The last days of Holy Week commemorate the climactic events of our Lord’s earthly ministry. Clouds of doom gather inexorably around the Savior. Yet He walks quietly and calmly in their midst, moving toward the death He knows awaits Him. As we read from the Gospels the apostles’ recollection of these events, we cannot help but be impressed by our Lord’s serenity and strength as His earthly work reaches its fulfilment. In death the God-man mirrors and models all that is noblest in His creature. This is only fitting since that creature is himself fashioned according to the divine image.
Concerning the other figures in this drama, we form quite a different impression. We observe little which reflects God’s image. We do not see man’s best, but rather his fallen and corrupted worst. All the evil that mankind can invent assembles to procure the event which, paradoxically, will mean the annihilation of evil. All the vices seem to converge to produce the Savior’s condemnation and death, as if they are brought together so that they might be struck down at a single blow by the Cross of Christ.
At the center of the conspiracy we find the Jerusalem leadership of the Chosen People – the scribes, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the members of the Sanhedrin. Their malicious envy is the driving force behind the Savior’s arrest and trial. Christ has challenged their authority, He has denounced their lack of compassion and their spiritual conceit, He has exposed the feebleness of their faith. In hatred and anger they resolve to procure His death. Not content committing their own sins, they add the sins of others whom they seduce into wickedness. Being themselves sunk in jealousy and hate, they then incite others to sin, tempting Judas with their bribe, obtaining lying witnesses to testify against the Lord at His trial, and provoking the crowds to demand His crucifixion when Pilate offers them His release. The leaders stop at nothing, even turning to the Romans – whom they hate only a little less than they do the Lord – to aid them in their diabolic endeavor. Even victory cannot assuage their spite; having secured His condemnation they follow Christ to Golgotha, there to mock and insult Him as He hangs in agony on the Tree.
The Jerusalem authorities provide the temptation, but Judas’s own greed leads him to accept their bribe and betray His Master. Already, as St John tells us, he was accustomed to pilfer funds entrusted to him by the other disciples (John 12:6). Day by day Judas witnesses Christ’s miracles and hears His sublime teachings; hour by hour he experiences His cleansing and sanctifying presence. Yet even with the Lord’s saving words in his ears and those miracles before his very eyes, he could not restrain his greed and refrain from theft and venal deception. And now at the end he performs the most heinous act of all, accepting money to betray the life of His Master and Lord.
What could be more foolish than to trade God’s Kingdom for worldly success and financial gain? Yet the traitorous disciple, like many in this world, is so blinded by greed and so captivated by material prosperity that he casts away the far greater treasures of grace, peace, and righteousness freely given him by Christ. The bribes of the Sanhedrin seduce him, and he leads the soldiers to the secret spot where they can seize their Victim. As so often happens when we pursue this world’s illicit pleasures, however, Judas derives no benefit from his crime. In despair, he feels nothing but contempt both for the bribe money and for his wretched life: the money he hurls to the pavement in an anteroom of the Temple, his life he chokes from his body with a suicide’s noose.
The Sanhedrin and the chief priests condemn our Lord, but they cannot accomplish His death. To kill Him they must call upon Roman imperial authority, in the person of the governor Pontius Pilate. This is most ironic, for they are not turning to an ally or friend. Pilate was notorious for his hatred of the Jews and his contempt for their religion and customs. In our Lord’s trial he gives full rein to his scorn in his dealings both with the Sanhedrin’s representatives and with the crowds. His proper role as a judge was to administer justice. Instead he uses the trial to goad and ridicule the Jewish leaders. He turns a capital trial into a chance to air personal resentments and to satisfy his vanity by venting his spitefulness and prejudice. As with Judas and his bribe, however, Pilate’s sin also recoils upon him. He seeks to mock the Sanhedrin by releasing the Man they have condemned. They, however, turn the tables, shouting, “If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend; every one who makes himself a king sets himself against Caesar” (John 19:12). Thus they evoke in him the fear that they will denounce him to the emperor as at best lacking vigilance and at worst being a traitor. In the end each party humiliates the other: Pilate condemns Christ out of fear of imperial disfavor, but he extracts from the chief priests the degrading admission, “We have no king but Caesar” (John 19:14-15).
