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Fasten your seatbelts! We’re going to do a little time travel, and here’s the scene, right in this chapel. We’re back in the early times of Anno Domini. There’s the cross; here’s the crowd. We are gathered as for a Passion Play, in the scene of Jesus’ death.
As our play unfolds, we see a familiar cast of good and bad characters. Among the villains we have come to abhor, we see:
Pontius Pilate, the Local Ruler, Flogger and Condemner of Jesus
Barabbas, The Murderer, Freed by Pilate Instead of Jesus
On the “good side”, we see characters such as:
Simon, the Cyrenian, Cross Bearer for Jesus
The Unnamed Criminal, Who Testifies for Jesus at Golgotha
Joseph of Arimathea, Rich Man, Who Claims Jesus’ Body for Entombment
The Three Mary’s of Galilee, Silent Witnesses to Jesus’ Passion
The great psychologist Carl Jung once said that to evaluate your dreams, you need to look at every character as yourself. Perhaps the same is true in a story as big and powerful as the Passion of Christ. So let’s see what we can discover by adding ourselves to this cast of characters, good and bad.
Let’s begin with Pontius Pilate. According to the Gospels, Pilate tries to free Jesus, believing him innocent. Pilate tells the High Priests, “You have brought this man unto me, as one who was perverting the people: and here I have examined him in your presence and have not found this man guilty of any of your charges against him. Neither has Herod, for he sent him back to us. Indeed, he has done nothing to deserve death. I will therefore have him flogged, and release him.”
But the unruly crowd objects loudly, saying “Away with this man! Release Barabbas for us!” Pilate even pleads with them for the third time, to no avail. And, as we know, Pilate soon succumbs to the screaming crowd, giving them Barabbas. Jesus’ fate is now sealed with the people’s demand: “Crucify him, crucify him!”, and Pilate delivers Jesus to their will.
What actually becomes of Pontius Pilate? Does he spend the rest of his life wondering why he succumbed to the will of the crowd? Is he ultimately sorry for, or proud of his action against Jesus? Well, what is it like for us to give in to group will, or “peer pressure”, despite the leanings of our own conscience, and then later regret it?
I remember a time when I succumbed to peer pressure. I was fourteen, in a drama class up on the back of the school stage, and it was nearing lunchtime. Another girl in the class named Doreen spied a sack lunch lying about unclaimed, and had the idea, “Cindy, let’s eat that lunch!” For some reason, perhaps feeling hungry, and having no thought for the one who had probably carefully prepared that lunch that very morning, I gave in to her wicked idea. Doreen and I split the lunch, eating every last tidbit. Next thing I know, I spy the poor girl whose lunch it was, looking everywhere for it, while we, our stomachs satiated, stand by, willing looks of innocence on our faces. But inside me the pangs of guilt are stabbing, attacking the very morsels I have eaten! I know I have done wrong and wonder how it is that Doreen has power over me to do something I never would have on my own! Though this sin may pale in comparison to that of Pilate, I wasn’t fourteen yesterday, and it still shames me to this day.
So what of Pilate? Is he rewarded by his Roman superiors for the verdict against the seditious man known as Jesus of Nazareth? Does he then live the rest of his life oblivious to his failure, perhaps even proud of his action? Or does he live out his life a tortured man, wondering why he could not have been more stalwart against the demands of the screaming mob? Does redemption for Pilate come through the gift of guilt, and what does that teach us about our use of the guilt we carry in our lives?
As Jesus is led away, the hapless Simone of Cyrene, who is making his way from the countryside, is seized by the soldiers leading Jesus away and is forced to carry the cross behind Jesus. This is a man who truly finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time! What is it about Simon of Cyrene that causes the soldiers to grab him, and not another? Is he powerfully built, is his skin dark, is his clothing inferior, such that the soldiers can assert their will upon him as a poor man?
