Saturday, July 15, 2017
When I was a kid I would go to mass every Good Friday (a "holy day of obligation," as we called it) to mark the occasion of the death of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. I would sit or stand or kneel as appropriate in the pew as we made our way through the liturgy. That mass would inevitably include a passage from the Gospel of Matthew (this, at least, is how I remember it) in which Pontius Pilate presents Jesus, bloodied from torture, to the crowd and asks what they (what we) want to do with him. "Crucify him!" we would shout from our pews, in accordance with the Scriptures. The priest, playing the part of Pilate, would protest Jesus' innocence, and we would shout once again from our Bibles, "Crucify him!" Pilate/the priest would then declare his own innocence of Jesus' execution, to which we would respond in one voice, "His blood be upon us and our children." And then Jesus would be delivered to his cross. I feel like I witnessed a crucifixion this week. Hastily assembled evidence to suggest that someone might have the temerity to hold a different view of things from The Powers That Be (the PTB, as my friends and I used to refer to people who made our decisions for us). A trial on Twitter. A crowd, caught up in righteous indignation and bloodlust (and, I'd imagine, a fair bit of fear), beating a body bloody before a final chorus of "Away with him!" If this whole thing doesn't kill the guy, I'll be surprised. Our litany at the mass was predicated on the start of the scene, in which Pilate offers the crowd one of two people to pardon: Jesus or Barabbas. This offer was, as the Scriptures tell us, a custom—a courtesy to Jews under imperial rule, perhaps, as they celebrated the Passover (recalling their historic deliverance from imperial rule). It occurs to me that perhaps every year Pilate made the crowd this offer: to pick a prisoner to pardon, and thus condemn another prisoner to be crucified. It occurs to me that this custom was its own kind of liturgy, one that implicated the crowd in every execution. The guilt or innocence of the person to be pardoned and the person to be crucified would be immaterial; the point would be the theater of it. The crowd would have gotten in the habit of sending people to a humiliating death. The Romans sustained their empire for centuries. The crowd remained under imperial control that entire time. There are no firm numbers of people crucified by the Romans, but estimates run to the thousands. Imagine giving your assent to each torturous death. Imagine once a year, from your own birth to your own death, participating in this theater of pardon, inviting the blood of the unlucky runner up on yourself and your children. What would it do to your soul? There were some in the crowd that day who surely remained silent. (It's even possible that some people shouted in favor of pardoning Jesus and crucifying Barabbas. No one shouted such things in the Good Friday masses I've attended. But I do suspect some people, both at mass and in the crowd that day, kept their mouths shut.) Some of those people likely were self-congratulatory: They knew in their hearts that Jesus was innocent of the charges against him. They may have consoled themselves, as Jesus was led away to be crucified, with the confidence that they were better people than the crowd: They knew better, and so they stayed silent. There were others, I'm sure, who remained silent because they didn't have a voice. Mothers and daughters and sisters, the Bible tells us, were at Jesus' crucifixion in silent, mournful witness. Their participation or nonparticipation in Pilate's liturgy was irrelevant to the PTB because they were women, marginalized among the marginalized. I'm sure there were others who had a voice but said nothing out of fear or despair or resignation. After all, in the face of such awful displays of terrific power, what really is there to be said? Imagine that every year you opted out of this theater of pardon, and it went on without you. What would it do to your soul? I feel like I witnessed a crucifixion this week. It wasn't the crucifixion of God. Just another ordinary, run of the mill crucifixion. But I participated in this theater nonetheless, and I watched a man be ushered off to the final humiliation of his life. And then I went back to work. The good news, I suppose, is that there was a time when God took just such a theater, just such a soul-wrenching act, and saved us all through it. And if God can make good of the execution of God—the mass betrayal of God—then I suppose he can make good of every little crucifixion we lend our voice to, every little crucifixion we sit silently and watch. It's Saturday now. May this latest victim's blood be on us and our children. I think God could make some good of it.