Although the Liturgy of the Lord’s Passion is the central service of Good Friday, Catholic practice has always kept all of Good Friday as a day of solemn, quiet mourning. The Liturgy of the Lord’s Passion customarily took place at 3pm, marking the traditional hour of Jesus’ death. In our day, when Good Friday holds an ever more anemic hold on public life, many parishes push that liturgy into the evening hours.
When the Liturgy of the Lord’s Passion occurred at 3 o’clock, many parishes preceded it with a three-hour service starting at noon — the Tre Ore — commemorating the time during which Jesus hung dying on the cross. A common feature of the Tre Ore devotion was a service of “The Seven Last Words” — readings of Jesus’ final words spoken while crucified, often accompanied by sermons about each of them. The late Father Richard John Neuhaus, for example, regularly preached on those Seven Last Words in New York, eventually publishing those thoughts in his bestseller, Death on a Friday Afternoon. Before him, Fulton Sheen penned The Seven Last Words.
A man’s last words are usually attributed enormous significance. They’re taken as a final testament. When people mostly died at home, the image of a family gathered around a deathbed, hearing the final words of a dying family member, was a watershed moment. In antiquity, the pagans often expatiated to their disciples at length as they were leaving this world. Even Archbishop Sheen notes that, after having crucified Jesus, the crowds waited for what he would say. The Roman executioners, used to fixing human beings to the tree of torture, awaited the usual torrent of curses and hatred.
Set against those various expectations, Jesus’ last words are spare and startling. Those “seven last words” — really seven phrases of about four dozen words — are loving, consoling and full of trust.
Well, while New Yorkers like Father Neuhaus and Archbishop Sheen commented on Jesus’ Last Words, let me suggest an idea from another New York priest, Father Donald Haggerty: Let’s consider Jesus’ Last Silence.
In his new book on prayer, Contemplative Enigmas, Father Haggerty suggests we prayerfully reflect on Jesus’ silence on Calvary.
Jesus’ last words were sparse and spare. Do we reflect on the fact that, for most of the three hours that Jesus hung dying, he was silent? That his experience of being “made sin for us” (2 Corinthians 5:21) led to his feeling of divine abandonment — “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Prayer, especially as it matures, can often encounter what classical spiritual theology calls “the dark night of the soul,” the feeling of God’s absence, his silence. “Our prayer certainly does not experience the terrible dereliction of Our Lord in that hour of Calvary,” Father Haggerty writes in Contemplative Enigmas. “Nevertheless, at times there can be a taste of futility tasted bitterly in prayer that must be abandoned to our Father’s Will.”
Sometimes prayer seems futile, ineffective and empty. But, in the end, prayer is not telling God what we want to get, but putting ourselves in his presence in faith, because we long for relationship with him and remain on our part faithful to his unseen fidelity. Prayer ought not to be done with the implicit expectation that God may console us, but in trust that whatever God does or seemingly does not do is “for our good” (Romans 8:28). That offers a great spiritual chance: “Prayer afflicted by a sense of weary futility is approaching a great truth if only we can turn a consuming attention to the One who hangs fixed by nails on a Roman cross.”
I write these words as the coronavirus plague is scourging the United States. So many of these days look like Good Friday — days empty of the celebration of the liturgy, days seemingly empty of God’s palpable presence: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned us?”
“When we cast away thought of ourselves and direct our attention to the nailed extremities of suffering in Christ’s crucifixion,” Father Haggerty writes, “a fruitfulness is ready to be received mysteriously.” In approaching this year’s Tre Ore — perhaps in our homes rather than our churches — we might move away from Jesus’ last words to his Last Silence.
Let us put ourselves in his presence, without words and without seeking words, ready to contemplate, ready to reflect, ready to hear him in his silence. His tortured body. His pierced limbs, strung like a violin, on which he must constantly raise himself and fall back just to breathe another minute. His arms incapable of reaching out at will because of the nails. His arms convulsing against their will, as muscular spasms and nerve damage produce pure physical reactions, again constrained artificially by those nails. The agony of a body that cannot move yet cannot not move — and every movement its own excruciating agony. The feeling of a body whose functions no longer obey my will, simply magnifying my pain.
To feel that God is not listening — and yet to believe that God hears every last beat of a heart being progressively suffocated, failing to cope with what is necessary to survive. To be convinced that the next drop of blood sliding down one’s head, back, chest, leg or the wood of one’s cross — all matters to God.
If we can seek to enter God’s silence, our faithfulness — and our prayer — will be that much fruitful, because we then become aware of how our Model prayed, resigning himself into the hands of his father, the lack of palpable consolation notwithstanding. He teaches us what self-immolation may entail, lessons peculiarly relevant in a time of coronavirus. “We die to our own importance,” Father Haggerty writes, “and Jesus alone in his suffering is all that matters.”
May that be the lesson of our encounter with Jesus’ Last Silence this year.
John Grondelski writes from Falls Church, Virginia.
All views expressed herein are exclusively his.