For those influenced by the Passion tradition, the reference to “the last word” likely rings a bell, because it is reminiscent of a tradition of piety centering around the Seven Last Words of Christ (Lk 23.34, Lk 23.43, Jn 19. 26-27, Mt 27.46, Jn 19.28, Jn 19.29-30, Lk 23.46). These are words of prayer, concern, suffering, forgiveness. They stand in contrast to words attributed to Lucifer: Non serviam/I will not serve (cf. another application in Jer,2,26). Last words are usually more significant than other words (perhaps with the exception of one’s first words).
In the secular setting where we live out our lives, the phrase, “the last word”, frequently refers to the outcome of a dispute or an argument between individuals or organizations or governments, concluding with one of the “combatants” gaining a victory of sorts by having the last word in the dispute.
In the somber setting of death, whether that of Christ or of anyone else, we often comment that death had the last word. And by that we mean that death won. The sick or wounded person died. And this has come to mean a personal defeat. And there is much to suggest the truth of this because usually, especially in the case of younger persons, one is classified as a victim” because he or she doesn’t want to die, and fights with every ounce of available strength to stave off the approach of death. This plays itself out in a time spectrum (that is, there is a process unfolding around a protracted ailment or injury), during which the victim does not want to die and regards death as the last enemy to face. In this scenario, who will have the last word? Curiously enough , however, for those present at the deathbed struggle of such a person, a curious turn-about frequently takes place, in which death does not have the last word. Rather, something unexpected occurs. Resistance disappears. Acceptance emerges. But not because one has been “beaten” and ignominiously submits to death as having the last word. Rather, acceptance emerges as a victorious way to go, a development that, earlier on, would have been out of the question, but now, through some unforeseen conjunction of hope, vision and determination, a new kind of last word gains the upperhand, not because all else has failed, but because victory now looms on the horizon, replacing defeat. The evil of suffering and death succumbs to the overwhelming onslaught of something very good and desirable. The resurrection experience has finally been imbued, especially for one anointed by the sacrament of the sick and nourished by Viaticum.
The significance of this is the deathbed victim scores his or her greatest witness to the final triumph of good over evil. Who has the last word here? Far from being overrun by the mother of all evil (death), an empowerment occurs to achieve a victory salute to the power of good over evil. It’s no longer a matter of having no other choice but to submit to the evil of death. Rather, it’s one’s finest hour. “Where, O death, is your victory, Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Cor. 15.55)
That is the ethic of the cross, the laying hold of the truly good through the epic struggle against the truly evil. The centerpiece here is “the last word”. Who will have the last word? Not the one whose victory comes at the expense of another’s loss. There is another way of gaining the last word, shown by Christ’s final words on the cross. Lucifer’s departing word, “non serviam”, brought him no victory.