Tag Archives: Benedictines

26 November: Taken by Surprise, II.

Yesterday we were looking at the feeding of the five thousand. If you weren’t here, perhaps it would be a good idea if you scrolled back to it. I would like to take a different tack now, and look at the miracle from the angle of its healing effect on Jesus’ disciples. I had been unable to get them out of my head yesterday in my lectio of this passage. Neither had Jesus, it would seem.

As we saw in yesterday’s post, the disciples had been left in a state of miserable suspension the whole day. News of John the Baptist’s execution had made them deeply sad, and it also would have made them feel the bite of fear. Would this kind of thing happen to Jesus? To them? The needy crowd had seemingly absorbed all of Jesus’ attention and energy, just when the disciples needed him most. Or so it might have seemed to the Twelve.

But Jesus does eventually give the disciples the reassurance they need. He does not forget them. He includes them most wonderfully in this miracle of the feeding of the five thousand. How? First, Jesus takes the disciples’ insufficiency (five loaves, two fish, and no joy) and turns it into a joyful feast of such lavish proportions that the leftovers alone could have fed a small village. And this stupendous feat is performed right under the disciples’ noses: they have front-row seats, and are able to see this miracle, and behold its wonder close-up. What could be more healing?

Then, in obedience to Jesus, they distribute the food. They’re the ones who receive everybody’s thanks, therefore, and they were probably given the credit for the meal being delicious and plentiful. What must this have been like for the disciples? Their wonder as the food kept coming: enough, and more than enough for five thousand, not even counting women and children? Did they begin to weep as they kept reaching into the basket of bread that never emptied? Did they laugh? Become giddy? Exchange stunned glances with each other across the crowds, as it gradually dawned on the Twelve that they were in the middle of a mind-boggling miracle? In any case, they were taken by surprise, once again, by Jesus, and in the process, healed of their grief as their joy in the miracle builds; they are strengthened physically and emotionally, and released from their fear by witnessing this manifestation of Jesus’ prodigious compassion and power. I imagine that they were never the same after this miracle.

And now I’m able to look at the question of what this says to me about the Lord’s work in my life. As my thoughts have moved more fully into the events recounted here by Matthew, I’ve become aware of the fact that Jesus heals his disciples ‘obliquely,’ in this instance. They don’t actually sit down with Jesus in a quiet and lonely place as they had all planned, and talk and cry and do whatever else they wanted to do to express their grief over John the Baptist’s death. Jesus had wanted this for them; there is nothing wrong with it. But circumstances took their course, and did not allow it. Jesus will not forget them, though: he remains concerned about them, and ultimately reaches their grief in a surprising way, by involving them in his miraculous work of feeding people.

When I think of this in relation to my life-experience, this story speaks of the healing power of the Eucharist in my life. Life does not always provide an opportunity for emotional healing that addresses my wounds in the way I had planned – if I even had any plans. But just as Jesus did not forget his disciples that day, Jesus does not forget me. He is present in the Eucharistic meal, and through it, has dealt compassionately with the wounds and the grief I have carried at different stages in my life. Through the Eucharist, and through my full experience of being part of the community of the Church formed by the Eucharist, Jesus has been transforming my insufficiency into something capable of providing a joyful meal. This is ongoing, but it is a joy that can still take me by surprise, because it usually comes from a direction I do not expect. But the joy is real, and will deepen as I acknowledge it and allow the deep wonder of it to well up like a spring in my heart.

SJC

Broadstairs Baptist Church, near Minster.

Thank you again, and always, Sister Johanna!

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October 13: Cooperation in Joy

It’s about time we sat back to listen to Sister Johanna from Minster Abbey, who knows how to tell a story afresh, with help from Alfie the Collie.

Even the puppies eat the scraps that fall from the master’s table (Mt.15:27).

I think it would be wonderful to be irresistible to Jesus, to surprise him by getting something really right, make him do a double-take and ask, ‘Did she just say that?’ It rarely happens in the gospels, but there are a few instances of it. And one of them is recounted in Matthew 15:21-28.

