The reality is that we first and foremost see God on the cross, says
Stanley Hauerwas, in the second extract from his Lent book
RECALL holding a just-born infant, or think of an occasion when you cradled
a sick and soon-to-die grandparent or elderly friend. We are drawn to embrace
those we love, but they can be so precious, fragile, and beautiful that we fear
to take hold of them. These cross-shaped words of Jesus, words uttered in
agony, put us in a similar position. We are at once drawn to these words, but
we fear taking them in our hands, realising that we cannot comprehend their
To comprehend these words, we rightly fear, would threaten all we hold dear,
that is, the everyday. Everyday death always threatens the everyday, but we
depend on our death-denying routines to return life to normality. But this
death, and these death-determined words, are not ordinary. This is the death of
the Son of God, a death that encompasses death, challenging our assumption that
we have or can "come to terms with death" on our own terms. To comprehend this
death, to be faced with these words, means life can never return to normal.
This first word, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are
doing," seems to offer us comfort. Yet, in Mysterium Paschale, Hans
von Balthasar reminds us that this first word from the cross was made the
"first word" by virtue of a questionable attempt to harmonise the Gospels. In
fact, von Balthasar argues that the first of the seven last words should be the
only word we have from the cross in the books of Matthew and Mark — that is,
the cry of abandonment.
However, to begin with "Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani? My God, my
God, why have you forsaken me?" asks too much of us. What are we to make of
such a cry if this is the Son of God? We cannot suppress the thought: "If you
are the Son of God, should you be saying this? If you are God, if you are the
Second Person of the Trinity, how can you be abandoned?" This is clearly a God
with a problem.
There is ample precedent in the Psalms for expressions of being abandoned by
God, but we think the Psalms express our despair, our feeling of abandonment,
not God’s abandonment. We assume, therefore, it is not seemly for God to pray
Confronted by these words from the cross, we find it almost impossible to
resist trying to protect God from being God. Accordingly, we seek some way to
explain how or why these words of abandonment could be uttered by Jesus.
Von Balthasar must be wrong. Beginning with Jesus’s request that those that
crucify him be forgiven — which, we try to remember, may also include us —
seems to offer the kind of explanation we need to save Jesus from the absurdity
of being abandoned. These explanations are often called atonement theories.
Such theories try to help us understand why Jesus, the Son of God, had to
die. We think it is really very simple: Jesus had to die because we needed and
need to be forgiven. But, ironically, such a focus shifts attention from Jesus
to us. This is a fatal turn, I fear, because as soon as we begin to think this
is all about us, about our need for forgiveness, bathos drapes the cross,
hiding from us the reality that here we first and foremost see God.
Moreover, as soon as these words from the cross are bent to serve our needs,
to give us a god we believe we need, it is almost impossible to resist
entertaining ourselves with speculative readings of the words of Jesus from the
cross. For example, we think what a wonderful saviour we have in Jesus, who,
even in his agony, kindly offers us forgiveness. Of course, we are not all that
sure what we have done that requires such forgiveness, but we are willing to
try to think up something.
Ironically, by trying to understand what it means for us to need
forgiveness, too often our attention becomes focused on something called the
"human condition" rather than the cross and the God who hangs there.
We can even begin to consider whether we need forgiveness when we did not
know what we were doing. It seems Jesus does not understand that we, that is,
we who assume modern accounts of responsibility, need to be forgiven only when
we know what we have done. However, we give Jesus the benefit of the doubt by
acknowledging that we often do things we should not have done and that we may
have had some vague sense that we should not have done them. So we probably do
need forgiving for what we have done when we may have had some sense we should
not have done what we did.
Our narcissism even tempts us to try to understand the death of Jesus by
analogy with other deaths. Deaths imposed by unjust powers. Deaths resulting
from prophetic stands. Deaths that seem meaningless at the time but are made
significant by later developments. Deaths that provide some hope against the
hopelessness that our own deaths seem to make unavoidable.
But the death of Jesus is not that of a martyr. These "last words" from the
cross are not just another example of truth spoken because nothing is left to
lose. By allowing himself to be handed over, Jesus in his dying is not trying
to give meaning and purpose to death. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer observed, the
death and resurrection of Jesus is not the solution to the problem of death.
Rather, this is the death of the Son of God.
