As part of my Lenten devotions, I started reading the book Seven Last Words by James Martin, SJ. As Fr. Martin explains, there is a tradition, today more common in Protestant churches than Catholic ones, of reflecting during Holy Week on the seven phrases that Jesus uttered on the day of his crucifixion. In the Catholic version of the tradition, churches will invite seven different people to comment on each one of the quotations at a service on Good Friday. The invitees are not all priests — some are laymen, women, and sometimes even non-Catholics.
The practice is not widely observed; I have never been a member of a church parish that practiced this. I have seen it at a few Baptist churches, however. Since I know that no one is ever likely to invite me to do anything of the sort, I am taking it on myself in the time we have left until Easter (March 27) to do the reflections myself.
This is a departure from the usual subject matter of my blog, I realize. But it is an exercise I would like to go through, if for not other reason than to give voice to ideas I have touched on at various times in my essays, but never directly expressed.
In the world, we can find every degree of spiritualism, from those who live practically every moment in prayer to those who reject religion in every way. My sympathies lie towards the religious side: I have never thought it possible to live without some kind of spiritual life. To live with the belief that there is nothing transcendent about the universe is, in my view, to live an empty life. Many people, I know, strongly disagree; but for me, the universe cannot simply exist, it must have a meaning, a purpose. There is no sense in my fighting the idea. Purpose has much more of a hold on me than I have a hold on it.
I have never attempted biblical reflections before, at least not aloud. These reflections are solely my own, but they are informed by my Catholic faith. I lay no claims on them as infallibly adhering to Church doctrine (although I think they are close). I do not desire to play the theologian. I say this not because I have anything against theologians, but because arguments about things like the biblical justification for the sacraments, or the meaning of “justification through faith,” or the meaning of the Eucharist, are not my focus here. They are interesting, but not essential. They are endpoints for belief, not its foundation.
The central challenge of religion for me is not theological knowledge, which is arguable, but faith, which is not. Faith is a profound mystery. How it works, what it means, these things elude me. This is not to say that faith itself eludes me; I feel it, but I don’t know exactly what it is. Faith, in this sense, is like love. Sometimes we find that we have loved another person without realizing it, such as when a friend moves out of town and we feel his absence. Brothers and sisters can love like that — they may live in and out of contact with one another for decades, only to discover late in life how deeply they cared for each other after all. Other times love is palpable and constant, like a mother’s love for her child, or the love of newlyweds, of of partners who have been committed to one another for decades.
Faith is like this. Sometimes faith is bold and intense, as present and awesome as a mountain. Other times it is present, but unnoticed. We have faith in things that we may not realize we believe in until that faith is threatened or betrayed. My faith in God has been like that. I am not always aware I believe in God, and sometimes almost think I don’t, until something happens that threatens that faith, and then suddenly it is plain. Then it emerges, like a flag out of the fog of battle.
And that is what these reflections will be about. Not about theology, not about religion, but about something deeper. Faith, made plain.
The Seven Last Words of Christ are:
“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Luke 23:46.
“I am thirsty.” John 19:28.
“It is finished.” John 19:30.
For a complete list of links to the seven essays on this topic, please go here.