From King to Brother to Beggar: Reflections on the Last Words of Christ

I've listened to Jesus Christ Superstar for decades now, starting with my mom's original 1970 LP version with the brown and gold album cover. And truth be told, I've mainly always listened for the silky, tormented voice of Murray Head playing Judas.

Webber and Rice begin the entire rock opera with Judas laying out his inner turmoil as a disciple of Jesus in “Heaven on Their Minds.” Later he's pleading “Just don't say I'm damned for all time” to the High Priests as he conspires to hand Jesus over. And they even give him the reprise, echoing Mary Magdalene's “I don't know how to love him” just before hanging himself. Then Judas makes a final appearance in “Superstar,” asking Jesus how he stacks up against people like Buddha and Muhammad.

He has more complexity, more passion and he's the better singer, period. It really is Judas's story, and Jesus is just a character in it.

Just recently, I found the CDs in a storage box and added them to my car collection. While driving errands and feeding my latte addiction, I came to see that Webber and Rice give ALL the best lines to the bad boys.

Take Herod's catchy “Prove to me that you're no fool, walk across my swimming pool” and Pilate's haunting “Then I saw thousands of millions crying for this man...and then I heard them mentioning my name...and leaving me the blame” in contrast to Jesus' sing-songey “Why waste your time moaning at the crowd?” as he enters into Jerusalem.

Yet is it really the case that Jesus must look boring and bland alongside grasping and worldly men? Is being good tantamount to being banal?

Tre Ore With Timothy Radcliffe, OP

One spring morning around two decades ago, I ran into a friend while crossing the green alongside the Chapel of St. Ignatius at Seattle University. We chatted before heading on to class, and in passing he commented on the amaHAZing speaker coming for St. James Cathedral's Tre Ore celebration commemorating the three hours Christ hung on the Cross.

I had no idea who the man was, but nevertheless penciled it into my busy college schedule. On Good Friday a week or so later, I showed up around 12:30 for the noon to three service, and an usher generously found me a seat near the front of the packed Cathedral. And over the next two hours, I proceeded to be Blown. Away.

The speaker, as it turned out, was Timothy Radcliffe, who at the time served as the Master General of the Dominicans, an order dedicated to contemplating and then sharing the fruits of contemplation. 

Standing at the lectern in the Dominican's distinctive black cappa and capuce over a white tunic and scapular, Radcliffe shared reflections in his English accent on the seven last words of Christ. 

It's remained in my mind as one of the best homilies I've ever heard. Yet twenty years later, I can only recall traces of it. Just this Lent, however, I realized he'd compiled the reflections into a book, allowing me to “listen” to his insights once again. Here's what stood out this time around.

Today you will be with me in paradise. ~ Luke 23:43

Woman, behold your son...Behold your mother. ~ John 19:26-7

I thirst. ~ John 19:28

In the three times Jesus speaks to us while on the cross, Radcliffe observes that “he has addressed us with increasing intimacy: as a king, as a brother, and as a beggar.” 1

Thirst is a recurring state for Jesus, Radcliffe points out. John's Gospel begins with Him asking the Samaritan woman for a drink, and ends with Him asking us to quench His thirst.2

This is how God comes to us, in a thirsty person wanting something that we have to give...There is something very embarrassing about admitting that you long for someone when the other person does not fully reciprocate. One feels foolish and vulnerable admitting that one loves more than one is loved. The moment that we own up to our longing, then we become open to rejection and humiliation. Yet this is how it is with God. God is overwhelmed with thirst for us and for our love...3

From my understanding, Jesus would endure a death a thousand times more heinous just to save one soul. It's a passion and love that surpasses our understanding; well beyond anything communicated in Webber and Rice's rendition of Jesus. And He communicates this desire after we've cruelly reduced Him to a criminal. There's a madness to it, an abandonment of reason.

My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? ~ Mark 15:34

“Here...are these words of pure desolation. Here we just have a cry of pain and loneliness,” Radcliffe writes.4

In The Ascent of Mount Carmel, St. John of the Cross elaborates on this moment:

[At his death, the] Lord was most completely annihilated in everything. Annihilated, that is to say, with respect to human reputation; since, when men saw Him die, they mocked Him rather than esteemed Him; and also with respect to nature, since His nature was annihilated when He died; and further with respect to the spiritual consolation and protection of the Father, since at that time He forsook Him, that He might pay the whole of man's debts and unite him with God, being thus annihilated and reduced as it were to nothing.5

This total annihilation, St. John says, lays the foundation for a true Christian spirituality: “Any spirituality that would fain walk in sweetness and with ease, and flees from the imitation of Christ, is worthless.”6

There's a lot of food for thought here. I generally consider the warmest times in my life; those of celebration, connection, and joy; as those when I'm closest God. Rather, according to St. John, our greatest defeats and humiliations are the times we're in greatest solidarity with Him.


And well, here are some of the delectable morsels from Radcliffe's homily (with some St. John of the Cross thrown in), but I really haven't done it justice; as they say, you probably had to be there.

What's one of your favorite homilies? What ceremonies do you participate in on Good Friday?


1 Radcliffe, Timothy, OP. Seven Last Words. Burns and Oates. 2004. Page 65.

2 Radcliffe, Timothy, OP. Seven Last Words. Burns and Oates. 2004. Page 49.

3 Radcliffe, Timothy, OP. Seven Last Words. Burns and Oates. 2004. Pages 49 & 50.

4 Radcliffe, Timothy, OP. Seven Last Words. Burns and Oates. 2004. Page 41.

5 St. John of the Cross. The Ascent of Mount Carmel. Image Books Edition 1958. Pages 193-4.

6 St. John of the Cross. The Ascent of Mount Carmel. Image Books Edition 1958. Pages 193.


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