Jesus and his disciples are travelling, on foot, as usual. They are in the region of Tyre and Sidon – a gentile area. A Canaanite woman, gentile therefore, turns up. And she starts shouting at the top of her lungs, calling to Jesus. At first, her talent seems to lie chiefly in making a pest of herself – at least as far as the disciples are concerned, for they urge Jesus to give her what she wants, ‘…because she keeps shouting after us.’ We know the type, and cringe. The woman is pushy–in the extreme: she’s noisy, her voice probably harsh and grating, she’s insistent, she won’t be brushed off. She shouts out two titles to grab Jesus’ attention (maybe one will work): ‘Lord! Son of David!’ Then ‘…take pity on me. My daughter is tormented by a devil.’ Over and over, apparently.

And Jesus seems to be ignoring her. Even after reading this story many, many times over the years, I still feel a jolt at Jesus seeming to blank this woman. Why does he do it? I think Jesus himself answers that question when he says to the disciples, ‘But I was sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel.’ To my mind, what Jesus is saying here is that he is not sure whether the woman would have the capacity to receive what he could give her. Her religious background was unknown; at least the lost sheep of the House of Israel would have the religious sensibility to understand Jesus’ message–or they would in theory, anyway. The gentiles would largely need a different approach. How much would this woman be able to grasp of Jesus’ teaching and his person? I think Jesus’ uncertainty is real. But he will soon have an answer to his question.

The woman overhears what Jesus says, and she has the pluck to come right up to him and show him what she is able to understand. First, she again appeals to his compassion: ‘Lord, help me.’ By this time, whenever I read the story, I am always on her side, pest or no pest, and I really don’t want Jesus to say what he says next, but there’s no help for it. He says: ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the puppies.’ Scholarly exegesis is always quick to point out that Jesus isn’t insulting her; not really. In that culture and at that time, the word for puppies or little dogs softens an expression which itself was a conventional one devoid of the sting we would read into it. It was standard for Jews to refer to gentiles as dogs, evidently. With all our sensitivities today, it is still hard for us not to be taken aback, but it’s possible to imagine Jesus with a kindly expression in his eyes as he refers to the ‘little dogs’ or ‘puppies.’ And, the fact is, the Canaanite woman doesn’t object to it. In fact, she revels in it. It is exactly the handle she needs to hoist herself up in Jesus’ estimation – by a mile. Her life is about to become a lot better.

She has come to Jesus with absolutely no claims and no pretensions. She does not try to be what she isn’t; she isn’t a child of Israel, and she expects to be called a little dog. At the same time, she knows what she knows about Jesus, and she is certain that Jesus has supernatural power capable of healing her daughter. She is determined to obtain her daughter’s healing from him. So she is ready for him. To Jesus’ comment about not wanting to throw the children’s food to the puppies, she makes the brilliant and faith-filled rejoinder: ‘Ah, yes, Lord, but even the little dogs eat the scraps that fall from the master’s table.’

Suddenly this pest is transformed into a paragon of everything Jesus wants to see in us. She is loving. She is straightforward about herself. She is full of faith with regard to Jesus. She is brave, truthful, frank, plucky and, as a bonus, ingeniously witty. This combination is irresistible to him. She understands all right, probably a lot better than some of the lost sheep of Israel do, and is fully able to receive the gift that Jesus is able to give. ‘Woman, you have great faith!’ he exclaims. ‘Let your desire be granted!’ And surely, this was said with an amazed smile and even a laugh on Jesus’ part. She must have filled Jesus with such joy, even as she herself was filled with joy by Jesus.

I said at the beginning that I’d like to be irresistible to Jesus, surprising him by the strength of my faith. This story makes me question some attitudes I have. Would I be as plucky as the Canaanite woman? She knew that as a gentile, she was not entitled to Jesus’ gift, but she was willing to receive any scrap from him that she could scavenge, and knew that such a scrap would be filled with his mighty power. How do I measure up against her willingness and faith? Against her perseverance in prayer? Don’t I tend to grow discouraged? Don’t I bring a subtle attitude of entitlement to prayer? I am not entitled to Jesus’ gift of friendship, healing and eternal salvation any more that she was. When Jesus seems to ignore my prayer, when he seems silent, don’t I feel just a bit put out? A little bit of entitlement is not much better than a lot of it. Perhaps by meditating on this Canaanite woman I may learn from her the attitudes that Jesus finds irresistible, and then find that we are cooperating in joy.

SJC

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24 September: Take Nothing for the Journey.