Like Pilate, the apostles too demonstrate first vanity and then cowardice. Thomas affirms that they will follow Christ to Jerusalem and die with him (John 11:16); Peter at the Supper brags that he will give his life for the Lord’s sake (Luke 22:33). These boasts will later come true but not for many, many years; both Peter and Thomas will die as martyrs decades hence. But now at Christ’s arrest the one will flee and hide, quivering with fear, until well after the Resurrection, and the other will follow for a brief time only to deny his Lord and then withdraw in tears, overwhelmed by grief and shame, terrified by the curious questions of a servant girl.
The Jerusalem authorities, the disciples, Judas, and Pilate act to some degree out of either personal malice or weakness. More chilling and disappointing are the soldiers who carry out the crucifixion and the crowds of the city who witness it.
The soldiers have no reason to hurt or despise this Man, or to mistreat or abuse Him. Yet in His presence they demonstrate extremes of inhumanity and cruelty. The lot of a Roman soldier was not an easy one. These were men thwarted in their profession. They are warriors without a war, their military skills going to waste as occupation troops in a corner of the empire remote from their homes and their native peoples, maintaining order among an alien and hostile population. Almost inevitably, they take out their frustrations on their helpless Prisoner. They neither know nor care who He is. They mock Him and scourge Him, abusing Him both in soul and body without mercy and without remorse. For them the sufferings of a fellow human become merely a diversion from the boredom of garrison duty and a chance to show their contempt for the conquered people whom they were charged with keeping in submission.
The crowds too are guilty of callous indifference. These men and women, however, have less excuse than the soldiers. They know who this Man is. They have heard, or heard about, His teaching. They have seen His miracles. Only a few days before they welcomed Him into the city, shouting words that affirmed His divine mission. The soldiers act in frustration and ignorance. The crowds fall prey to indolence and superficiality. Their spiritual life is shallow and fruitless. Lacking commitment and true love, their faith is vain and empty. Thus they acclaim Christ early in the week, yet willingly deny and denounce Him when Pilate gives them the chance to confess Him and gain His release.
Truly this shameful catalog of human weakness and sin appalls us. We err, however, if we imagine ourselves somehow superior to the chief priests, the disciples, the governor, the soldiers, the crowds, even the betrayer himself. We cannot look at these people and feel any self-satisfaction. Their sins are our sins. We need to recognize in them our own greed, our own faithlessness, our own shallow commitment, our own spitefulness, our own vanity and cowardice, our own willful ignorance. We too betray and abandon and crucify Christ because we love vice and idleness more than repentance and virtue.
We know full well that Christ must be the focus and heart of our lives. Unfortunately however, amid the temptations and distractions of life, we forget our Lord. The problem with the players in the Passion drama is that, even in dealing with Christ, none of them has focused on Him and made Him the center of his life. Everyone is pursuing something besides the Kingdom. It is so simple it is almost an anticlimax to point to Christ’s words in the Sermon on the Mount and find in them the artless answer to all mankind’s malice and corruption: “Seek His Kingdom and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33), and “Where your treasure is there will your heart be also” (6:21).
We are faced with temptations both from outside and from within our own soul. There is a seduction in material things such as dragged Judas to destruction. There is also an allure in immaterial and emotional things. We love our anger, our vanity, our dejection and depressions, our lust. If we did not, we would certainly give them up. But we cling to them rather than pursuing the righteousness of Christ.
The Cross of Christ focuses human vice and sin. It also concentrates God’s love and compassion. The crucifixion is not a struggle between these forces, of good on the one hand and evil on the other. There is no contest. The power of God obliterates evil. God’s love and compassion sweep away hatred, envy, venality, cruelty, ignorance, and indolence. The light of Christ banishes the darkness of sin and death. The Cross yields to the Resurrection in forgiveness and love.
Our Lord understands what is happening to His contemporaries and to us. Throughout that last week He speaks urgently of full, transfiguring repentance. He asks for simple, yet true faith, the faith that prompts commitment and that bears fruit in love. He implores all who will believe to accept His love and grace, to be transformed by them, and to bear fruit in repentance and righteousness. Let us then, as we celebrate His death and Resurrection, allow His love and compassion to shine into our hearts. Let us shed the sins which we share with the corrupt leaders, the terrorized disciples, the sadistic, fickle, and cold-hearted crowds. Let us instead embrace our Savior, His Kingdom, His righteousness, and His peace.