A Recurring Drama

Douglas P. McManaman
Good Friday Sermon
April 3, 2015
Reproduced with Permission

The Trial of Jesus that has been recited is a drama that been continually played out throughout human history, and it continues. This really is our story, the story of man. Jesus is arrested and led to the Sanhedrin, and contrary to Jewish law, he is tried at night. And then he's sent to Pilate, and the charge is blasphemy, but blasphemy means nothing to Pilate, who is not a Jew, so he sees no crime in anything Jesus might have done. So the people twist Jesus' words and imply that he claims to be Messiah, which means anointed one or king, and they use that to manipulate Pilate, implying that Jesus's title is a challenge to his office and a threat to his dominion. But Jesus tells Pilate that his kingdom is not of this world. Pilate then sends Jesus to Herod, and Herod is delighted to see Jesus and wants to see a miracle. But Jesus says and does nothing. In no time at all, Herod and his guards begin to treat Jesus with contempt. They dress him up in ceremonial garb and send him off back to Pilate, mocking him as it were. After that, Herod and Pilate become friends; for they now have something in common, as all friends do, and this common element is their power over and contempt for Jesus.

The people continue to demand his death, and prefer to have Barabbas released, a genuine criminal, rather than to see Jesus set free. Pilate is even warned by his wife - who had a dream about Jesus - and is told to have nothing to do with him. But to please the crowd, to pacify them, he has Jesus scourged and washes his hands of the affair. This is an interesting gesture, kind of like lady Macbeth, who washes her hands to get the blood off, to deliver herself from her guilt, but it does not work. So too, the blood will not come off of Pilate's hands, for out of sheer cowardice he surrendered Jesus over to be crucified; he knew that Jesus was innocent and that the chief priests handed Jesus over out of jealousy.

But no one is innocent in this story, except Jesus' mother, who is in the background. Peter denied Christ three times, and the rest of the Apostle's deserted him on Holy Thursday night, as Jesus said they would. Now just as the Mass is the actual Sacrifice of the Cross mystically made present in the here and now every time Mass is said, in a similar way this drama is the story of man; it is the story of man's contempt for the truth, played out in every age. At the same time, it is the story of God's mercy and incomprehensible love. Man's contempt for truth and God's mercy towards man are two halves that complete the story: to proclaim the one without the other is incomplete: the story of sin without God's mercy is not the gospel, but a story of God's mercy without flashing the light on sin is not serious and lacks weight.

The whole story begins with clerical envy. My spiritual director often reminds me of the studies that show that the three professions in which professional envy is most prominent are psychiatrists, psychologists, and clergy. The clergy should be the last place in the world where we find envy or jealousy, but unfortunately that is not the case, and it's been that way since the beginning, as we see here in this drama.

And then we have a political leader, a governor, who sees the innocence of Christ, but whose love for tranquility and peace is greater than his love for truth. In fact, he even seems to doubt the existence of truth. Eternal truth is standing right in front of him in the flesh and he says: "What is truth?" He has no courage to govern with integrity, that is, to govern 'in truth'; he fears the reaction of the people. And things have not changed even today. In the year 2000, Pope John Paul II declared St. Thomas More heavenly patron of Statesmen and Politicians, and it was a response to the times, when political leaders running for office, in particular Catholic political leaders, were choosing to ignore the dictates of their conscience for the sake of their jobs. St. Thomas More was famous for his line to Cardinal Wolsey in Bolt's play: "When statesmen forsake their private conscience for the sake of their public duties, they lead their country by a short route to chaos". And yet that is par for the course today in politics.

Then there is Herod who wants to see miracles, that is, he wants to be entertained. Herod was a drunk; in fact, scholars believe that he was drunk when he was addressing Jesus, which is why Jesus said nothing. But because he did not get the sensational Jesus, he treats him with contempt. And how true is that today. Many people have a brush with Catholicism, and they leave it because it fails to satisfy, they want not so much to be present at the Sacrifice of the Cross and enter into that sacrifice; rather, they want to be entertained, they want to be made to "feel happy", without a great deal of thought, without moral demands and the struggle of the spiritual life; in short, without a way of the cross. Most people don't want the way of the cross, which is why we only have 5 Masses on Sunday rather than 12 Masses, which is what we would need if every Catholic in the area decided to keep the Sabbath holy.

And then there is the false mercy of releasing Barabbas. We permit all sorts of evil today, and we do so under the guise of being open and tolerant. We turn a vice into a virtue, as the people did in the release of Barabbas.

And then there is our first Pope, who denied he ever knew Jesus. All the clergy are represented under the category of the rest of the eleven who fled. One of the Apostle's actually betrays his entire vocation for 30 pieces of silver, as a percentage of bishops have done over the centuries, and the rest of them go into hiding, as all of us would do if it were not for the grace of God. Without grace, we fail.

However, it is in failing that we can be awakened. It is in failing that we are saved by the gaze of Christ, as Peter was awakened by the gaze of Christ. The cross is the truth that human beings continue to crucify; it is even shaped as a 't' to remind us that it is the truth we crucify. And yet that betrayal, that infidelity, that injustice, was taken by him and used to bring about our redemption. The cross atones for all our sins, past, present and future. In the face of our hatred of the truth hangs the eternal truth of God's absolute love for us.

If we allow ourselves to be touched by that love, as Peter did, we will never be the same again. We will center the rest of our lives around that cross, always striving to love it more, to conform ourselves to it more fully. That cross will become our life.