We found this plaque on the wall of our holiday house, so the Christian roots sink deeper there than at Minster Abbey in Kent, two modern or five ancient realms apart. Ty Gwyn – the White House – is walking distance from Saint David’s Cathedral; a short walk further is his birthplace. We were on holiday rather than pilgrimage, but that was part of the holiday too, even if we took plenty for the journey including changes of clothes, and a meal for the first evening. We did use the local shops after that.

Sister Johanna of Minster Abbey wrote this reflection for us, about the preaching pilgrimage Jesus set up for his disciples. This was David’s way of life as a missionary bishop. As well as preaching, he was known as a healer.

He called the Twelve together and gave them power and authority over all devils and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal. He said to them, ‘Take nothing for the journey; neither staff, nor haversack, nor bread, nor money; and do not have a spare tunic…. . So they set out and went from village to village proclaiming the good news and healing everywhere. Luke 9: 1-4,6.

I’m ashamed to admit that I usually go blank when I read this passage from the Gospel of Luke. But, today I lingered over the words, repeating them over and over gently in my mind, in order to give the Holy Spirit all the time necessary to help me find my way through this text. And before long, things began to happen.

I first noticed the words, ‘He sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal.’ To proclaim and to heal. Jesus is not a man of words only, but of words and deeds: and here, the deeds are deeds of healing. Deeds of life, therefore. Jesus wanted his disciples not merely to tell, but show that he, Jesus, was a man who could bring about change – change of the most important kind. This, for ordinary people, is vital. And ordinary people, hard workers, carrying a burden of responsibility and of sorrow – these are the ones Jesus was trying to reach.

The Twelve were also given ‘power and authority over all devils’ – well and good, surely. Good for the Twelve. Jesus was commissioning them here, and he knew that Satan would try to undermine their efforts, their confidence, everything. But Jesus doesn’t suggest to the Twelve that they walk up to the ordinary man on the street and announce, ‘I have been given power and authority over all devils’. Imagine it. I rather think that then, as now, the reaction of the man on the street to such an approach would have been one of hasty withdrawal from that apostle, a withdrawal of eye contact, a striding in the opposite direction, and throwing only the quickest of backward glances to make sure that apostle wasn’t following. But the authority to cure diseases was something else. This was something the Twelve could use, and ordinary people would respond to. The Twelve were the primary ones who needed to know that Jesus’ power was greater than Satan’s – but the ordinary people were the ones who needed to see real results. And Jesus is happy to respond to this need.

Jesus isn’t finished with the Twelve yet. He has more instructions – and they are strange ones. First, ‘Take nothing with you for the journey.’ Imagine what it would have been like for the Twelve to hear that. It was probably not possible for them to exchange puzzled glances with each other right then, but they must have wondered incredulously, “Whoever heard of someone being so crazy as to set out on an important journey without packing?” But the subtext here is in words Jesus uses elsewhere, ‘Your heavenly Father knows what you need before you ask him.’ Rely on him. You are going out to do his work. He will provide. The labourer deserves his wages. Jesus, anticipating their questions, perhaps, goes on to make the nature of God’s providence perfectly clear by detailing the things they were not supposed to take:

  • ‘No staff’ to lean on as you walk. Lean on me, he suggests.
  • ‘No haversack.’ Right. He already said ‘take nothing with you.’ No, not even an empty bag to put things in once the gifts start coming. You are not to stockpile.
  • ‘No bread.’ I am the bread of life. You will have food of a different sort to sustain you. Your fathers had manna in the wilderness. You will be fed.
  • ‘No money.’ Why? Because I am your wealth. People long for me more than for money. Offer me to them free of charge. They – or enough, anyway – will fall all over themselves to help you whenever you have a need.
  • ‘No spare tunic.’ No, not even a change of clothes. Some people will welcome you so fully into their lives that they will seem to adopt you. You will be like their son. You will want for nothing.

And now, I place myself for a moment in the sandals of one of the Twelve, imagining myself going on this missionary journey. With nothing. I feel exposed, vulnerable. Very. But only for a moment. Then I remember that this is always a very good thing in the spiritual life. Self-assurance is worth very little in my relationship with Jesus. I think of how it’s been when I have gone off on my own to pursue projects that did not originate in Jesus. Self-assurance, therefore, is not what Jesus wants to inculcate in the Twelve on this, their first missionary endeavour – or in me, ever. He wants us to rely on him utterly – and on ourselves, never.

