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Cardinal Bernardin's Stations of the Cross
Transforming Our Grief and Loss Into New Life
By Eugene Kennedy, Ronald Bailey
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2003 Eugene Kennedy
All rights reserved.
The FIRST STATION: Jesus Is Condemned To Death
It is Spring and the days and the nights are equal.
In the heavens Brother Sun looks directly across the sky at Sister Moon and Passover is ushered onto the land swollen with yearning for new life. A few days before, Jesus is hailed as he passes through the city's great gate, and the hearts of the religious leaders also swell for they are seeded with uneasiness and distrust for this calm but unnerving man who makes such claims about himself in the temple sanctuary. They lay a word trap to snare him into blasphemy. Does this Jesus make himself greater than the law, shrugging off and standing clear of its tangle as he announces that, yes, he is the one who is coming, the Messiah the Jewish people long for?
See for yourself, the leaders say, sweeping their robes back with their urgent gestures, this Jesus rouses the people and threatens good order. But these men have no authority in this Roman province of Judea to bring him to judgment. They must leach power from the Empire — see how this man breaks your law and threatens good order — and use Roman authority at secondhand to rid themselves of Jesus. The high priests have their own reasons; this man says that he is the Messiah, what more need anyone hear? They gather the silver pieces that the traitor Judas, wild-eyed and frantic, scatters at their feet, but not before his kiss singles Jesus out so that he is quickly seized. Even as they seal his doom they are fastidious to avoid their own. The silver touched by Judas is now signed with blood and cannot be redeposited in the sanctuary, so let us use it to buy a field in which to bury the poor, a potter's field, the field of blood.
Jesus, who knows himself to be the Light, is taken in darkness softened by the Passover moon, the scuffle in the jolting torchlight so small and swift and near to soundless that, even as his disciples slip away, it leaves barely a mark on the memory of the night. Its milky veil suits the captors, with their swords and clubs, as they lead Jesus down from the Mount of Olives across the Kidron to the palace of the high priest: night and day, darkness and light, openness and shadows, they advance and retreat across the hours, overlapping here and sharply dividing there, a dance of the forces of life and death.
His captors bring him, bound, as John tells us, first to Annas for questioning and then to his son-in-law, Caiphas, the high priest that year, for trial. The scribes and elders gather and, toward dawn, the whole Sanhedrin, for yet another session before bringing him, judged worthy of death, to Pilate. Peter follows but at distance enough, sitting finally among the attendants around the charcoal fire they kindle in the open courtyard of the palace.
The religious leaders seek witnesses to swear, falsely if necessary, about Jesus' claims that he will destroy the temple and in three days raise it up again. But their testimony crackles with the electric fire of the lie and sears the air like the words that stream down like embers from Babel. Still, the high priest, knowing that a midnight trial is also theater, places his questions dramatically: What is it you teach and who are your followers? I have taught openly, Jesus responds, ask those who have heard me. In the courtyard, Peter shakes his head for the first time: No, I do not know him, I am not one of his followers.
The high priest presses his proof text question, Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed? You say that I am, Jesus responds calmly, and I am. And you will see the Son of Man sitting on the right hand of the power and coming with the clouds of heaven. The high priest tears at his garments: We have no need of other witnesses, the sentence for such blasphemy is death. The guards taunt Jesus, spitting on and striking him: Prophesy for us, tell us who it is you are. Then he is brought to Caiphas.
The back-and-forth hours of jeering questions are washed away as the tide of night begins to recede. Before it runs out, however, Judas hangs himself from a tree and Peter, his face plain in the firelight, denies for the third time that he knows Jesus. At the first light of this Passover day, his captors hurry Jesus, bound and clothed in a robe of ridicule, to the Praetorium on the western heights of Jerusalem where Pilate rules in Rome's name.
Standing before it, the high priests reveal their infinitely practiced observance of the fine points of the law, for they cannot enter the Praetorium where Pilate sits or they will suffer ritual religious contamination. Does the procurator count these extra minutes a burden or a blessing as he walks back and forth from his questioning of Jesus inside his imperial walls to his wrangling with the high priests and the crowd gathered outside? He needs time, yes, more time, for he is in an uncomfortable position.
Pilate sends Jesus to Herod who is intrigued for this Jesus is said to work signs, Will you not work one for me before I send you back to the Roman authority? Herod, who has manipulated many for far less, is not a man to lose face or pleasure in such a moment, and if he cannot coax a wonder out of Jesus, perhaps he may yet knead a favor out of Rome. Is this not a moment of opportunity that has little to do with Jesus, a chance on this morning to reach an understanding with the procurator that will serve us both well in the future? History embraces them for the unspoken deal they strike and we learn that they become friends from that day.
