The Passion of the Christ has historical meaning on its face, but a far deeper story lies beneath where the threads of faith and history connect to awaken the soul.
There are few things in life that a priest could hear with greater impact than what was revealed to me in a recent letter from a reader of These Stone Walls. After stumbling upon TSW several months ago, the writer began to read these pages with growing interest. Since then, she has joined many to begin the great adventure of the two most powerful spiritual movements of our time: Marian Consecration and Divine Mercy. In a recent letter she wrote, “I have been a lazy Catholic, just going through the motions, but your writing has awakened me to a greater understanding of the depths of our faith.”
I don’t think I actually have much to do with such awakenings. My writing doesn’t really awaken anyone. In fact, after typing last week’s post, I asked my friend, Pornchai Moontri to read it. He was snoring by the end of page two. I think it is more likely the subject matter that enlightens. The reader’s letter reminded me of the reading from Saint Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians read by Pornchai a few weeks ago, quoted in “De Profundis: Pornchai Moontri and the Raising of Lazarus”:
“Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.” (Ephesians 5:14)
I may never understand exactly what These Stone Walls means to readers and how they respond. That post generated fewer comments than most, but within just hours of being posted, it was shared more than 1,000 times on Facebook and other social media.
Of 380 posts published thus far on These Stone Walls, only about ten have generated such a response in a single day. Five of them were written in just the last few months in a crucible described in “Hebrews 13:3 Writing Just This Side of the Gates of Hell.” I write in the dark. Only Christ brings light.
Saint Paul and I have only two things in common – we have both been shipwrecked, and we both wrote from prison. And it seems neither of us had any clue that what we wrote from prison would ever see the light of day, let alone the light of Christ. There is beneath every story another story that brings more light to what is on the surface. There is another story beneath my post, “De Profundis.” That title is Latin for “Out of the Depths,” the first words of Psalm 130. When I wrote it, I had no idea that Psalm 130 was the Responsorial Psalm for Mass before the Gospel account of the raising of Lazarus:
“Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord!
Lord hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
to my voice in supplication…
I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
and I hope in his word;
my soul waits for the Lord
more than sentinels wait for the dawn,
more than sentinels wait for the dawn.”
Notice that the psalmist repeats that last line. Anyone who has ever spent a night lying awake in the oppression of fear or dark depression knows the high anxiety that accompanies a long lonely wait for the first glimmer of dawn. I keep praying that Psalm – I have prayed it for years – and yet Jesus has not seen fit to fix my problems the way I want them fixed. Like Saint Paul, in the dawn’s early light I still find myself falsely accused, shipwrecked, and unjustly in prison.
Jesus also prayed the Psalms. In a mix of Hebrew and Aramaic, he cries out from the Cross, “Eli, Eli làma sabach-thàni?” It is not an accusation about the abandonment of God. It is Psalm 22, a prayer against misery and mockery, against those who view the cross we bear as evidence of God’s abandonment. It is a prayer against the use of our own suffering to mock God. It’s a Psalm of David, of whom Jesus is a descendant by adoption through Joseph:
“Eli, Eli làma sabach-thàni?
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are You so far from my plea,
from the words of my cry?…
…All who see me mock at me;
they curse me with parted lips,
they wag their heads…
Indeed many dogs surround me,
a pack of evildoers closes in upon me;
they have pierced my hands and my feet.
I can count all my bones…
They divide my garments among them;
for my clothes they cast lots.”
So maybe, like so many in this world who suffer unjustly, we have to wait in hope simply for Christ to be our light. And what comes with the light? Suffering does not always change, but its meaning does. Take it from someone who has suffered unjustly. What suffering longs for most is meaning. People of faith have to trust that there is meaning to suffering even when we cannot detect it, even as we sit and wait to hear, “Upon the Dung Heap of Job: God’s Answer to Suffering.”
THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST
Last year during Holy Week, two Catholic prisoners had been arguing about why the date of Easter changes from year to year. They both came up with bizarre theories, so one of them came to ask me. I explained that in the Roman Church, Easter falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox (equinox is from the Latin, “equi noctis,” for “equal night”). The prisoner was astonished by my ignorance and said, “What BS! Easter is forty days after Ash Wednesday!”
Getting to the story beneath the one on the surface is important to understand something as profound as the events of the Passion of the Christ. You may remember from my post, “De Profundis,” that Jesus said something perplexing when he learned of the illness of Lazarus:
“This illness is not unto death; it is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified by means of it.” (John 11:4)
The irony of this is clearer when you see that it was the raising of Lazarus that condemned Jesus to death. The High Priests were deeply offended, and the insult was an irony of Biblical proportions (no pun intended). Immediately following upon the raising of Lazarus, “the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the council” (the Sanhedrin). They were in a panic over the signs performed by Jesus. “If he goes on like this,” they complained, “the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place (the Jerusalem Temple) and our nation” (John 11 47-48).
The two major religious schools of thought in Judaism in the time of Jesus were the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Both arose in Judaism in the Second Century B.C. and faded from history in the First Century A.D. At the time of Jesus, there were about 6,000 Pharisees. The name, “Pharisees” – Hebrew for “Separated Ones” – came as a result of their strict observance of ritual piety, and their determination to keep Judaism from being contaminated by foreign religious practices. Their hostile reaction to the raising of Lazarus had nothing to do with the raising of Lazarus, but rather with the fact that it occurred on the Sabbath which was considered a crime.