And off they go. The program was successful beyond their wildest dreams. ‘They went from village to village proclaiming the good news and healing everywhere.’ Everywhere.

SJC.

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Going viral XVIII: this is the place

St Michael and All Angels, Harbledown

We have a right to a sacrosanct place set aside for encountering God … Jesus teaches that we must ensure that the temple is always conducive to prayer – silent, reverent, empty of all other kinds of pursuits. We need this place – perhaps much more than we realise. And Jesus defends this need. He is IN this place. This is the place where Jesus can be found.

Sister Johanna Caton OSB: Hanging on. See this morning’s posting.

Thank you Sister Johanna for a second taste of your wisdom today; and thank you to Harbledown church for this visual reminder that this is the place where Jesus can be found. Not the only place, of course.

Will T.

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6 April: Hanging On

heart.of.pebbles

He taught in the temple every day 

(Luke. 19:47)

More wisdom from Sister Johanna, who today looks at what Jesus was doing in Holy Week.

I am often amazed at how much insight can be derived from a very few words of scripture. I sometimes take a short sentence and explore the words one by one to see what comes. The Holy Spirit never disappoints. Here we have a mere seven words from the Gospel of Luke (19:47). Let’s see what treasures can be found in He taught in the temple every day.

  • He. Who is he? We are dealing with Jesus, the Lord, here, and not just anyone. He is not a news broadcaster, an entertainer, a politician canvassing for votes and whose promises are dubious. He is not someone who should be tuned out and only half-heard while we do other things. He is not someone whose agenda is self-serving. He is the one – the only one – who deserves our full and undivided attention. He is the only one whose words are directed toward fulfilling our deepest needs, and not to furthering his own ambition; his words and deeds feed our most profound hungers – our hunger for truth, our thirst for love, our desire for eternal life. That is who ‘He’ is.

  • Taught. For all these reasons, and more, he is the teacher par excellence. Jesus’ mind is clear, beautiful, and deep – much deeper than we can imagine. He always lives on a deeper level of reality than we do, and every word of his teaching, his every observation or comment comes from the place of wisdom and deepest truth. He is never someone who just talks to fill in an awkward silence, or whose words are coming from nervousness, who is babbling. Every word he utters is full of meaning. Nor is he on the level of our peers, that we should critically examine his words for flaws, prejudices, hang-ups. We may need to study his words closely, in order to make them our own. This is the task of a good student. But he is greater than we are; we are not his equal, and in debate he will always win. The Pharisees soon discovered this when they tried to trip him up in discourse. They could never trick him, or catch him out.

We have a lot of people spewing words at us through the media nowadays. So many words that we can’t, and don’t even need to, take them all in. We can entertain ourselves and others by mocking these media people, because they have little of value to say, or if they do say something important, the program has run and re-run so many times that we are sick of it. But that is emphatically not the case with Jesus. His words are life. They are living words, always revelatory, always fresh, even if we have heard them many times before. He always has something new to teach us.

  • In the temple. Jesus is IN the temple – he is in this most sacred of places. Jesus is everywhere, granted, and teaches everywhere. But the temple is a privileged place of encounter, set aside to honour God. It is a place over which, as God and Lord, Jesus rightly has ownership, it is a place where he is entitled to preside – even to reign. He claims this pre-eminent role in the absolute sense when he cleanses the temple of the vendors who had set up their booths in it. The temple is not to be turned into a profit-making venue for business people, he teaches. But the act of temple-cleansing is not merely about him. It is about us, too. In cleansing the temple Jesus is defending our right to use it as a place, above all, for prayer, against those whose avarice and insensitivity would make it noisy, irreverent, chaotic – make it a place where they make a profit for themselves rather than offer themselves lovingly to God. We have a right to a sacrosanct place set aside for encountering God. The temple is so important that Jesus is famously fierce about this and demonstrates a violence in cleansing the temple that he does not show at any other time. In this way he teaches that we must ensure that the temple is always conducive to prayer – silent, reverent, empty of all other kinds of pursuits. We need this place – perhaps much more than we realise. And Jesus defends this need. He is IN this place. This is the place where Jesus can be found.

  • Every day. This is something reliable. Jesus is there every day. He does not skip any days, or take a holiday. Jesus does not need a day off. Moreover, every day the truth is truth. Jesus, as teacher, does not have good days and bad days – perhaps like an athlete whose game is just off sometimes. Jesus is never shallow, silly or foolish. Jesus is always there, every moment of every day, ready to teach us. He never leaves us alone, never leaves us without his help.

