March 20, 2016
I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see you to it.
(St. Matthew 27. 24)
We in the Christian church are called to silence and contemplation during Holy Week. The silence is our response to the Passion and Crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God. Holy Week has been set aside from the time of early Church ponder our Lord’s suffering in silence. If we approach this time with a diligent and determined concentration, we will, no doubt, find that it will simultaneously assault and confound our human reason, and tear and wrench the human heart from the objects of persistent and protracted lesser loves. Should we persevere in faith with our eyes on Jesus Christ, God’s great unseen eternal design will begin to unfold before our eyes through the suffering and Passion of the Word made flesh.
And yet the task that we set before ourselves today seems so daunting. No sooner have I said that we must be still and silent, than we are overwhelmed and swept up in the tumultuous commotion and confusion that surrounds the trial of Jesus Christ. Pontius Pilate, the Prefect or Roman Governor of Judaea, is trying to superimpose order and discipline on chaos and confusion, on what he thinks is merely a small-town problem whose incommodious clutter must be calmed and contained. He seems a reasonable and just enough man, who is neither intrigued nor impressed by the religion of the Jews. If anything, he is perturbed that a matter of such provincial color should dare to disturb the Pax Romana –the Roman Peace, which he is paid handsomely to maintain as Caesar’s Viceroy. His sense of Roman honor and decency is offended when he learns that the rag-tag rabble of Jewish Temple guards has harassed, rustled, and bound this Jesus of Nazareth with blatant disregard for Roman Law. So he cannot ignore this threat to the Roman Peace. The Jewish temple priests and chief elders have roused and excited the plebs, or the mob of unemployed and disgruntled men who had hailed Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem –Hosanna to the Son of David, Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord…., pinning their hopes on Him as the great freedom fighter who would break the yoke of Roman oppression. Finding that He was not prepared to use any of those miraculous powers they had seen in His healing of the diseased to call down God’s wrath on the Romans, they had turned on Him. Pilate is thus justifiably nervous.
So, in the interest of Roman Law, Pilate questions this Jesus who now stands before him. Art thou the king of the Jews? (St. Matthew xxvii. 11) Jesus answers, Thou sayest, or So you say. (Idem) The Jews accuse him of many things, and Jesus remains silent. Pilate asks again, Hearest not how many things they witness against thee? (Ibid, 13) Jesus’ silence confounds and unsettles Pilate, so that the governor marveled greatly. (Ibid, 13, 14) But Pilate is pressured on another front to maintain the Pax Romana. To placate the plebs, it was his custom, yearly on the Feast of the Passover, to pardon and liberate one of their own. There was a notorious criminal in custody that year, one Barabbas, whose name means, ironically enough, son of the Father. Pilate knew that out of envy and malice the mob had delivered Jesus to him, and also guesses that they have no interest in the release of Barabbas, since radical insurrectionists threatened the protection of the Jewish establishment as much as the peace of Caesar’s Empire. Perhaps he could pit the chief priests and scribes against the mob, and thus sow discord amongst the Jews. So he asks the Jews, Whom will ye that I release unto you? Barabbas, or Jesus which is called Christ? (Ibid, 17) Having asked the question, he sits down on the judgment seat.
No sooner has he done this than matters become more complicated by a message that he receives from his wife, Claudia Procula. Do not meddle with this innocent man; I dreamed today that I suffered much on his account. (R. Knox, Ibid, 19) Romano Guardini tells us that, Pilate is skeptical but sensitive –possibly also superstitious. He feels the mystery, fears supernatural power, and would like to free [Jesus]. (The Lord, p. 392) But the chief priests and elders have joined with the mob to demand Barabas’ release and Jesus’ death. Pilate’s conscience is nevertheless disturbed, and so asks, Why, what evil hath [this Jesus] done? (St. Matthew 27. Crucify him, they cry with vehemence. Pilate surrenders to their wish our of fear. Then he took water and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see you to it. (St. Matthew 27. 24) The Roman Peace is maintained for a season. The Jews take responsibility: His blood be on us, an on our children. (St. Matthew 27. 25)
Now I have said that we must be still and silent this coming week in order to be touched and moved by the Word of God in heart of Jesus. But what should touch and move us most is Jesus’ relative silence through His suffering and death. Now, you say, but of course He was relatively silent; He was having the life beaten out of Him. This is true enough. Pilate’s violent soldiers and the vengeful Jews were determined to silence this Jesus of Nazareth forever.
