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[W]e preach Christ crucified.

    Paul, 1 Corinthians 1: 23

In perfect freedom, the Son become the goat become the Lamb of God is condemned by the lie in order to bear witness to the truth. 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. 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 ... all strengthen the grip of the great lie that we can set things right. The grip of that 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.

    Richard John Neuhaus, Death on a Friday Afternoon

Father Neuhaus proceeds from a deceptively simple premise: "If what Christians say about Good Friday is true, then it is, quite simply, the truth about everything." The problem is that what Christians say about Good Friday is surpassing strange; for Christians say that on that day God died. Needless to say, for most human societies in most times God or gods have been defined by their power, by thy their immortality--how can it be that Christians should think worthy of worship a God (in His incarnation as Christ) who can die, and not just die, but die on a cross like a common criminal, betrayed, despised, broken, alone, suffering, and despairing? The answer must be that this death has a meaning of such signifigance that the seemingly inexplicable death of God lies at the very core of what it means to be a Christian. The death of Christ redeems mankind and fulfills God's plan of salvation for Man, leaving us with reason to hope that there is a life beyond death. This story is the "paschal mystery" and as Father Neuhaus says:
These pages are an exploration into mystery. The word "mystery" in this connection does not mean a puzzle, as in a murder mystery. It is not a thing to be solved, but an adventure into wonder, with each wonder that we encounter leading on to the next and greater wonder.
This definition is particularly apt because he then leads the reader on an adventure of wonder, by meditating, one chapter for each, upon Christ's Seven Last Words:
Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do. (Luke 23:34)

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

Woman, behold, your son. Son, behold your mother. (John 19:26-27)

My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? [Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?] (Mark 15:34)

I thirst. (John 19:28)

It is finished (John 19:30)

Father, into your hands I commend my spirit. (Luke 23:46)

As he discusses these Seven Last Words, Mr. Neuhaus weaves together original sources, scholarship from all ages, popular art, personal anecdotes, etc., until what emerges may be meditation, but can hardly be called mere speculation. No one will agree with everything he says, but few will disagree with all and, even if we still can't discern it clearly, none who read with an open mind will argue that there is not truth contained within the mystery.

Here is an extended sample of his style, which you'll note is not unlike that of a learned but approachable professor just shooting the breeze, from the First Chapter:
This, then, is our circumstance. Something has gone dreadfully wrong with the world, and with us in the world. Things are out of whack. It is not all our fault, but it is our fault too. We cannot blame our distant parents for that fateful afternoon in the garden, for we were there. We, too, reached for the forbidden fruit-the forbidden fruit by which we not only know good and evil, but, much more fatefully, presume to name good and evil. [...]

The First Word from the cross: "Father, forgive them." Forgiveness costs. Whatever the theory of atonement, this is at the heart of it, that forgiveness costs. Any understanding of what makes at-one-ment possible includes a few simple truths. First, like the child, we know that something very bad has happened. Something has gone very wrong with us and with the world of which we are part. The world is not and we are not what we know was meant to be. That is the most indubitable of truths; it is beyond dispute, it weighs with self-evident force upon every mind and heart that have not lost the sensibility that makes us human. The something very bad that has happened takes the form of the long, dreary list of history's horribles, from concentration camps to the tortured deaths of innocent children. And it takes the everyday forms of the habits of compromise, of loves betrayed, of lies excused, of dreams deferred until they die. The indubitable truth is illustrated in ways beyond number, from Auschwitz to the shattered cookie jar on the kitchen floor. Something very bad has happened.

Second-and here I simplify outrageously, but our purpose is to cut through to the heart of the matter-we are complicit in what has gone so terribly wrong. We have problems with that. World-class criminals, murderers and drug traffickers, if they know what they have done, may have no trouble with that, but for many of us it may be a bit hard to swallow. I mean, we haven't done anything that bad, have we? Surely nothing so bad as to make us responsible for the death of God on the cross ? True, the writer of 1 Timothy called himself "the chief of sinners," and St. Paul did do some nasty things to the Christians in his earlier life as Saul of Tarsus. But then it would seem that he made up for it with an exemplary, indeed saintly, life. Chief of sinners? There would seem to be an element of pious hyperbole there, perhaps even an unseemly boastfulness, a reverse pride, so to speak.

