The great world empire of Rome had thousands of provincial officials in the course of the half-millennium during which it ruled the Mediterranean world, but only one is remembered. Hundreds of millions of Christians around the world mention him whenever they confess their faith in the words of the Nicene or Apostles’ Creed, “crucified [or suffered] under Pontius Pilate.” Millions of children who have never heard the name of the great Tiberius, second emperor of Rome, know that of his petty underling Pilate. This otherwise undistinguished governor provides a crucial link in the chain binding the great cosmic drama of our redemption to the petty circumstances of this-worldly history in which our earthly lives run their course and ultimately are snuffed out.
The mention of Pilate, a man whose political influence and administrative incompetence did not escape the notice of secular historians of his time, reminds us that the Passion of the Lord Jesus Christ was not a mythic event taking place beyond space and time, a symbolic struggle between good and evil, but an “incident” in the troubled history of occupied Palestine.
It would be a grievous error to overlook the cosmic implications of the Good Friday event, in which the divine Son of God, the only-begotten of the Father, shared our human fate to the extent of being judged guilty—falsely—by human courts and destroyed by human executioners. But it would be romantic or spiritualizing myopia not to recognize the commonplace and pathetic nature of the agonizing death of one more victim among tens of thousands to Roman “justice” and state necessity. In the manner of his life, Jesus shared the common lot of ordinary men, but in his death, he took upon himself, in exemplary fashion, a humiliation more extreme than the ordinary indecencies of our human condition: captured by a follower’s treachery, convicted by false witnesses and corrupt judges, and executed in another man’s place because of the fickleness of what had earlier been an admiring mob. And thus his death stands as a pattern for the deaths of so many other men: unjust, unnecessarily cruel.
In describing the redemptive work of Christ, the early theologian Ireneaus of Lyons speaks of his “recapitulation” of the human race: Jesus fulfilled his mission as the Second Adam by summing up, in his own experience, the common lot of Adam’s race, from birth through childhood, youth, and maturity, to cruel death. And though Jesus’ comparatively early death spared him the disintegrative deterioration to which those who live longer gradually fall prey, the lash and the cross first marred and then to all appearances destroyed the human dignity, beauty, and comeliness that he must have possessed. In this, then, too, he recapitulated human struggles, the losing battle with degenerative forces that each of us must face, whether we experience it too suddenly to realize, as in instantaneous death, in a short agony, as he did, or in a protracted decline, as is the more common fate today.
Furthermore—as many of us, though with far less reason, also are—he must have been tormented with an awareness that his sufferings were unjust, undeserved, and excessive. Human wisdom and all the ingenuity of theologians have not convincingly clarified the depth out of which he cried, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” It is hard to conceive that the Only-Begotten of the Father, who is in the bosom of the Father, knowing his mission and his coming victory, could experience the full dereliction which that cry seems to bespeak. And yet Scripture bears eloquent testimony to the fact that he not merely appeared to suffer and be broken but did suffer and was broken, experiencing in some sense a more total isolation than is ever the lot of those whose passage through the gates of death is rendered easy and almost imperceptible with the aid of modern narcosis.
We cannot really think of Good Friday and the Passion in isolation, for we know of the glorious victory of the Resurrection which followed. But there may come a time when we seem to experience it so. There are, or likely will be, times in the life of every Christian when the promise of final vindication, however glorious and sure, seems far less real than the insistent present pressure of defeat and coming death. In such an hour, remember that for Him too the actual passage, whatever its cosmic import, was common, and vulgar, and humiliating—the very event forever tied to the name of the incompetent Pilate. We will all have to follow him through the door of death, unless he soon returns in glory—and for many of us that following will be difficult, humiliating, and banal. His Passion reminds us that he knows, more deeply than we can realize while enjoying health and tranquility, what that means.
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