The way one faces an impending doom and death is often perceived as a measure of one’s greatness. The last King and Queen of France were said to achieve in their death a greatness they had never been able to achieve in their life, for they faced the trials and the guillotine with remarkable composure1 . The said Queen, Marie Antoinette, did not once lose her calm even when she had to put her neck under the guillotine. Stefan Zweig commented that such is how a daughter of the great Hapsburg dynasty should die: with calm dignity. To take another example, the great Greek philosopher Socrates was reported to believe that no true philosopher has a fear of death. His refusal to escape from prison and his acceptance of his death sentence were partially attributed to this belief.
If that is how a royal or a philosopher should die; how, then, should a King – not just a king, but one whose kingdom is said “to have no end”– die?
Today is Good Friday, and the Church celebrates the death of Christ, whom she proclaims as her Lord and King. In the Roman Catholic liturgy, the full account of the Lord’s Passion (i.e. His arrest, trials, crucifixion, and death) is read in every celebration. The reading for Good Friday is always taken from the John’s Gospel, while the account of the Passion according to the other three Gospels (the Synoptic) is used in the liturgy of Palm Sunday. As pointed out in today’s homily, one of the benefits of using the John’s Gospel in Good Friday is that it helps us to see that we are celebrating the death of a King, and not a failed rebel or common criminal. It is well known how the Lord Jesus remained silent throughout his trials and refused to answer most of all charges thrown at Him. But in John’s Gospel we are presented with a different side of the story. In John, we see that Jesus was in charge. In the Synoptic Gospels, He was simply arrested by a band of armed men. But in John, when Jesus saw the men coming to arrest Him,
Jesus then came forward and said, ‘Who are you looking for?’
They answered, ‘Jesus the Nazarene’.
He said, ‘I am he’.
The Church sees His answer ‘I am he’ as a hint of His divinity (compare to the Name of God as revealed to Moses: ‘I Am who I Am), and in fact, Jesus referred to Himself as ‘I am he’ a few times in John’s Gospel. And perhaps to emphasize this hint, John noted that when Jesus said ‘I am he’, those who came to arrest Him “moved back and fell to the ground”. For what other gesture can be expected when men see the glory of the Lord unveiled?2 It was only after Jesus repeated His question ‘Who are you looking for?’ that the armed men arrested Him.
The next scene after the arrest is the trials. Again, in John we encounter the Lord who is not so silent. We are presented with His answer to the high priest, and a detailed conversation between Him and the Roman governor, Pilate. John emphasized that the Roman governor was in fear, while the Man he was supposed to judge was not.
Pilate then said to him, ‘Are you refusing to speak to me? Surely you know I have power to release you and I have power to crucify you?’
‘You would have no power over me’ replied Jesus ‘if it had not been given you from above…’
In the crucifixion scene, John skipped the desolate cry ‘My God, my God, why have You deserted me?’ as recorded in Matthew and Mark. In John, from the Last Supper to His death, not a single utterance of sorrow or anguish from our Lord is recorded. The commentary in the Jerusalem Bible summarizes it aptly: it is the calm majesty of Christ’s death that John wishes to emphasize. Personally, I do not think that our Lord’s sadness and sorrow as recorded in the Synoptic undermine His greatness. Instead, those showed His humanity3. For if He did not feel any human fear of His impending suffering and death, how can we say that He sacrificed Himself? Yet I found reading John’s ‘kingly’ account refreshing.
And what made this calm majesty possible? To revisit the case of the dignified royals or contented philosophers, perhaps we can generally say that they faced death calmly because they knew their duty and were sure that they had done it well. In the case of our Lord, it was more than duty done. It is because He has life in Himself, and death cannot rob Him of it. As John recorded,
‘… I lay down my life in order to take it up again.
No one takes it from me; I lay it down of my own free will, and as it is in my power to lay it down, so it is in my power to take it up again;
and this is the command I have been given by my Father.’
1 see e.g. “Marie Antoinette: the Portrait of An Average Woman” by Stefan Zweig, 1932.
2 or uncloaked, if you prefer Gandalf’s terminology.
3 And of course, those sorrowful utterances do not at all suggest that our Lord despaired or was forced to His death. The cry ‘my God, why have You deserted me?’ is a prayer taken from Psalm 22: it is a cry of distress but not of despair. In the Psalm this cry is followed by an expression of joyful confidence in final victory (the commentary to Matthew 27:47, the Jerusalem Bible).