Silence Before the High Priest

"And they brought Jesus to the High Priest; and all the Priests and the Ancients and Scribes assembled together." There is a well-founded opinion that the palace of the High Priest was a large and spacious building to which a courtyard was attached. In this palatial residence, probably in different parts, dwelt Caiaphas and his father-in-law, Annas. Our Blessed Saviour, then, in going from Annas to the High Priest was led across the courtyard to the hall where His enemies were impatiently awaiting His coming. Amid the confusion and the jeering of the throng who had witnessed the indignities before Annas, and insulted by the common servants and the rabble that hung around the palace, our Lord was brought, considerably after midnight, into the presence of the High Priest and the other official representatives of the Jewish law assembled to judge Him. All the grades of the council had doubtless been summoned on that occasion, but it is scarcely probable that every member was present. Saint Mark tells us that all joined in His condemnation; but as Joseph and Nicodemus would hardly have been guilty of such treachery and cowardice we can conclude that they were absent; perhaps, as friends of Christ, they had not been invited.

It was a strange scene into which our Blessed Saviour was introduced in the council chamber. The members sat in a semi-circle so that they could see each other; two clerks occupying places to the right and left were in front of them whose duty it was to take down the substance of the defence and prosecution. The whole assembly was presided over and dominated by the High Priest. Into this assembly our Lord was led, presumably clad in mourning as was the custom.

Only a few hours ago our Saviour had kindly upbraided His sleeping Apostles, because they could not watch one hour with Him. He had gently found fault with them because their eyes were heavy, while His in His prayer were filled with tears. His enemies, however, those bent upon taking His life, were indefatigable in their efforts for His undoing. They sought no rest in sleep. Every sacrifice of time and energy would be well rewarded, if they could accomplish their wicked purpose and rid the festal solemnities of the presence of this malefactor.

The whole proceeding of this midnight mockery of justice, about to begin, was utterly illegal and unjust. Years ago, indeed some forty years before the destruction of the Temple, the Sanhedrin had ceased to pronounce capital punishment, yet that night the whole assembly declared Christ worthy of death. They did not condemn Him to the gibbet of the cross because they had not the power. When Pilate later said to them: "Take Him you and judge Him according to your law," the Jews said to him: "It is not lawful for us to put anyone to death." No process, especially none of such importance as to involve human life, could be begun at night or on Sabbaths, on feast days, or on their eves. It is clear, then, that the whole proceeding was illegal, and that through passion, jealousy and hatred His enemies were reckless about the observance of the law in their eagerness for His death.

"And the chief priests and the whole council sought false witnesses against Jesus that they might put Him to death." The day had been a busy one for the chief priests and the members of the Sanhedrin. No detail needed to bring their deep-laid plots to a successful issue had been forgotten or overlooked. Promises which would not be kept had been made, bribes had been offered and money had been circulated freely. Witnesses had been obtained and drilled who would have no scruple in doing the bidding of their masters and swearing to falsehoods. They would in His trial ostentatiously abide by the law which read: "By the mouth of two or three witnesses shall he die that is to be slain. Let no man put him to death when only one beareth witness against him."

Some, doubtless, who were present on this occasion had seen the discomfiture of Annas in the short examination of our Blessed Saviour, and these no doubt suggested different tactics. Instead, therefore, of questioning Him about His doctrine and His disciples, they now tried to convict Him of crime from the testimony of witnesses, men who said that they had heard with their own ears His wicked words and had seen with their own eyes His infamous deeds. Hatred, jealousy and envy would easily distort and exaggerate the meaning of many of our Lord's words and misjudge His acts. Our Blessed Saviour could have readily explained away their accusations and could have fully vindicated Himself; but any vindication He knew only too well would be useless, as His death was determined upon, and He preferred to remain silent. So openly did the witnesses contradict each other, and so worthless was their evidence against the Prisoner that their testimony broke down and the trumped up charges had to be abandoned.