And now, what is my response to these assertions? It is easy. St Luke shows me in the following sentence: ‘…the whole people hung on his words (19:48) [emphasis mine]. To ‘hang on’ Jesus’ words. This is the only appropriate response.

SJC

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March 25: Rejoice!

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Rejoice, you who enjoy God’s favour!

Luke 1:28

These are the words spoken by the Archangel Gabriel to the Blessed Virgin Mary when he first appears to her at the annunciation. He commands: “Rejoice!” In a fallen world, where her holy Child will suffer, where he will die, in a world which will never easily or fully accept the story now beginning to unfold before the young woman’s eyes, and in which her own role will be very nearly as dangerous, crucial and sorrowful as the Messiah’s own role, in this circumstance Mary is commanded by a heavenly messenger to rejoice.

Doesn’t this raise an important issue for us, the faithful? It is easy to dismiss these words, and not allow their full impact to echo in our mind. It is easy to see them as applying to the Mother of Jesus, but not to us. But her joy should be ours. Why isn’t it?

There is a rather punitive undertow to received spirituality that is suspicious of joy, that labels Christian joy out of touch with reality, insufficiently engaged with the world’s suffering victims of poverty, disease, hunger, disaster, war, injustice. That says accusingly, ‘The Messiah has not eliminated any sufferings. What good is he? Why rejoice?’

Yet the angel commands the young Mary to rejoice. He doesn’t merely invite, or suggest. His words are much stronger than that. He utters a divine injunction, a non-negotiable absolute. He is an angel, after all. He can’t be wrong about this. He knows what he is doing and saying. Let this fact settle for a moment or two.

Doesn’t this divine imperative to rejoice, therefore, release something in the heart? Isn’t this truly Good News? The Angel Gabriel not only commands that Mary rejoice, he commands us to do so, also. And in so doing, He gives us permission to release that joy which is hidden in our heart, always just below the surface, always wanting to come out, and which our lugubrious self is always scolding back into hiding. But, just for a moment now, allow this joy to surface. Now, see where it takes you.

SJC

Sister Johanna has returned like a breath of fresh air! Can we whisper an alleluia in Lent? REJOICE anyway!

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3 March. Desert VI: praying and working together.

abbey Xt desert

Life for the Benedictine monks of Christ in the Desert is based on prayer – ‘Opus Dei’ or God’s work – and the work that earns their daily bread. This article by Jonathan Malesic  explores how these two activities can sit well together or clash and so undermine community life. When does work become too demanding for the good of the community or its members?

Make yourself a cup of tea or coffee and enjoy reading this long essay slowly: it challenges our view of the work we do, efficiency and all. It was published by Commonweal magazine on 2nd February 2019.

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24 December: What the Choir Master’s Back Knows.

What the Choir Master’s Back Knows

adam.canterbury
Dear Friends,
We have today a Christmas poem from Sister Johanna,  called  What the choir master’s back knows  . It’s set in Canterbury Cathedral, where this ancient picture of our father Adam is in the great west window. Follow the link to a pdf version that preserves the layout and punctuation of Sister’s original.
I have to admit to saluting Adam when facing the west window. He himself is facing east, towards the dawn, the new day, and working as he waits. What do you make of Adam, sister, brother? He is a reminder that we humans are united in one complex family tree with our first parents at the root.
Today is the Feast of Adam and Eve – no, I did not know about it either -and tomorrow is the Birthday of the Second Adam. It is good to know, both from the feast day and from the message of the window artist, that the Church believes Adam is with the Lord. Happy Feast Day, and Happy Christmas for tomorrow! 
Will and the team.

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24 November: The King VIII, What I Have Written.

RoodEngMartyrsCamb2

On the feast of Christ the Universal King, we are privileged to being you the final part of Sister Johanna’s reflections on the dialogue between Pontius Pilate, representing the Power of this world and Jesus with his spiritual power.

