I am thinking about death. And ashes. Possibly this is because Easter is looming on the horizon, and if you have any truck with Jesus and think that what happened to him really happened, going through the Triduum is scary. Relentless. Deeply emotional, riveting, and scouring out of one’s emotional innards. Because in order to get from the Last Supper to the cool part where Jesus shares grilled fish on a beach with his disciples, you have to go through the crucifixion. And I so don’t want to do that.
Jesus Christ speaks to us and acts before us as directly as He did to the people who heard His words. The contact is no less real. In fact, because of grace, it is even more real than it was to the people in the Holy Land when He walked in their midst. Through the holy Word of God, we are associated with the mysteries of His life; we come into contact with the saving mystery of redemption.
From beginning to the end of the Passion narrative, the Person of Christ dominates the sacred narrative. He is in our midst as He was in the midst of His disciples. We contemplate the eternal High Priest and feed by faith on the Paschal Lamb. We look on Him whom we have pierced, and we draw the power of His saving Passion into our hearts that we may contemplate it not only from the outside, but reproduce its spirit in our lives.
This is the whole point of the reading of the Passion Gospel: to bring about its accomplishment in us, as it was once accomplished in the Head of the Mystical Body.
St. John’s Gospel account of the Passion has always been read on Good Friday in both East and West, because it is the most theological and meaningful of all the Gospels. No one has so penetrated the significance of these events or described them with all their richness as has St. John.
The cross is the crux, the crossroads, the twisted knot at the center of reality, to which all previous history leads and from which all subsequent history flows. By it we know all reality is cruciform—the love of God, the shape of creation, the labyrinth of human history. Paul determined to know nothing but Christ crucified, but that was enough. The cross was all he knew on earth; but knowing the cross he, and we, know all we need to know.
Ecce Homo: behold the man. In beholding the man, we behold God. Dorothy Sayers wrote that the importance of Christ in front of Pilate is that we no longer behold God-in-his-thusness, as transcendent, abstract, one, and universal, but rather God-in-his-thisness, as embodied in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, as immanent, concrete, triune, and particular. Indeed, we are brought face-to-face with the scandalous particularity of the Christian faith, made more scandalous by God’s weakness and poverty.
Christ’s passion before Pilate reveals the other side of the dynamic of human sinfulness and Divine Justice, for in taking upon himself the wrath of God, Christ removes our guilt. But now the roles are reversed: we are Pilate, and Christ judges us. Even as Socrates turns the table on his Athenian accusers so it is they who are really on trial, so also Christ turns the tables on Pilate, letting him know that Pilate has no authority “except it has been given from above.” Also like Socrates, the threats of those in power mean nothing to those prepared to die, to those who know that dying and suffering is not the worst thing we do as human beings. The truth rests with those who, in humility, are not afraid because they know what is beyond life.
In the process, a new and different history is revealed, one where the apparently free action of Pilate—and it is only apparently so, for he works not in the interest of justice but cowers under the influence of both Caesar and the mob—is brought into the economy of salvation. Given, as we read in John 18:4, that Jesus knew what was to befall him, we now face the mysteries of a general providence. Barth wrote, “He suffers, but he does not protest against Pilate having to utter the judgment upon Him. In other words, the State order, the polis, is the area in which his action too, the action of the Eternal Word of God, takes place.”
In the confrontation between Christ and Pilate, the battle between the powers of this world and divine power comes to a climax, with Christ generously recognizing Pilate’s limited culpability. Indeed, when Christ tells Pilate “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above,” Pilate takes this not as insolence but as innocence (“Upon this Pilate sought to release him”).
The testimony of Christ confused Pilate, who couldn’t take the words of the man in front of him to be either sedition or blasphemy. Conflicted by his belief in the prisoner’s innocence, his wonder at the strange answers he receives, and his inability to see Christ as God, Pilate’s reflections turn back on themselves and the only pole he can grasp is the fear generated when the crowd accuses him of not being Caesar’s friend. Oliver O’Donovan has argued that only the pathology of the modern mind could view Pilate sympathetically, but I think he is wrong about that. Who of us would not behave like Pilate?