“Ecce Homo!” An 1871 painting of Christ before Pilate by Antonio Ciseri depicts a moment woven into the fabric of salvation history, and into our very souls.
“So when Pilate saw that he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd saying, ‘I am innocent of this righteous man’s blood.’” (Matthew 27: 24)
A now well known Wall Street Journal article, “The Trials of Father MacRae” by Dorothy Rabinowitz (May 10, 2013) had a photograph of me – with hair, no less – being led in chains from my 1994 trial. When I saw that photo, I was drawn back to a vivid scene that I wrote about during Holy Week two years ago in “Dismas, Crucified to the Right: Paradise Lost and Found.” My Holy Week post began with the scene depicted in that photo and all that was to follow on the day I was sent to prison. It was the Feast of Saint Padre Pio, September 23, 1994, but as I stood before Judge Arthur Brennan to hear my condemnation, I was oblivious to that fact.
Had that photo a more panoramic view, you would see two men shuffling in chains ahead of me toward a prison-bound van. They had the misfortune of being surrounded by clicking cameras aimed at me, and reporters jockeying for position to capture the moment to feed “Our Catholic Tabloid Frenzy About Fallen Priests.” That short walk to the prison van seemed so very long. Despite his own chains, one of the two convicts ahead of me joined the small crowd in mockery of me. The other chastised him in my defense.
Writing from prison 18 years later, in Holy Week 2012, I could not help but remember some irony in that scene as I contemplated the fact of “Dismas, Crucified to the Right.” That post ended with the brief exchange between Christ and Dismas from their respective crosses, and the promise of Paradise on the horizon in response to the plea of Dismas: “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” This conversation from the cross has some surprising meaning beneath its surface. That post might be worth a good Friday visit this year.
But before the declaration to Dismas from the Crucified Christ – “Today, you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43) – salvation history required a much more ominous declaration. It was that of Pontius Pilate who washed his hands of any responsibility for the Roman execution of the Christ.
Two weeks ago, in “What if the Prodigal Son Had No Father to Return To?”, I wrote of my fascination with etymology, the origins of words and their meanings. There is also a traceable origin for many oft-used phrases such as “I wash my hands of it.” That well known phrase came down to us through the centuries to renounce responsibility for any number of the injustices incurred by others. The phrase is a direct allusion to the words and actions of Pontius Pilate from the Gospel of Saint Matthew (27: 24).
Before Pilate stood an innocent man, Jesus of Nazareth, about to be whipped and beaten, then crowned with thorns in mockery of his kingship. Pilate had no real fear of the crowd. He had no reason to appease them. No amount of hand washing can cleanse from history the stain that Pilate tried to remove from himself by this symbolic washing of his hands.
This scene became the First Station of the Cross. At the Shrine of Lourdes the scene includes a boy standing behind Pilate with a bowl of water to wash away Pilate’s guilt. My friend, Father George David Byers sent me a photo of it, and a post he once wrote after a pilgrimage to Lourdes:
“Some of you may be familiar with ‘The High Stations’ up on the mountain behind the grotto in Lourdes, France. The larger-than-life bronze statues made vivid the intensity of the injustice that is occurring. In the First Station, Jesus, guarded by Roman soldiers, is depicted as being condemned to death by Pontius Pilate who is about to wash his hands of this unjust judgment. A boy stands at the ready with a bowl and a pitcher of water so as to wash away the guilt from the hands of Pilate . . . Some years ago a terrorist group set off a bomb in front of this scene. The bronze statue of Pontius Pilate was destroyed . . . The water boy is still there, eager to wash our hands of guilt, though such forgiveness is only given from the Cross.”
THE WRITING ON THE WALL
As that van left me behind these stone walls that day nearly twenty years ago, the other two prisoners with me were sent off to the usual Receiving Unit, but something more special awaited me. I was taken to begin a three month stay in solitary confinement. Every surface of the cell I was in bore the madness of previous occupants. Every square inch of its walls was completely covered in penciled graffiti. At first, it repulsed me. Then, after unending days with nothing to contemplate but my plight and those walls, I began to read. I read every scribbled thought, every scrawled expletive, every plea for mercy and deliverance. I read them a hundred times over before I emerged from that tomb three months later, still sane. Or so I thought.
When I read “I Come to the Catholic Church for Healing and Hope,” Pornchai Maximilian Moontri’s guest post last month, I wondered how he endured solitary confinement that stretched for year upon year. “Today as I look back,” he wrote, “I see that even then in the darkness of solitary confinement, Christ was calling me out of the dark.” It’s an ironic image because one of the most maddening things about solitary confinement is that it’s never dark. Intense overhead lights are on 24/7.
The darkness of solitary confinement he described is only on the inside, the inside of a mind and soul, and it’s a pitch blackness that defies description. My psyche was wounded, at best, after three months. I cannot describe how Pornchai endured this for many years. But he did, and no doubt those who brought it about have since washed their hands of it.
