuhaus. There's a fierce honesty about the presence of evil and suffering in the life of faith, no shrinking back from looking at this challenge to the goodness and power of God. And yet there's an equal and courageous presentation of the mystery and "awe-full" power of God's redemptive work in the suffering of Jesus. Personally, I need to hold on to both sides of this examination of the cross and human suffering. I need the freedom to question and doubt how the cross of Jesus is relevant and effective for human salvation. And I need the strong courage and illuminating insights provided by the resilience of a theology offered up by Neuhaus.
Neuhaus shows how in touch he is with the honest struggles of people to apprehend the meaning of the cross and Good Friday:
"I suppose I should not be surprised anymore, but I am. With remarkable frequency I run into people who admit that, when it comes to this business abut the cross and curcifixion, they just don't "get it." Some of these people are lifelong and devout Christians, others are inquirers and still others are devout unbelievers for whom the bloodiness of Good Friday is just one more reason for not being a Christian."
Neuhaus doesn't shrink from addressing any of these doubts.
Toward the very end of the book, in a chapter titled "The Scars of God", Neuhaus speaks of how a soldier pierces Jesus' side with a spear, and how "at once there came out blood and water." It is the wound of Christ, but it reminds us that in the very heart of God a scar was left that heals.
Years ago, when I was in seminary preparing for ministry, news came to me that my mother had received a diagnosis of terminal cancer. It was during the Easter Season that I received this news. I remember the shock and difficulty of coming to terms with this news about a woman who was not just my mother, but a person of deep faith and love. I was angry at God. It was so unfair. It was, as Neuhaus has so poignantly observed, a reminder that Good Friday is not limited to a day or a single moment in time.
I remember what one of my seminary teachers said at the time, "If the cross means anything at all, it means that God can take human sin and suffering and human anger into the divine heart, and heal and transform us." God's own heart has been scarred in the crucifixion.
When the soldier pierced Jesus' side, Neuhaus professes, one strand of devotional thought in later centuries saw the piercing of the very heart of Christ, and in that action "the invitation to all humanity to enter into the Body of Christ, which is the Church."
But with that invitation comes a powerful call to discipleship and faith:
"Then (at the time of crucifixion) the body of Christ was on the cross, and now the Body of Christ, the Church, is on the cross, and with it the whole of humanity."
Everyone has a heart. Neuhaus concludes by affirming that in the heart of Jesus, "every heart is broken, and every heart is healed."
God's heart is big enough and strong enough to bear both scars and healing.