Once more we take our stand amid the throng outside the Praetorium. Our Lord had been sent back by the Galilean Tetrarch to the Roman Governor, and now Pilate is a weaker man in the face of a fiercer struggle with the Priests and the people. No one has ever yet won a moral victory by shirking his duty and compromising his conscience and refusing to confront his obligation manfully.
Pilate vainly strove to shield his soul from judicial murder and to keep it free from the guilt of human blood. Possibly he fixed upon his line of conduct with our Lord's enemies, when he heard that the Prisoner had been remanded to him by Herod. He thought, while declaring our Lord's innocence, that he would meet the wishes of His enemies to some extent if he scourged our Blessed Saviour and then set Him free. The injustice of such a proceeding was evident. Still if it saved the prisoner's life, doubtless He ought to be grateful. Besides it would satisfy the hatred of those clamoring for His blood. Never was a man so deceived. As well might he try to tame the wild beast by the taste of blood. This concession only whetted the appetite of Priests and people for the death of their apparently helpless Victim.
The Governor, having examined our Lord, found no cause in Him.
"No, nor Herod neither: for I sent you to him and behold, nothing worthy of death is done to Him. I will chastise Him, therefore, and release Him."
Let Pilate chastise Him; let the stinging whips once bite into that delicate Sacred Flesh; let the Precious Blood once flow out under the whiz of the lash; let the marble pavement of the Praetorium be once dyed red, and there is no power in the will of Rome's Governor that can satisfy the hatred of Christ's enemies and shield Him from a shameful death, before evening, on the cross.
We may with profit linger for a few moments on this act of injustice. Our Blessed Saviour is officially declared innocent and is then chastised. The Roman Governor before whom He was brought, pronounced Him guiltless of the charges levelled against Him, and then condemned Him to be whipped like a criminal and a slave. The imperial representative publicly announced that the charges were baseless, and yet condemned Him to endure the punishment of a common malefactor.
Yes, He was innocent. He was the only one of all the generations of men who could stand out on the white steps of Jerusalem's Temple and challenge His enemies to convict Him of sin, to prove Him guilty of any wrong-doing. Yes, He was innocent, for He was the Sinless One. Jeremias was sinless; John the Baptist was sinless, but their sinlessness was a favor granted them in their mothers womb after their souls had been tainted by sin. They were cleansed from sin by an unspeakable grace before their birth. Mary, too, was unsullied and sinless. No shadow had ever darkened the radiant whiteness of her immaculate soul, but she was thus pure and untainted by a privilege to none other granted, in virtue of which the anticipated merits of today's blood-shedding were applied to her soul at the moment of her conception, and prevented that soul from ever being tarnished even by the slightest breath of original sin.
But our Blessed Saviour was innocent and sinless in a far fuller and far higher sense. He was sinless (though He bore the sins of us all) not by favor, not by grace, but by nature and by right. His Sacred Humanity was united with the infinite all-white sanctity of the Godhead. He needed no privilege, no exemption. He could not have been otherwise than all-holy, all-sinless. In Him there could be no union of darkness and light. There could be no stain or blemish on the infinite innocence and holiness of the Godhead.
This chastisement then of our Lord, after His innocence had been proclaimed by the Governor, was a peculiar pain to His Sacred Heart. The injustice was so evident, and, as the event proved, so useless. We naturally recoil from innocence suffering. How painful it is to stand over the cradle of an innocent child and watch that child in the agony of death! How it smarts to see the cracked, parched lips, the fevered forehead, the pleading eyes, the slight swellings and fallings of the little breast, and yet be unable to bring relief! Innocence is so gentle, almost timid, so un-self defending. Innocence seems so help less, so appealing. Yet Pilate declared Him innocent, and then sent Him to be cut and slashed by the whips wielded by the strong, brawny arms of the unfeeling, cruel soldiers.