What becomes of Simon the Cross Bearer? Is his memory of this event to be only a fleeting one, buried in his subconscious mind, rising now and them to pester him, like a recurring nightmare? Or is Simon GLAD to have carried the cross for the man called Jesus, once he realizes and understands the significance in the events of which he was a part? Once back in Libya, does Simon of Cyrene tell his story to all who will hear? Are his listeners astounded, amazed at the role played by their countryman?
The Bible doesn’t tell us that answer, but many people among us have also carried heavy burdens they never asked for; perhaps caring for a loved one through a long illness, after which the loved one either recovers or dies. But do we look back on this act as a joy and a gift, or do we look back with minds clouded by lingering resentment, at something we were forced to do? And what does that teach us about our use of choice in looking back at our own journeys?
As the story continues, the queue of condemners and mourners arrive at “the Place of the Skull, or Golgotha in Aramaic. Here one wonders how many have died in this unholy place, so aptly named for its ghoulish allusion to Death itself. The ghastly scene is one of total despair. Jesus’ condemners are mocking him and the soldiers are affixing a crown of thorns to his head. A subscription ordered by Pilate is hung above him with the mocking title “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews”. At this moment, Jesus is truly despised and rejected by all the people surrounding him. Or is he?
Two criminals are also hung on crosses, on either side of Jesus. One of them is joining the crowd in deriding him, asking, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” Clearly this man, whose crime is unknown to us, has no credence in Jesus. He becomes one of the oppressors, for whom Jesus has just asked God’s forgiveness.
But the miracle is the second criminal. Rebuking the first criminal, the second one says, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he turns to Jesus and implores, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” In this request the second criminal’s words are immortalized, not just in the gospels, but also in the hymn we sing with the very same words. Jesus responds simply, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
So it is, that the second criminal, appearing so haphazardly beside Jesus in The Place of the Skull, becomes the only known “saved” character in the story, and in that, the most fortunate man in the entire New Testament! But is it mere luck that he recognizes the injustice before him? Perhaps he has been well acquainted with injustice, sorrow and grief in his own life. Can it merely be good fortune that he recognizes, perhaps innately, that Jesus is the Messiah, who as such has the power to answer his humble plea to be remembered in the Kingdom of God? And what can his example teach us about the right use of the suffering that comes into our lives, and its power to embitter or open eyes and hearts instead?
And that’s an important question. For all I know, that could be me, nailed up next to Jesus with a sign labeled “Cindy of Nevada, Queen of Lunch Thieves” hung over my head! Perhaps people in those days were crucified for as much, at least if it was Pilate’s lunch! And how would I want to use such a bitter end: as fodder for resentment and spite, or, like the second criminal, as an eye-opener to the pain of those around me, disregarding my own? And what would it be like to be so instantly, yet eternally forgiven, as certain death looms?
At last Jesus cries his final words: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”
With this, his death is now complete, but not the story of the passion. Joseph of Arimathea, known in the community for his high status and wealth, and up until that moment, only secretly a disciple of Jesus, publicly solicits and is granted the body from Pontius Pilate. Though he is in personal danger for involving himself with this “perverter of the people”, he casts his fate to the wind. For this act of righteousness, Joseph becomes the only rich man to be immortalized by name in the narratives we know as the Gospels. In some Christian traditions, he is a saint. But how can we understand Joseph’s motivation toward courage, and what can we learn from it? At the moment of what appears to be ultimate defeat, he finally goes public with his belief in Jesus. And what can this teach us about evaluating our own motivations and what’s really important, as we choose our own actions?
But looking back at Golgotha, there are the three Mary’s at the foot of the cross, weeping for Jesus. His body has not yet been removed. In their grief they have no idea what will in ensue in just three days’ time. They do not know that one of them will be the first to see him again in the garden, and mistake him for a gardener!
Jesus’ passion is now complete for this year. By putting ourselves into the story, it is also the beginning of a new drama, the one of our own salvation. And our Easter is yet to come.
Good Friday 2013