By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit Magazine
As Lent begins this week, millions of Americans will turn their weekly Bible reading toward the end of Jesus’s life as these Christians spend 40 days preparing themselves spiritually for the celebration of Easter.
For many centuries, the Lenten season has been an annual quest for repentance and reconciliation, which includes such disciplines as prayer and fasting—although, today, rigorous fasting is mainly in Eastern Orthodox branches of the faith. But this kind of annual spiritual purification and renewal is a tradition far larger than the 2 billion people around the world who call themselves Christian. It’s a human desire that cuts across religious lines. Each year, Jews reflect and seek reconciliation before and during their High Holy Days; Muslims set their spiritual lives in order during the fasting month of Ramadan; other world religions have similar reflective periods. The homecoming tradition of the Chinese New Year, accompanied by reflection and renewal with deep spiritual roots, is considered the world’s largest annual human migration.
“As humans, we have an innate desire to learn more about God, to reflect on the meaning and purpose of our lives—and to discover how we can live out that journey in community. As humans we share this—we have this yearning to know God and to feel that we are a part of a community. These are natural, human desires,” says Jim Martin SJ, the best-selling Jesuit author and journalist.
After publishing many very popular, longer-format inspirational books, Martin is publishing a short, small volume for Lent 2016: Seven Last Words—An Invitation to a Deeper Friendship with Jesus.
We have fresh evidence from the Pew Research Center that Martin’s assumptions are correct. Based on a massive series of interviews with 35,000 Americans, Pew now reports: In recent years, Americans are becoming more active in prayer, Bible reading and small religious groups. What’s more, Pew reports that Americans are wrestling on a deeper level with basic spiritual questions. More people now say that they regularly have experienced a deep sense of wonder and awe about the universe. And, 55 percent of Americans say they are thinking about the meaning and purpose of life.
Martin chuckles for a moment. “I have to say: I hope the other 45 percent of Americans stop and think about the meaning and purpose of life—at least at some point!”
Then, he concludes, “This is good news from Pew. And the findings don’t surprise me because I know we have a natural desire to know and explore more about God. We have this curiosity about the meaning and purpose of life. Have you heard this saying? ‘That which you seek—is seeking you.’ That’s how God draws us closer as we draw closer to God.”
Why did Pew find this upswing across the board in these spiritual experiences? Martin says, “Perhaps it’s getting easier for people to talk about these things. Thirty years ago, the word ‘spirituality’ was more confusing for a lot of people—but now we’ve embraced that word. You can say you’re a spiritual person and people respect that now.”
So, this book Seven Last Words comes at a perfect moment in American culture. The text is based on a series of sermons that Martin preached on Good Friday, during Holy Week in 2015, at New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral at the invitation of Cardinal Timothy Dolan. As we move through these pages as readers, we can almost hear Martin talking to us about Jesus’s deep concern for each of us.
The clear message throughout this new book is a reminder that Jesus, while he lived on earth, was human. That experience, which was agonizing in the final days of Jesus’s life, makes the divine Jesus in Christianity a true source of “friendship” for each of us.
“Many Christians forget that Jesus, in our tradition, is fully human and fully divine,” Martin says. “We say those are the two natures of Jesus and we also say that’s a mystery we can never completely understand—fully human and fully divine. But, a lot of Christians tend to move toward the divine idea and they forget about the human part of Jesus. So, when we think of what happened on Good Friday to Jesus, on the cross for hours that day, we often lessen people’s understanding of the real suffering he went through.
“In this book, I’m reminding readers that Jesus was a human being and he suffered during Good Friday. And more than that, Jesus had a whole range of human experiences throughout his life. He saw people die. He was tired after a long day’s work. He was frustrated with the disciples. I imagine he may have sprained an ankle, banged himself with a hammer while he was working as a carpenter, probably had the flu.
“Why is this so important to remember? Because understanding that Jesus was fully human and experienced all of these things helps to lead us into a deeper relationship with Jesus. As Christians, we’re praying to someone who understands what we’re experiencing–because he experienced these things himself.”
The majority of this short book is organized by the traditional “Seven Last Words of Jesus,” which actually are seven different things that Jesus is recorded in the four Gospels as having said while on the cross. The sayings are sprinkled through the books of Luke, John and Matthew, but Christians have organized them through the centuries to begin with Jesus’s expression of forgiveness: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” The seven sayings also include Jesus’s affirmation that there is a heavenly afterlife, concern for Jesus’s mother and even an expression of his own suffering: “I thirst.”
While the subject may seem somber and even horrific—the book reads as though Father Martin were sitting in your living room with a cup of tea talking about Jesus’s compassionate concern for each of us. Readers will walk away from each chapter feeling hopeful—and, often, feeling a renewed commitment to help others in our world.
“The chapter on Jesus saying, ‘I thirst,’ is a good example. That tells us that Jesus experienced human, physical needs. And I hope from that jumping-off point, people will think about the physical needs of people all around the world. I point out in that chapter that many people in the developing world are suffering from a lack of clean water to this day,” Martin says.
And that was before the Flint, Michigan, water crisis became international news. In this Lenten season, many Churches across Michigan are contributing money and resources to help neighborhoods in Flint where children have been poisoned by lead from poorly treated river water.
“When I wrote that chapter, I was referring to the global need for clean water—but, this year, I’m sure that will make many readers think of places like Flint, Michigan, when they hear Jesus’s words again: ‘I thirst.’ Of course churches are concerned about this—it’s part of the great tradition of understanding that people are the body of Christ alive in the world today.”
Reflecting on that chapter, there are larger questions readers should ponder, Martin points out. “As I read about what happened in Flint, there clearly was a callousness and indifference to the suffering there by the people in power in Michigan. And, when we learn of cases where the wealthy and powerful set aside the needs of an entire segment of the population because they are poor, we are witnessing the same kind of social evil that contributed to Jesus’s crucifixion.”
But Martin’s book is not a political campaign. Other than raising the spiritual issues from Jesus’s final utterances—and encouraging readers to follow the questions that naturally arise—Martin’s book keeps coming back to the central point: Yes, Christians believe Jesus is divine—but, because he also was human, Jesus’s compassion is deeper than we may expect.
“My fondest hope is that this book helps people to know that Jesus understands us,” Martin says. “And he understands us not only because he’s fully divine–but also because he experienced all the things we go through as human beings. I hope this provides a fresh invitation to friendship with jesus. Those seven last words as uttered on good Friday are privileged access to that truth.”