The Tre Ore, the “three hours,” is a Good Friday devotional exercise that marks the last hours of Christ on the cross. The service is marked by prayers, readings, and devotional examination of the Seven Words, the last words of Christ.
Those words, those seven, are evocative. They raise questions about forgiveness, about promise, about human suffering and God’s, and they touch on the issue of a teleological consummation, the fulfillment of time coming.
Not a few preachers succumb to publishing their reflections based off the Seven Words. These efforts are sometimes very mixed, but I have two to mention. First, the one I did not like at all, though I very much wanted to like it. The second—a self-disclosure moment—was written by a friend, and it was a friend of that friend who asked if I would take a look at it.
Here’s the one I did not like, but wished otherwise.
James Martin, SJ, has written Seven Last Words: An Invitation to a Deeper Friendship with Jesus. Fr. Martin is widely known and much published. He has at least four books to his name including a well-received first novel, The Abbey, and he is also editor at large of America magazine. So a squeaky reviewer is going to pan his book. What’s my problem, right?
It is his approach. These were homilies he delivered at the behest of Cardinal Timothy Dolan a year ago on Good Friday for the Tre Ore at St. Patrick’s. Fr. Martin shaped his remarks—here’s my trouble—not to the text, but to the theme of his books’ subtitle.
There is nothing wrong and a lot that is right about thematic preaching—if the texts employed permit it. Pick a theme and find the texts to fit, no problem. Here we have a case where the texts are made to fit the theme, and that is sometimes awkward and sometimes impossible, and sometimes impossibly awkward. It creates a disjunction between what the text actually says and how the preacher makes it say something else. To be clear, Fr. Martin has not produced bad meditations; they are very good ones, by and large. The problem is they do not always connect to the text.
The preaching task (think St. Augustine here) is to take the text as it is and question it, staying as close to it as possible. The text thereby determines the homilitical theme; the theme is not predetermined nor imposed by the homilist.
When “friendship with Jesus” arches everything, as it did in Fr. Martin’s hands, every word of the Seven Words is made to say Jesus is a friend who understands you. Certainly Jesus does, but when layered over the text thematically in that way, “It is finished” becomes, as the chapter title puts it, “Jesus Understands Disappointment” and goes from there. Other chapters do much the same; some work, many don’t. It is an uneven approach.
This is only one contrast with the book I did like, Meditations on Christ’s Words from the Cross, by Gilbert Meilaender. A senior research professor at Valparaiso University (a school with Lutheran ties), he is also a pastor in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. He has several books on bio-medical ethics credited to his name and he is a not infrequent contributor to First Things. This is the friend I mentioned. I was hoping I would like the book for that reason, though not for that reason alone do I like it. (Oh, one more self-disclosure: the publisher of his book is the same publisher who produced two of mine.)
Professor Meilaender’s meditations absorbed me exactly because he treated the text seriously and because his remarks sprang from the text. His meditations were delivered during a Tre Ore and did not employ the text as a prop for a theme. The theme rises from the text. If you think that the approach risks one-note sermons, it didn’t happen here. Meilaender explores each of the Seven Words through two different meditations.
To compare apples to apples, Dr. Meilaender’s handling of “It is finished” becomes, first, evidence that “this God on the cross [is] somebody with skin, like us, with us, for us in the flesh to the finish.” “It is finished” becomes a triumphant cry, divinity embracing the fullness of humanity. The second meditation, like the first, questions the text, “What is finished?” Jesus’ work, yes, but “in and through his labor, when we draw our last breath and say ‘it is finished,’ those words will mark not just an end, but a fulfillment and a victory.”
Questioning the text, a pretty practical homilitical approach, searching it for something we have not yet discovered, generates for me more wonder and deeper awe than does the submission of the text to an interpreter with an agenda, however fitful and intelligent it may be. Meilaender did that; Martin, not so much.
Russell E. Saltzman, who writes from Kansas City, Missouri, is also a contributor at Aleteia. His latest book is Speaking of the Dead. He can be reached at email@example.com. His previous First Things contributions are here.