It is the greatest story ever told. And you are there – not as a spectator, but a player at its very heart. Good Friday. An occasion in the Western Catholic Church when the Passion according to St John is proclaimed interactively.
As a congregant, you’re cast in multiple roles – including member of the crowd, gathered restively outside the Antonia Fortress, as Pontius Pilate deliberates the fate of Jesus.
Getting nowhere through interrogation, and keen to avoid the quicksand of Jewish law, Pilate presents Jesus, Ecce Homo! It is customary, he reminds you, for the Roman prefect to release a prisoner during the holy season, and he now proposes Jesus as that candidate.
You and your fellows are having none of it. Still on-book, you check your script, raise your head, and with a fervor worthy of Oscar consideration, join in demanding an alternate, Give us Barabbas!
Each of Pilate’s successive pitches to sell you on Jesus is more oil tossed onto a growing fire, until that full-throated fulmination launches from a silo deep within, …Crucify him!
For many, there comes a moment when we catch ourselves, horrified by this role we’re playing, sentiment we’re expressing, and action upon which we’re insisting. This is also about the time a Christian first poses to her/himself the question, If you could go back to first century Palestine, and be a follower of Jesus, would you?
In the case of my eight-year-old self, the answer was a resounding, heartbroken, Yes! A nesting doll of an answer, really, bearing within it a series of related pledges, I would have been braver than Peter. I would have done all in my power to protect my friend. The last thing I would ever do is choose Barabbas, let alone insist Jesus be killed.
Going easy on an eight-year-old Monday morning apostle is no great challenge. When an adult gives almost the opposite answer, it’s problematic.
You see, as that adult, I would routinely, and in a cardigan of false humility, express relief at having been spared meeting Jesus in the historical dawn of the Common Era. The reality, though, is that, while “spared” the 1st Century, I have every opportunity to encounter Jesus here and now. Suggesting otherwise signals a disconnect, at variance with what the Church has ever understood about itself, its liturgical heart, and the sacraments flowing from it.
When someone speaks of meeting Jesus, coming to Jesus, or vice-versa, it is frequently as an event of personal, unmediated, epiphany. The prototype, of course, would be St Paul on the road to Damascus. There is an understandable instinct to regard this powerful account as setting the standard of authenticity, with the Church something of a bystander. Understandable, however, is not the same as having understood.
There are, in fact, two elements of Paul’s, “Jesus moment,” which form the seedling of that ecclesiology in which relationship with Christ, rooted in its divinely ordained environment, is best able to flourish fully.
The first is established by the text itself, Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? There is no indication in the New Testament that Paul ever met Jesus before the Resurrection, or so much as glimpsed him. In this account, Christ is acknowledged to be alive, in and as, his Church. Indeed, at the heart of Paul’s experience is the revelation that to persecute the Church is to persecute Christ himself. Conversely, by embracing the Church, Paul has more than glimpsed Christ. He has entered palpably into a love from which nothing can separate him.
Second, despite the bona fides listed in the salutations of certain epistles, Paul’s sense of having been chosen directly by God, is not a claim to extra-ecclesial, self-ordination. Yes, his personal sense of vocation is irrefutable, but Paul demonstrates remarkable humility in traveling to Jerusalem, and submitting it to Peter and company, for help in determining its authenticity.
This is Paul, whose success carrying out the Great Commission can scarcely be exaggerated. Paul, whose experience presents us with that most profound and compelling image of the Church – the Body of Christ.
This image has been elaborated through the ages to great pastoral effect. St John Chrysostom, for example, preaching about the woman healed by reaching for the hem of Christ’s garment, brings that story into the present by pointing out that his listeners have that very opportunity when reaching for the Communion Chalice.
Pope St Leo the Great, in the same vein, puts this with brilliant economy, What was visible in the life of our Savior, has now passed into the sacraments.
As with Paul, Chrysostom, and Leo, temporal kismet does not mean we missed the chance to meet Jesus. His company is not limited to an ancient era, or landscape of limestone and palm.
In our own time, Alexander Schmemann points to this joyful salient, as reflected in the Lenten services of his Orthodox Church. These, he says, emphasize, Our participation in the today of Christ’s Resurrection, not abstract morality, not greater control of passions, not even personal self-perfecting, but partaking of the ultimate and all-embracing today of Christ.
Those of us following the Julian calendar have just entered Holy Week. Among other things, it is a time to reconsider what, exactly, it was that got Jesus arrested in the first place, and stirred demand for his death. The legal possibilities are fairly well known, and generally fall under the heading of blasphemy. Schmemann, however, goes to what he sees at the heart of it, People followed Jesus as long as he was useful; fed them, healed them. But when he turned, and directly challenged their self-satisfaction, challenged life as self-insistence, he was killed.
It was, in fact, a recorded talk of Schmemann’s, made available recently by St Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary, that prompted the present reflection. Exercising this phenomenology of time, he suggests that, in our actions, we prefer Barabbas each day, from breakfast till dinner. I realize this is not a new way of looking at things, but it has actually startled me. What’s more, I have found this existential framing enormously helpful in moments of temptation. It is, perhaps, closer in spirit to the simpler faith, and deeper hope, of my pre-cardigan days. Closer, perhaps, to the love of Christ who, in his Body, is alive, and near, right now.
-St John Chrysostom – Homilies on Matthew L, 3
– Pope St Leo the Great – Sermon 74.2
-Alexander Schmemann – Great Lent (St Vladimir’s Seminary Press)
-Alexander Schmemann – The Precious Cross – Radio Liberty Broadcast