Ernest Hemingway wrote a haunting rendering of Christ’s crucifixion in a little known four-page play entitled “Today is Friday,” originally published in the collection Men Without Women. The play begins in archetypal Hemingway fashion. The action is off-stage, has already happened. Three men enter a “drinking-place” at eleven o’clock at night, and immediately they talk liquor: “You tried the red?” the first man asks. “No, I ain’t tried it,” the second says. Soon their conversation is consumed by the day’s events. “He was pretty good in there today,” the first man contends. He could be describing a superior matador or a boxer. But he is not. And these are not the mob men of “The Killers” or the bull-fighting aficionados of “The Undefeated.” Nor are they the World War I-jaded soldiers of In Our Time. Rather, these three men are Roman soldiers, and we soon recognize them as those who crucified Christ. “Why didn’t he come down off the cross?” the second soldier asks. “He didn’t want to come down off the cross. That’s not his play,” the first suggests. “Show me a guy that doesn’t want to come down off the cross,” says the second soldier. As Matthew Nickel notes in his recently published Hemingway’s Dark Night: Catholic Influences and Intertextualities in the Work of Ernest Hemingway:
The first [soldier] champions Jesus as the ultimate exemplar of grace under pressure with his litany repeated six times about how Jesus was “pretty good in there today”; the second soldier sees Jesus as a “false alarm,” mocking the first soldier as a “regular Christer” and finding nothing special in their day’s work; the third soldier seems to empathize the strongest with the crucified victims, expressing how he does not enjoy the “nailing them on” how it “must take some of them [the victims] pretty bad,” and how after the whole scene with Jesus he feels “like hell” (Nickel 90).
For Nickel, the hero of the short play is the third soldier, the man so sick he cannot drink. The everyman whose very life has been eclipsed by the revealed identity of Christ. The draft-title of the play was “One More for the Nazarene.” One more what? Nickel argues that the third soldier is this one more, one more soul salvaged by the cross. But to gain the full effect of the play, we must return to Hemingway’s final title: “Today is Friday.” The present tense is crucial, for it emphasizes “the present moment, today, as each time one revisits the story, like each annual celebration of ‘Good Friday,’ one relives the original Friday. Likewise, in the re-enactment of the Passion through the Mass on Good Friday, participants symbolically relive the moments of Christ’s passion and crucifixion” (Nickel 90-91).
In keeping with Hemingway’s masterly subtlety, the story defies explicit resolution. Ordinary, even banal conversations clash with the day’s horrific, salvific events. As the soldiers leave the drinking place the wine-seller asks the “Lootenant” whether he might be able to “have something on account,” to which the second soldier replies: “What the hell George! Wednesday’s payday.” The third soldier insists that the men return to the barracks. He is extremely weary. When this apparent hero articulates his agony the second soldier says, “You’ve been out here too long.” No, the third soldier says, “It ain’t just that. I feel like hell,” an insistence the second soldier smolders out with his “You’ve been out here too long. That’s all.” His relentless refusal to take the third soldier seriously elicits in the keen reader an even greater empathy and sorrow—for misfit amidst the soldiers, yes, but also, and perhaps more so for those who, beholding the paradox of Christ’s death-by-asphyxiation, subject what happened there to their own standards and measurements rather than subjecting themselves to the measurement of the crucified. As we approach the wood of the cross, today and every today that inhabits that Good Friday, may we know our own capacity to unknowingly nail Him there. And our only strength. To, like the third soldier, be made perfect in weakness.