Friday, March 21, 2008

were you there

They took Jesus, and he went out, bearing his own cross, to the place called The Place of a Skull, which in Aramaic is called Golgotha. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, and Jesus between them. Pilate also wrote an inscription and put it on the cross. It read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” Many of the Jews read this inscription, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and it was written in Aramaic, in Latin, and in Greek. So the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but rather, ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews.’” Pilate answered, “What I have written I have written.”

—from the Gospel of John, chapter 19

I thought about what Pilate wrote during the Good Friday service we attended this evening. For the gospel writer, it seems important that Jesus was publicly declared “king of the Jews”, even while he was being executed, and even by the foreign occupying power that Pilate represented. The verses preceding this selection indicate that Pilate was very nervous about Jesus and what he might be. But he was also troubled by the threat of unrest on the part Jesus’ accusers, and I wonder if part of his purpose was to write, “This is what happens even to the kings of unruly peoples in the Roman Empire,” so that other would-be leaders would be discouraged. Either way, there were objections: for those who wanted to discredit and dispatch Jesus, the inscription gave him too much credence.

I mused earlier this season about whether it was inevitable that Jesus would be killed, and if in fact all good people in dire situations are bound for martyrdom. The hope of the world is that the light of good deeds shines even through death. My favorite text that I have “happened across” in the Project Gutenberg files is Thoreau’s “Plea for Captain John Brown”, written in defense of the abolitionist John Brown after the raid on Harper’s Ferry led to his arrest. It is eloquent, powerful, convicting, and uncompromising. It elevates Brown to a stature above the other great men and women America had theretofore known. The ideas of the following passage reach their pinnacle in Jesus as he is led to the crucifixion:
This event advertises me that there is such a fact as death,—the possibility of a man’s dying. It seems as if no man had ever died in America before; for in order to die you must first have lived. … Only half a dozen or so have died since the world began. Do you think that you are going to die, sir? No! there's no hope of you. You haven’t got your lesson yet. You’ve got to stay after school. We make a needless ado about capital punishment,—taking lives, when there is no life to take. Memento mori! We don’t understand that sublime sentence which some worthy got sculptured on his gravestone once. We’ve interpreted it in a grovelling and snivelling sense; we’ve wholly forgotten how to die. … These men, in teaching us how to die, have at the same time taught us how to live. If this man’s acts and words do not create a revival, it will be the severest possible satire on the acts and words that do.
And still the world plods on, murderously and indolently. The real hope lies in the days to come, when all glory shall be restored, and only the deeds of light shall withstand exposure to the light. Until then, we must learn how to live.

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