Reflections from the Characters of the Passion
Poetry, prose and music exploring the passion through the eyes of Nicodemus, Judas, Peter, Mary, Barabbas and Pilate. You can download the file as a pdf or docx below, or read it in full on this page:
Before The Cross,
All Is Stripped Bare
Reflections from the characters of the Passion
These meditations followed on from a Church Passion play performed in 2018. (The Rev’d James Pacey)
Based on Jesus being stripped of his clothing, and that the cross strips away all our sin and false masks, the reflections explore the characters found in the Passion narrative and the journeys they went on. Each reflection was followed by the actor who played the respective character in the play reading a poem before removing their outer robe (their ‘costume’) and placing it in front of the cross. Each reflection had a time of stillness and music and the YouTube links to the suggested pieces are included below. Hymns were interspersed between each ‘character.’
The ‘running order’ is as it was when we had the service in church, but it is only a suggestion. Feel free to use as you would most find helpful.
To stand before Christ is to be changed by him. Each of the characters we meet today is changed by their encounter with Christ. From Peter’s new vocation s the rock, to Nicodemus’ move from doubting Pharisee to faithful follower, an encounter with Jesus leads to change.
In planning today, I have been reflecting on that passage in the Gospel where we are told that Christ was stripped of his clothing. As the psalmist wrote, hundreds of years prior ‘ they divide my clothes amongst them.’
As He is literally stripped on that cross, so too are we, metaphorically, symbolically.
To stand before His cross is to see the truth of oneself stripped away. Before His cross our selfishness, our deceit, our malice, our falseness is stripped away. Before His cross, the false identities we create for ourselves crumble to dust, before His cross our masks fall from our faces and lie at our feet. To gaze at the man on the cross is to see the truth of who He is, and to see the truth of who we are.
The reflections today, though derived from scripture, are fictitious writings designed to ask questions of the emotional and spiritual journeys that the various characters may have gone on. As we reflect on these Biblical figures, you are invited to reflect for yourself on your own emotional and spiritual journey, to ask what it is the Cross means for you, and what it is that you need to leave at His feet this day.
Before the cross, we are all stripped bare.
John 3.1-10, 7.50-51, 19. 39-42
To want to take the step of faith, and yet to be afraid.
To want to take the plunge, and yet be held back by doubts.
Is this something Nicodemus felt?
We don’t know much about him. He appears only in John’s Gospel where we are told he is a Pharisee, a member of the ruling Jewish council. He comes to Jesus at night to hear him speak. Nicodemus and the other religious authorities are presented by John as those being in darkness, clinging to a false truth and a false understanding, more interested in their own power and status than in the truth of God’s Kingdom.
By setting his coming to Jesus at night, this a deliberate decision by John – to symbolise the move from the darkness of ignorance to the light of understanding? If so, it is not an instantaneous journey: Nicodemus like so many others in history, he misunderstands Christ’s words about new birth and the need for baptism by water and the spirit.
Later, the Gospel portrays him as a lone voice in the Sanhedrin reminding them of the need to give him a fair hearing and at the end, after Christ’s broken body is taken off that cross, he, along with Joseph of Arimathea prepare him for burial.
He is a figure clearly sympathetic to Jesus. Yet, the fact that he came at night might suggest a fear, an unwillingness to be open. What was he fearful of? Was he in fear of his image, or perhaps his safety? Was he afraid of likewise being labelled a heretic, a sympathiser to a known political instability.
I wonder how many more of the Jewish leaders felt as he did? How many were afraid of speaking out, of admitting sympathies to this preacher from Nazareth?
Nicodemus then represents so many of us, afraid to speak out, for fear of ridicule, for fear of scorn. The path of the Christian is not easy: standing up for what we believe is a challenge: is there any wonder Christ said to follow Him means taking up our own crosses?
And yet today as we turn to the cross, we are reminded of those for whom speaking of their faith means literal persecution and death. Those Christians around the world who continue to be martyred for their witness to Christ. And suddenly, our own fears seem to fade into comparison.
