Seven Last Words: Cross & Creation (Andrew McGowan) - Review

 SEVEN LAST WORDS: Cross and Creation. By Andrew McGowan. Illustrated by Bettina Clowney. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2021. 86 pages.

                It is a tradition among many to observe Good Friday with services that focus on the Seven Last Words of Christ. The tradition goes back to the medieval era. Some of these services can last several hours or about an hour. Sometimes the service will feature just one preacher who focuses on the text. Or, it might be an ecumenical service with seven preachers offering a meditation on one of the seven words. I’ve participated in these services as a preacher both in Santa Barbara, California, and in Troy, Michigan. These services were only an hour-long, requiring a 5-minute meditation. Long before that, I participated in a three-hour service as a preacher. So, over the years I’ve covered each of the words taken from the four gospels several times. I even published a set of my sermons preached in Santa Barbara under the title A Cry from the Cross. My book is just one of probably thousands of books reflecting on these words.

             Seven Last Words: Cross and Creation is an offering from Andrew McGowan, professor of Anglican studies and dean of the Berkeley Divinity School at Yale University. This book includes both sermons on the seven last words and a set of reflections focused on seven figures connected the cross, as revealed in the Gospels. Intriguingly, McGown connects the seven words and seven figures with the seven days of creation. He writes in his prologue: "Each of Jesus' seven words from the cross can be understood as a creative act, as a new divine work." (p. 2). Even though he was immobilized on the cross, he continued to act creatively. Thus, "bound and nailed right, he remakes the world and us, and as in the beginning creates by word." (p. 3).

                The seven words are these: “Father forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing;” “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise;” “Woman, here is your son,” “Here is your mother;” “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me;” “I am thirsty;” “It is finished;” and “Father, into your hands, I commend my spirit.” These sermons were preached on Good Friday in 2016 at St. Thomas Church, Fifth Avenue, in New York City, and then in a somewhat different form in 2018 at St. Mary the Virgin, Oxford, UK. This is the church once served by John Henry Newman before his conversion to Catholicism.

                Besides the Seven Words that will be familiar to many, he speaks of seven conversations at the Cross. He points out that there were other words spoken at and near the cross, besides those spoken by Jesus. These have been chosen, he writes, because they "glean responses to the other and more famous seven uttered by Jesus himself" (p. 44). The seven voices described here come from Judas, Dismas (the thief on the cross beside him), Mary the mother of Jesus, God the Father, Longinus (the centurion), the angels who are silent, and finally Nicodemus. These voices or lack thereof, provide a larger context to Jesus’ time on the cross and they invite us to respond to Jesus' words from our location. Each of these figures is quite different, ranging from a mother who weeps as her son dies to a soldier responsible to carry out the sentence to one dying alongside Jesus. The reflections are brief, but informative. This second set of reflections that feature the seven figures were written during McGowan’s sabbatical in 2020 and reflect the realities of that year.

            These reflections are accompanied by full-color images painted by Bettina Clowney that illustrate the events on the cross and nearby by Bettina Clowney. These images help bring the words described by McGowan to life. Therefore, they are highly welcomed.

                So, if you are a preacher looking for inspiration for your own Good Friday sermons, this will prove helpful. Or, if you simply are looking for a set of reflections that will help you experience this holy day, then you will not be disappointed. McGowan’s Seven Last Words is a worthy contribution to that ever-expanding collection of reflections on the words spoken that day by Jesus and those around him.


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