As Timothy Radcliffe’s father lay dying
he asked to listen to Haydn’s musical composition ‘Seven Last Words’, based on the final words of Christ on the Cross.
In this extract from his latest book, the Dominican friar meditates on the power and beauty of the Son of Man’s final words to mankind. They epitomise, he says, the depth of Jesus’s human experience and speak profoundly to the human condition
On the evening of December 7 1993, I had just arrived in Jerusalem from Rome to visit the Ecole Biblique, the Dominican centre for Biblical studies. I had not even unpacked when I received a phone call to say that my father was dying. Immediately I flew to England and I was able to have a few last days with him before he died in hospital, surrounded by his family. He had a passionate love of music and so we bought him a Walkman for use in the ward. I asked him what CDs he would like to have and he told me to bring Mozart’s Requiem and Haydn’s Seven Last Words. This was his way of preparing himself for death. According to the Gospels, Jesus spoke these last words in Jerusalem. I had flown from that place to be with my own father as he lived his passion with their help.
We can trace back the devotion to the Seven Last Words of Jesus on the Cross to the 12th century. Various authors had woven one harmonious account of Jesus’s life out of the four Gospels. This brought together his last words on the cross, seven phrases, which became a topic of meditation. These last words were commented on by St Bonaventure and popularised by the Franciscans. They were immensely important in late medieval piety, and were linked with meditation on the seven wounds of Christ, and seen as remedies for the Seven Deadly Sins. According to the Hours of St Bede, whoever meditated on these words of Jesus would be saved and Our Lady would appear to him 30 days before his death.
However, when I was asked to preach on the Seven Last Words of Jesus at Seattle Cathedral on Good Friday 2002, I must admit that I hesitated. They appeared to belong to a gloomy spirituality, which dwelt on suffering and sin, and with which I could not easily identify. Of course the Gospel says that we are to take up our cross daily and follow Christ, but too often this has spilt over into a Chris tianity that seemed to me to be joyless, life-denying and with even a hint of masochism. St John of the Cross says that “the soul which really longs for divine wisdom first longs for suffering, that it may enter more deeply into the thicket of the cross”. I confess that I have no longing to suffer at all! I was reminded of these gloomy words from Richard II: Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs; Make dust our paper, and with rainy eyes Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth.
Let’s choose executors, and talk of wills.
My faith is about life, the birth of a child and victory over death. Of course this necessarily passes through Good Friday, but why remain focused on that moment? I had too often encountered suffering and death, especially during my travels around the Order in places like Rwanda and Burundi, to be ignorant of its awful violence.
I had been with many brethren as they died and seen the limits of what can be said but only shown.
And I had doubts about whether one should preach even one sermon on Good Friday, let alone seven. Faced with the horror of the death of the Son of God, its scandalous nonsense, then what is there to say? It marks the end of words. Must one always be talking? All one can do is to wait for Easter. However I accepted to preach on the Seven Last Words in memory of my beloved father who shared his faith with me.
These words had given him strength in the face of death. What might they give me?
Last words are especially fascinating. Human beings are speaking animals. For us to be alive is to be in communication. Death is not just the cessation of bodily life. It is silence. So what we say in the face of imminent silence is revealing. It may be resigned; Ned Kelly, the Australian bank robber, managed, “Such is life” just before he was executed. Lord Palmerston’s, “The last thing that I shall do is to die” is more defiant, or just pragmatic. One may be gloriously mistaken, like the civil war general who said of the enemy sharpshooters, “They could not hit an elephant at this distance.” Few of us manage the grandeur of the Emperor Vespasian’s “Woe is me; I think that I am becoming a god.” Pitt the Younger is supposed to have said: “Oh my country, how I leave my country”, but the more reliable tradition gives us: “I think that I could eat one of Bellamy’s meat pies.” In fact many dying people ask for food and drink. St Thomas Aquinas asked for fresh herrings, which were miraculously provided, and Anton Chekhov announced that it was never too late for a glass of champagne.
In this book we are concerned not just with the last words of a man, the last things that Jesus, a first century Jew, happened to say. We see the Word of God spoken in the face of silence. As Christians we believe that everything exists and is sustained by that Word which was from the beginning. It is the meaning of all our lives. As John wrote in the prologue to his Gospel, “In him was life and the life was the light of humanity.” What is at issue for us is not just the meaning of his life but of every life. When he was silenced, then were all human words entombed with him?
