Famous Last Words

Stanley Hauerwas, Cross-Shattered Christ: Meditations on the Seven Last Words (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2011).

Dali CrucifixionWhen a theologian at the top of his game picks up his pen to write a devotional book, short meditations on a theme, you know you are in for a treat. In Cross-Shattered Christ (2004) Stanley Hauerwas reflects on the seven phrases that Jesus spoke on the cross, challenging us to find in them a God who is totally Other while coming to know more profoundly the depths of His humiliation and humility in these last moments before His death. Hauerwas draws on a wide range of traditions in this little book, but none more so than Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Mysterium Paschale (1970), which forces him to face the incarnate God as a mystery; ineffable and beyond our understanding.

Jesus prays the psalms from the cross, which is strange because we usually think of the psalmist as expressing our anguish, not God’s. And yet too often we identify happily with “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” thinking that it is fitting, for we too sometimes feel abandoned by God. But if we stop thinking about ourselves even for a few moments then we see that “this is the very character of God’s kenosis – complete self-emptying made possible by perfect love.” God is different to us, Hauerwas wants us to remember, and he comments that “these words from the cross, and the cross itself, mean that the Father is to be found when all traces of power, at least as we understand power, are absent; that the Spirit’s authoritative witness is most clearly revealed when all forms of human authority are lost; and that our God’s power and authority is to be found exemplified in this captive under the sentence of death.”

Picasso CrucifixionThe fact that these phrases are so fragmented and don’t fit into clear narratives or sermons is annoying, but Hauerwas makes this into a virtue because it forces us to encounter Jesus as we encounter other people – through fragmented moments when we don’t really fully know what they are thinking and feeling and we don’t fully get the background to each and every statement. “Why do the Gospels tell us next to nothing about Jesus growing up, or his relationship to women?” Hauerwas complains. And this dissatisfaction, this need to know and to understand more fully pushes these meditations forward. Were Jesus’ words “Woman, behold they son!” a reminder that we should care for our parents and proof of Christianity’s dedication to the nuclear family? Does “It is finished!” mean that Jesus was giving up, or was it a cry of victory? Hauerwas draws deeply on the psalms and on two thousand years of Christian meditations on these moments as he tries to unpack them. At times he is successful, at others it feels like he is still groping towards a mystery buried inside a mystery, but he is always profound.

When he wonders about Jesus’ comment, “I thirst,” Hauerwas reminds us that this is the gospel of John. Metaphors of drinking and of living water permeate the whole gospel and yet it is always Jesus who is turning the water into wine or offering to sate the needs of others. Suddenly we are confronted with a Jesus in need. Not rhetorically thirsty, like the Jesus who asks the Samaritan woman for a drink just as an excuse to talk to her, but really thirsty. Defined by His lack. And then we find a Jesus who dies. “Jesus is no ‘Christ-figure’ if we mean that his death is an exemplification of how we should all die,” Hauerwas writes. “Not, this is the real and specific death of Jesus, the Savior of all that has been, is, and is to come, who submits to death by our hands.” The reality of Jesus’ death makes it all the more terrifying and all the more mysterious. “So come,” Hauerwas invites us, “draw near, fear not, and behold the mystery and the wonder of Jesus’s cross.”

Holbein Christ in grave

One thought on “Famous Last Words

  1. I had the pleasure of hearing Hauerwas speak, presenting a paper ciriticizing rights language. It had a profound affect on how I view rights language. What a coincidence to run into him, as it were, so closely together! He did not come off as a devotional writer, I say that without condoning or condemning, so it’s interesting how Hauerwas’ own life seems to be a commentary on the deliberately fragmented approach he has taken.

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