Pilate has his own questions ready, for Rome has not sent a fool on this long dusty mission to keep order in this earth's-end province and he does not intend to stay here forever, put down this trouble and improve my relationship with Caiphas and the empire will reward me, I will not spend all my days here. Yet this is no simple matter, for Pilate is made to straddle two worlds, that of the death demands made by those he governs and that of the good order he must maintain for Rome in whose name he governs. The high priests and the scribes and the gathering crowd want Pilate to execute their death sentence by the authority of the special stone judgment seat from which he presides.
The whole crowd, the Gospel writers tell us, joins in the accusations that make Jesus a threat to Rome, We have found this man misleading our nation, both forbidding the giving of taxes to Caesar and saying that he is the Messiah king. If he were not doing bad we would not have handed him over to you.
Pilate goes back inside and summons Jesus to an exchange whose tension remains fresh. Are you the king of the Jews?
Of yourself do you ask this, Jesus replies, or have others told you this about me?
Pilate has his own question, Am I a Jew? Your nation and the chief priests have given you over to me. What have you done?
My kingdom is not of this world, Jesus answers. If my kingdom were of this world, my attendants would have struggled lest I be given over to them. But, as it is, my kingdom is not from here.
Then you are a king, the procurator responds.
You say that I am a king. The reason for which I have been born and for which I came into the world is that I may bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice.
What is truth?
The question haunts us, in any language, at any time, on its own: What is truth, a question for ourselves as well as history. Do these few words bite because we may still hear, as Raymond Brown suggests, the imperiousness of Rome in them? Or is Pilate unknowingly and ironically bringing judgment on himself and the whole proceeding, confessing that he does not understand what Jesus is saying, that he, the Roman procurator, does not hear his voice, does not understand his witness, is not himself of the truth. This is the last time Jesus speaks of the truth. For how many does Pilate ask his famous question? For now he will have Jesus scourged and release him if he can.
Look at him! Pilate says to the crowd, I find no case at all against him, Pilate tells the crowd, neither has Herod. Perhaps he can find a way out for all of them. By Passover custom, I, as governor, may release one prisoner of your choosing. Whom do you want me to release to you, Barabbas, the thief, or Jesus who is called Messiah? Pilate knows that the chief priests give up Jesus only out of envy and jealous zeal, out of phthonos, that wide-spectrum word of violent dislike for the good. As they begin to stir up the crowd before him, he receives a message from his wife. Let there be nothing between you and this just man, for I have suffered many things today in a dream because of him.
But the voices of the yelling crowd break his reverie, Barabbas, not this one but Barabbas. They make the choice that Peter will later describe as he preaches in the temple precincts. You denied the holy and just one, and asked that a man who was a killer be granted to you. Pilate returns inside the Praetorium again, with another question, Where are you from? He is asking, Raymond Brown says, about Jesus as "God's Son," the charge that the procurator now realizes is the real one against Jesus, for who he is, not what he has done, is the crucial matter. Jesus does not answer him. Do you not know, Pilate continues, that I have the power to release you and the power to crucify you?
You have no power at all, Jesus replies, except what was given to you from above. The one who gave me over to you has the greater sin. For Jesus has already said, I lay down my life ... of my own accord. Although they are inside, their voices can be heard by the restless and angry crowd. Pilate leads Jesus out before them — Look at him! — hoping to find a way to release him. The crowd yells contemptuously at the procurator, Fail to execute this man and you will be no friend of Caesar's.
It is the sixth hour as Pilate takes the seat of judgment, gestures toward Jesus. Look, your king!
But the people are roused, Crucify him, crucify him!
Pilate looks into their faces, Shall I crucify your king?
The chief priests turn the winch of pressure. We have no king but Caesar.
Does a sliver of his wife's dream stab at him, as his own sense of the innocence of Jesus does? He shrugs, nods to the attendant and the basin of water is brought in which he washes his hands of Jesus, of them, of the entire episode. I am innocent of the blood of this man, you must see to it. He can hear the shouts — Let the blood be upon us and our children! — as he signals for the release of the bandit Barabbas, and gives the order, in Rome's name, that Jesus be handed over and crucified. ...
Joseph has been judged publicly, even condemned to death, in many ways before that bitter cold middle of the night when time loosens its grasp on him and the darkness falls away and he is filled with God's light. Those of us who see him up close catch its flashes many times before we can give it a name. We finally recognize that the radiance we glimpse, like that of a door frame made luminous by the light beyond it, is that of holiness.
