It’s standard practice for grooms to give their groomsmen a gift for “showing up and suiting up” in solidarity and support. Common gifts are flasks, watches, pocket-knives, tie clips – manly things. The Lent before I married, I read the book to the right, Death on a Friday Afternoon, by Richard John Neuhaus, was amazed, so wrapped up a copy for each groomsman. The response was, at best, tepid: “Oh, hey, a book . . . that’s . . . ok, great . . death on . . . super. thanks.” To be fair, the title is a bit raw in the midst of a marriage celebration.
Nevertheless, if you are looking for a good Lenten read (and who isn’t?) then I’d suggest nudging this book up to the top of the list. Fair warning: it is not a late night snack of Coco Puffs. It’s a multi-course buffet best consumed over a number of days, if not weeks. You’ll need time to digest. Why? The author, a Catholic priest, meditates on the seven last words attributed to Jesus as he hung on the cross. Through these meditations he addresses, among other topics, the following: Why did Jesus need to die? What happened on the cross? Are all saved by the sacrifice? What does it mean to be justified? No light topics here. However, he ruminates in a way that is both richly theological and intensely personal. The tone is not professorial, but pastoral. He refuses to soften the idea of atonement, the hoped for reconciliation we all seek, into limp platitudes about love’s power. Neuhaus asks us to pause, to “stay for awhile” at the cross and consider what is happening, what had to happen, for us to have any hope of the wholeness for which “all creation groans.” A brief reading from the opening chapter.
Atonement. It’s a fine, solid, twelfth-century Middle English word, the kind of word one is inclined to trust. Think of at-one-ment:What was separated is now at one. But after such a separation there can be no easy reunion. Reconciliation must do justice to what went wrong. It will not do to merely overlook the wrong. We could not bear to live in a world where wrong is taken lightly, where right and wrong finally make no difference. In such a world we – what we do and what we are – would make no difference. Spare me a gospel of easy love that make my life a thing without consequence.
Bracing stuff, that. I will forbear more quotes but would note title – Death on a Friday Afternoon – as a clue to the substance of the work. It is intensely and intentionally particular. But, then, the core of the Christian faith is particular. This man, Jesus, was born in Bethlehem, in a stable to Mary and Joseph, in the tribe of Judah. He walked the earth for 30 some years in Galilee and, in the end, he hung on a cross on a Friday afternoon between two thieves. He was mocked and died with a cry of dereliction, Eli, Eli, lamath sabachthani. (My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?) There is a grittiness to the heart of the story, an earthiness often lost in the very effort to understand and proclaim a truth to which it bears witness.
H. Richard Niebuhr wrote Christ and Culture to review the myriad ways Christians have tried to reconcile Christ’s unequivocal call to ‘come and die’ with the merciless demands of each day. Before he even begins, he wisely notes: “The first [difficulty] is the impossibility of stating adequately by means of concepts and propositions a principle which presents itself in the form of a person.” That’s good, isn’t it? Jesus most definitive message was his own life. Christians do not, in the end, believe in a set of propositions, religious ideas, spiritual truths or wise teachings. The teachings and truths flow from the man – a man who lived, breathed, wept, ate, made friends and enemies, cooked, was tired after a long day and, to his friends (and to us) said, “Take, eat, this is my body.” Faith and hope are not good in and of themselves. Faith and hope are good when they are anchored in and point toward this man and all that he preached and promised and did. Neuhaus suggests that we stop and consider how the infinite touches the finite on a particular Friday afternoon.