Nicodemus took a step in faith in coming to Jesus, and even though he failed to understand, the Gospel portrays him as a man going on his own faith journey: a man who in his heart in some way is seeking the truth.
Nicodemus reminds me of another figure who moves from darkness to light: In The Last Battle, C S Lewis last Narnia novel, we encounter Emeth, a man who has been faithfully worshipping a different God. But then he encounters Aslan who says ‘unless your desire had been for me, you would not have sought so long and truly.’ In spite of being of a different culture and in spite of the fear that would bring, Emeth in his heart saw and knew the truth. And Aslan saved him.
Jesus knows the truth of Nicodemus’ heart.
In coming to Jesus at night: he is each of us: approaching tentatively – perhaps in secret – approaching with questions, approaching with misunderstanding.
Nicodemus questioning his Sanhedrin colleagues is each of us: growing in faith, finding the strength to speak out.Nicodemus in preparing Christ’s body for burial is each of us, serving Christ and serving neighbour because we have been touched by his message of truth and light.The passages that involve Nicodemus show a man moving from exploration to confidence to active service. Nicodemus is each of us: and wherever we are in our walk with Christ, God knows.
Before the cross, we are all stripped bare.
Poem – The Uncertain Pharisee
“I didn’t know who this man was.
I had heard the stories.
I had heard him preach,
one with authority,
one whose commands,
and wisdom yielded insights far greater than the laws of now.
Who was this man?
Was he as they said the Son of God?
I came to Him at night and he looked into my heart,
And stirred my soul.
Would I follow Him?
Could I follow Him?
Before the cross, I am stripped bare.”
Luke 22. 47-53
The final episodes of the third series of Game of Thrones has one of the most shocking moments in recent television history. At a wedding hosted by Walder Frey, our hero Robb, Robb’s pregnant wife and his mother are brutally murdered by his host. It is shocking for us as an audience, and it is shocking for the character of the story. To share bread and salt with someone is to be welcomed in peace. In his own betrayal and by committing murder at a wedding banquet, Walder Frey has shattered that core belief. Today, we remember another betrayal that begins at a feast, where the one who dips bread into the bowl with Jesus leaves to alert the authorities, his betrayal beginning.
Betrayal. Leaving in the midst of Supper. Scurrying away into the night. Revealing the deepest secrets to the deadly authorities.
Who amongst us has not been betrayed in some form? To be betrayed is still considered to be one of the worst things a human can do to another. Up until 1998, betrayal of Queen and country, high treason, was still a capital offence.
Those of us who have been betrayed, those of us who have had confidences broken, those of us who have been the victims of idle and malicious gossip by those we believed closest to us, will know of the pain of betrayal.
In ministry, the confidence kept between minister and parishioner is paramount. In the sacrament of confession and absolution there is an unbreakable trust between repentant sinner and absolving priest. To break that seal of confession is one of the worst betrayals any priest can do. For all of us, to be labelled a Judas is still a terrible thing to be called.
In different ways, we all know of the anger, we know of the injustice, we know of the pain. We know how hard it is to lay down that anger
And so we know something perhaps of how Jesus himself may have felt to his betrayer.
And yet we can never truly comprehend. The betrayals we have experienced, or perhaps the betrayals we have done, have never resulted in the taking of life.
For many Christians across the world, to be betrayed means precisely that. To be exposed as a Christian in Iran or Saudi Arabia means the risk of death, of being exposed to dangerous government authorities, or zealous terrorist factions. There are Christians then who can readily identify with Jesus himself, for whom betrayal means death.
And so we see arguably the most famous of betrayers, a betrayal that also leads to an innocent’s death.
Judas Iscariot, turning on his master for thirty pieces of silver. The poem In the Bleak Midwinter has the beautiful line of Mary ‘worshipped the beloved with a kiss.’ In Judas, the line is re-written ‘turned on the beloved with a kiss.’
How does Jesus himself see the betrayal? The film The Last Temptation of Christ poses a fascinating interpretation: that Jesus knew and indeed planned with Judas what he would do. At the Last Supper Jesus’ divine knowledge certainly seems aware, saying to the disciples that his betrayer is the one dipping bread with him.
