Although the Liturgy of the Lord’s Passion is the central service of Good Friday, Catholic practice has always kept all of Good Friday as a day of solemn, quiet mourning. The Liturgy of the Lord’s Passion customarily took place at 3pm, marking the traditional hour of Jesus’ death. In our day, when Good Friday holds an ever more anemic hold on public life, many parishes push that liturgy into the evening hours.
When the Liturgy of the Lord’s Passion occurred at 3 o’clock, many parishes preceded it with a three-hour service starting at noon — the Tre Ore — commemorating the time during which Jesus hung dying on the cross. A common feature of the Tre Ore devotion was a service of “The Seven Last Words” — readings of Jesus’ final words spoken while crucified, often accompanied by sermons about each of them. The late Father Richard John Neuhaus, for example, regularly preached on those Seven Last Words in New York, eventually publishing those thoughts in his bestseller, Death on a Friday Afternoon. Before him, Fulton Sheen penned The Seven Last Words.
A man’s last words are usually attributed enormous significance. They’re taken as a final testament. When people mostly died at home, the image of a family gathered around a deathbed, hearing the final words of a dying family member, was a watershed moment. In antiquity, the pagans often expatiated to their disciples at length as they were leaving this world. Even Archbishop Sheen notes that, after having crucified Jesus, the crowds waited for what he would say. The Roman executioners, used to fixing human beings to the tree of torture, awaited the usual torrent of curses and hatred.
Set against those various expectations, Jesus’ last words are spare and startling. Those “seven last words” — really seven phrases of about four dozen words — are loving, consoling and full of trust.
Well, while New Yorkers like Father Neuhaus and Archbishop Sheen commented on Jesus’ Last Words, let me suggest an idea from another New York priest, Father Donald Haggerty: Let’s consider Jesus’ Last Silence.
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