I'm slowly working my way through Fr. Richard John Neuhaus' Death on a Friday Afternoon: Meditations on the Last Words of Jesus from the Cross. In the first chapter, Fr. Neuhaus reflects on "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34). In one part, Fr. Neuhaus writes:
Every human life, conceived from eternity and destined to eternity, here finds its story truly told. In this killing that some call senseless we are brought to our senses. Here we find out who we most truly are, because here is the One who is what we are called to be. The derelict cries, "Come, follow me." Follow him there? We recoil. We close our ears. We hurry on to Easter. But we will not know what to do with Easter's light if we shun the friendship of the darkness that is wisdom's way to light (p. 2).
So much is here. We are eternal beings who forget that we are eternal beings. Christ on the cross shows us who we are and who we are called to be. Fr. Neuhaus frequently refers to Jesus as "the derelict." We typically think of a "derelict" as a homeless person or vagrant, often someone spurned by society spurns (and sometimes we think such a person is spurned for good reason). But here, Fr. Neuhaus reminds us that Jesus is the one who calls the spurned to follow him. In today's reading from Isaiah's passage on the Suffering Servant, we hear: "He was spurned and avoided by men, a man of suffering, accustomed to infirmity, one of those from whom men hide their faces, spurned, and we held him in no esteem" (Isaiah 53:3). "Derelict" comes from a Latin word meaning "abandoned." From the cross Jesus called out, "'Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?' that is, 'My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?'" (Matthew 27:46). But we recoil from the drunk, the homeless person, the dying person, for we recoil from the man of suffering--and we recoil even more profoundly if we are being called to join in this suffering. "Friendship of the darkness"? What could be more repellent?
Fr. Jim Willig took a different approach on the cross and friendship. Fr. Willig, who died of cancer in 2001, wrote candidly about his experience in Lessons from the School of Suffering with Tammy Bundy:
One day as I meditated before the cross of Christ, I began questioning the Lord: "Why is it that I have cancer? And why did it have to be renal cancer that offers such little hope of any cure? Why do I have to suffer so much? Why? Why? Why?"
In the silence of the church, I could hear clearly in my mind the words that the Gospel of Matthew had reported Jesus saying to his disciples, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me" (Matthew 16:24-25). I let those challenging words sink in a bit and then I responded honestly to the Lord, "Instead of being your follower, how about we go back to being just good friends?" There is something in each of us that naturally resists the cross and the sacrifice that life sometimes asks of us. It was then that I realized Jesus has many good friends, a church full of them. But I wonder, "How many followers does Jesus have?" (pp. 20-21)
For a long time I abandoned The Derelict. But He did not abandon me. That is what makes this Friday Good. Because He is Goodness itself.