And how does Jesus see the betrayal? The three synoptic Gospels are united in their condemnation: Jesus says “woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born.”
What is the final state of Judas himself? Christian theology has long debated this and now is not the time to argue. Perhaps though we need to look at Judas himself: why did he do it? It remains a mystery. Was he disillusioned? Was he simply unable to accept the way of Christ? Was he like so many waiting for a warrior King yet after three years was still bothered by the sight of Roman troops. Was he simply greedy – John in His Gospel writes that he was a thief and stole from the corporate purse?
Was this a decision he agonised over? As the one he betrayed wept tears of blood, did Judas himself weep in agony at regret or indecision? Was he like Shakespeare’s Macbeth, desperate to turn back from his decision yet unable to do so?
He seems to have shown regret: “I have sinned against innocent blood” he cries as he throws the money back at the High Priests. Does forgiveness come too late for Him, or is it true what a primary school pupil once said when asked what happened to Jesus between Good Friday and Easter Sunday who replied “he went to Hell to get his friend Judas.”
There is no absolute answer. In this life, we will never know the truth, and ultimately it is God in his gracious Judgement to decide the fate of Judas.
But there is a hope I cling to, a hope that comes in that very meal that Judas leaves. Unlike Game of Thrones where the meal is simply a matter of death and destruction, the meal that Judas leaves in betrayal, is a meal of forgiveness. In this Eucharistic feast we are drawn to the crucifixion, where all sins are forgiven, where even the most unrepentant of sinners is invited to break bread with Christ.
We will never know why Judas did what he did. What we do know is that he showed remorse, regret and yes, even repentance. In his death, finally, Judas realised what he had done.
In his death, Judas is stripped bare.
Before the cross, we are all stripped bare.
Poem- A Betrayer’s Lament
This man whom I have followed for three years.
This roaming teacher,
proclaiming God’s Kingdom.
He kept saying it would come,
He kept saying it had drawn near.
Yet for every day of another person healed, it was another day of waiting,
Another day of seeing the occupying forces,
Another day of inaction.
To give up everything and yet to see no results.
To be told constantly to have faith, and yet to see nothing happen.
And so I left at night.
I went to those in control,
I took money and betrayed with a kiss.
And as I watched his trial,
As I saw him beaten and taunted,
I realised what I had done.
I had betrayed innocent blood, and I could not tell him how sorry I was.
So I hung myself, and there I lie,
enshrined in eternity as a warning to all who betray.
Before His cross, I am stripped bare.”
Matthew 26. 69-75
What is about Peter? Throughout his time with Jesus he keeps getting things wrong. In his enthusiasm to follow Jesus in the storm he ends up with a faceplant in the water.
In his desire to protect Jesus from the oncoming trial, he earns a rebuke from his Lord.
In his desire to preserve Jesus’ holiness, he refuses to let his master wash his feet.
In his desire to protect Jesus in Gethsemane he responds in anger and cuts off the soldier’s ear.
If there were a Disciples award for enthusiasm and impulsiveness, Peter would win it.
Peter keeps doing the wrong thing,
Peter keeps misunderstanding,
Peter keeps making mistakes.
For me then, there is hope, that such a man is called by Jesus.
And I like to think that Jesus’ love for Peter is not in spite of his errors,
His love for Peter is, in part at least, because of his errors,
Because of his humanity, his honesty.
Christ’s love for us is for who we are, warts and all, a love for which he went to the cross.
But Peter gets one thing right and it is perhaps the most significant thing:
He knows who Jesus is.
In Matthew’s Gospel, whilst Jesus and the disciples are in the region around Caesarea Phillippi, Jesus asks the question of who people are saying He is.
But what’s of real interest to him as what he says to Peter next:
“Who do you say that I am?”
And Peter gets it
He replies by saying “you are the Messiah, the Son of God.”
He recognises Jesus’ true identity and is rewarded with the promise that he shall be the rock upon which Christ’s church shall be built.
This is Peter’s greatest moment:
Recognising who Jesus is.
But there is a tragically ironic twist in the tale,
Because just as Peter’s greatest moment comes in recognising Jesus’ identity
So too does his greatest fall come in denying Christ’s identity.