It is difficult to face up to our complicity because the confession of sins does not come easy. It is also difficult because we do not want to compound our complicity by claiming sins that are not ours. We rightly recoil from those who seem to wallow in guilt. The story is told of the rabbi and cantor who, on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, lament their sins at great length, each concluding that he is a nobody. Then the sexton, inspired by their example, laments his sins and declares that he, too, is a nobody. "Nuh," says the rabbi to the cantor. "Who is he to be a nobody?"

Contemporary sensibilities are offended by what is dismissively termed "guilt tripping." Some while ago I was on the same lecture platform with a famous television evangelist from California who is noted for accenting the positive and upbeat in the Christian message. According to this evangelist, it is as with Coca-Cola: Everything goes better with Jesus. He had built a huge new church called, let us say, New Life Cathedral, and he explained that during the course of the building there was a debate about whether the cathedral should feature a cross. It was thought that the cross might prompt negative thoughts, maybe even thoughts about suffering and death. "Finally, I said that of course there will be a cross," the famous evangelist said. "After all, the cross is the symbol of Christianity and we are a Christian church. But I can guarantee you," he declared with a triumphant smile, "there is nothing downbeat about the cross at New Life Cathedral!"

St. Paul said the cross is "foolishness to the Greeks" and a "stumbling block to the Jews" and seemed to think it would always be that way. Little did he know what gospel salesmanship would one day achieve. In the eighteenth century, Isaac Watts wrote the hymn words: "Alas! and did my Savior bleed, / And did my Sovereign die? / Would He devote that sacred head / For such a worm as I?" A worm? Really now ? A contemporary hymnal puts it this way: "Would he devote that sacred head / For sinners such as I?" Surely "sinners" is bad enough. Similarly with the much beloved "Amazing Grace." "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound / That saved a wretch like me." "Wretch" will never do. That is cleaned up in a contemporary version: "That loved a soul like me."

Examples can be multiplied many times over. Groveling is out, self-esteem is in. And if self-esteem seems not quite the right note for Good Friday, at least our complicity can be understood as limited liability. Very limited. Perhaps the changes in Christian thought are not all bad. There have been in Christian devotion excesses of self-accusation, of "scrupulosity," as it used to be called. Wallowing in guilt and penitential grandstanding are justly criticized. And yet ? We cannot just take the scissors to all those Bible passages that say he died for us and because of us, that they were our sins he bore upon the cross. Yes, Christianity is about resurrection joy, but do not rush to Easter. Good Friday makes inescapable the question of complicity.

I may think it modesty when I draw back from declaring myself chief of sinners, but it is more likely a failure of imagination. For what sinner should I speak if not for myself? Of all the billions of people who have lived and of all the thousands whom I have known, whom should I say is the chief of sinners? Surely I am authorized, surely I am competent to speak only for myself? When in the presence of God the subject of sin is raised, how can I help but say that chiefly it is I? Not to confess that I am chiefly the one is not to confess at all. It is the evasion of Adam, who said, "It was the woman whom you gave to be with me." It is the evasion of Eve, who said, "The serpent beguiled me." It is not to confess at all, and by our making of excuses is our complicity compounded.

