Writers re-examine 'seven last words from the cross'

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Two thoughtful Christian writers meditate on Jesus' biblical "seven last words" from the cross, a classic form of Christian devotion, in recent little books: "Cross-Shattered Christ" (Brazos) by Duke University theologian Stanley Hauerwas, and "The Seven Last Words From the Cross" (Eerdmans) by traveling Episcopal preacher Fleming Rutledge.

Samplings from their reflections:

1. "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34).

Hauerwas says "these words are not first and foremost about us, about our petty sinfulness," but about the relation between the divine Father and Son. We shouldn't think they merely show Jesus being martyred by oppressors or giving meaning to our own deaths.

Rutledge observes that Jesus "prays for people doing terrible things" like crucifixion. However, his words aren't only for notorious evildoers like Saddam Hussein but for each of us.

2. "Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise" (Luke 23:43).

Hauerwas says from our self-centered viewpoint we might think the thief being crucified with Jesus was ensured that "his life will have significance." Instead, we should join the thief in "confidence that the only remembering that matters is to be remembered by Jesus."

Rutledge sees an invitation to celebrate salvation "for all those others who by human standards would not have been considered salvageable but are now promised an eternal destiny of joy with Christ."

3. "Woman, behold your son! ... Behold, your mother!" (John 19:26-27).

To Hauerwas, Jesus wasn't just making sure "mom" was cared for but telling Mary to behold her own son's degradation. He is also teaching Mary and the disciple that the Christian church is now their true family.

Rutledge similarly says "Good Friday is not the first Mothers Day" and that Jesus is proclaiming his new community, the oft-maligned institutional church. She says the church is essential because it unites people "who have absolutely nothing in common" except their faith.

4. "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" (Mark 15:34, also Matthew 27:46, quoting Psalm 22:1).

The middle saying among the seven is pivotal. Hauerwas says we seize these words for comfort, hoping that God understands our suffering. But because Jesus is truly God, this cry involves more "the inner life" of the deity and "shatters all our attempts to understand God in human terms."

Rutledge says this isn't the Father sacrificing the Son. The Son and the Father must do this together because "only the power of God is greater than the power of Sin."

5. "I thirst" (John 19:28).

Amid crucifixion's cruelty, why is only thirst singled out? Hauerwas relates this to the Gospel's promise that those who thirst for God will receive the water of eternal life. He also says this saying emphasizes Jesus' humanity alongside his divinity.

Rutledge similarly sees Jesus' "very real mortal weakness" but says he remains in command. The crucifixion is "not an unfortunate slip-up. It is the deliberate self-offering of the Good Shepherd."

6. "It is finished" (John 19:30).

To Hauerwas, this is "a cry of victory," not an announcement that "'I am done for."' It means "the powers of this world are forever subverted" and "a new way of life" is created. Since we all must work to bring God's kingdom, "it is finished. But it is not over."

Rutledge says we're tempted to suppose "Christ's work is somehow not complete, that we have to do something further in order to earn its benefits." But earning forgiveness is beyond humans' capacity. "Only the death by crucifixion of the Son of God was sufficient to lift the terrible curse of sin."

7. "Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit!" (Luke 23:46).

Hauerwas finds words of comfort as we face death united with the Savior who fulfills "Israel's undying hope that death, and the judgment death must be and always is, is not the last word."

Rutledge says Jesus "is teaching us how to die" and promising that we are "assimilated to him in his life beyond death" with words we, too, can utter "even in the midst of doubt and perplexity."

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