Extreme torture has a way of beating the life out of even the bravest of heroes. But Jesus will not die the tragic hero of an ancient epic. His silence invites us into the articulated truth of His innermost being. Again, as Romano Guardini says, It is frightening to witness this hate-torn world suddenly united for one brief hour, against Jesus. And what does He do? Every trial is in reality a struggle –but not this one. Jesus refuses to fight. He proves nothing. He denies nothing. He attacks nothing. Instead, He stands by and lets events run their course –more, at the proper moment He says precisely what is necessary for his conviction. His words and attitude have nothing to do with the logic or demands of a defense. The source lies elsewhere. The accused makes no attempt to hinder what is to come; but His silence is neither that of weakness nor of desperation. It is divine reality; full, holy consciousness of the approaching hour; perfect readiness. His silence brings into being what is to be. (Ibid, 395) God’s Word does not respond with evil for evil. God’s Word will overcome evil with His own natural goodness. But first, He must allow sin to do its worst against God. It is only when God in the flesh allows and suffers this that man can come to understand the power and capability and then the impotence and limitation of evil. God’s Wisdom will reveal that evil cannot stop Love’s remaking of human nature with either sin or death. Christ will call man into His suffering and death and consecrate them as the first steps of a journey back into new life. In the midst of His agony, He calls us forth into ecstasy: I love you. I want you. I desire for you to be healed in soul that you might go and sin no more. And this He says in response to those who are determined only to spread the contagion of their darkness. Only His eyes are all seeing and they see through the ground of all depravity. Jesus…knows about sins as God knows –hence the awful transparency of His knowledge. Hence His immeasurable loneliness. He is really the Seer among the blind, sole sensitive one among beings who have lost touch, the only free [man]…in the midst of confusion.
So what I hope we shall hear in the still and silent Jesus Christ this week is the Word of God’s Love still hard at work His suffering and dying to sin. Jesus suffers mostly for those who will never see that their sin can separate them forever from God’s desire. In loving them He mourns and suffers for their practical atheism. The work of salvation must proceed with or without them. This breaks the human heart of Christ. Yet the human heart must be broken of any expectations from sinners and their sin. The human heart must be broken open in utter abandonment to God’s wisdom, love, and power alone. Thus out of silence Jesus speaks: You have stripped, bound, whipped, and tortured me. You have nailed my hands and feet to the tree. You continue to tempt, taunt, and provoke me. And do you think that I am any less free to do the will of my Father who sent me? I made this body that I inhabit, and I made yours too. Do you think that my suffering and your rejection of God will stop the progress of God’s Word of Love in me? I tell you, that because I am still loving and forgiving the progress of salvation proceeds apace. Through all of this suffering and death that you have demanded of me, still I desire you. In the midst of this suffering and death, caused by your sin, I am making all things new. In fact this suffering and death make my love more intensively loving. On this day I have accepted your judgment of God’s Word in the flesh that I AM. You can kill my humanity. It is yours also. But my love is already set on taking this death and molding it into an occasion for new and joyous life in me for you. ‘Behold I make all things new.’
Dear friends, this day, in stillness and silence, let us see how this Word of God can still be heard as the one who hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows…[who] was wounded for our transgressions…[and]bruised for our iniquities: [through whose] stripes we are healed. (Is. liii. 4,5) Let us hear that from His heart to ours God’s Word always communicates His living love to us. He expresses it to us as He dies for us on His Cross, and He longs to make His death our own. So let us pray that we might embrace that love that went to the precipice of the abyss for us, to the border of nothingness, in a suffering that endures the cumulative effect of our collective sin. And in His suffering the effects of this sin on the Cross, let us begin to sense how His love is already inviting us out of it and into the new and marvelous life of virtue that will carry us to His kingdom. So let us begin to learn this truth about Christ’s death:
It wins a trumph over earth’s despair
It turns to truth life’s failing prophesy,
It tells us that the Lord of Heaven was brave,
And strong and resolute in love to save
The world that He had made.