"Forgive them, for they know not what they do." But now, like the prodigal son, we have come to our senses. Our lives are measured not by the lives of others, not by our own ideals, not by what we think might reasonably be expected of us, although by each of those measures we acknowledge failings enough. Our lives are measured by who we are created and called to be, and the measuring is done by the One who creates and calls. Finally, the judgment that matters is not ours. The judgment that matters is the judgment of God, who alone judges justly. In the cross we see the rendering of the verdict on the gravity of our sin.
On display here are the two things that most distinguish his discourse, the challenges he presents to both liberals and conservatives (for lack of better terms): first, he demands that we take the crucifixion seriously, that we accept that God suffered and died, that this sacrifice is integral to the story, and that the Cross is a symbol of suffering; second, he universalizes the atonement and places these events in a Jewish context, requiring us to accept that the fulfillment that Christ enacted upon the Cross is of Jewish tradition and is the basis for all mankind's salvation. The ground he has staked out will upset those who seek to soft pedal the crucifixion, who try to make the story "happier", who even maintain that Christ did not die upon the Cross. It will also, and has, upset those who insist that only Christian believers are saved by Christ's act of atonement. He explains the reason for both these themes here:
Throughout these reflections, I have frequently mentioned the gnostic distortions of the Christian Gospel. Perhaps readers may think I am too insistent about the specificity--what scholars call the "historicity"--of the story of salvation. But I am persuaded that everything depends on this. Specificity is all. It is for this reason that I have turned again and again to the Jewishness of the Christian story. In the shadow of the Holocaust, it is both morally imperative and good manners to emphasize the linkage between Judaism and Christianity. But much more is involved than a moral imperative, and certainly much more than good manners. It simply is not possible to understand the Christian story apart from its placement in the Jewish story. We have been discussing God's radical identification of his fate with the fate of the Old Testament prophets, and in that identification we have a foretaste, an intimation, of what Christians mean by the mystery of the incarnation. That God became man is not entirely a Christian novum, it is not an idea that came out of nowhere.
Precisely because we are dealing here with mystery it is possible for either or both sides to raise objections to Father Neuhaus, but because he's always returning to the "historicity" of the matter his position seems at least defensible.

At any rate, agree with him or not, the book is so thought provoking and such a joy to read that anyone will find it rewarding, while those who believe that what happened on that long ago Friday matters utterly and matters universally--for all men, not just for Christians--will find it indispensable. N.B.--Here are some texts that may be useful in your reading:

Psalm 22 (King James Version)
1 My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? why art thou so far from helping me, and from the words of my roaring?

2 O my God, I cry in the day time, but thou hearest not; and in the night season, and am not silent.

3 But thou art holy, O thou that inhabitest the praises of Israel.

4 Our fathers trusted in thee: they trusted, and thou didst deliver them.

5 They cried unto thee, and were delivered: they trusted in thee, and were not confounded.

6 But I am a worm, and no man; a reproach of men, and despised of the people.

7 All they that see me laugh me to scorn: they shoot out the lip, they shake the head, saying,

8 He trusted on the LORD that he would deliver him: let him deliver him, seeing he delighted in him.

9 But thou art he that took me out of the womb: thou didst make me hope when I was upon my mother's breasts.

10 I was cast upon thee from the womb: thou art my God from my mother's belly.

11 Be not far from me; for trouble is near; for there is none to help.

12 Many bulls have compassed me: strong bulls of Bashan have beset me round.

13 They gaped upon me with their mouths, as a ravening and a roaring lion.

14 I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint: my heart is like wax; it is melted in the midst of my bowels.

15 My strength is dried up like a potsherd; and my tongue cleaveth to my jaws; and thou hast brought me into the dust of death.

16 For dogs have compassed me: the assembly of the wicked have inclosed me: they pierced my hands and my feet.

17 I may tell all my bones: they look and stare upon me.

18 They part my garments among them, and cast lots upon my vesture.

19 But be not thou far from me, O LORD: O my strength, haste thee to help me.

20 Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog.

21 Save me from the lion's mouth: for thou hast heard me from the horns of the unicorns.

22 I will declare thy name unto my brethren: in the midst of the congregation will I praise thee.

23 Ye that fear the LORD, praise him; all ye the seed of Jacob, glorify him; and fear him, all ye the seed of Israel.

24 For he hath not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; neither hath he hid his face from him; but when he cried unto him, he heard.

25 My praise shall be of thee in the great congregation: I will pay my vows before them that fear him.

26 The meek shall eat and be satisfied: they shall praise the LORD that seek him: your heart shall live for ever.

27 All the ends of the world shall remember and turn unto the LORD: and all the kindreds of the nations shall worship before thee.

28 For the kingdom is the LORD's: and he is the governor among the nations.

29 All they that be fat upon earth shall eat and worship: all they that go down to the dust shall bow before him: and none can keep alive his own soul.

30 A seed shall serve him; it shall be accounted to the Lord for a generation.

31 They shall come, and shall declare his righteousness unto a people that shall be born, that he hath done this.

The SS seemed more preoccupied, more disturbed than usual. To hang a young boy in front of thousands of spectators was no light matter. The head of the camp read the verdict. All eyes were on the child. He was lividly pale, almost calm, biting his lips. The gallows threw its shadow over him. This time the camp executioner refused to act as executioner. Three SS replaced him.

