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.
Before Abraham was, I am.
(St. John viii 58)
John Henry Newman reminds us that in the Church’s calendar the first weeks in Lent are spent in repentance…and that… the last weeks [of Lent], are more especially consecrated to the thoughts of those sufferings, whereby Grace and power were purchased for us (Sermon v. JHN) by Jesus Christ. From here on, then, our readings and meditations will have more immediate reference to Him, whose death and resurrection we are soon to commemorate. (Ibid) In the next fourteen days our minds will be drawn to the suffering of Christ, what is called His Passion, so that our faith may find deeper understanding of His love for us and may then more gratefully receive it.
The word Passion comes to us from the Latin cognate passio, which means to suffer, submit, endure, or withstand. And so in Passiontide we are called to witness how Christ suffers innocently as He submits to the Father’s will for us, enduring all malevolence and murderous hatred with a love that withstands all threats to its persistent purpose. We are called into this spiritual vision because we must come face to face with what God will do in Jesus Christ for our salvation. And I pray that what we behold and retain is something that happens to us as the Love of God suffers to bring us into the Death that leads to new life.
But if this suffering Passion of Christ is to have its proper effect upon our hearts, first we must die to that bad religion which of all behaviors most rejects it. Bad religion is that tendency to think that our pious good works, moral rectitude, ritual purity, and ceremonial meticulousness will save us. Bad religion is external and visible behavior that normally deflects other men’s attention away from the darkness and corruption that dwells within. But God knows the secrets of our hearts. He says to Isaiah, To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me?... I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he goats…Bring no more vain oblations…I cannot [endure the iniquity], even the solemn meeting…for when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide mine eyes from you: yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear: your hands are full of blood. (Isaiah i.11,13,15) God has no time for insincerity, hypocrisy, and spiritual fraudulence. External gestures of religion that are unsubstantiated by deep faith, hope, and love are abominations to the Lord. Isaiah shows us that what many of the ancient Jews did not realize was that if they had hoped to be saved, they should have emptied themselves of their sins in order to be replenished and renewed by the Grace of God. Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; learn to do well; seek righteousness, relieve the oppressed …(Ibid, 16) the Lord commands. For only then will you be fit to endure, experience, and withstand the love that I shall reveal unto you. As Monsignor Knox reminds us, All efforts to secure our own justification by careful observance of the [religious] law, ceremonial or moral, are not better than being tied to a corpse. (The Epistles and Gospels, p. 106) If we hope to endure the living Love of God in the Passion of His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, we must leave the corpse of self-serving good works behind.
The corpse of bad religion is not easy to bury. In this morning’s Psalm David longs to overcome it with his passion for God. Like as the heart desireth the water brooks, so longeth my soul after thee O God. My soul is athirst for God, yea, even for the living God: when shall I come to appear before the presence of my God. (Ps. xlii. 1,2) David desires that God’s Word might come alive in his soul, but the purveyors of bad religion torment him. My tears have been my meat day and night, while they daily say unto me, Where is now thy God? (Ibid, 3) David, we remember, was King over a people specially chosen and called by God. He has brought them forth into the house of God; In the voice of praise and thanksgiving, among such as keep holy-day. (Ibid, 4,5) And yet in his people he finds only the aversion and antagonism of a bad religion that make them into his enemies. He cries to God, Why hast thou forgotten me: why go I thus heavily while the enemy oppresseth me? (Ibid, 11) But then he comes to his spiritual senses and says, Why art thou so vexed, O my soul? and why art thou so disquieted within me? O put thy trust in God: for I will yet thank him, which is the help of my countenance and my God. (Ibid, 14,15) David knew that only God could liberate him from the bad religion that threatened to damn his soul.