Our Lord through this humiliating scene was calm, and His impressive silence must under the circumstances have contributed not a little to the confusion of His accusers. "And last of all came two witnesses: and they said: This man said, I am able to destroy the Temple of God and after three days to rebuild it.'" The case so far had been mismanaged and nothing had been accomplished, yet some evidence must be procured, so that this man could be dragged before the Roman Governor and condemned to death before the people awoke and began thronging to the Temple for the Paschal festivities. Hope at last revives and success hangs now upon the production of fresh testimony.

The new witnesses hark back to the first time our Lord had come into open conflict with the Temple authorities and with the avarice of the Priests. Three years ago when with whip and scourge He had cleansed God s house from the buying and selling by avaricious traffickers, they had questioned Him as to His authority for such an intrusion into the sacred precincts and such an invasion of their rights, and our Lord answered: "Destroy this Temple and after three days I will rebuild it." This charge if dexterously manipulated and pushed intensively might have had much weight with the Roman Governor. This His enemies knew full well.

An impression at this time when the Sacred City was so densely crowded, that there was a man within its walls who had threatened to lay violent hands upon the sacred Temple, claiming the power to destroy it, would have branded our Lord as a fanatical pretender and a dangerous seducer of the ignorant populace. Nothing could lead so quickly to a sudden outburst of anger and tumult among the people. This Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor, feared before all else; and the popularity of Pontius Pilate in Rome and his political power in the Imperial City, even his tenure of office, depended largely upon his keeping the Jews quiet and forestalling any disorder especially at the critical time of the Passover. This charge, then, would have impressed Pilate; and Caiaphas was not so much on the lookout for a capital crime against the Jewish law as he was for an accusation that would influence and persuade the Roman Governor to do away with their Prisoner.

But the charge upon which such hopes had been built broke down at once through the disagreement of these two witnesses required by the Mosaic law, and scrupulously provided for. They openly contradicted each other. All through this judicial farce our Lord preserved a majestic and impressive silence and uttered not a word. At length in an effort to intimidate and browbeat his helpless Prisoner, the High Priest rose up and demanded in shrill, angry tones, which reechoed through the council chamber:

"Answerest Thou nothing to the things that are laid to Thy charge?"

He held His peace and answered nothing.

How eloquent the silence and how needed the lesson in our daily lives! Eloquent because of the compelling sweetness of His speech, had He spoken. No man in the world's history ever spoke as the Eternal Son made Flesh, the Word of the Father, spoke during the days of His sojourning among the children of men. Whether on Galilean hill or on sanded seashore, washed by the waters of the Lake, or on the marble steps of Jerusalem's wondrous Temple, His words were the sweetest, the tenderest and the most consoling which had ever fallen from human lips, but these words were always uttered for the comfort and the healing of souls and not for His own vindication and defence against the charges of His enemies. Now when His soul was racked with pain, overwhelmed with shame, bathed in grief, His delicate, sensitive, keen sense of justice blistered and smarting under the falsehoods of His enemies, "He held His peace and answered nothing."

How difficult we find silence in our own lives, and how almost impossible! Under unjust and false charges for most of us, unprayerful as we are, silence is painful and wearing, and yet we shall never lead prayerful and recollected lives without it. We fret under it and find it always unsatisfactory, distressing and void because our souls are not full of God; but under unjust or exaggerated or at times even true charges how utterly impossible to hold our peace! We are so eager to defend our rights and save our reputations. We owe it to ourselves and families, we owe it to our good name as Catholics. God's glory will be promoted, we say, by keeping our fair name unsullied and untainted. All this may be very true, but self-love too easily creeps in. Hurt feelings smarting under the real or imaginary injustice so blind us, anger and vindictiveness are so easily in the ascendency, that we readily forget the midnight scene in the council chamber of Caiaphas palace where Jesus, the Eternal Son of God and the Word of the Father, "held His peace and answered nothing." In such moments when we writhe under the sting and bite of thoughtless and, at times, envious tongues, it were better to steal into the quiet under the sanctuary lamp and meditate with a spirit of faith upon the silence of the Master in the Tabernacle, better to take no other action than that which His grace coming to us from the altar will suggest and prompt, and His silent example teach. This will bring us more peace and more holiness than all the defences our wounded pride can offer and all the excuses our blinded and deceptive vanity can allege.

- from The Mountains of Myrrh, by Father John O'Rourke