Although he understands who Christ is, he doesn’t understand what that really means.
He sees His Messiahship, but doesn’t get His Messiahship.
Because all of his impetuous actions seemingly pale in comparison with his biggest error, drawn into sharp focus today.
Here, this loyal friend, this one who would risk drowning to follow Jesus, the one who leapt into harm’s way to protect his master by facing down an armed soldier
Just as Jesus said it would,
“Simon Peter, before the cockerel crows, you will have denied me three times.”
And as the cockerel crows, Peter breaks, realises his sin, and weeps bitterly.
He weeps for his master,
He weeps for his own weakness,
And he weeps in guilt and horror at this betrayal.
It is, like Judas, a betrayal, and whilst it is not a betrayal that leads to the Messiah’s death, it is a betrayal of their friendship, their shared experiences, a betrayal of the three years these men have spent together.
As well Peter should weep.
And I wonder if he weeps because of the depth of Jesus’ love:
Because even though Jesus knew what Peter will do,
He nevertheless kept him near.
I wonder then if Peter weeps because he realises the depths of Jesus’; love for him: choosing to be with him in the knowledge that he will turn away from Him.
That is enough to make any of us weep.
That we should have a God who loves us so much that He has called us to Himself,
That we should have a God who calls us to Himself in the knowledge that we will too deny and turn on Him,
That we should have a God who willingly in Jesus goes to the cross to save and redeem those who denied Him.
This is amazing grace,
This is amazing love.
Peter is all of us.
We too deny and affirm, affirm and deny.
And yet we are loved and forgiven and restored.
“Who do you say that I am?”
It is a question Jesus asks of us.
“Simon Peter, who do you say that I am?
James Pacey, who do you say that I am?
Who do you say that I am?”
What is our response, what do we say?
And even when we do turn away, we know that there is reconciliation.
Because this isn’t the end of the story for Peter.
In those days after the Resurrection, in the BBQ on the beach,
Peter is asked three times if He loves Jesus.
This is not an abstract number, plucked out of thin air by Jesus,
The three times of confirming Peter’s love is an overturning of the three times Peter says ‘I do not know him.’
It is difficult for Peter to confront his guilt as it is for us, but healing sometimes requires the trauma of acceptance.
But even here, even in this beautiful moment of restoration and forgiveness, Peter is not suddenly transformed into the perfect disciple,
He doesn’t suddenly leave his failings behind.
Even here he remains so human.
Because even here Peter is more interested in someone else – asking of the beloved disciple, ‘Lord, what about Him?’
Even after his reinstatement, Peter has a long journey to go,
A lifelong journey of growing into Christ.
Even we who bear witness to Christ today have a long journey to go,
A journey where we will fail and fall,
But a journey that is not done alone, but is walked with someone who forgives and picks us up,
Who do you say that I am?
Today, I say this is the God who forgives,
This is the God who restores,
This is the God who lovingly compels me to confront my darkness and redeems me from it.
This is amazing grace,
This is amazing love.
That you would take my place
That you would bear my cross.
Poem – The Rock’s Regret
“Even if all these abandon you, I shall follow you to death.”
Such confidence, such certainty.
“I tell you I’ve never seen this man before in my life.”
Such fear, such shame.
“Lord you know that I love you”
Such hope, such love.
He knew me, he knew my strengths, he knew my weaknesses.
He knew my fallibilities, as he knew all that I would fail in.
And yet he chose me,
He, chose, me.
I watch from a distance as they lift him up on the cross,
I watch from a distance as they drive the nails in.
I dare not meet his gaze, dare not look into his eyes.
I have done this, I have denied him, I am as guilty as they.
But I do look, and from that chasm he seems to see me.
As if from across the jeering crowds and weeping women he is able to pick me out.
And his eyes look and say ‘I forgive you.’
And once again, I weep.
Before His cross, I am stripped bare.
The song ‘Breath of Heaven’ is a fictitious but beautiful rendition of the inner struggle a 13 year old Mary may have gone through upon being greeted by an angel who proclaims to her ‘blessed is the child you will bear.’
