Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross: Introduction to reflections by R H Benson

For Good Friday, I am posting reflections by Robert Hugh Benson, the son of an (Anglican) Archbishop of Canterbury who became a Catholic priest and prolific writer before his early death in 1914, on the Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross.

These last words have been sent to music by many fine composers, such as César Franck and Haydn. Here is the introduction of Haydn’s setting, which will accompany each post of Benson’s meditations:

And here is a setting by Gounod https://youtu.be/_gSoVC_0uiI

Here is Benson’s introduction:

The value, to the worshippers, of the Devotion of the Three Hours’ Agony is in proportion to the degree in which they understand that they are watching not so much the tragedy of nineteen hundred years ago as the tragedy of their own lives and times. Merely to dwell on the Death of Christ on Calvary would scarcely avail them more than to study the details of the assassination of Caesar at the foot of Pompey’s statue. Such considerations might indeed be interesting, exciting, and even a little instructive or inspiring; but they could not be better than this, and they might be no better than morbid and harmful.

The Death of Christ, however, is unique because it is, so to say, universal. It is more than the crowning horror of all murderous histories; it is more even than the type of all the outrages that men have ever committed against God. For it is just the very enactment, upon the historical stage of the world, of those repeated interior tragedies that take place in every soul that rejects or insults Him; since the God whom we crucify within is the same God that was once crucified without. There is not an exterior detail in the Gospel which may not be interiorly repeated in the spiritual life of a sinner; the process recorded by the Evangelists must be more or less identical with the process of all apostasy from God.

For, first, there is the Betrayal of Conscience, as a beginning of the tragedy; its betrayal by those elements of our nature that are intended as its friends and protectors—by Emotion or Forethought, for example. Then Conscience is led away, bound, to be judged; for there can be no mortal sin without deliberation, and no man ever yet fell into it without conducting first a sort of hasty mock-trial or two in which a sham Prudence or a false idea of Liberty solemnly decide that Conscience is in the wrong. Yet even then Conscience persists, and so He is made to appear absurd and ridiculous, and set beside the Barabbas of a coarse and sturdy lower nature that makes no high pretensions and boasts of it. And so the drama proceeds and Conscience is crucified: Conscience begins to be silent, breaking the deepening gloom now and again with protests that grow weaker every time, and at last Conscience dies indeed. And thenceforward there can be no hope, save in the miracle of Resurrection.

This Cross of Calvary, then, is not a mere type or picture; it is a fact identical with that so dreadfully familiar to us in spiritual life. For Christ is not one Person, and Conscience something else, but it is actually Christ who speaks in Conscience and Christ, therefore, Who is crucified in mortal sin.

Let us, then, be plain with ourselves.

We are watching not only Christ’s
Death but our own, since we are watching the Death of Christ Who is our
Life
.

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