One of the traditional devotional services of Good Friday has been some form of a Friday vigil, most likely between 12 PM and 3 PM, built around the seven last words or addresses of Jesus as he hung upon the cross. Such services are often celebrated in an ecumenical or interfaith setting. I sometimes wonder if the participants give pause to reflect upon how truly different the words of Jesus are recorded across the four Gospels. Mark records only the “My God, My God, why have you abandoned me?” (buttressed by the author of Hebrews 5:7-10, who describes how Jesus offered loud cries and tears to God and Matthew’s account that Jesus in fact died with a loud scream.)
But the scenario of the cross is recorded somewhat differently in the other two evangelists, Luke and John. In Luke’s Gospel Jesus has full cognizance of what is going on around him. While carrying his cross, he stops to deliver a foreboding message to weeping men. As he was being crucified, Jesus seeks forgiveness for his tormenters on the grounds that “they know not what they do.” Later, raised on the cross, Jesus proclaims a thrilling prophesy to the repentant thief, “This day you will be with me in paradise.” And Jesus, at the moment of his death, makes the dignified pronouncement of self giving, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”
In John’s account Jesus uses his final hours on the cross to the full. He makes provision for his mother to be cared for by John—interpreted by many scholars as the formulation of a new community. He seeks wine, and when he had drunk it, proclaimed, “Now it is finished.” (Recall Mark, “I shall not drink wine again until I drink it anew in the Father’s kingdom.”) In John’s Gospel Jesus validates the full arrival of God’s kingdom, and to mark this new kingdom and its first members, Jesus at the moment of his death hands forth his spirit, i.e., the Holy Spirit. Even after his death, Jesus continues his work; the soldier’s lance releases a torrent of blood and water that presumably splashes Mary and John with the water of new baptism and the blood of the Eucharistic bond.
It becomes clear, then, that each evangelist brings a unique facet of Jesus to his Gospel, and certainly to the passion and resurrection narratives. Thus, to meet the spiritual needs of catechists as well as instructional ones, I recommend several books you may find helpful in this highly charged time of the Liturgical Season.
The Catholic Church lost perhaps its greatest native son biblical scholar when Father Raymond Brown died, relatively prematurely, at age 71 in 1998. The author of many detailed and scholarly works on the New Testament, Father Brown nonetheless found time to summarize his lengthy works into eminently readable reflections and summaries easily comprehended by the general reading public. I cite two of them here. A Crucified Christ in Holy Week is a 71-page essay which elaborates to much greater depth the differences in the Passion narratives I alluded to above. This work is presently available on Amazon Prime for two-day delivery or used at very reasonable rates.
The partner piece to this work is Father Brown’s A Risen Christ in Eastertime, again a brief, 95-page summary of his research into the Easter narratives, also available on Amazon Prime. The Resurrection accounts in each Gospel can only be understood in light of the Passion narratives that precede them, and the author connects each of the Easter narratives to the theological portrait of Christ presented throughout a particular Gospel.
For a more advanced overview of the Passion and Resurrection I heartily recommend Francis J. Moloney’s The Resurrection of the Messiah, which also unites the Passion narratives with the subsequent Resurrection accounts. This 200-page work is also available through Amazon Prime. (See my review of this work on April 22, 2014 at the book’s site.) This work so impressed me that I determined to return to Resurrection study and I will be presenting a workshop on the Easter narratives at the NCEA Convention on Thursday, April 9, in Orlando.
In studying the Passion and Resurrection narratives over the years I have been amazed at the very strong influence of the Hebrew Scriptures upon the evangelists, notably in the Passion/Resurrection matrix. It is hard for me to understand how we can teach the New Testament Jesus of Nazareth without a substantive understanding of the Old Testament, notably its history, law, prophesy, apocalyptic, and wisdom literature. The other evening, at a chancery meeting of catechist instructors, the point was made that catechists and teachers look upon required Hebrew Scripture study as a necessary evil, and little more. The books I have cited here make a strong case that if we do not know the Jewish heritage of Jesus and the texts that shaped his faith outlook, we are essentially pontificating about a Jesus we know nothing about.