The first line is especially poignant:
“I have travelled, many moonless nights.”
It is a line that speaks of her journey to Bethlehem, to that lonely cave or crammed house where her baby shall be born.
But it is also a line that evokes loneliness, fear, and an unknown journey. And so it is a line that feels especially poignant today, as this woman gazes upon her son hanging on the cross.
Is there a figure in scripture who has gone on such a rollercoaster of a journey as Mary? I struggle to think of one. From her life being interrupted as a child by the arrival of God’s angel, to giving birth to the promised Messiah 9 months later, to being told by Simeon that a sword will pierce her heart, to being publicly rebuked by her adult son at the wedding of Cana, to watching him spat on and whipped at his trial, to today, to cradling her son’s broken body as it comes down off the cross.
But Mary, unlike so many of the disciples, has faith to the end. The very beginning of her Biblical story is an amazing display of unwavering faith: her glorious ‘yes’ to God in her reply to the angel: “let it be with me according to your word.”
Even amidst her fears and concerns she has faith. And so her new life, her new vocation begins.
Like any mother, Mary no doubt felt the swell of pride and the bursting of love for her child. What then must Simeon’s words have meant to her when she presents him in the temple. Here the aged man holds this baby, affirms him as God’s son but turns to Mary and says “a swords will pierce your soul too.” What fear must go through Mary? What confusion? Here, and throughout her life we see how Mary’s faith in her son and faith in her God will forever be tinged with the ominous, unspoken fear of his destiny. Her love will forever be plagued with fear.
I am told this is true of all parents: that unshakeable, heart wrenching love for a child will forever be balanced by fear: fear of injury, of letting them down, of illness. Hopefully for us, this is natural parental instinct, borne out of fear alone. For Mary though, on some level, she knows this fear will come true.
And yet she continues with her faith in her son. At times she doesn’t understand, at times her faith will lead to confusion and misunderstanding. Think of Luke 2 when the boy Jesus is listening to the teaching in the temple and his mother and father do not understand why he is there.
At times her journey of faith will bring her into disagreement with her son: Jesus rebukes her at the wedding of Cana, Mary is publicly told that his true mother and brothers are not his flesh and blood but those who hear and act on God’s word.
But even in those times, Mary has faith: after bringing him from the temple she treasures these things in her heart, she concedes to him at the wedding of Cana, and she remains loyal to Him even after what must have been a painful public denial.
She is the most faithful disciple.
Her love for her son never ends.
Her love never ends. In spite of her fear, in spite of the warning from Simeon, her love is unwavering.
But finally today, she understands the depths of Simeon’s words. What agony she must have felt, being in the crowds, seeing him mocked and whipped.
What sorrow must she have felt as he collapses under the physical exhaustion of his cross.
What torture to witness her beloved son hanging on that tree.
The pain of a mother’s heart as her child is wrenched from her.
As I wrote this, it was two days after the shooting in the school in Florida when so many mothers can identify with Mary’s sorrow and pain.
And yet, Mary has faith. She comes to mourn, she remains watching. Even as nearly all the others have fled, she remains at his cross.
Did she have faith in the Resurrection? Does she have an inkling of what is to come? Does that even matter in her pain and her grief? Perhaps her faith in that moment was not something tangible, not something she could articulate, but because of her life with her son, a life, we are told where she treasured his words and deeds in her heart, her faith became something unspoken, a bedrock that kept her going through the trauma.
There is comfort there for us, and reassurance for us. In the agonies of our own life the faith that we nourish each Sunday and nurture every moment of our lives becomes something deep rooted within us, as natural as breathing. In the sorrow of our own lives perhaps we can take comfort from this most faithful of women, that on some deep level we know Christ has risen, and that our sorrow – like Mary’s – will be turned into joy.
Poem – A Mother’s Agony
This is a Mother’s love.
Why do you have to be there?’ they asked.
You don’t want to see him like that’ they said.
‘Yes I do’ I replied,
For this is my Son.
If only for a while,
Mine for a season.
I was there at His beginning,
I must be there at His end.
