The Fifth Word from the cross:
The Fifth Word is only two words.
Much earlier in John’s Gospel we read that the Feast of Booths was at hand and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. The feast commemorated the Israelites’ wandering in the wilderness after they had been rescued from Egypt, and in their wanderings they knew what it was to be thirsty. On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and proclaimed, “If any one thirst, let him come to me and drink.” Jesus is the fountain, and now, on the cross, the fountain thirsts.
Reflections on the Fifth Word from the cross traditionally refer to the Church’s missionary impulse, an impulse driven by Jesus’ thristing for souls. At the entrance of the chapel of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity in the Bronx are the words, “I THIRST, I QUENCH.” These are the same words at the entrance of the community’s chapels all over the world. “We want,” said Mother Teresa, “to satiate the thirst of Jesus on the cross for the love of souls.” Our service to others whom we recognize, in the words of Mother Teresa, as “Jesus in distressed disguise” is a drink offered to him. In offering that drink, our thirst is quenched. I thirst, I quench.
…The intensity of the sisters’ devotion and the simplicity of their lives embarassed me. How complex and cluttered with plans and projects is my life compared to theirs. Then it came to me: Their austere attentiveness was a thirsting for the water of life. It was an ecstatic thirsting. In the communion their thirst was quenched and, at the same time, intensified. The reality of this was palpable; you could feel it. The words of Psalm 42 came rushing upon me:
As a hart longs
for flowing streams,
so longs my soul
for thee, O God.
My soul thirsts for God,
for the living God.
When shall I come and behold
the face of God?
From the cross, “I thirst.” And those who kneel at his cross share his thirst, which is both a thirst for him and for all for whom he thirsts.
On this Friday called good, everything is at last coming together. All the references to the foundation of the world testify to this event in which the world is refounded. Jesus had earlier prayed, “Father, I desire that they also, whom thou hast given me, may be with me where I am, to behold my glory which thou hast given me in thy love for me before the foundation of the world.” And so it is, says St. Paul writing to the Ephesians: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world.”
From the foundation of the world to the end of the world. As the risen Lord says to the disciples: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.”
So it is that the words “I thirst” prompt the offering of the cup–in the form of a sponge on the hyssop of the covenant–that Jesus drinks to the bitter end. Here is intimated the new convenant in his blood. It is like and unlike the sprinkled blood of the Passover lambs. Were it not his own blood, were it not the blood of the “lamb slain from the foundation of the world,” then, the Letter to Hebrews tells us, “he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world.” But this is not the blood of just any lamb; it is the blood of the Lamb of God, and therefore this suffering is definitive; it is enough for now and forever. From the foundation of the world, everything had been pointing to what happened on the cross.
The missionary mandate is to go and make disciples, to incorporate into the eucharistic covenant those who are “chosen in Christ from before the foundation of the world.” The mandate is to teach them all that he has commanded us. To teach them how he said on the night before he died, “Do this in memory of me.” In the doing of the Eucharist, the hyssop is pressed also to our lips, and we are joined to him on the cross. Our thirst is momentarily assuaged, but the wine also sharpens our anticipation of something still to happen: “I tell you I shall not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”
The first apostles were also eyewitnesses. The opening passage of 1 John lays out the mandate and the motive of Christian mission:
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life–the life was made manifest, and we saw it, and testify to it, and proclaim to you the eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us–that which we have seen and heard we proclaim to you, so that you may have fellowship with us; and our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing this that our joy may be complete.
Why the urgency about telling others? So that you may have fellowship with us and our joy may be complete. If this gospel is true, it is not simply “true for me”–it is true for all or it is not true at all. Here Christians have to bite the bullet and dare to go against the cultural grain. In our culture, the one truth imposed upon almost everybody is that you must never impose your truth on others…If by “impose” is meant that we try to force people to agree, then we certainly must not impose the gospel. In the encyclical on mission–Redemptoris Missio (The Mission of the Redeemer)–John Paul II says, “The Church imposes nothing. She only proposes. But what she proposes she proposes as the truth. This is basic. It is so basic that, if we don’t understand this, all talk about mission really is no more than arrogance and presumption. The one who said “I thirst” and received on the hyssop the wine of the new covenant, representing the blood shed and the blood shared by the eucharistic community to which he surrenders his spirit, this one is either Lord of all or he is Lord not at all. I have said that on Good Friday we should not rush to Easter, but on Good Friday we are not playing “let’s pretend,” as though we don’t know what happened the next Sunday morning. What happened in the resurrection vindicates the claim that this One on the cross is, in fact, Lord of all. Only the resurrection could vindicate that claim.
