Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple cloak. And Pilate said to them, “Here is the man.”
On the Sunday of this Holy Week, Palm Sunday—as we waved palms and celebrated Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem as its king—Christians in Egypt were dying. On the Monday of this Holy Week, Fr. Boules George, their priest, said this:
“A message to those who kill us: we thank you; we love you; and we pray for you.”
“We thank you—though you will not believe it—because you have made it possible for us to die like Jesus.”
“We love you—though you will not understand it—because this is what Jesus has asked us to do.”
“We pray for you, so that you may know this Jesus, so that you may know this love, too.”
He said it simply and without anger or bitterness. We thank you, because you have made it possible for us to die like Jesus.
What is this death, that makes of death this victory?
Ecce homo: here is the man. Here is the man like us. This death is, first, Jesus with us.
Here in the thorns that pierce his brow, here is the suffering of the world. Here is the harm that we do, the work of our hands, and that harm that we suffer at the hands of others. For there is, indeed, much harm. Small and great, more often small than great—ordinary; that is the harrowing thing—the wrong that we do shadowing our ordinary days.
The people around Jesus are a study in ordinary harm.
Caiaphas, the politically astute. “It is better,” he says, “for one man to die than for the whole people to be destroyed.” Better, Caiaphas thinks, to serve up to the Romans one innocent man and nip any charges of insubordination in the bud, than to risk Roman vengeance on a patriotic mob. Jesus an expedient sacrifice, in the interests of maintaining the peace—the peace with Rome that serves Caiaphas, high priest by permission of Rome, so well.
Pilate: “Look,” he says. “I am bringing this man out to you so that you may know that I find no case against him.” Pilate knows that Jesus does not deserve to die. But Pilate is afraid: afraid of the people, afraid of God, caught between these two fears; afraid to take the course he is increasingly sure is right. And maybe, too, he just doesn’t care that much. So he becomes the first post-modern man. “What is truth,” after all? Life is hardly black and white; there are so many shades of grey. Do not ask me to take a stand for the truth. Especially do not ask me to take a stand for this truth, for this man whom everyone has turned against, at whom everyone jeers…for this truth that might cost me my position. “If you release this man,” the people say, “you are no friend of Caesar.” And so Pilate hands Jesus over to them to be crucified.
Expediency, cowardice, self-interest. These are the leaders of the people.
Then there are Jesus’ friends. Judas, who betrays him for money. And Peter, who loves Jesus and honours him and is afraid. “Aren’t you one of his disciples?” the slave-girl asks. “Not me,” Peter says. Not me. I do not know the man. Ouk eimi: I am not he, Peter says; exactly the opposite of what Jesus has said just minutes before. “Whom do you seek?” Jesus says to the mob with their weapons. “Jesus of Nazareth,” they say. And Jesus says, “Ego eimi.” “I am he.” “I am not he,” Peter says. Ouk eimi. Not me.
What is truth? Pilate says. This is truth, this crucified man and the people who crucify him, on what is for Pilate just another day. Here is truth about the world in these people like other people, who love and are afraid, who choose self-interest and fail to speak up; these people like us, who see the face of the Son of God, and turn away.
Batter my heart, three-person’d God. For our hearts are walled against Thee.
There is a painting in Venice by Tintoretto.
Ecce homo, Pilate says in crimson robes, gesturing out into the room. Ecce homo: here is the man. There is Jesus beside him, thorns round his head and blood in his eyes. And not once, in Tintorettos’ great Passion series, not once does Pilate look Jesus in the eye. We are the people who see the face of God in his Son Jesus Christ, and turn away.
We turn away…because to look at Jesus is to see what is true. It is to see the harm that we do. It is to see the stripes on his back and hear the people’s cry. Here is the man, Pilate says, gesturing out into the room. Crucify him, is all our cry.
What is this death? It is the death we choose, a darkness that rises over the world. It is the lies we tell and the fear that chokes us and the violence we do and that is done to us. It is our refusal to look the Son of God in the eye.
This death is our turning away; our hearts, our world, alone and lonely. My God, my God, the dying man says, why have you forsaken me? And from the 6th hour, darkness came over the whole earth.
And this is the judgement, John says, that the light has come into the world and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil. Caiaphas and Pilate, Judas and Peter. You and I. This death is ours. It is where we are. And people loved the darkness.
This death is ours.
And: it is Jesus’ death too. For God so loved the world, that he sent his only Son.
This death is Jesus’ death, and so it is God with us, this truth too.
In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. Through him all things were made… In him was life, and the life was the light of the world. And the light shines in the darkness…. From the beginning of creation to this day, the light shines in the darkness.
In the darkness, here on this day, in this darkness the light shines. And the darkness did not overcome it. For Jesus who is our light is with us, even here.
God with us, God with our sorrowing and selfish hearts, precisely here. And this is the judgement. That God is with us, in Christ, in this heart of our darkness, not to condemn but to save.
Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for You
As yet but knock, breathe, shine and seek to mend.
You shine and seek to mend. The death of Jesus is this cross that shines, this love that seeks to mend.
For the death of Jesus, his cross, is not just suffering, this darkness, the harm that we do. It is suffering love. “For Jesus shares himself out,” Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Pope Benedict, says. Jesus shares himself out: this is my body, given for you. This is what the Last Supper means. This is what our every Eucharist means. It is the meaning of the cross. “[Jesus] shares himself out as the one who has been split up and torn apart,” for our sake on the cross torn apart, now the body and the blood. Jesus shares himself out in the torn body and the blood. From his torn side flows water and blood, water in our desert, life for a thirsting world. This death of Jesus is his great act of self-giving love.
What is this death that makes of death a victory? It is God with us, and his Word is love. Love for our self-seeking, truth in the face of hatred; forgiveness for our fear.
Light in our darkness, this death, taking our hatred and lifting it up to God and giving it back to us as love. We love you, the Coptic priest said. We love you. We love you as Jesus has loved us. We love you with the love that takes this death, the terrible harm that we do to each other, and suffers it, and gives it back to this world as love.
This is my body given for you: “in these words Jesus transforms death,” Ratzinger says, “into…the act of self-sharing love; into the act of adoration, which is offered to God and from God is made available to [humanity].” We pray for you, the Coptic priest says: in this prayer their deaths offered to God, their act of self-sharing love.
We pray for you. And we thank you.
Because you have given to us to die this death, the death that Jesus died. This death that shines with the grace of God, that shines with the constancy of God, this death that shines and seeks to mend.
Light in our darkness, this death of the Christ.
Jesus rises, in Tintoretto’s fnal passion painting, crucified over the ordinary day. And from his thorn-crowned head blazes such a light.
We thank you, for you have given us to die a death like his.
What is this death? It is truth in the pierced hands of God. “In this death, the destruction of love, which is what death means in itself, becomes the means of establishing it.” This death is love’s enduring constancy.
Jesus our Lord, we thank you.