This is a Mother’s love.
An yet, somehow, not the end.
As I watch them beat him, flog him, drive nails into him,
I long to yell, to shout.
‘This is my son, my beloved,
This is my Son whom I have carried,
This is my Son whom I have loved
This is my Son whose great words I have treasured in my heart.
This is my Son, and you are taking Him from me.
This is a Mother’s love, ripped and torn.
Beneath His cross, I am stripped bare.
Mark 15. 6-15
the prisoner released by Pilate in response to the crowd’s braying, a man we are told is a murder and an insurrectionist, put simply: a man who it seems is mad, bad and dangerous to know.
Who was Barabbas? He is a mysterious figure, only appearing at this moment in the story. So much of what we think we know about him is extrapolation and conjecture. But, as any actor and director must do in a play, we must go deeper than the text and look at precisely what is not said.
We know he is a violent man. It is not inconceivable that he is a member of the zealots, the faction with the Jewish community that we might label as violent revolutionaries – except they sought not to bring about a new future, but sought rather to restore the last – to bring Israel back to the Golden Age, utterly free of Roman rule. Barabbas is a man who believes the ends justify the means, a man it seems for whom violence is a way of life.
The theologian Samuel Wells makes the important observation that the zealots and those of Barabbas’ ilk, though wanting change, fundamentally want a change that is simply the current order in a different form. How many times at an election do we eagerly vote for a new party, certain that they will bring change, only for four years down the line for us to moan the same moans that we uttered about the previous government. Barabbas and his crew want change, yes, but a recognisable change.
Contrast that with the man opposite him. Like any great stage practitioner, the Gospel writers understand the importance of contrast; of light and shade. Here on Pilate’s stage do we have the violent insurrectionist, seeking a different world order, facing the peaceful man who brings about a fundamentally new cosmic order.
In Jesus, we see true change. A change that comes about not through the sword, but through peace. A change that comes not with killing, but in God’s Son laying down His life for the world.
Today, we still don’t get it. Today we are still like Barabbas wanting to bring about a violent reformation. Samuel Wells beautifully puts it like this:
God says “the sacrifice of my Son, that was only half of it.’ And if we wait, and finally ask, ‘what was the other half?’ he would say ‘the other half is that 2000 years later, nobody understands.’ In the Passion story the world identifies with Barabbas and as we see him we recognise even more our need for Christ’s salvation.
And, in a scene of injustice and unfairness, Barabbas is released.
What happened after this? Here, we leave the realm of the scriptwriter and venture wholly into the territory of improvisation.
The film ‘Risen’ suggests that no sooner after being released, Barabbas goes onto another violent revolution, only to be struck down by a Tribune’s sword.
On the other hand the film ‘Barabbas’ present a man torn by his encounter with Jesus, a man who ultimately finds a new life in faith in Christ.
In the Passion we’ve just done, the most moving moment for me is when Barabbas, released by Pilate, warily walks to freedom. And then, as he passes Jesus, he stops. And looks. And for a considerable time, there is pause. In this moment where the murderer comes face to face with peace, the audience are invited into their own encounter. The silence says so much: who is this man to Barabbas? What does Barabbas think of him and feel towards him? What will his future look like? And as watch this silent exchange between Jesus and Barabbas, we are invited to consider who this man is to us, what do we think of him, what do we feel about him and crucially, what will our future look like now that we too have gazed into his eyes and stood before his cross?
Jesus goes to the cross as much for us as he does for Barabbas. Did Barabbas respond? Do we respond?
Poem – ‘An Insurrectionist Repents’
Some call me an insurrectionist,
a rabble rouser.
Some call me a hero,
Some call me a terrorist.
We want a return to the old ways,
We want a return to the better days.
We want our true King to return to His land.
This man who they chose: what a threat could he be?
I intend to laugh as I walk by, to crow in victory over him.
But something makes me stop,
Something catches my gaze
In his eyes I see the future:
And it is different,
And I realise with shame how wrong I have been.
It is all new,
So very new,
The old has passed:
How wrong we’ve all been.
How wrong I have been.
He is the way, and he is going to be killed.