The opening passage of 1 John cited above is all about facts, about things that happened. Specificity is all. When a certain person named Tiberius was emperor at Rome, certain Jews in Palestine took up with a rabbi and prophet called Jesus of Nazareth. They were devastated by his death, which was somehow endured “for their sake,” and then they encountered him alive after his execution, and he was alive in a way that precluded his dying again. John writes, “That which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you.”
There were seven missionary monks in Algeria during a time of great domestic turmoil. It was the spring of 1996, to be precise, when a group of Islamic terrorists raided their monastery at Titherine, took the monks captive, held them hostage for two months, and then killed them by slitting their throats. Shortly before that happened, Father Christian de Chergé had left with his family in France a last testament “to be opened in the event of my death.” Reading it, perhaps through our tears, we may come to know what the Lord meant when he said, “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.”
Last Testament of Christian de Chergé
If it should happen one day–and it could be today–that I become a victim of the terrorism which now seems ready to encompass all the foreigners living in Algeria, I would like my community, my Church, my family, to remember that my life was given to God and to this country. I ask them to accept that the One Master of all life was not a stranger to this brutal departure. I ask them to pray for me: for how could I be found worthy of such an offering? I ask them to be able to associate such a death with the many other deaths that were just as violent, but forgotten through indifference and anonymity.
My life has no more value than any other. Nor any less value. In any case, it has not the innocence of childhood. I have lived long enough to know that I share in the evil which seems, alas, to prevail in the world, even in that which would strike me blindly. I should like, when the time comes, to have a clear space which would allow me to beg forgiveness of God and of all my fellow human beings, and at the same time to forgive with all my heart the one who would strike me down.
I could not desire such a death. It seems to me important to state this. I do not see, in fact, how I could rejoice if this people I love were to be accused indiscriminately of my murder. It would be to pay too dearly for what will, perhaps, be called “the grace of martyrdom,” to owe it to an Algerian, whoever he may be, especially if he says he is acting in fidelity to what he believes to be Islam. I know the scorn with which Algerians as a whole can be regarded. I know also the caricature of Islam which a certain kind of Islamism encourages. It is too easy to give oneself a good conscience by identifying this religious way with the fundamentalist ideologies of the extremists. For me, Algeria and Islam are something different; they are a body and a soul. I have proclaimed this often enough, I believe, in the sure knowledge of what I have received in Algeria, in the respect of believing Muslims–finding there so often that true strand of the Gospel I learned at my mother’s knee, my very first Church.
My death, clearly, will appear to justify those who hastily judged me naive or idealistic: “Let him tell us now what he thinks of it!” But these people must realize that my most avid curiosity will then be satisfied. This is what I shall be able to do, if God wills–immerse my gaze in that of the Father, to contemplate with him his children of Islam just as he sees them, all shining with the glory of Christ, the fruit of his Passion, filled with the Gift of the Spirit, whose secret joy will always be to establish communion and to refashion the likeness, delighting in the differences.
For this life given up, totally mine and totally theirs, I thank God who seems to have wished it entirely for the sake of that joy in everything and in spite of everything. In this “thank you,” which is said for everything in my life from now on, I certainly include you, friends of yesterday and today, and you my friends of this place, along with my mother and father, my brothers and sisters and their families–the hundredfold granted as was promised!
And you also, the friend of my final moment, who would not be aware of what you were doing. Yes, for you also I wish this “thank you”–and this adieu–to commend you to the God whose face I see in yours.
And may we find each other, happy “good thieves,” in Paradise, if it pleases God, the Father of us both. Amen.
– from Death on a Friday Afternoon, Richard John Neuhaus
Dear Father Neuhaus,
I miss your prose and your wisdom. I hope you too find yourself with Dysmas, Father Christian and all the saints in Paradise looking down on us, “shining with the glory of Christ.”
P.S. To all my readers, later today there will be an audio file of an older interview Father Neuhaus did talking about this book with Sheila Liaugminas on her show website.