Jesus' Final Words Challenge Post-Moderns

Death On A Friday Afternoon: Meditations on the Last Words of Jesus from the Crossby Richard John Neuhaus

Basic Books, 2000 288 pages, $24.00

A well-educated, successful business woman once told Father Richard John Neuhaus that she liked the Catholic Church, moral teachings included, but had trouble understanding one thing: the cross of Christ — “this whole business about sacrifice and blood.”

In his new book, Father Neuhaus places the cross at the center of human history, where men and women of all nations, of all times, must confront it and make a decision for or against the crucified. He urges us not to hurry on our way to Easter joy, but to stay for a while at Calvary and contemplate the death of God for mankind.

In an age called post-Christian, he warns against generalizing the meaning of Calvary and falling into the same error as academics who seek to absorb the cross into the sacrifice rites of other religions. “Specificity is all,” Father Neuhaus states repeatedly: this Jesus born of Mary, this time of Roman history, this city of Jerusalem, this Jewish race, this day, this time, this spot upon a hill. Only by placing it in a definite time and place will the cross resist the mythmakers and syncretists; only by remembering its specifics can we understand the universal nature of its significance.

“If what Christians say about Good Friday is true, then it is, quite simply, the truth about everything,” he states. “I have written this for people who are convinced of that truth, for people who are open to thinking about whether it may be true and for people who are just curious about why so much of the world thinks Good Friday is the key to understanding what Dante called 'the love that moves the sun and all the other stars.’ “

A New York priest, Father Neuhaus is president of the Institute on Religion and Public Life and editor-in-chief of the monthly First Things, which examines the relationship between religion and the social, political and cultural milieu. When he was a Lutheran pastor in the 1980s, he wrote The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America, in which he states that with the removal of religion from public life has gone the concept of the common good. As a result, politics and culture in general have become power struggles among special-interest groups which fail to voice timeless truths that speak for the weak and the poor.

He was received into the Catholic Church by Cardinal John O'Connor in 1990 and ordained by him a year later. His preaching talents, marked by traditional Protestant training, have been in high demand within the New York Archdiocese and beyond. This book is a melding, in many ways, of the Lutheran training that formed him and the Catholic perspective that now inspires him.

To reach a wide audience, Father Neuhaus has chosen a secular publisher, Basic Books. Yet the book does not soft-sell its theme. On the jacket is a Goya painting of Christ on the cross in agony, looking up to a darkened heaven that seems to give no answer. The seven chapters, one devoted to each saying of Jesus from the cross, are meditations on this dramatic scene, drawing on a wealth of sources, some of them surprising: St. Augustine and Carl Jung, the “Cur Deus Homo” of St. Anselm and Joseph Conrad's “Heart of Darkness.” Arius, Pelagius and gnostics past and present are studied along with Church councils, from Nicaea to Vatican II. Sacred Scripture is given primacy, with an appendix listing nine pages of biblical references.

If Good Friday is true, then it is the truth about everything.

This is a book that guides deep contemplation on life's most important issues. Unlike most contemporary tomes of introspection marketed by the mainstream press, Death on a Friday's depth is not bottomless. Plumb deep enough, Father Neuhaus shows, and you'll see Christ crucified for our sins. Much like the late Archbishop Fulton Sheen, another New York preacher famous for his spellbinding Good Friday sermons, Father Neuhaus shies from broad themes and overstatements to bring faith's greatest mystery to the level of the average Catholic. He speaks to our Me-centered culture on its own terms, planting the cross in the midst of the public square of dot-commerce, pop psychology, TV millionaire shows and media-made images — all to show that the crucifixion has a place not only in history, but in daily life.

This approach will surely make the book useful and appealing to general audiences, but it also seems to have led Father Neuhaus to give in, to a degree, to pop theology. In a chapter titled “Judge Not,” a meditation on Jesus’ words to one of the criminals crucified at his side — “Today you will be with me in paradise” — Father Neuhaus seems to support the notion of universal salvation, that everyone in the end will be in heaven. He admits that he is challenging traditional interpretations of the strong words of Jesus about the narrow way and the fires of hell, and says he hopes that he is not guilty of trying to outdo God in mercy. He asserts that we should pray that all be saved, since Jesus made the same prayer and died to bring it to fulfillment. Yet, in doing so, he gives the impression that God will forgive in spite of grave, unrepented sin.

“[W]e must take seriously the many statements in the New Testament that some, perhaps many, might be damned,” he writes. “At the same time, we must inquire into the nature of such passages. Are they predictive, telling us what will certainly happen in the future? Or are they warnings — admonitory and cautionary statements directed to each one of us, alerting us to the consequences of rejecting the truth?” After a lengthy analysis. Father Neuhaus concludes that the passages are admonitory.

But for this concession, this is an immensely satisfying and challenging work. The meditation on Mary at the cross is a masterful weaving of the human and divine elements in the lives of mother and son. Father Neuhaus can be heard softly to appeal to his Protestant colleagues as he writes: “To say that Mary's way is not our way is to say that Christ's way is not our way, for Mary was in every way a disciple of her son.” This is highly recommended reading for Holy Week.

Brian Caulfield writes from New York.