Before this man, before His cross, I am stripped bare.
John 18. 28-38
“What is truth?”
Never has a phrase in scripture been so apt for our age. What is truth? A question we may well ask ourselves.
We live in culture where no objective truth seems to exist anymore, a culture where politicians can manifestly and brazenly lie and yet people still accept it, a culture where the truth of one religion is relative compared to the truth of another religion, a culture where the story of Christ’s death and resurrection is simply that: a story, with no less or more truth than the ancient Roman Gods worshipped by Pilate himself.
What is truth? Pontius Pilate asks. Here is a man whose truth is tangible and physical. His truth is in his own power as prefect and ruler of Judea. His truth is in his capacity to rule, to instil fear, to manage order. He is a man certain of his own status, his own infallibility, his own untouchability. Does that remind you of anyone in the world today? Pilate has the truth – it’s a really good truth, it’s so very, true, there really is no truth like it.
But, the truth is: that the power that Pilate so naively believes he possesses is simply given to him. The real power is that of Rome, who Pilate represents. His uniform gives him power – were he stripped of that, he would have nothing. Does he know this? Does he recognise this?
Perhaps on some level he does. Pilate is a figure much argued about in Christian history. To some, he is a much maligned figure, a man who had sympathy for this poor Nazarene and who did all he could to stop Christ’s execution.
To others, he is the true villain of the piece, a man whom history records as a brutal overseer, a man so desperate to hold onto his own power that he zealously puts down any hint of rebellion.
To others still, he is a sympathetic figure: a man who tried his best but ultimately who as a result of cowardice or inaction condemned
To others still, he is actually quite a weak figure, a man cruelly manipulated by the religious leaders, a man who makes clear his unwillingness to go ahead, but seeing no other option grants the requests of Caiaphas and Annas, publicly washing his hands of the very business.
Perhaps there is truth in all these perspectives: perhaps Pilate knew the precariousness of his position, perhaps he knew how easily the Jewish people would revolt, perhaps he knew the threat to Rome. Perhaps then on some level he knew the weakness of his own professed truth.
And yet, still he has only grasped the partial: “what is truth?”
It is standing right in front of you.
The truth is that this man before him possesses an authority and a status beyond any uniform, and above any Emperor.
The truth is that the ultimate truth, the truth that has been enshrined in the very fabric of existence, stands before him, crowned not in jewels or fine clothing, but in an ironic royal robe with a crown of thorns and whose very flesh will be beaten and torn off by whips and chords.
Pilate is a man unable to grasp the deep truth before him.
Like all rulers of the world, his power is temporary and fleeting, and is shown up before this humble man.
Here in the great face off between Jesus and Pilate we see the clash of Kingdoms: God’s eternal Kingdom face to face with the fleeting might of earth’s greatest Empire. Before the truth of the cross, all earthly power is stripped bare
But Pilate’s question also reveals something else.
“what is truth?” As a director, I am fascinated as to how he says that. Is it spoken with genuine curiousity? With frustration? With anger? With boredom? With suspicion?
How many people look at the church today through similar eyes? In a world where truth is relative, where lies are as believable as facts, why should our truth be any more acceptable or believable? In a world where the church has so often been guilty of perpetuating its own evils, or of being like Pilate and washing our hands of our responsibilities to the poor, the desolate and the ignored, why should the truth we hold to have any sway over a tired and apathetic world? Pilate is thus an everyman, representing all those who scoff and look with exasperation.
How does the Holy Spirit use us in this world? How are we to point people in the direction of the cross and the Resurrection when they look upon us with such suspicion?
Perhaps it is in a different Roman that we find a clue. Christ comes not just for the house of Israel but also for the house of Rome, and there is another Roman in the passion story who realises the real truth. Just as one Roman condemned, perhaps it is the words of another Roman that show us the way, albeit a character who is forever bound up with John Wayne.