Jesus actually had some common ground with the Pharisees. They believed in angels and demons. They believed in the human soul and upheld the doctrine of resurrection from the dead and future life. Theologically, they were hostile to the Sadducees, an aristocratic priestly class that denied resurrection, the soul, angels, and any authority beyond the Torah.
Both groups appear to have their origin in a leadership vacuum that occurred in Jerusalem between the time of the Maccabees and their revolt against the Greek king Antiochus Epiphanies who desecrated the Temple in 167 B.C. It’s a story that began Lent on These Stone Walls in “Semper Fi! Forty Days of Lent Giving Up Giving Up.”
The Pharisees and Sadducees had no common ground at all except a fear that the Roman Empire would swallow up their faith and their-nation. And so they came together in the Sanhedrin, the religious high court that formed in the same time period the Pharisees and Sadducees themselves had formed, in the vacuum left by the revolt that expelled Greek invaders and their desecration of the Temple in 165 B.C.
The Sanhedrin was originally composed of Sadducees, the priestly class, but as common enemies grew, the body came to include Scribes (lawyers) and Pharisees. The Pharisees and Sadducees also found common ground in their disdain for the signs and wonders of Jesus and the growth in numbers of those who came to believe in him and see him as Messiah.
The high profile raising of Lazarus became a crisis for both, but not for the same reasons. The Pharisees feared drawing the attention of Rome, but the Sadducees felt personally threatened. They denied any resurrection from the dead, and could not maintain religious influence if Jesus was going around doing just that. So Caiaphas, the High Priest, took charge at the post-Lazarus meeting of the Sanhedrin, and he challenged the Pharisees whose sole concern was for any imperial interference from the Roman Empire. Caiaphas said,
“You know nothing at all. You do not understand that it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, so that the whole nation should not perish” (John 11:49-50).
The Gospel of John went on to explain that Caiaphas, being High Priest, “did not say this of his own accord, but to prophesy” that Jesus was to die for the nation, “and not for the nation only, but, to gather into one the children of God” (John 11: 41-52). From that moment on, with Caiaphas being the first to raise it, the Sanhedrin sought a means to put Jesus to death.
Caiaphas presided over the Sanhedrin at the time of the arrest of Jesus. In the Sanhedrin’s legal system, as in our’s today, the benefit of doubt was supposed to rest with the accused, but… well… you know how that goes. The decision was made to find a reason to put Jesus to death before any legal means were devised to actually bring that about.
BEHOLD THE MAN!
The case found its way before Pontius Pilate, the Roman Prefect of Judea from 25 to 36 A.D. Pilate had a reputation for both cruelty and indecision in legal cases before him. He had previously antagonized Jewish leaders by setting up Roman standards bearing the image of Caesar in Jerusalem, a clear violation of the Mosaic law barring graven images.
All four Evangelists emphasize that, despite his indecision about the case of Jesus, Pilate considered Jesus to be innocent. This is a scene I have written about in a prior Holy Week post, “Behold the Man as Pilate washes His Hands.”
On the pretext that Jesus was from Galilee, thus technically a subject of Herod Antipas, Pilate sent Jesus to Herod in an effort to free himself from having to handle the trial. When Jesus did not answer Herod’s questions (Luke 23: 7-15) Herod sent him back to Pilate. Herod and Pilate had previously been indifferent, at best, and sometimes even antagonistic to each other, but over the trial of Jesus, they became friends. It was one of history’s most dangerous liaisons.
The trial before Pilate in the Gospel of John is described in seven distinct scenes, but the most unexpected twist occurs in the seventh. Unable to get around Pilate’s indecision about the guilt of Jesus in the crime of blasphemy, Jewish leaders of the Sanhedrin resorted to another tactic. Their charge against Jesus evolved into a charge against Pilate himself: “If you release him, you are no friend of Caesar” (John 19:12).
This stopped Pilate in his tracks. “Friend of Caesar” was a political honorific title bestowed by the Roman Empire. Equivalent examples today would be the Presidential Medal of Freedom bestowed upon a philanthropist, or a bishop bestowing the Saint Thomas More Medal upon a judge. Coins of the realm depicting Herod the Great bore the Greek insignia “Philokaisar” meaning “Friend of Caesar.” The title was politically a very big deal.
In order to bring about the execution of Jesus, the religious authorities had to shift away from presenting Jesus as guilty of blasphemy to a political charge that he is a self-described king and therefore a threat to the authority of Caesar. The charge implied that Pilate, if he lets Jesus go free, will also suffer a political fallout.
So then the unthinkable happens. Pilate gives clemency a final effort, and the shift of the Sadducees from blasphemy to blackmail becomes the final word, and in pronouncing it, the Chief Priests commit a far greater blasphemy than the one they accuse Jesus of:
“Shall I crucify your king? The Chief Priests answered, ‘We have no king but Caesar.’ (John 19:15)
Then Pilate handed him over to be crucified.