The Judaeans answered Pilate, “We have a Law, and according to the Law he ought to die because he has made himself out to be God’s Son.” When, therefore, Pilate heard this statement he was more afraid, and again went into the Praetorium and says to Jesus, “Where are you from?” But Jesus did not give him an answer. So Pilate says to him “Do you not know that I have the power to release you and the power to crucify you?” Jesus answered, “You had no power over me whatsoever were it not given you from above; for this reason he who handed me over to you bears the greater sin.” Thereafter Pilate sought to release him . . . .John 19:7-12
I am a great lover of singing in church. Many of the hymns that we sing to open and close a church service I find much more uplifting and spirit enhancing than most of the words that we utter. So, the minimal singing at the Good Friday service of the Lord’s Passion has always been a disappointment for me. As I anticipate participating in the service this year, I have found myself thinking about the conclusion of the service, where the liturgical rubric states that “all depart in silence.”
To truly enter into the mystery of the event we memorialize this day is to be thrust into silence. There is nothing to sing; there is nothing to say. Here I suspect that the liturgy is confronting a mystery about which we can, if being honest, say nothing. As the oft quoted epigram of Ludwig Wittgenstein says: “Whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent.”
I have never envied the preacher on Good Friday. It may be that many of the worst homilies I can recall (as well as a few of the best) occurred on this day. I am in total sympathy with the problem, for the crucifixion of Jesus thrusts us into the reality of the excess of evil, which means an excess of meaning. In his book Job and the Excess of Evil, Philippe Nemo points out that the way we make sense of evil ordinarily is to create a narrative of struggle between good and evil. Thus, human heroism lies in victory over evil. This is ordinarily the way we present the passion and death of Jesus to ourselves and each other. We make of Jesus a victim who must die to appease the anger of God, because this is a restoration of “justice” in a way we can understand. Or we must mitigate the terror and anxiety of our confrontation with the Mystery by thinking of Jesus’ death as merely a prelude to his victory over evil three days later.
In this light, this year’s reading of John’s passion draws my attention to the figure of Pilate and the fear that he experiences. Strikingly, it is when Pilate hears the crowd say that it is because of their Law that Jesus’ claim to be God’s son must be punished by death that he becomes “more afraid.” Pilate finds himself “in the middle” between the retributive demands of the crowd and his own encounter with Jesus. The gospel makes clear that Pilate finds no guilt in Jesus, but the crowd insists that Jesus must die because his very being is a threat to the Law’s ultimacy. In reading John’s passion narrative, we cannot help but be confounded by Pilate’s behavior. He declares that he finds no fault in Jesus and then says that he will flog him and let him go. He seems to plead with a crowd that is clearly bent on Jesus’ death, “Shall I crucify your king?” He reminds Jesus that he alone has the power to crucify or release him, when the story clearly reveals that he does not have the freedom to exercise that power.
The key to understanding Pilate’s behavior, perhaps, lies somehow in understanding the nature of Pilate’s fear. Of course, he fears the crowd and the possibility of insurrection. Yet, it as his dialogue and so encounter with Jesus continues that Pilate’s inability to confront the crowd begins to create in him something of existential dread. Pilate and the crowd cannot have a common conversation, not only because of the cultural and religious difference between them but also because Pilate’s “fear” is based on an encounter with a Mystery that he cannot understand or articulate. The “non-sense” of his behavior and the apparent meaninglessness of his reactions are the result of his being, in the presence of Jesus, face-to-face with an excess of meaning in the face of human evil, on the one hand, and the Mystery that subsumes it on the other.
Every Good Friday, and at many other times in our lives, we find ourselves in the place of Pilate. We would like to be the heroic force for good in the face of evil. We would like evil to come in a form where we could struggle with it and so at least have the possibility of overcoming it. But when we face it we find ourselves in a realm that is outside of the initiatives that the world teaches and gives us. We find ourselves face-to-face with the Mystery, and, as Pilate, fearful and impotent.
Unless we still live with our childhood understandings which reduce Mystery to human common sense, the crucifixion will often be for us, as St. Paul (Romans 1:23) puts it, a “stumbling block” and “foolishness,” until we come to see it as “the power of God.” This is, perhaps, the significance of the interchange about power between Pilate and Jesus. Pilate asserts to Jesus that he has a power, which he is proven not to possess. Jesus responds by speaking of a power that only comes from above.
