Brian and I are in San Diego for a few days and we checked out St. Therese of Carmel Catholic Church, since our stay goes through Sunday morning. The architecture of this relatively new structure amazes me, because it has something of the beauty and atmosphere of an ancient cathedral, even though it is quite modern. I look forward to attending Mass there this weekend.
As we continue pondering John 18 and 19 this month, my mind has centered on the figure of Pontius Pilate, so my comments on the trials of Jesus before the Sanhedrin and before Pilate will emphasize the latter. It seems that St. John leads us in this direction because of the amount of narrative he dedicates to this incident. It is also interesting, by the way, that even though John faithfully reports Peter’s three denials of his Lord before the crowing of the cock, he does not mention, as is found in the other Gospels, that Peter wept bitterly. John simply states the facts and moves on with the narrative.
Concerning John 18:19-24: Of all people, a high priest of Israel, because of his sacred spiritual position and responsibility, should have recognized Jesus as possibly being the Christ of God. At the very least, we would expect some hesitation, a bit of humility from him. In God’s providence Annas did not immediately die when he actually “struck Jesus with his hand,” and “sent him bound’ to higher authorities. This preliminary trial before the Sanhedrin makes the interaction between Jesus and Pontius Pilate especially poignant.
The questions and hesitancies of Pilate, as well as the simple openness of Jesus in answering the Roman governor’s questions, gives one the feeling that the Lord is appealing to a humility which underlies true agnosticism, and is challenging Pilate to think more deeply: “Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice” (18:37) (and see John 10:14-16). Again we have the sense here of intuitus eum (see Jan. 24 post) in the same way that Jesus gazed upon Andrew, Peter and Nathaniel in John 2, men who were Israelites in whom there was little or no guile. Perhaps there was something Jesus was seeing in the deepest heart of Pilate which called for a similar divine summons.
But like so many agnostics throughout the ages and in our own day, after a conversation moving too close to the vulnerable center, Pilate blows it off: “What is truth?” and he looks away from the Lord. However, “I find no crime in him,” he repeats, as though pleading with the Jewish rabble who had been misled and incited by the religious leaders. Subsequently, this mob cries out for their own Messiah’s execution. This incident involving the Roman governor is a lengthy and detailed narrative, not ending until verse 22 of chapter 19. St. John shows us Pilate’s hesitancies, his sense of justice, even his complex fears, not only in respect to his position of a civil official in charge of keeping peace in his corner of the Empire, but also in the face of strong indications of the involvement of some kind of divine power which he had, so far, refused to acknowledge (19:7-11).
The tiny gold crucifix which I often wear has the title above the body of Christ, INRI, the first letters of the words (which were written in Greek, Hebrew and Latin) “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” (19:19). The Ignatius Study Guide notes: “Signs were hung around the necks of crucified victims and then fastened to their crosses. Listed on these placards was a brief inventory of the criminal charges brought against them. The trilingual inscription of Pilate could be read by everyone in the region. Hebrew was the religious language of Israel still known in parts of Judea; Latin was the official language of the Roman occupiers of Palestine; and Greek was the commercial language of the eastern Mediterranean world (CCC 440).”
These four tiny letters in a sense contain the entire history of the Israelite nation, and of the human race for that matter. INRI is the testament, we remember, of a professed agnostic, a person outside of the Jewish nation, and one with just enough fear of the God in whom he thought he could not believe, and with just enough humility to say, with his title above Jesus, “Maybe….” Because of him, the crucifix around my neck with INRI on it, lies high on my chest, equidistant from my head and heart.