Father James Martin reflects on human side of Jesus in new book

Reviewed By Chicago Catholic
Sunday, March 6, 2016

In his new book, “Seven Last Words: An Invitation to a Deeper Friendship with Jesus”, Jesuit Father James Martin offers insights into what the Seven Last Words of Christ reveal about Jesus and how deeply he identifies with and understands our problems and suffering.

The book is based upon reflections Martin gave on Good Friday 2015 at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. Reflecting on the Seven Last Words of Christ on Good Friday is a longtime Catholic tradition.

Martin is a prolific writer, commentator and editor-atlarge at America magazine. He is well known for his appearances on “The Colbert Report” as its “official chaplain” and is author of “The Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything,” and “Between Heaven and Mirth.”

Martin spoke to editor Joyce Duriga about his latest book and how he hopes people will use it to better understand the human side of Christ.

Catholic New World: The theme of the book is that Jesus was fully human, as well as being fully divine, so he can relate to our suffering and struggles. That can be hard idea to wrap our minds around.

Father Martin: It is. It’s one of the mysteries of the church that he’s fully human and fully divine. Catholics, I believe, tend to focus more on the fully divine part. So what I wanted to focus on was how the Seven Last Words, each in their own way, reveal a part of Jesus’ humanity and also remind us that he experienced all that we did — physical struggles, emotional struggles, even spiritual struggles — and so therefore understands what we’re going through. That can help people feel closer to Jesus.

CNW: In Chapter 5, “Jesus Understands Physical Pain,” you write that Jesus would have caught the flu, stubbed his toe on a rock, cut his finger. That’s not something we always consider.

Martin: We have to remember that Jesus was fully human, which meant he had a human body. That meant he underwent all of the normal aches and pains we do.

The physical suffering he underwent was not confined to Good Friday. He would have gotten the flu, would have had headaches, would have sprained an ankle or two.

His body experienced all of the things our bodies experience. That can be a very powerful insight for people who wonder if Jesus understands what they’re going through physically. We have a Lord who was fully human and fully human means having a human body. We tend to overlook that.

The Gospels record incidents of Jesus falling asleep when he’s tired on the boat, so at the very least we know that he would be tired at the end of a very long day.

CNW: Do you have suggestions for how we can come to better understand this part of Jesus?

Martin: Two ways can be helpful. I think by reading the Gospels again and trying to notice places where Jesus’ humanity is very evident — for example, when he cries at the tomb of his friend Lazarus. That’s a very human thing to do. Or when he gets impatient with his disciples and he calls them a faithless and perverse generation. That’s a very human emotion. Or, in particular, on the cross when he says, “I thirst.” He’s expressing a physical experience.

The second way is during prayer to really imagine ourselves with Jesus as St. Ignatius suggests in the Spiritual Exercises, to imagine ourselves in the Scripture passages as fully as possible and to notice his humanity in our prayer as well.

CNW: Another thing you write about is Jesus being joyful.

Martin: We tend to think only of Jesus as the man of sorrows but he is, more often than not, the man of joys. As important as it is, Good Friday is one day in his life. His public ministry was three years and was largely characterized by joy.

Healing someone who was sick for their whole life would have brought him or her and his or her family great joy. Feeding great crowds and performing miracles — people were joyful when they saw Jesus.

He speaks of joy constantly in the Gospels. “I came that your joy may be complete.” “The disciples rejoiced when he saw them.” Joy and rejoice are constants in the Gospel. People doubt that.

Imagine someone like the widow of Nain whose son is raised from the dead. What’s her response? If you get a good diagnosis from a doctor after thinking you have a terminal illness you’re joyful. So his ministry basically brought joy. Then, after Easter Sunday, the disciples were rejoicing. He had defeated death.

He is mainly a person of joy, not of sorrow. We have to keep the two of those in balance.

CNW: G.K. Chesterton wrote about God’s mirth. While we don’t think of it often, God clearly has a sense of humor.

Martin: I wrote a book called “Between Heaven and Mirth” that came out a few years ago about this. If Jesus could be joyful that means God is joyful. A good part of the psalms are about rejoicing in God’s creation. To think of Jesus as not being joyful or laughing is something of a heresy because that denies his full humanity. Because what kind of person is never joyful? That’s not a fully human person.

CNW: Do you have a favorite of the Seven Last Words?

Martin: I think, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me” is the greatest window into his private life. Now, he’s quoting from Psalm 22 and some people think it’s meant as a reference to the whole psalm, which is a psalm of thanksgiving to God for his deliverance. But most Scripture scholars say it’s actually a cry of abandonment. He feels abandoned.

In the garden of Gethsemane when he prays to the father he uses the word “Abba,” which is a kind of affectionate term for “Father.” Then on the cross when he says, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me,” he uses the word “Eloi” in Aramaic, which is much more formal. It’s like “Lord.”

So if we accept that he uses “Abba” language, which is intimate, we have to accept that he uses “Eloi” language, which is much more formal and distant. Even in his choice of words he is showing the distance that he feels from “Abba.”

So many of us feel sometimes that God is not close to us and this is real a connection for us to Jesus. It’s really a very mysterious and beautiful phrase that the Gospels record. Scripture scholars say that the Gospel writers would never put that in there if it didn’t happen because it casts him in a negative light, so it must have happened.