Mark chapter 15 tells us of the centurion who upon seeing how Jesus died declares ‘truly this man was the son of God.’ We don’t know what happened to this man, scripture tells us no more about him. But surely he did not go on in life unchanged. The film Risen has as its central tale this Roman centurion, whose initial attempts to hunt down the disciples of Yeshua finds his life turned around upon seeing the risen Jesus. At the end of the film, he tells his story to a Jewish man who says ‘do you believe this?’ The Roman tribune replies “I believe. My life is changed forever.” And he goes on to tell his story.
Did the real life centurion do that? I like to believe that he did. This is our call: to tell our story. Not to save from damnation but in order to show them and share how Christ’s love has saved, redeemed and is transforming us. As Jesus himself said: ‘let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your father which is in heaven.’
What is truth? It is standing right in front of you and you have sent it to die.
Poem – ‘A Prefect Ruminates’
“I wash my hands of this entire business.
This conspiracy, this attempt by those in their flowery robes to hold onto their power.
Was I right?
Was I a villain?
Was I a failed hero?
How will history look upon me?
Does it matter?
I believe in Mars, and Neptune and Jupiter,
This is just yet another pretender.
Yet even I, gazing into his eyes can see something,
Something I cannot explain.
I feel it, if but for a moment.
But then it is gone,
Then it is down to business.
He calls himself a King, that makes him a threat to Rome.
And enemies to Rome cannot go unpunished,
And so he is crucified,
Hung on a cross as all threats to the Emperor must be.
Did I do right?
And then they come to tell me that the body has disappeared,
And again I feel it,
Something deeper, something beyond.
Before his cross all rulers of the world are stripped bare.”
WHO AM I, THAT FOR MY SAKE
Luke 23. 44-49
There is one more character to focus on. One more character who each Good Friday walks in the Passion story, who bears witness to the cross. They work in a school library, they lead a church worship group, they are an immigration judge, they are a mother, a father, a son, a daughter.…
The other character at the foot of His cross today is one for whom He was nailed to it: ourself, you. And me.
Why do we come to kneel and bow our heads in humble submission today?
The cross is the ultimate foolishness. St. Paul says ‘the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are suffering.’ The cross is the ultimate foolishness to the world. The world, and no doubt at times, us too, ask these questions:
How can this instrument of pain and death ever be said to be the display of amazing love?
How can this apparent failure of this man ever be said to be a success?
How can these slabs of word and this crown of thorns be the true symbols of Kingship?
And the answer is simple: because they are: the power of the cross is so utterly new to the forces of evil. In the beginning of Johns Gospel, in the powerful incarnation of the word that we hear every Christmas we read ‘the darkness did not overcome it.’ The King James Bible rather puts it like this: ‘the darkness did not comprehend it.’ The light of Christ, the salvation of the cross, the hope of Easter is so profoundly new, so extraordinary that the forces of darkness are unable to even let it register in their comprehension.
But we who have turned to Him are able to understand. And we cling to the cross because in our own pains, our griefs, our struggles, we know deep within our soul that in and through His most precious Son, the creator of heaven and earth has known what it is to suffer. We know that in this moment, as John’s Gospel puts it, the ruler of this world has been defeated, and that in the triumph in two days time, all evil has ultimately, in God’s time and God’s Kingdom been done away with.
Because as we kneel before the cross today, we must not, cannot, get stuck here.
For without the Resurrection, the cross is meaningless. The two go hand in hand. In the Resurrection, we know that there is hope, that there is a future.
In the Resurrection we know that there is a goodness that transcends all the pain and struggles of the now, a goodness where the entirety of creation has and will be restored because of this man on his throne of wood, shining in His Resurrected body.
And yet, in spite of that cosmic wonder, that infinite spectacle, that death and Resurrection that transforms the very fabric of creation, there is a deep intimacy.
As we stand before Him, our former identities are swept up in him, our foolish pride and sin is taken away, our pretenses and masks lie fallen at our feet.
And as we look up into his eyes, our minds race with questions.
And perhaps we might pick one of those questions, and with that in our mind we look upon him, we see the blood slowly drip from his head, we see his body sagging under the weight of itself and in humility and trembling we look into his most precious eyes and ask ‘why would you do this.’ And He would look back and with such love and tenderness replies ‘I did it for you.’
Before His cross, I am stripped bare.