Last Things First

First Things editor Richard John Neuhaus puts Christ's last words in perspective

Richard John Neuhaus enjoys a well-deserved reputation as one of thegreat polemical writers of our day. His defense of conservative moral and political causes has been sustained in many books and is on display monthly in his journal First Things. Whether these defenses are considered brilliant or perverse, witty or diabolical, stirring or supercilious, depends to some degree on whether they align with a reader's own convictions. Yet sometimes, even when Neuhaus is skewering one's own causes, friends, or books, it is possible simply to marvel at his seemingly boundless

joie de guerre

.

"Death on a Friday Afternoon" (Basic Books, 288 pp.) is a different kind of book. Polemics are not entirely absent, but the volume provokes more thoughtful meditation than verbal combat. In its seven chapters, Neuhaus reflects on the seven short statements that the writers of the Four Gospels record Jesus asspeaking from the cross (for example, "I thirst," "into your hands I commend myspirit").

Here we meet not Neuhaus the neoconservative who happens to be a Roman Catholic priest, but Neuhaus the Roman Catholic priest who happens to dabble in high-brow politics. Nevertheless, "Death on a Friday Afternoon" is carried off at the same high level as his other work.

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Neuhaus underscores classical Christian themes but does so with anearly Chestertonian touch. Like the G.K. Chesterton of "Orthodoxy" (aclassic defense of classical Christianity), Neuhaus employs aphorisms,paradoxes, and unexpected conjunctions to recommend the beauty, as wellas the truth, of the Good Friday events. The first chapter, on Christ's saying "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do," is a particularly effective exposition of the need for divine forgiveness. The chapter reflects on why humans fear yet also welcome punishment for misdeeds: "The fear of punishment is terrible, but not as terrible as the thought that nothing will happen, that bad things don't matter. If bad things don't matter, then good things don't matter, and then nothing matters." It also addresses the notion that dwelling on our own sinfulness is morbidly immature: "To belittle our sins is to belittle ourselves, to belittle who it is that God creates and calls us to be. To belittle our sins is to belittle their forgiveness, to belittle the love of the Father who welcomes us home."

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