For me, once out of solitary confinement, the writing on the walls took on new meaning. In “Angelic Justice: St Michael the Archangel and the Scales of Hesed” a few years back, I described a section of each cell wall where prisoners are allowed to post the images that give meaning and hope to their lives. One wall in each cell contains two painted rectangles, each barely more than two by four feet, and posted within them are the sole remnant of any individualism in prison. You can learn a lot about a man from that finite space on his wall.
When I was moved into this cell, Pornchai’s wall was empty, and mine remained empty as well. Once These Stone Walls began in 2009, however, readers began to transform our wall without realizing it. Images sent to me made their way onto the wall, and some of the really nice ones somehow mysteriously migrated over to Pornchai’s wall. A very nice Saint Michael icon spread its wings and flew over to his side one day. That now famous photo of Pope Francis with a lamb placed on his shoulders is on Pornchai’s wall, and when I asked him how my Saint Padre Pio icon managed to get over there, he muttered something about bilocation.
One powerful image, however, has never left its designated spot in the very center of my wall. It’s a five-by-seven inch card bearing the 1871 painting, “Ecce Homo!” – “Behold the Man!” – by the Swiss-born Italian artist, Antonio Ciseri. It was sent to me by a TSW reader during Holy Week a few years ago. The haunting image went quickly onto my cell wall where it has remained since. The Ciseri painting depicts a scene that both draws me in and repels me at the same time.
On one dark day in prison, I decided to take it down from my wall because it troubles me. But I could not, and it took some time to figure out why. This scene of Christ before Pilate captures an event described vividly in the Gospel of Saint John (19:1-5). Pilate, unable to reason with the crowd has Jesus taken behind the scenes to be stripped and scourged, a mocking crown of thorns thrust upon his head. The image makes me not want to look, but then once I do look, I have a hard time looking away.
When he is returned to Pilate, as the scene depicts, the hands of Christ are bound behind his back, a scarlet garment in further mockery of his kingship is stripped from him down to his waist. His eyes are cast to the floor as Pilate, in fine white robes, gestures to Christ with his left hand to incite the crowd into a final decision that he has the power to overrule, but won’t. “Behold the Man!” Pilate shouts in a last vain gesture that perhaps this beating and public humiliation might be enough for them. It isn’t.
I don’t want to look, and I can’t look away because I once stood in that spot, half naked before Pilate in a trial-by-mob. On that day when I arrived in prison, before I was thrown into solitary confinement for three months, I was unceremoniously doused with a delousing agent, and then forced to stand naked while surrounded by men in riot gear, Pilate’s guards mocking not so much what they thought was my crime, but my priesthood. They pointed at me and laughed, invited me to give them an excuse for my own scourging, and then finally, when the mob was appeased, they left me in the tomb they prepared, the tomb of solitary confinement. Many would today deny that such a scene ever took place, but it did. It was twenty years ago. Most are gone now, collecting state pensions for their years of public service, having long since washed their hands of all that ever happened in prison.
BEHOLD THE MAN!
I don’t tell this story because I equate myself with Christ. It’s just the opposite. In each Holy Week post I’ve written, I find that I am some other character in this scene. I’ve been “Simon of Cyrene, Compelled to Carry the Cross.” I’ve been “Dismas, Crucified to the Right.” I tell this story first because it’s the truth, and second because having lived it, I today look upon that scene of Christ before Pilate on my wall, and I see it differently than most of you might. I relate to it perhaps a bit more than I would had I myself never stood before Pilate.
Having stared for three years at this scene fixed upon my cell wall, words cannot describe the sheer force of awe and irony I felt when someone sent me an October 2013 article by Carlos Caso-Rosendi written and published in Buenos Aires, Argentina, the home town of Pope Francis. The article was entitled, “Behold the Man!” and it was about my trial and imprisonment. Having no idea whatsoever of the images upon my cell wall, Carlos Caso-Rosendi’s article began with this very same image: Antonio Ciseri’s 1871 painting, “Ecce Homo!” TSW reader, Bea Pires, printed Carlos’ article and sent it to Pope Francis.
I read the above paragraphs to Pornchai-Maximilian about the power of this scene on my wall. He agrees that he, too, finds this image over on my side of this cell to be vaguely troubling and disconcerting, and for the same reasons I do. He has also lived the humiliation the scene depicts, and because of that he relates to the scene as I do, with both reverence and revulsion. “That’s why it stay on your wall,” he said, “and never found its way over to mine!”
Aha! A confession!
Editors’s Note: a continued thanks to TSW readers for their generosity in responding to Ryan MacDonald’s appeal to help with the legal costs, at the Federal level. We haven’t reached our goal yet, so please share this link to Ryan’s news alert post!