Holy Week With Fr. Neuhaus

Essay: Reflections on 'Death on a Friday Afternoon'

View of a wooden crucifix sculpted by Italian artist Michelangelo / Getty Images

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Maybe Flannery O'Connor had it right: "Yes'm," as The Misfit says, "Jesus thrown everything off balance." The trouble with Christianity is that it will not let itself simply be true for those who believe it. The central claims—that God descended in the flesh, that God died, and that God rose again—will not sit comfortably as something believed by some people.

Perhaps some other religions will allow themselves to be cabined off in little pockets of belief. But Christianity won't—can't. If it isn't universally true, then it's monstrous. The Christian claim requires believers to go beyond accepting it as merely one truth among others. In the Gospel of John, Christ identifies himself as truth itself: not as something true, but as the very definition of truth. Or, as Richard John Neuhaus put it in Death on a Friday Afternoon, "If what Christians say about Good Friday is true, then it is, quite simply, the truth about everything."

Before his death in 2009, Fr. Neuhaus wrote more than a dozen books, from his radical 1970 tract against the Vietnam War, Movement and Revolution, to his 1984 neoconservative masterpiece, The Naked Public Square. Time Toward Home: The American Experiment as Revelation (1975) is an underappreciated account of the national character, and Freedom for Ministry (1979) remains a classic of the evangelical impulse in the American spirit.

And yet, for all that, his most enduring book may be the one he produced in 2000: Death on a Friday Afternoon: Meditations on the Last Words of Jesus From the Cross. In it, he set aside all the political battles in which he fought and all the social controversies in which he was embroiled. Those things were important to him, no doubt, and he reveled in them. But he turned to look in another direction when he wrote a book of spirituality—his best book, in many ways, and a classic that deserves being brought back to readers' attention in the Lenten and Easter seasons.

"The truth is that we are incapable of setting things right. The truth is that the more we try to set things right, the more we compound our guilt," he writes. "It is not enough for God to take our part. God must take our place. All the blood of goats and lambs, all the innocent victims from the foundation of the world, all the acts of expiation and reparation, they only make things worse. They all strengthen the grip of the great lie that we can set things right. The grip of the lie is broken by the greatest of lies, ‘God is guilty!' God must die. It is a lie so monstrous that to suggest it invites instant annihilation—except that God accepts the verdict."

The book takes up the Seven Last Words: the last lines spoken by Christ before he dies—from "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34), through "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" (Mark 15:34) and "It is finished" (John 19:30), and down to "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit" (Luke 23:46).

Always the scope is broad as he unfolds the theological depth of each line. Examining "I thirst" (John 19:28), for example, Fr. Neuhaus points out that Jesus is crying out for souls as much as for water—and leads from there to an account of Christian evangelizing and the need to spread the gospel. "Possessing the truth and sharing the truth are not two things, but one," he writes. "As Jesus makes dramatically clear in many parables and sayings, the same is true of forgiveness and love; we do not possess if we do not share, and the more we give away the more we possess."

It is, however, in the first chapter, "Coming to Our Senses," that Fr. Neuhaus reaches into the depths. What he produces is as theologically important as anything he ever wrote. He quotes the old spiritual "Were you there when they crucified my Lord?" And his answer is "Yes, we were there."

Recognizing the line that runs through every human heart, no longer do we try to draw the line between "them" and "us." Who can look long and honestly at the victims and the perpetrators of history's horrors and say that this has nothing to do with me? To take the most obvious instance, where would we have taken our stand that Friday afternoon? With Mary and the Beloved Disciple or with the mocking crowds? "Know thyself," the philosophers said, for this is the beginning of wisdom. "The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom," wrote the Psalmist. Knowing myself and fearing God, knowing a thousand big and little things that I have done and failed to do, I cannot deny that I was there. In ways I do not fully understand, I know that I, too, did the deed, wielded the whip, drove the nails, thrust the spear.

My family and I would often spend Holy Week with Fr. Neuhaus—culminating in wonderful Easter meals with such people as Avery Dulles and any other theologians and public figures who happened to be in town. Roasts and candles and flowers, a silly table game in which the diners would bang their dyed hard-boiled Easter eggs against each other to see who would have the luckiest year. Cardinal Dulles always won.

But Richard John Neuhaus always knew that the light and joy of Easter come after the penance of Lent and the darkness of the Crucifixion. The word atonement, he notes, has its root in being again one with those from whom we have separated ourselves: at-one-ment. Our separation across the gulf of error and sin is closed in the act of perfect love.

And then, Fr. Neuhaus writes, "here at the cross, our eyes are fixed on the dying derelict who is the lord of life. We look at the one who is everything that we are and everything that we are not, the one who is true man and true God. In him we, God and man, are perfectly one. At-one-ment. Here, through the cross, we have come home. Home to the truth about ourselves. Home to the truth about what God has done about what we have done. And now we know, or begin to know, why this awful, awe-filled Friday is called good."

"Yes'm," as Flannery O'Connor's Misfit puts it, "Jesus thrown everything off balance." Jesus done turned everything upside down, through that Holy Week of death and resurrection—this year as every year, that awful, awe-filled run from Good Friday to Easter.