Fr. Glenn: Against The Current

By Fr. Glenn Jones:

And so … a great many Christians enter Holy Week this weekend (March 27-28), beginning with Passion (“Palm”) Sunday this Sunday (March 28), going into Holy Thursday, Good Friday and culminating in Easter Sunday. It’s “a great many” Christians because the Eastern Orthodox Churches celebrate Easter by the older Julian calendar, while denominations of most western Christian traditions calculate Easter using the modern Gregorian calendar, and as falling on the: 1) first Sunday 2) after the first full moon 3) after (or on) the spring equinox. We could also discuss the timing of the Jewish Passover based on a lunar calendar … but we’ll not get into that here.

In the Catholic Mass every Palm Sunday we have the longest Gospel reading of the year—that of the Passion of Christ, from the Last Supper, to Jesus’ arrest in the Garden of Olives, to His condemnation, crucifixion, death and burial. With such lengthy readings of such a poignant episode, one often loses oneself musing on one or two parts as the Gospel is being read. In the Mass, the reading is also participatory by the congregation, in which they take “crowd” parts—most especially bitter when one joins in crying out: “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” Our poor Jesus.

But one of the lines which never fails to grasp MY attention is as we hear this year in the reading from Mark: 

[The crowd] shouted again, “Crucify him.”
Pilate said to them, “Why? What evil has he done?”
They only shouted the louder, “Crucify him.”
So Pilate,
wishing to satisfy the crowd,
… had Jesus scourged,[and] handed him over to be crucified. (Mark 15:13-15)

That “wishing to satisfy the crowd” always strikes me … angers me … shames me … because in Pilate many of us can see cowardice which may be in ourselves. Pilate, even knowing Jesus was innocent, condemns Him simply to satisfy the mob … popular wants, popular opinion. We might find ourselves flashing back to time(s) in which we knew what was right to do, but gave in to popular opinion … gave in to what was more “acceptable” or popular, or—worse—to elevate or profit ourselves at the expense of another—in Jesus case, at the cost of His torture and death on the cross.

Pilate was worried because the Jewish religious leaders had (very ironically) threatened to condemn him to Caesar if Pilate did not condemn Jesus, they claiming that Jesus had declared Himself a king and implicitly placing Jesus in opposition to Caesar. So Pilate may have been in fear of not only the loss of his position as governor, but also loss of his life.

So … what’s OUR excuses for caving to injustice … for our lack of courage when we have buckled, surrendered to doing wrong? Few of us have probably been threatened with the possible loss of life like Pilate; our excuses have more likely been as trivial as simple wanting to be accepted by the crowing crowd, avoiding minor conflict, perhaps knifing someone in the back for advancement, taking credit for another’s work, or running someone down in the eyes of others to falsely elevate ourselves. That latter is what gossip is about.

Yet … what is that exceptional trait of courage except to stand fast in the face of adverse circumstances? We laud the courage of soldiers, of police officers, of firefighters facing mortal physical threats, but the greatest courage is often in standing up for the right even when it is unpopular or means rejection. We teach our children this, but do we live up to it ourselves. Or, rejecting Robert Frost, do we cowardly default to the more traveled path upon which goodness and right lay trampled underfoot, fearful of the lonely road less traveled? Do we not often promote—and observe the truth of—Edmund Burke’s adage: “The only thing needed for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing?”

Before Pilate stood the very exemplar and model of righteousness and courage: Jesus. All throughout the Gospels He gives the truest and starkest profile of courage—bowing to no wrong, and standing always by truth and righteousness, even when confronted, challenged, excoriated, rejected, plotted against. Hated. 

The follower of righteousness and the Good will never lack rejection by some … often by many.  In the book of Wisdom is a narrative whose theme we often find true in life’s experience—a reflection of the irrational hatred of evil toward the good, worth quoting partially here at some length:

[The wicked said:] Let us oppress the righteous poor man; let us not spare the widow nor regard the gray hairs of the aged. But let our might be our law of right…Let us lie in wait for the righteous man, because he is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions; he reproaches us for sins against the law…He became to us a reproof of our thoughts; the very sight of him is a burden to us, because his manner of life is unlike that of others, and his ways are strange…Let us test him with insult and torture, that we may find out how gentle he is, and make trial of his forbearance. 

Thus they reasoned, but they were led astray, for their wickedness blinded them, and they did not know the secret purposes of God, nor hope for the wages of holiness, nor discern the prize for blameless souls…” (Wisdom 2:10-22)

I often wonder about Pilate’s conscience after condemning Jesus—whether it plagued him, knowing that he buckled to injustice. I think most of us often dwell on times we have failed to do the good, and rather succumbed to peer pressure, temptation and the like. Especially as we age and review our lives, we find how prescient was Shakespeare when he wrote that a coward dies a thousand deaths, the brave man only once. 

We cannot change our past; we can only determine our actions of the future. So let us take Frost’s road less traveled—the lonelier but better road of standing fast in face of challenge—looking to Jesus in this Holy Week and at His unbending resolve to ever do—to be—the Good … to obey the Father … to sacrifice Himself for the world’s salvation, keeping His counsel before us always: “…the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. [But] the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few,” (Matthew 7:13-14), and affirming to the world with the apostles: “We must obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:29)

Rev. Glenn Jones is the Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe and former pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Los Alamos.