Some public misgiving and judgment, like the bite of an immigration inspector's stamp, leave vivid marks on his growing up years with his younger sister Elaine and his mother Maria: Outsider, Italian, Poor, and Catholic in heavily Protestant, Depression-ravaged Columbia, South Carolina. Those judgments are reinforced when they move into Public Housing for ten dry and hungry years. The Bernardins are bureaucratically cataloged, inspected as cards are by impassive gamblers, then shuffled and reshuffled in the cruel social poker of that time.
Judgment is in the air as Joseph puts aside the university scholarship he has won in order to pursue premed studies, and to enter the seminary instead. Can you get it back, the ever frugal Maria asks, if you change your mind? Joseph's seminary black suit is not a monochrome dreamcoat but, fashioned by his mother's hands, the garment is indeed a judgment on, as well as an advertisement of, the family's poverty. That Joseph and his sister Elaine never feel deprived of anything is the fruit of the family love that lies curled within the hard shell of Depression life.
Two kinds of judgment await Joseph in the culture of the priesthood that he enters just past midcentury. The first is made instantly by superiors who recognize his extraordinary talents and quickly heap responsibilities into his open arms. The other is made by some of his fellow priests who are ready to write him off at clerical discount.
These judgments track him throughout his life. The possibility of being misunderstood is imbedded in the increased responsibility he is given at each new assignment. The cynical clerics sheath their complaints in harsh wit. To them, Joseph is a once poor boy bound for ecclesiastical glory, a figure ambitious for power who nimbly avoids the slightest snares as he pursues the main chance. Nobody, they smirk, can be that skilled or that good without ulterior motives, what's he after anyhow?
A Greek chorus of critics move with Joseph at every level of his career, an assemblage as various and anonymous as the jeering mob that exhausts its false courage in lurching toward and then pulling back from Jesus. They question Joseph's presumption: what is the source of his judgment and whence his wisdom, too? Again, as with Jesus, some of the loudest condemnations come from jealous high priests.
Joseph is denounced with memorable meanness even after his death. The historian James Hitchcock constructs a theory without foundation, in a magazine article, that more people had waited in line to mourn previous Chicago cardinal archbishops than they had for Cardinal Bernardin. Or, in the faint praise judgment of his former colleague at the National Conference of Bishops, Russell Shaw, that, yes, he "was a decent man, the holiness must have come later." Years after his middle-of-the-night death in 1996, critics mass an offensive to blame him for the eruption of the sex abuse scandal among priests in 2002. This is a problem that he vainly fights to get his brother bishops to recognize and respond to in the early '80s. Yet, six years after he dies, a special Web site is devoted to this hateful posthumous judgment that Joseph is somehow responsible for the darkness on which he tries to shine the light. The light, that is what enrages men who love the cover of darkness, the light they do not comprehend. This boiling reaction of envy and jealousy within them is the same fouled bile of phthonos — the violent dislike for Jesus' goodness visited on him by the high priests — and their lies the same as those cascading in flames from the Babel of the witnesses at Jesus' night trial — reactions that spew from men in love with darkness, accusers who seem enraged by nothing so much as Joseph's goodness.
People biting on this same cud of envy dismiss Joseph's prayer life as external posturing rather than any true internal struggle in his own depths to achieve spiritual growth. These detractors find their marks and take their places randomly around the First Station, each accepting his destined role in the Passion Play of Joseph's life. But they fulfill his great destiny, too, as they embrace their own meager ones, donning the costumes of the high priests and elders who, finding nothing bad in the man, still cannot bear his goodness. Is he not the immigrant seamstress's son, can any good come out of South Carolina?
Their venom spouts like a knife wound in their calculated misunderstanding, the signature note on their cascading boos and catcalls, their stinging and shaming public accusations against Joseph's character and motives. If these attacks on Joseph run parallel to those on Jesus, Joseph does not think of that but of the cup of misunderstanding that is offered every day to uncounted and unnamed men and women.
If one of Joseph's cherished prayers is the petition of St. Francis "to understand rather than to be understood," it is a bewildering one when God answers it. Misunderstanding may also be the most common element in the Christian Mystery. All who take the message of Jesus seriously meet at the base of this First Station, this remembrance rock for everyone who has tasted the bitterness of misunderstanding or misinterpretation in everyday life. The shadow of this First Station falls on all of us.
Excerpted from Cardinal Bernardin's Stations of the Cross by Eugene Kennedy, Ronald Bailey. Copyright © 2003 Eugene Kennedy. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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