Passionate Last Words
Focusing on what Jesus said at the end.


Father George W. Rutler is pastor of The Church of Our Saviour in Manhattan (not far from National Review World Headquarters). Author of The Seven Ages of Man: Meditations on the Last Words of Christ, every year on Good Friday, Fr. Rutler walks his congregation through those last words (details here). National Review Online Editor Kathryn Lopez took him from his holy work for a few minutes this week to give us a look in.

Kathryn Jean Lopez: What are the seven ages of man?

Father George W. Rutler: The seven ages are from As You Like it Act II, Scene 7–they trace the human progression from infant, schoolboy, lover, soldier, justice, pantaloon (retirement), to “second childishness” (i.e. senility).

Lopez: When did you first start meditating on the last words of Christ?

Fr. Rutler: I did it regularly when I was an Episcopalian, in my own parish in Rosemont, Pa., starting in 1970 when I was 25 and elsewhere including here in Manhattan at the “Little Church Around the Corner.” I began as a Catholic in the Wall Street parish of Our Lady of Victory in 1984 and have done it every year since–there and then at St. Agnes on 42nd St. When St. Agnes burned, we used the ballroom of the Roosevelt Hotel one year and then moved to the ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria, and did that for some eight years, even after the church was rebuilt, because of the larger size. I have been doing it here at Church of Our Saviour since 2002.

Lopez: The words you focus on–did they span three hours? What was the timeframe? Is that significant?

Rutler: Each meditation is about 15 minutes interspersed with music and prayer, ending at 3 P.M. Between meditations people are free to come and go. After a 15-minute break the Liturgy of the Passion is celebrated. The three hours devotion from noon to three is an “extra-liturgical devotion”–i.e. not part of the official Liturgy, but a private devotion. It was started by Jesuit missionaries in Peru instructing the native people and quickly spread. It became popular among Protestants until recently, as the denominations began to decline in quality and numbers. It also declined in the Catholic Church but seems to be having something of a revival.

Lopez: Was what Jesus said at the end all part of a plan?

Fr. Rutler: I’m not sure what you mean. All was pre-ordained by Christ, but we do not know how spontaneous the actual words were. The set of seven is a compilation of the narratives in the different Gospel texts, as none reports all seven.

Lopez: Why do you say at one point in your Last Words book that Jesus is not heroic? It seems pretty heroic to die so that the rest can have redemption.

Fr. Rutler: I don’t remember saying that. If I did, I meant that his suffering was not just an exercise of heroic virtue in the human order, but an act of the Divine Will working through his human nature. I.e., he was not just a “human hero” or “martyr.” He did not die as one of many, but as one for many. The crucifixion is inseparable from the Resurrection.

Lopez: To anyone who has reached the end of Lent having not meditated on the last words–is there something they should focus in on in Jesus’ last hours?

Fr. Rutler: A good focus is the Passion narrative at the end of the Gospel According to John (chapters 11 through 21)–and also the Letter to the Hebrews.

Lopez: Is there anything in the last words for non-Christians?

Fr. Rutler: They are for everyone. The whole point of the Passion narrative is that the whole world is at the foot of the cross, and all the characters in the drama represent aspects of every human personality, believer and non-believer. But in the end, the Crucifixion is an absurd suicide for the cynic and at best an edifying tragedy for the virtuous skeptic.