Neuhaus, Richard John. 2000. Death on a Friday afternoon: meditations on the last words of Jesus from the cross. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Father Neuhaus has titled his book “Death on a Friday Afternoon” because that is when Jesus died. But his meditations on the seven last “words” of Jesus (actually, the seven last utterances) provide an explanation that will lead thoughtful readers into the meaning of the resurrection as well. Neuhaus, however, does not want readers to get to the resurrection without pondering carefully what is meant by the seven words on the cross, a compilation from the Gospel accounts.
The following are the seven last utterances of Christ, each a chapter in Neuhaus’s book:
- “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34) The soldiers were dividing his clothes by casting lots, but Good Friday should bring us to our senses, like the “prodigal son.” “Only he can bring us home who comes from home; who comes from God.” (p. 8)
- “Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:43) The first one home is a thief (p. 35) and is called Dysmas by legend and tradition. Dorothy Sayers, in her play The Man Born to be King, sees Dysmas as taking pity on Jesus. “The tree of death has become the tree of life.” (p. 41) “There is a great difference between believing that all will be saved and hoping that all will be saved.” (p. 50)
- “When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, “Woman, here is your son,” and to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.” John 19:27-27) There was nothing to be done but to be there. “Under the guidance of the Spirit, the Church rejected Pelagianism, insisting that salvation is entirely gratuitous, entirely the underserved gift of God.” (p.87) The claim by Neuhaus is that “there would have been no cross of Christ without the free consent of Mary….” (p. 88)
- “About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ (which means ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’”) Matthew 27:46 “Here is the cry of dereliction, the cry of abandonment, from the derelict, the abandoned one.” (p 104) “Always before Jesus has addressed God as ‘Father.’” “The surrender is precisely to the unqualified loss of control that is death.” (p. 115) The judgment has gone against him (p. 134). “On Good Friday, says [Hans Urs von] Balthasar, Christ descended into the heart of human desolation, he himself experienced damnation as he entered the utmost limits of humanity’s alienation from God.” (p.143)
- “Later, knowing that everything had now been finished, and so that Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, ‘I am thirsty. ‘” (John 19:28) He is offered a kind of vinegar wine but “Here is a thirst as dusty as death” (p. 148). It is put on hyssop, a sponge made from a small bushy plant “quite unsuited to bearing the weight of a sponge soaked with wine,” (p. 149) according to Neuhaus. In Exodus 12 hyssop was used to sprinkle the blood of the lamb on the doorpost so that the angel of death would pass over that home.
- “When he had received the drink, Jesus said, ‘It is finished.’ With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.” (John 19:30) The sense of finish here is consummated, fulfilled or brought to perfection (p. 187). It is not failure and time continued—this was the cross-over point for Jesus. We all crucified Jesus and what was completed was finished by God (p. 213). “We do well to get rid completely of the notion that atonement is about what God did to Jesus” (p. 220). The work of atonement is the work of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
- “Jesus called out with a loud voice, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.’ When he had said this, he breathed his last.” (Luke 23:46) Neuhaus calls his last chapter “The scars of God.” When Jesus gave up his spirit he called Father again, not God. Jesus’s commitment of his spirit is similar to Stephen when he was stoned. Neuhaus spends time here and elsewhere on the dual nature of Christ—true man and true God (p.244).
Neuhaus concludes with an index of all the Scripture passages referred to in the book—and there are many (9 pages full).
Along the way Neuhaus introduces aspects of Catholic theology that are a part of his faith and world-view, but a Protestant reading the book (like myself) may find somewhat beside the point. Far more illuminating are the asides to social issues that are relevant to what Jesus said and taught.
Neuhaus was a Roman Catholic priest and there are many allusions to the “mother” church, to the work and “motherhood” of Mary, the Eucharist, and to other practices dominant in the Catholic church. However, the theme of the book—observing Jesus’s last hours on the cross—is crucial for any Christian to ponder and understand.
I found his book refreshing, in that it helped me to contemplate in a careful manner the circumstances in which Jesus uttered his words and the reason that he gave them.
In summary, a profoundly insightful book, capturing the mystery of God in human form, dying painfully but purposefully on the cross for the sins of humankind.
As Neuhaus says in the book (many times) so well (p. xiv and elsewhere) “It is finished, but it is not over.”