It is also a stark reminder that these words are not first and foremost
about us, about our petty sinfulness. It is the Second Person of the Trinity
who asks, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." The Son
intimately addresses the Father. We look away, embarrassed by a love so
According to Herbert McCabe, these words, "Father, forgive", are nothing
less than the interior life of the Triune God made visible to the eyes of
faith. The Son asks the Father to forgive, a forgiveness unimaginable if this
is all about us and our struggle to comprehend the meaning of our lives in the
face of death.
By this deed, by this word, Jesus rules out all speculative theories that
seek to subject these words and this death to our understanding about what is
required for the reconciliation of the world. In von Balthasar’s words:
Over against such freewheeling speculation in empty space, it should not
only be remembered that God is in his (ever free!) sovereignty the absolute
ground and meaning of his own action, so that only foolishness can cause us to
neglect his actual deeds, in favour of scouting round for other possibilities
of acting. But, more than this, we must state positively that to be in
solidarity with the lost is something greater than just dying for them in an
externally representative manner.
It is more than so announcing the Word of God that this proclamation,
through the opposition it arouses among sinners, happens to lead to a violent
death . . . for the redeeming act consists in a wholly unique bearing
of the total sin of the world by the Father’s wholly unique Son, whose
Godmanhood is alone capable of such an office.
Is it any wonder we find Good Friday so shattering? On this day and with
these words, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing,"
all our presumptions about God and the salvation wrought by God are rendered
presumptuous. Moreover, that is how we discover that what happens on the cross
really is about us, but the "what" that is about us challenges our presumptions
about what kind of salvation we need.
Through the cross of Christ, we are drawn into the mystery of the Trinity.
This is God’s work on our behalf. We are made members of a kingdom governed by
a politics of forgiveness and redemption. The world is offered an alternative
unimaginable by our sin-determined fantasies.
Such a politics is not constituted by vague longings for distant ideals, but
rather by flesh and blood. Flesh and blood as real as Christian de Chergé, the
Trappist prior of the Tibhirine monastery in Algeria. Christian and his fellow
monks knew their refusal to leave Algeria after the rise of Islamic radicals in
1993 might result in their deaths.
In expectation of his death — he was beheaded in 1996 by Muslim radicals —
Christian left a testament with his family to be opened on his death. In that
testament, he asks that those who love him pray that he was worthy of such a
sacrifice. He expresses the fear that his death will be used to accuse in
general these people, these Islamic people, whom he has come to love. He ends
his testament observing:
Obviously, my death will justify the opinion of all those who dismissed me
as naïve or idealistic: "Let him tell us what he thinks now." But such people
should know that my death will satisfy my most burning curiosity. At last, I
will be able — if God pleases — to see the children of Islam as He sees them,
illuminated in the glory of Christ, sharing in the gift of God’s Passion and of
the Spirit, whose secret joy will always be to bring forth our common humanity
amidst our differences.
I give thanks to God for this life, completely mine yet completely theirs,
too, to God, who wanted it for joy against, and in spite of, all odds. In this
Thank You — which says everything about my life — I include you, my friends
past and present, and those friends who will be here at the side of my mother
and father, of my sisters and brothers — thank you a thousandfold.
And to you, too, my friend of the last moment, who will not know what you
are doing. Yes, for you, too, I wish this thank-you, this "àDieu", whose image
is in you also, that we may meet in heaven, like happy thieves, if it pleases
God, our common Father. Amen! Insha Allah!
Christian de Chergé is a martyr made possible by Christ’s death. His life is
a witness that allows us to glimpse what it means to be drawn into the life of
God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the life nailed to the cross.
To so be made part of God’s love strips us of all our presumed certainties,
making possible lives like that of Christian de Chergé, that is, lives lived in
the confidence that Jesus, the only Son of God, alone has the right to ask the
Father to forgive people like us who would kill rather than face death.
That is why we are rightly drawn to the cross, why we rightly remember the
words of Jesus, in the hope that we might be for the world the forgiveness made
ours through the cross of Christ.
This is an edited extract from Cross-Shattered Christ: Meditations
on the seven last words
by Stanley Hauerwas (DLT, £9.95 (CT Bookshop £9); 0-232-52599-4.
To place an order for this book, email details to