The victims mounted together onto the chairs. The three necks were placed at the same moment within the nooses. "Long live Liberty!" cried the two adults. But the child was silent.

"Where is God? Where is He?" someone behind me asked.

At a sign from the head of the camp, the three chairs tipped over.

Total silence throughout the camp. On the horizon, the sun was setting. "Bare your heads!" yelled the head of the camp. His voice was raucous. We were weeping. "Cover your heads!"

Then the march past began. The two adults were no longer alive. But the third rope was still moving; being so light, the child was still alive...

For more than half an hour he stayed there, struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony under our eyes. And we had to look him full in the face. He was still alive when I passed in front of him. Behind me I heard the same man asking: "Where is God now?"

And I hear a voice within me answer him: "Were is he? Here He is - He is hanging here on this gallows. . . "

    Elie Wiesel, Night

Altarwise by Owl-Light (1935) (Dylan Thomas 1914-1953)
(Stanza VIII)

This was the crucifixion on the mountain,
Time's nerve in vinegar, the gallow grave
As tarred with blood as the bright thorns I wept;
The world's my wound, God's Mary in her grief,
Bent like three trees and bird-papped through her shift,
With pins for teardrops is the long wound's woman.
This was the sky, Jack Christ, each minstrel angle
Drove in the heaven-driven of the nails
Till the three-coloured rainbow from my nipples
From pole to pole leapt round the snail-waked world.
I by the tree of thieves, all glory's sawbones,
Unsex the skeleton this mountain minute,
And by this blowcock witness of the sun
Suffer the heaven's children through my

Still as of old
Men by themselves are priced --
For thirty pieces Judas sold
Himself, not Christ. -
   Hester H. Cholmondeley


Grade: (A+)


See also:

Richard Neuhaus Links:

    -First Things: The Journal of Religion & Public Life
    -BOOKNOTES: As I Lay Dying: Meditations Upon Returning by Richard John Neuhaus (C-SPAN, May 26, 2002)
    -ESSAY: John Paul II: In issuing more significant encyclicals and visiting more nations than any other pope, he's shown that Christianity remains a world force. (Richard John Neuhaus, Winter 2000, Christian History)
    -ESSAY: Salvation Is from the Jews" (Richard John Neuhaus, November 2001, First Things)
    -ESSAY: Is Mormonism Christian? A Respected Advocate for Interreligious Cooperation Responds (Richard John Neuhaus, Mormons in Transition)
    -ESSAY: The Approaching Century of Religion (Richard John Neuhaus, Orthodoxy Today)
    -ESSAY: The Idea of Moral Progress (Richard John Neuhaus, Aug/Sep 1999, First Things) -ESSAY: Abortion: Christian Doctrine and Public Policy (Richard John Neuhaus, September 21, 1988, Presbyterians Pro-Life)
    -EXCERPT: from Chapter One of Death on a Friday Afternoon
    -ESSAY: The Liberalism of John Paul II (Richard John Neuhaus, May 1997, First Things)
    -ESSAY: Indefensible Ethics: Debating Peter Singer (Father Richard John Neuhaus, February 2002, The Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity)
    -ESSAY: Going public (Richard John Neuhaus, Dec 5, 1994, National Review)
    -STATEMENT: Save Liberal Education: Save Saint Ignatius Institute (signatory)
    -STATEMENT: THE AMERICA WE SEEK: A Statement of Pro-Life Principle and Concern
    -REVIEW: of Christianity and the World Order By Edward R. Norman and Amsterdam to Nairobi: The World Council of Churches and the Third World By Ernest W. Lefever (Richard John Neuhaus, Theology Today)
    -REVIEW: of Exploring New Ethics for Survival: The Voyage of the Spaceship Beagle By Garrett Hardin (Richard John Neuhaus, Theology Today)
    -REVIEW: of American Mainline Religion: Its Changing Shape and Future By Wade Clark Roof and William McKinney (Richard John Neuhaus, Theology Today)
    -REVIEW: of Salt of the Earth: The Church at the End of the Millenium, by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Richard John Neuhaus, Christianity Today)
    -REVIEW: of The Second One Thousand Years: Ten People Who Defined a Millennium by edited by Richard John Neuhaus (Michael R. Stevens, Religion & Liberty)
    -ARCHIVES: Richard John Neuhaus (NY Review of Books)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: with Richard John Neuhaus (The Connection)
    -INTERVIEW: Fr. Richard John Neuhaus on the Iraqi Crisis (An Interview with ZENIT, /14/03)
    -CHAT: Pope in the Holy Land Chat Transcript ( Father Richard John Neuhaus chatted with Beliefnet about the pope's recent visit to the Holy Land and John Paul II's papacy on Yahoo, Monday, March 27, 2000)
    -ESSAY: Con Job: Theocons v. Neocons? Strauss v. Aquinas? Catholics v. Jews? Or The New Republic v. reality? (RAMESH PONNURU, 1/27/097, National Review)
    -ESSAY: You Make the Call (Dale Vree, New Oxford Review)
    -ESSAY: 8 Books that Changed the World: The Naked Public Square by Richard Joihn Neuhaus (John J. Miller, Philanthropy)
    -ESSAY: Evangelicals and Catholics Together: A New Initiative: "The Gift of Salvation" A remarkable statement on what we mean by the gospel. (An Evangelical Assessment by Timothy George, December 8, 1997, Christianity Today)
    -ESSAY: Groups Battle over Catholic Outreach (Jackie Alnor, 3/02/03, Christianity Today)
    -ESSAY: You Make the Call (Dale Vree, New Oxford Review)
    -ARCHIVES: "richard john neuhaus" (Find Articles)
    -REVIEW: of Death on a Friday Afternoon: Meditations on the Last Words of Jesus from the Cross by Richard John Neuhaus (Michael Potemra, National Review)
    -REVIEW: of Death on a Friday Afternoon (Mark Noll, BeliefNet)
    -REVIEW: of Death on a Friday Afternoon (S. M. Hutchens, Touchstone)
    -REVIEW: of Death on a Friday Afternoon (Brian E. Daley, Commonweal)
    -REVIEW: of Death on a Friday Afternnon (Mary Claire Gart, Catholic One World)
    -REVIEW: of BELIEVING TODAY - Jew and Christian in Conversation by Leon Klenicki and Richard John Neuhaus (Howard Taylor, Apologetics)
    -REVIEW: of Piety and Politics: Evangelicals and Fundamentalists Confront the World Edited by Richard John Neuhaus and Michael Cromartie (1987) (JAMES H. MOORHEAD, Theology Today)
    -REVIEW: of Freedom For Ministry: A Critical Affirmation of The Church and Its Mission By Richard John Neuhaus (1984) (Stanford R. Lucyk, Theology Today)
    -REVIEW: of In Defense of People: Ecology and the Seduction of Radicalism By Richard Neuhaus (1971) (Edward Leroy Long, Jr., Theology Today)
    -REVIEW: of The Chosen People in an Almost Chosen Nation: Jews and Judaism in America, Introduction by Richard John Neuhaus (John Wilson, Christianity Today)
    -REVIEW: of The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America By Richard John Neuhaus (Dean K. Thompson, Theology Today)
    -BOOK LIST: National Review's 100 Best of the 20th Century (Richard John Neuhaus, Panel Member)

Book-related and General Links:

    -death and resurrection (Jim Hart)
    -SERMON: Death's Duel (1630) (John Donne)
    -REVIEW: of The Resurrection of the Son of God (Christian Origins and the Question of God, Vol. 3) by N. T. Wright (David Neff, Christianity Today)
    -INTERVIEW: You Can't Keep a Justified Man Down: An interview with N. T. Wright (David Neff, April 2003, Christianity Today)
    -ESSAY: The Goodness of Good Friday: An unhappy celebration--isn't that an oxymoron? (Chris Armstrong, April 2003, Christianity Today)
    -ESSAY: The Day After: Between Jesus' death and Resurrection, what happened? (MARK GAUVREAU JUDGE, April 18, 2003, Wall Street Journal)