My own sense of the Mystery that we remember today is perhaps most influenced by my reading many, many years ago Night, the memoir of Elie Wiesel’s experience as a boy held in a concentration camp. At one point he relates the public hanging of two men and a child:
Then came the march past the victims. The two men were no longer alive. Their tongues were hanging out, swollen and bluish. But the third rope was still moving: the child, too light, was still breathing …
And so he remained for more than half an hour, lingering between life and death, writhing before our eyes. And we were forced to look at him at close range. He was still alive when I passed him. His tongue was still red, his eyes not yet extinguished.
Behind me, I heard the same man asking:
“For God’s sake, where is God?”
And from within me, I heard a voice answer:
“Where He is? This is where—hanging here from this gallows …”
Evil is ubiquitous in our world. Were we not able to evade and suppress most of it most of the time, I wonder if we could survive. When we are forced to confront it, we often speak and act in ways that are as nonsensical as the behavior of Pilate in the passion narrative. In order not to succumb to the anxiety of Pilate, or of Job, we domesticate the Otherness of it so that we might prove ourselves virtuous and heroic. And in so doing, we also domesticate the Mystery of God. Much Christian theology has framed life as a “battle” between darkness and light. “In God,” we hear in the first letter of John, “there is no darkness.” (1 John 1:15) And so it is, as the author of 1 John continues, to walk in God means not to walk in darkness. Yet, although there is no darkness in God, God may also be in the darkness. “This is where—hanging here from this gallows . . .”
Our anxiety and fear, our realization that our model of struggle and heroism is illusory, can lead us to avoid remaining awake to the existence of evil. In our present age, we find our very existence threatened because we refuse to face the Mystery of evil: in our own refusal to protect our planet for those who will follow us, in our acceptance of structures that victimize the poor and marginalized among us, in our rationalizations for abusive behavior even within our own circles, in our greed and consumption that threatens our very future, in looking to be saved from ourselves by dictators and autocrats, in putting our own comfort and affluence above the well being of our brothers and sisters, and on and on. We live in a time when evil must be given equal time and equal expression, and then we wonder why it is that the force of evil tends to predominate over time.
Jesus is anxious and fearful, and yet he follows through by abandoning his will to that of God. He loves his own to the end, and so brings the love of God to the cross. Unlike Pilate, Jesus is not driven and controlled by his fear. On this day we are brought into the Mystery that it is love, it is God hanging from this cross. Is there, perhaps, no escaping the truth that we, as Jesus, are called to love to the end because what seems to be the end to us may not be? To care is to suffer. The “overcoming of evil” will not happen as we would have it, through our heroic and victorious efforts. Rather, it seems, as we meditate this day, that evil is only transformed by love. Is this the spiritual insight of those like Gandhi who assimilate the lesson of non-violence? St. John of the Cross teaches: “Where there is not love, put in love, and you will find love.” When we “adore” the cross this day, we are recognizing that Jesus has put love where there was not love. As he told the disciples the night before the crucifixion, “For I have given you an example so that, just as I have done for you, you may do as well.” (John 13:15)
This problem [of evil] (which underlies the whole of thought more persistently than any other problem) emerges, and grows to enigmatic proportions, only because in special moments—like anxiety—the world seems to deny us, not just its favors or its cooperation, but also the assistance of its enmity. It refuses us combat. It does not help us by extending its hardness to us, so that our human hardness might prove itself in heroic struggle against it. As we know about the most desperate struggles, human beings, whether defeated or triumphant, end up victorious, since it is in the struggle that we comprehend our strength, and it is in our strength that we celebrate ourselves. But in order to bring this about, the struggle has to be given. And unfortunately, in Job’s anxiety—the extraordinary character of which only reveals the nature of ordinary evil more vividly—it is this guarantee that disappears. The struggle is not a given. The world shies away, and by its withdrawal releases a crisis where every reference and every common resource is absent. The world, disappearing, dispossess human beings of all their initiatives. It hurls them toward a consideration of the Other, the one from whom the initiative comes.Philippe Nemo, Job and the Excess of Evil, pp. 40-41