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 stillness, 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 provoke our human reason to ponder the nature of our lives in relation to God. Should we persevere in faith with our eyes on Jesus Christ, God’s great unseen eternal design will begin to be enunciated, articulated, and explained to our fallen natures. If we persist in following Jesus throughout His Passion, we shall be driven to participate in the loving death which saves us all.
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, anarchy, and confusion. What he thought was a small-town problem of only local significance seems to press down upon him as a very weighty matter indeed. He knows that he must tread gently with the Jewish religious authorities. Their Temple at Jerusalem is both the center of worship and banking. It served as a place to collect tithes for the religious hierarchy and to exchange monies into Roman currency for the payment of taxes to Caesar. So, Pilate must tread softly with the Jews. That Jesus had objected to the commercial uses of the Temple precincts made him dangerous to Rome. The Pax Romana –the Roman Peace, was secure only through the cooperation of the ruling religious elite of Judaea. But being also a good Roman Pilate is moved by gravitas and stabilitas. Roman Law stands transcendently higher than all threats to it. He is more than a little bit irritated that the Jewish Temple guards have harassed, rustled, and bound one Jesus of Nazareth in clear defiance of the Roman Legion’s commission to police the land. The 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 liberator and freedom fighter who would break the yoke of Roman oppression. Thus the scene is confused and confusing. Pilate is justifiably fearful.
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. 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 prisoner. 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 they had delivered Jesus to him. So he 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 stir division between both groups of agitators. 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) Yet the chief priests and elders have stirred the mob to demand Barabas’ release and Jesus’ death. Pilate’s conscience is nevertheless stirred, and so he asks, Why, what evil hath [this Jesus] done? (St. Matthew 27. Crucify him, they cry with vehemence. Pilate surrenders to their violent malice. 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 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. And this is true enough. Pilate’s soldiers and the wrath-riddled, vengeful, and envious Jews were determined to silence this Jesus of Nazareth forever. Extreme torture is always useful in such an endeavor. But Jesus will not die the tragic hero of an ancient epic. His silence is necessary for our unfolding comprehension of His innermost obedience to the Father. 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) And with St. Paul, we remember that though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. (Phil. 2. 6-8) Jesus Christ silently but conscientiously cleaves to the Father’s will for Him. His Divine Nature must remain silent and still as the Man obeys His God inwardly and spiritually to the end. Now He must be alone with His Father, as He offers His suffering and death as a pure and spotless sacrifice, an act of pure and freely willed love that will reveal for what and for whom He has come into the world. So, to the end, He does not count his Divine Nature a thing to pressed and forced upon an unwilling people. Rather He considers His Divine Nature a thing to be discovered first through silent contemplation and then through silent submission and faith that will lead Him and His friends into death and beyond.
This week, the relatively silent Word of God will be hard at work in the suffering and dying Jesus. Jesus refuses to allow any of what He must endure to be other than what the Father wills in Him. For He knows that the Father’s will is only and ever good. So He must work God’s desire out and into the hearts of men as He did before. That the conditions seem less favorable is no excuse for Jesus to cease from the Father’s labor of love. Jesus is the revelation of the Father’s will. This revelation must persist in doing what must be done to save all men. His own human suffering will not stop Him. His agony, torture, and unspeakable pain of body, soul, and spirit will not stop Him. Christ as much as says, 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. Do you think that you can beat the God out of me? Do you think that God cannot be with me in this hour of my rejection? 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 silence my work as God’s Word and Love? I tell you, that even in the midst of this my earthly end God is making all things new. Through all of this suffering and death that you have demanded of me, still I desire you. This suffering and death are necessary and good, for in and through them my Father’s goodness is with me. I will suffer as I cleave to His goodness. This is the first day of the new creation I was born to make. On this day I have accepted your judgment of God’s Word for man in the flesh that I AM. You can kill me as a man now. But my love is already bent on making new life out of this death.
Dear friends, this day let us begin to follow the Word of God made flesh into His suffering and death. In stillness and silence let us see how this Word of God can still be heard in 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 see and hear how this Jesus of Nazareth will suffer man’s evil and make it good. Let us see and hear that, from His heart to ours, God’s Word persists in offering God’s love to the world. He invites us to partake of it as He dies for us on His Cross. He will long for us to share in it as He rises for us into new life. He does, after all, desire to take us with Him into that life that He was always dying to make in men who long to live. Amen.