Pilate’s final act in Jesus’ regard is as enigmatic and confusing as anything that has ever occurred in the gospels. He affixes a notice to Jesus’ cross reading ‘Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews.’ Why? Why can’t Pilate leave it alone now? Why doesn’t he retreat back into his palace after his sentencing of Jesus, away from all the turmoil? Why does Pilate watch Jesus’ final journey to Golgotha carrying his cross, and then turn up himself at Golgotha? The notice was nailed to the cross just before it was raised, or possibly afterwards – the text isn’t clear. Why was Pilate still there? Did he feel that he had unfinished business? Was he ambivalent about the sentence he had passed? Or did he simply want to have the last word, now that Jesus was nearly dead, and probably unable to say anything more?

In light of our reflections, it is not possible to interpret Pilate’s notice as a sincere gesture of sorrow, nor would it represent an awareness, coming too late, of Jesus’ true kingship in a religious sense. None of Pilate’s actions at any point in Jesus’ trial or crucifixion suggest that Pilate ever grasps the true meaning of Jesus’ words and person. Nor does it seem to me to be one last attempt by Pilate to make Jesus’ enemies see the incongruity between their vision of Jesus as a political usurper and the actual appearance of Jesus in all his brokenness on the cross, undergoing a criminal’s death. By now, Pilate is fed up with the Jewish chief priests (see John 19:21-22).

But I do think that the notice nailed to the cross represents a confession of sorts on Pilate’s part. Although Pilate sees that Jesus was no threat to his position as governor, Jesus was very much a threat to Pilate as a man and human being. Where Pilate was a shallow human being, Jesus in every word and action was a man of depth. Where Pilate would change his ideological position according to his assessment of its usefulness in gaining the right friends, Jesus was a man whose actions were always consistent with his public teaching and his deepest aspirations, his sense of identity and his mission. Where Pilate was confused, Jesus was clear-headed and calm. Where Pilate tried to win support from the crowd to bolster his position and reinforce his sense of self, Jesus was completely autonomous with reference to public opinion. Jesus was able to express who he was and what he stood for in brilliantly concise terms. Pilate had spent his entire life trying to play one side against the other, lying, flattering, bragging, unable to imagine his existence without the trappings of power. And yes, Pilate was power-hungry and insecure. He could never get enough power, never enough to feel whole and at peace. Jesus also had a kind of hunger. Pilate sensed it. But Jesus was not hungry for power. He was hungry for souls, he hungered to awaken our hunger for him. Pilate was out for all he could get. Jesus was there to give us everything he had, his very life, for our salvation. He longed for us to turn to him, but he never forced it.

I believe that some of this dawned on Pilate as Jesus was led away to be crucified. The sniffer-dog in Pilate began to find a kind of power in Jesus that Pilate had not imagined even existed. He realised that Jesus, because of the integrity of his being, did not have power as other men have it – because other men’s power was the kind of power that could be lost. Jesus would never lose his power because he was power. And he was power because he was truth. There was no disorder in Jesus, no ‘parts’ of Jesus that did not spontaneously cleave to and express truth. This was a human power that was much greater than any power Pilate himself had ever encountered in anyone, or would ever be able to possess himself, and he knew it.

In the end, Pilate was thoroughly frightened by this, but he recognized Jesus’ power for what it was, and knew that Jesus’ force in the world would transcend every power structure that had ever existed or ever would exist. Pilate found that this Jesus, this Nazarene, was indeed a king. He was king of the Jews, and king of much more. He was, in every sense, a threat to Pilate’s person and personality. Jesus was king as Pilate would never be. As no man would ever be. Pilate is clear now. Jesus must be crushed. This Nazarene, this king of the Jews, must die.

 

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23 November: The King VII, Jesus.

arch.people2

Should we understand Pilate’s question as a signal that he is now ready to listen? I don’t think so. Had Jesus detected even a hint of sincere open-mindedness in Pilate, he would have responded to it. But now, he is too weak and Pilate’s question about Jesus’ origin is far too big. Jesus remains silent. Pilate is not accustomed to such treatment and chooses this moment to remind Jesus of his power over him – once again, the power fixation – ‘Are you refusing to speak to me? Surely you know that I have power to release you and I have power to crucify you.

Even in the extreme weakness of his physical condition, Jesus cannot allow these ill-conceived words to stand uncorrected. He somehow manages to dredge up the strength to find breath and say, ‘You would have no power over me at all if it had not been given to you from above; that is why the one who handed me over to you has the greater guilt’ (John 19: 11). Another highly enigmatic statement which would have seemed incomprehensible to Pilate – and maybe seems so to us, too. When Jesus says that Pilate’s power over him is ‘given from above’, what does he mean?

