The Last Word

Father Sebastian McDonald, C.P.
Father Sebastian McDonald, C.P.

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.

Is there a Difference? Does it Matter?

Father Sebastian McDonald, C.P.
Father Sebastian McDonald, C.P.

Cross and crucifix mean the same thing, right? No. Even if NO, it makes no difference, right? No. There is a difference, artistically and religiously. Artistically, or structurally, cross is a convergence of two bare pieces of wood, plastic, metal, or other material intersecting one another at right angles, vertically and horizontally . Crucifix is constructed that way also, with an addition: a corpus/body hanging upon the vertical section, and the arms of the corpus stretched out along the horizontal part.

Is it the body, then, that accounts for the difference between the cross and the crucifix? Yes. Does any body suffice to constitute this difference? In some ways, yes. The bare cross, historically, probably had little significance other than some architectural use for it, or serving as a marker of some type or other, e.g., along a pathway, or as part the script in some language. On the other hand, the crucifix, across the ages, did serve a purpose: it was an instrument of torture and death for a criminal or an alien who was an enemy. In other words, it was a punishment.

This latter usage provides its religious significance. Certainly, in the Christian context, the crucifix was a Christian sign or symbol that goes back to its origins two thousand years ago, but the cross also acquired Christian meaning early on. During Holy Week, references to “the cross” and “crucify” abound, though they are present also throughout the Christian year. And, frequently enough they appear throughout the bible, especially in the New Testament: “…whoever does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me (Mt. 10.38), “…save yourself by coming down from the cross.” (Mk. 15.30) “…but they continued their shouting, ‘crucify him! Crucify him!”, “Shall I crucify your king?” (Jn. 19.15)

While in such settings “cross” and “crucifix” may seem to mean the same thing, with the passage of time differences began to emerge, so that “cross” came to bear more closely on the meaning found above in Mt. 10.38, where “cross” bears reference to us. We carry a cross. We have come to regard our sufferings as our cross.   Indeed, the bare cross can be displayed without the corpus of Christ on it because we are to be the ones hanging on the cross through bearing our sorrows, disappointments and losses.   The cross is bare to remind us that it is we who are to suffer in the footsteps of Christ, and thereby we hang on the cross. We become the corpus on the cross.

This is a beautiful thought not to be brushed aside. We find it in the bible. But it differs from an even more Catholic view that it is the crucifix that captures the heart of the message: “…while we were still sinners Christ died for us”. (Rom 5.8), “…Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures;” (1 Cor. 15.3) Here it is the corpus of Christ that hangs on the cross.

For while regarding ourselves on the cross helps us imitate Jesus, placing Christ on the cross does more: for He reconciles us with God. While imitation is good, reconciliation is better. Imitation is OUR action, but reconciliation is HIS action. And His actions are more significant than ours, good and praiseworthy though ours may be. Good Friday focuses more on CHRIST hanging on the cross than on us. We look to Christ’s action to save us, not to our actions. Our actions may be helpful, but His are indispensable. We do best to imitate Simon the Cyrenian on whom they laid the cross of Jesus and who was called upon to carry it behind Jesus. (Lk. 23.26)