And in today’s Gospel, God in Jesus Christ confronts its diabolical temptation and tries to liberate His disciples from it. If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed; and ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free. (St. John viii. 31,32) To which, His enemies proudly and vehemently proclaim, we are of Abraham’s seed; we were never in bondage to any man, and thus we are already free. (Ibid, 33) The bad religion they follow leads them to think that freedom comes by reason of their race or nature’s blood-tie. Jesus points out that because they serve sin, they are in bondage to the devil. They claim that they are the children of Abraham. Jesus agrees that by nature they are Abraham’s children, but in spirit they have not inherited his faith. Verily, verily, I say unto you, Whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin. (Ibid, 34) They may be of Abraham’s stock, but spiritually they are the children of Satan. They answered and said unto him, Abraham is our father. Jesus saith unto them, If ye were Abraham’s children, ye would do the works of Abraham. (Ibid, 39) When they try to maintain that they are spiritually free, saying, We be not born of fornication; we have one Father, even God (Ibid, 41), Jesus points out that if they were true children of God, they would be the sons and daughters of that love which rules and governs His life.
Which of you convicteth me of sin? Jesus asks. And if I say the truth, why do ye not believe me? (Ibid, 46) He that is of God heareth God’s words. (Ibid, 47) Blessed are they that hear God’s Word and keep it. (St. Luke xi. 28) The enemies of God cannot bear, suffer, or endure His presence in the world. Their attack upon Jesus persists. Why wouldn’t it? They are determined to find in others what they have spent years cultivating in their own darkened souls. Say we not well that thou art a Samaritan, and hast a devil? (Ibid, 48) Jesus responds: I honor my Father, and ye do dishonor me. I seek not mine own glory; there is one who seeks it, and He shall be the judge. (Ibid 49, 50) Jesus is the Passion of God; He suffers, endures, and withstands the assault of bad religion upon the Divine will. Jesus is the Passion of Man: He suffers, endures, and withstands the assault of bad religion upon His obedience to it.
The worst temptation that faces us this morning is that bad religion which concludes diabolically that God’s Passion in Jesus Christ cannot transform and save the world. It not only resists but also desires to kill the Word of God in the flesh. Sometimes its motivation is purely selfish –the mollycoddled and cossetted adolescent in every age is resentful and bitter when the holiness of God challenges his delusionally religious comfort zone. Sometimes it is purely envious –the man who has never felt the motions of God’s presence in his heart must ensure that no one else should either. Whatever the cause, those who are moved and defined by a deluded possession of the truth are determined to kill the Passion of God in His world.
Jesus Christ suffered because He resisted perfectly that bad religion that forever attempts to sever and pry Him from His Father’s will for us. I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me. (St. John xiv. 6) As Fulton Sheen writes, This is the equivalent to saying that without the Way, there is no going; without the Truth, there is no knowing; and without the Life, there is no living. (Life of Christ: Image, p. 154) This way, this truth, this life congeals only in the Person of Jesus Christ. He alone can triumph victoriously over the sin of man’s bad religion. In the sacrifice of His Passion we find the only pure offering of Man’s body, soul, and spirit back to God as a re-commemoration of what was forfeited for all men in Adam. Through Him alone does Human Nature conquer sin because it has no power over Him. The innocent suffering and death of His Passion comprise the precious moments of that new life that carries men back to God. As in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. (1 Cor. xv. 22) His eternal and unchanging, essential, heavenly origin moves Jesus towards His end. Before Abraham was, I am. (St. John viii. 58) His end is His beginning. To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice. (St. John xviii. 37)
Jesus Christ’s Passion is born of our Heavenly Father, who intends always to make us all into His other sons and daughters. This is His Passion –obedience to the Father in that sinless suffering and death that alone break the chains by which the devil binds men to their bad religion. Perhaps the poet’s Muse might shake us free of our bad religion this morning so that we might begin to embrace the unrelenting love of His Passion.
And look at last, how of most wretched Wights
He taken was, betrayed, and false accused;
How with most scornful Taunts, and fell Despights
He was reviled, disgraced, and foul abused,
How scourged, how crowned, how buffeted, how bruised;
And lastly, how 'twixt Robbers crucified,
With bitter Wound, through Hands, through Feet, and Side.
Then let thy flinty Heart that feels no pain,
Empierced be with pitiful Remorse,
And let thy Bowels bleed in every Vein
At sight of His most sacred heavenly Corse;
So torn and mangled with malicious Force;
And let thy Soul, whose Sins his Sorrows wrought,
Melt into Tears, and grone in grieved Thought.
(E. Spenser: Hymn to Heavenly Love: 239-252)
St. Michael and All Angels Sermons