Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, March 03, 2021

The Friendship of Christ, Chapter 12: Christ Our Friend Crucified (Fourth and Fifth Words)

 Erin writes on "My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?"

Several years ago I went on a weekend retreat with the theme "I thirst." It was a nice retreat, with talks that focused on Jesus's burning love, his thirst, for all souls. I'm sure I came away edified, but Benson's three pages on "I thirst" packs a more visceral punch than two days' worth of earnest talks. 

Why? Because he's not dwelling solely on the spirit plane, so to speak. When Jesus says "I thirst," he's not uttering a spiritual truism. He means it miserably, horribly, painfully, literally. Thirst, Benson points out, is one of the most painful effects of crucifixion. The body is leaking fluids, hung out to dry out from every pore and laceration. (Julian of Norwich writes vividly about Christ's drying flesh.) Jesus was so thirsty and needed help so badly that he was willing to push up on the nails in his feet to get enough air to croak, "I thirst."

And someone helped him.

The bystander who raised a sponge soaked in cheap wine to Jesus's lips seems to have done it out of mere curiosity -- would Elijah come to Jesus's rescue? But it doesn't matter why he did it. Jesus asked, begged, for a drink, and this person provided what would aid and comfort him, if only for a second. It was an act of Mercy to God himself. And it is the only way some souls can approach him, not by accepting his help, but by being the ones to help him.

But here and there are souls that are deaf to Hell and Heaven alike, to whom the future means little or nothing -- souls that are too reckless to fear Hell, to loveless to desire Heaven. And to those He utters His final heart-piercing appeal. "If you will not accept help from me, give at least help to me. If you will not drink from my hands, give me at least drink from yours. I thirst."

It is an amazing thought that men should have reduced Him to this; and it is a suggestive thought that men who will not respond for their own sakes, will sometimes, respond for His. 


O God, come to my assistance,

O Lord, make haste to help me.

Around the world, as Christians take up their prayerbooks to pray the Liturgy of the Hours is prayed, they begin with this plea. And it is to Christians that Benson addresses his next section. Jesus does not appeal only to the irreligious, who can hear him no other way. To the Christian who is himself bloodless, dried out, who says with Jesus, "My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?", Jesus says, "Come to my assistance; make haste to help me." 

It is only through him that we can thirst at all. 

It is not only that God is our reward, and our Lord; but He must actually be our Way by which we come to Him; we cannot even long for Him without His help.... We cannot even desire Christ without, except by the help of Christ within. The Christ within must cry "I thirst," before the Christ without can give us the Living Water.

This appeal, then, of Jesus must be our last and final motive, when all other impulses have failed. He is so beaten and rejected that He is come even to this. He must ask for mercy upon Himself, before He can have mercy on us. If we do not find our Heaven in Him, at least let Him find His Heaven in us. If we can no longer say, "My soul is athirst for the Living God," at least let us listen when the Living God cries, "My Soul is athirst for you." If we will not let Him minister to us, for very shame let us be content to minister to Him.


Benson follows his usual structure: from Christians, to the Church. The Church herself hangs in agony, sometimes in persecution, sometimes of her own making. Helpless, crumbling, humiliated, ridiculed: "She saved others, why can't she save herself?" How can an institution so flawed and corrupt and ultimately wretched offer the world salvation? How can a Church so needy have anything to give to those in need?

"Yet she can still cry out in pain," says Benson, "for her own sake." And enemies or observers who would not respond for friendship or be moved by her grandeur will respond from curiosity, as with the bystander with the sponge, or in a spirit of debate, as with the woman at the well, or from pity, as the centurion at the foot of the cross. And as they show mercy to the Church, they open themselves to receive mercy from God.

We too, Catholics who see with horror the flaws of the institutional Church, and they are many, are called to have mercy on the Church as the crucified Body of Christ. It's all too easy to become one of the spectators at the crucifixion, offering scornful commentary about Jesus's strategy on the cross and why he didn't stage his suffering differently, getting into theological debates while he slowly suffocates. Only one of these stepped away from analyzing him saying "I thirst" to offer him even the one basic, essential mercy he begged for.


Leah Libresco Sargent (a member of our reading club) quotes this chapter of The Friendship of Christ in her Other Feminisms newsletter

“You have to put on your own oxygen mask first.”

“You can’t pour from an empty cup.”

“If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?”

I’ve heard variants on all these sayings in women’s spaces. At their best, they’re a way of giving permission to treat ourselves like people, rather than caring for everyone but ourself. They speak to a real difficulty, especially for women, in knowing when self-gift becomes self-erasure.

But they can also come with a message of “no.”

If you’re too tired, too neglected, too ill, too weak, you don’t have anything to give until your own cup is filled again, by yourself or by somebody else. The world can feel divided into the helpful and the helpless.

I saw a countervailing idea when I was reading Robert Hugh Benson’s The Friendship of Christ for a Lenten book club. In his reflections on Christ’s last words from the Cross, Benson dwells on a different idea of gift when Christ tells Mary, “Behold your son,” and John, “Behold your mother,” as they stand at the foot of the Cross, unable to aid Him in His Passion.

I feel like "I thirst" suits her theme even more aptly than "Behold your son." 

1 comment:

Monique said...

This was exactly what I needed to read today. Thank you!