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Book Review

06/15/2016

SEVEN LAST WORDS: An invitation to a deeper friendship with Jesus by James Martin, SJ. New York, Harper Collins, 2016. Hardcover, 134 pages, $23.99 (Can). Reviewed by Edwin Buettner

This book of reflections on the last words of Jesus as he hung dying on the cross is based on Rev. James Martin’s homilies as preached at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, at the request of Cardinal Timothy Dolan. The text’s style preserves a focused and spare homiletic format that bespeaks not only the author’s depth of scriptural understanding but also attests to his personal faith. As is true of all effective preaching, Martin encourages the reader/listener to connect the lived reality with the Paschal Mystery as recounted in the Gospels.

The seven “words” (more accurately, “sayings”) that form the basis of this book “offer a privileged access into Jesus’ life and therefore an entrée into who he really is ... someone with whom we can enter more deeply into relationship.” Without in any way denying Jesus’ divine nature, Martin emphasizes the importance of regarding Jesus’ crucifixion as the quintessential sign of his humanity. When Christians enter into the Passion, they encounter “important intersection(s) between Jesus’ life and (their) own.” For those who can prayerfully participate in the via dolorosa, it is no longer an abstraction, but an experiencing of Jesus’ uniting his own sufferings with the universal pain of humanity. From this perspective, atonement may best be understood as God’s at-one-ment with creation.

Nonetheless, these homilies encourage readers not to remain fixated on the sufferings of Jesus, but to extend the compassion evoked by them toward the here and now pain of those who inhabit the world with us: “Shed a tear for those who suffer bodily today — through thirst or hunger or nakedness or imprisonment or torture or famine or assault or abuse.” Clearly, the implication for followers of Christ is action: to bind the wounds of Jesus by tending to those who suffer.

“Today you will be with me in Paradise.” These words to the convicted man at his side express the hope of the glorious transformation that awaits those who suffer with Christ. Martin observes that Jesus’ wounds are very much present in the Gospel accounts of the resurrection appearances. Why? Martin believes that the wounds are a graphic reminder of Jesus’ solidarity with humankind. “The risen Christ carries within himself the experiences of his humanity and that includes suffering.”

The author goes into some detail as to the physiological aspects of death by crucifixion, perhaps as a way of countering the tendency to complacency that easily attaches to familiarity. Martin explains how the cross was not simply the Romans’ preferred means of execution; its design ensured a long and excruciatingly painful death, “one of the most agonizing ways to die.”

The book concludes with a reflection on the spiritual blessings flowing from prayerful meditation on the crucifixion. These include: feeling less alone in the suffering that is humanity’s lot, becoming more authentic in prayer (“holding nothing back”), and recognizing Jesus as the door that opens into the mystery of God’s love.