Our faith in the Resurrection is not just that this man who died was brought back to life. The Word was not silenced. These Seven Last Words live. The tomb did not engulf them. This is not just because they were heard, remembered and written down, like the last words of Socrates. It means that the silence of the tomb was broken for ever, and those words were not the last. “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” When martyrs face death, they claim the right to speak. They may protest their innocence or preach their faith, but always in the face of silence they wish their words to be heard, because the Word itself was not silenced and never will be. The early martyrs often died because they refused to hand over the Gospel words. They would not be, in the literal sense of the word, traitors of these words of life. These are the words that are entrusted to us. The Roman Governor asks Euplius why he would not surrender these books. “Because I am a Christian and it is forbidden to give them up. Better it is to die than surrender them. In them is eternal life. Whoever gives them up loses eternal life.” For Christians what is at issue is not just whether these words of Jesus are true, but ultimately whether any human words have meaning at all, even of those who do not share our faith. Are our attempts to make sense of our existence in vain, in the face of that ultimate silence when all the universe will grow cold and dead? Do we live between the Creation and the Kingdom, or between just the Big Bang and the final silence?
The Christian story is a drama about words and their meaning, God’s Word and ours. It begins with the Word through which everything came to be. In the Middle Ages, theologians loved to dwell on one dramatic moment in the story.
When the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and made the announcement of Jesus’s conception, then would Mary say “Yes”? They loved to imagine Mary hesitating while the whole of humanity nervously waits to see what she will say. Adam and Eve, and all the dead urge her on. The whole of creation holds its breath. The coming of the Word depends upon her word. St Bernard begs her,“Answer oh Virgin, answer the angel speedily. Speak the word and receive the Word; offer what is yours and conceive what is of God...Why delay? Why tremble? Believe, speak, receive.” This epitomises our immense human responsibility as those who speak words. Our words give life or death; they create or destroy. The climax of this drama is Jesus’s last words on the Cross. We treasure them because here is rooted our faith that human words do indeed reach for and touch some ultimate destiny and purpose. Our words may be inadequate and barely touch the mystery, but they are not empty.
In Robert Bolt’s play, A Man for All Seasons, when Meg tries to persuade her father, St Thomas More, to take the oath because he could disavow the words in his mind, he replies: “What is an oath but words we say to God? When a man takes an oath, Meg, he’s holding his own self in his own hands. Like water. And if he opens his fingers then – he needn’t hope to find himself again.” Our faith is not just that human existence has a particular meaning, but that it has meaning at all, which transcends all our words. In this trust we may find allies and teachers in those who hold other faiths or none.
These Seven Last Words invite us to believe that words do matter. And the most fundamental conflict is not with those who find their faith in other words, but with those who hold that nothing has any meaning at all. So whoever cares for words and cherishes meaning can help us hear the Word, which is the life and light of all human beings.
Czeslaw Milosz wrote, “Poetry by its essence has always been on the side of life.” And Seamus Heaney talks of poetry’s “function as an agent of possible transformation, of evolution towards that more radiant and generous life which the imagination desires”.
When I visited the room in the university in which the Jesuit martyrs of El Salvador had been murdered, I saw that their assassins had also shot their books. Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament was riddled with bullet holes. It was open at the article on the Holy Spirit, the one whose inspiration is in all the words of the Gospel.
The hatred of these murderers was not just for these priests but for their words, and yet these men filled with hatred must also have been impelled by some blind hunger for meaning too.
In May 2003, I was taken to the Tuol Sleng genocide centre in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. It was one of hundreds of such places in which the Pol Pot regime eliminated its victims. The signs around the centre all insisted that there must be complete silence. Any sounds were instantly punishable by death.
This silence was the first shadow of the killing fields. The walls of the cells are lined with thousands of photographs of the silenced. Some of them look at the camera with blank faces, and some, especially the young, smile as if hoping for a response. Only one of them came out alive.
Usually the attack on words takes a less dramatic form. Evil can make language banal. It subverts its beauty and nuance. It trivializes our words. Herbert McCabe wrote: “It is entirely appropriate that Hitler’s table talk should have been so boring.
“Bad, cheap behaviour devalues the structures of human meaning in the way that bad, cheap prose devalues the languages.
“There is an appearance of communication concealing a failure to express oneself, to give and realise oneself.
“If I am right in saying that life is constituted by communication then such behaviour diminishes life or diminishes my existence.” This is a time of incredible creativity for English literature. The English language is being stretched by bright young novelists and poets from all sorts of ethnic groups within Britain, and from all over the world. The language is alive and young still. And yet often in the media one sees it degraded and trivialised, used carelessly and without attention to distinction and nuance. All this subverts human communion.
When I returned to live in England after nine years abroad, I was surprised to hear almost everyone speaking Estuary English. The spread of this new lingua franca must surely be motivated by a good desire to overthrow the divisions which used to fracture English society. I grew up in a society in which one could tell someone’s class the moment that they began to speak. Language was not only a way of being in communion but of asserting separation and of claiming superiority. Thanks be to God, this is ever less the case.