Jesus’ statements are always multi-layered. Each time we reread scripture prayerfully we can find new depths in Jesus’ words. This statement is one of his most profound utterances. I would like to pause for a moment to consider its implications. Here, Jesus is saying an enormous amount in very few words. What Pilate understood by them cannot be ascertained, but we ourselves can reflect on them. We can recall that in John’s gospel, ‘from above’ refers to God, the Father and creator of all; it refers to the origin and perfection of all that exists and of all that is truly good and loving. This God, whose very being is goodness and love, cannot will what is evil. And, clearly, Jesus’ execution and all that led up to it, including Pilate’s complicity with the forces of darkness, is evil. The Father did not will this particular evil, or any other evil. But he does will human freedom – with the consequence that human beings are free to love God and each other, and to create or respond to all that is good and true in the world. Love is only love when it is given freely. But, by this same freedom, the human person can conceive the convoluted and tragic structures of sin – hatred, jealousy, slander, falsehood, murder, death, and so much more. The political power wielded by Pilate is part of the complex working out of human freedom on a world scale.

We can also reflect that Jesus knew that his mission was to confront, single-handed, sin and death at its source in a titanic battle against Satan. He understood its demands profoundly, and accepted it absolutely. He never shirked his mission*; he walked resolutely towards it, foreseeing and predicting that the consequences of his teachings and of his very presence in the world would lead to this moment he was now undergoing. He knew that, in fact, his mission was one with his very identity. He gave himself completely to it, holding back nothing, out of his unfathomable love for his Father and for the whole human race. This is why Jesus could say that Pilate’s power had been ‘given from above’ – inasmuch as Pilate was an unwitting instrument of the salvation of the human race.

Jesus’ words to Pilate, however, tell us here that, in Jesus’ estimation, Pilate plays only a very small part in a drama of cosmic proportions – ‘given from above’. And, once again, Jesus pays Pilate the profound compliment of interpreting Pilate in the best possible light, when he tells Pilate that the one who handed him over ‘has the greater guilt,’ for Pilate is the quintessential pawn, not merely of the Roman government and the hysteria of the Jewish authorities baying for his execution, but of the entire history of human evil, culminating in the pathetic, confused, self-absorbed political manoeuvres Pilate was trying to make with regard to Jesus. Jesus sees that Pilate is not fully to blame for his actions. His spiritual blindness and his preoccupation with power are moral failings that he has inherited from the human condition time out of mind. But, Jesus also wants to make it clear to Pilate that Pilate’s so called power is the power of a minnow as compared to a whale. It is no power. Pilate’s threats are only a tiny factor in the greater pattern of primordial evil that Jesus has been confronting all his life, and in his divine nature he would ultimately overthrow it, like a great whale overturning the whaling vessel and the crew that is trying to harpoon it. God’s infinite power ‘from above’ will turn evil on its head through Jesus. He is able to, and will, bring good out of what seems to have fallen completely beyond the furthest reach of goodness, for God’s arm is longer still. Indeed, it will reach into Jesus’ very tomb.

Probably all of this is way beyond what Pilate could consciously grasp. But, clearly, something came home to him, for the other gospels indicate that Pilate is thoroughly shaken now and wants to put as much space between himself and this intense and enigmatic preacher as he can. In Matthew’s account Pilate, at this point, publicly washes his hands of Jesus and of the whole situation. But in the gospel of John, Pilate continues to interact with the crowd, bringing Jesus out again before them, broken and bleeding. Pilate’s action elicits only an intensification of mob-hysteria, as they scream for Jesus’ execution. Again, Pilate challenges them: ‘Shall I crucify your king?’ They answer with the blatant hypocrisy Jesus had challenged in them repeatedly throughout his ministry: ‘We have no king but Caesar!’

And Pilate gives up. There is nothing for a politician to do but appease this group, give them what they seem to want and hope they will go away and give him less trouble in the future. And Pilate is first and last a politician. He orders Jesus to be taken away and crucified.

*The other gospels tell of Jesus’ agony in the garden of Gethsemane – but this is not a ‘shirking’ of his mission. Rather, it shows the reality of Jesus’ suffering, and of his human psyche instinctively recoiling from an excruciating death. But, through his prayerful communion with his Father, Jesus received the strength he needed to carry on.

SJC

 

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