But if our desire for a classless society takes the form of the degradation of our common language, then we are undermining the means whereby we may make communion. The trivialisation of language thwarts our ability to make a common life with those who are different. If we see communion only as the solidarity of those who are the same, then of course subtlety is not needed. As one can hear in the House of Commons, it is enough to grunt and bray, to cheer and boo.
George Steiner wrote a beautiful book called Real Presences. The subtitle was “Is there anything in what we say?” It explored the breaking of the covenant between words and the world during the last hundred years or more, the loss of our confidence that our words mean anything at all.
In these seven last sayings of Jesus we witness the ultimate contest between words and silence, meaning and nonsense, and believe that the victory has been won.
In 1985 Brian Keenan went to the Lebanon to teach English. He was kidnapped and held prisoner for four and a half years. For the first months he was in solitary confinement and often in the dark. Then he was often sustained by words. He scribbled words on every scrap of paper that he could find, or on the walls, to save himself from insanity, to prove that he existed. He often wrote poems, since these would be hard for his captors to decipher. He was sustained by words that had lain hidden in his memory but which at this moment swum into consciousness and gave him life.
During one moment of confrontation with his captors, “Blake’s aphorism swam into my head: ‘The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction’ and with that thought I silently hummed to myself, ‘Bring me my bow of burning gold, bring me my arrows of desire’, and at the same time pulsating in the back of my dead came the words: ‘Yea, though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.’ ” These words kept Brian Keenan sane, and alive. These last words of Jesus may lodge in our minds and hearts and sustain us whatever we may face: failure, loss, silence and death.
Various incidents of the Passion narratives, such as the dividing of Jesus’s clothes and his final thirst, are said to happen “to fulfill the scriptures”. This may sound odd to our ears, as if Jesus were an actor who was following a series of stage instructions: “Now is the moment when I must say that I am thirsty.” Clearly this is not so, and yet these references are reminders that a drama is indeed being enacted on Calvary.
The Romans crucified thousands of people. A body hanging from a tree must have been a common sight, especially in times of political unrest. And so Jesus’s death may have looked just like any old execution, without special significance, one of those things that just happen.
For us Jesus’s cross is the centre of innumerable paintings, mosaics, sculptures and carvings, which are placed at the centre of our most holy places. But the evangelists knew that it might not have seemed like that at the time, but rather something unremarkable, happening in a corner, on the edge of a rather unimportant city in a minor province of the Empire. In his poem “Musée des Beaux Arts” Auden tells us that: About suffering they were never wrong, The Old Masters: how well they understood Its human position; how it takes place While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along; How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting For the miraculous birth, there always must be Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating On a pond at the edge of the wood: They never forgot That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot Where dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
These references, to the fulfillment of the scriptures, show us that though for the passerby at the time nothing especially important may appeared to have been happening – just another troublemaker getting his comeuppance – yet it was indeed the long awaited climax in the drama of God’s relationship with humanity.
What was at issue was all the sacred writings, and indeed all the words we ever use to fumble for meaning.
Seven Last Words: In the Bible seven is the number of perfection. God created the world and rested on the seventh day, the day of completion and fulfillment. These seven words belong to God’s completion of that creation. I was astonished to discover that they have their own beautiful structure. They begin with words addressed to the Father, find their centre in a cry at the absence of that Father, and return to address him again at the end. The words that Jesus addresses to us are held within that relationship with his Father, just as it is there that we shall find our home, within the life of the Trinity.
We nestle within that divine conversation. And the words that Jesus addresses to those at the foot of the cross grow in intimacy, as if death draws him nearer to us rather than taking him away. Jesus addresses us first as a King, and then as our brother, before entering most intimately into our desolation and loss.
Seven Words; but it is all the speaking of one Word of life that comes to completion in the Resurrection. In the words of William Saint-Thierry addressed to the Father: “Everything he did and everything he said on earth, even the insults, the spitting, the buffeting, the cross and the grave, all that was nothing but yourself speaking in the Son, appealing to us by your love, and stirring up our love for you.” Because these seven words are the speaking of one Word of life, then they can only be understood in the light of the Resurrection. When the Word rose from the tomb it was not just the ratification of the words on the cross. It was more than a sign that he had been right all along. It is then that these words find the fullness of their meaning. For example, the first word is “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” The Resurrection does more than confirm these words, that we can trust that the Father will indeed forgive us. We are shown what forgiveness is, that it is more than forgetting. It is Easter transformation, God’s irrepressible fertility, an empty tomb.
Seven Last Words by Timothy Radcliffe OP, is published by Burns and Oates, priced £5.99.