"Why, what evil hath He done?" asked Pilate. The Roman Governor did not have the poor excuse of the envy and jealousy which stirred in the hearts of the Priests, and manifested itself in their clamoring for the blood of their victim from the court-yard of the Praetorium. They were blinded by hatred; they could not see because the guilty passions surging in their souls swayed their judgment. Not so Pilate. For he seemed to have almost a spiritual discernment of the innocence of his helpless Prisoner. He appeared to catch a glimpse of the sinlessness and spotlessness of his Victim. He even declared it by his question: "Why, what evil hath He done?" But he had not the courage to act up to the light that flooded his soul. The crowds filling the Praetorium, their anxious and distorted faces, their raised, clenched fists, the threats of the Priests, the wild cries of anger, the danger of a tumult in the streets, the clear prospect of waning influence in the Imperial City, all these tended to stifle his conscience, blur his vision and urge him on towards unwilling condemnation of an innocent man. Pilate determined, however, to make one more effort to save his prisoner.
It was the custom for the Roman Governor at the time of the Pasch to grant some criminal pardon and freedom. Pilate, no doubt, thought that if the people were offered the liberation of a notorious murderer and robber, they would consent to allow this innocent and unoffensive man His freedom. The Priests, made keen by their jealousy and envy were not slow to turn this incident to their wicked purpose. The Governor then said to the people:
"Whom will you that I release to you, Barabbas or Jesus that is called Christ?"
Before receiving an answer, Saint Matthew states that Pilate was interrupted by a message from his wife:
"Have thou nothing to do with that just man; for I have suffered many things in a dream because of Him."
This stay in the proceedings was the Priests opportunity, of which they did not hesitate to avail themselves; for Saint Matthew again says: "But the chief Priests and Ancients persuaded the people, that they should ask Barabbas, and make Jesus away." Our Lord's enemies were too alert not to make use of the interruption that took place after Pilate had asked the question. They saw that if the tide of popular favor could be turned towards Barabbas, the victory would be theirs and our Lord's doom sealed. Thus the expedient adopted by Pilate for freeing his prisoner recoiled upon himself, and left him helpless before the clamoring and infuriated mob. If Pilate had but listened to the warning of his wife, if he had hearkened to those words from one solicitous that he should not do this unjust thing and evil deed, his soul would not have been stained with the guilt of blood. Was this message the last call and the final effort to drag him from the precipice towards which he was surely tending? At all events, the Governor seems not to have followed the injunction sent him by one eager to deter him from crime.
In the meantime, the Priests had not been idle. Possibly it was easy to win the favor of the people, for Barabbas while guilty of the crimes imputed to him had nevertheless, the Priests might urge, committed these crimes in trying to advance the political interests of the nation, and in endeavoring to take steps to render less strong and heavy the galling Roman yoke. It was not difficult for their ingenuity and hatred to devise reasons which had weight with the mob. When the Governor then offered the people the alternative, either Barabbas or Christ, urging them to select the latter on the ground that He was innocent and that Herod had found no cause in Him, his plea for Christ was instantly rejected and the mob cried out for the liberation of Barabbas. To Pilate's question, bitter and sarcastic: "What shall I do with Jesus, that is called Christ?" surged back the awful cry: "Crucify Him, crucify Him." The Governor then flung into their teeth the question: "Why, what evil hath He done?" but to this there came back the same cry for blood: "Crucify Him, crucify Him."
Pilate, seeing that the day was lost, that the last expedient had failed, that nothing but blood could satisfy the mob, and fearing a tumult, desisted from further effort to save the life of a man whom he knew to be innocent, and had declared to be so. But what was the life of a worthless, unknown Jew compared to the unpopularity of a Roman Governor in the Imperial City, which could easily be brought about by further opposition to the Priests and the will of an unreasoning populace egged on by their leaders?
Our hearts go out to our Blessed Saviour in sympathy at the indignities during this scene of His sufferings. The cruelty and injustice of declaring that there was no cause in Him, and then subjecting Him before the Priests and people to the humiliation of being set side by side in comparison with the common malefactor, stirs our hearts to deeper sympathy and keener pain.
How the words of the Roman Governor uttered to the fast gathering throngs that Good Friday noon, "Whom will you that I release to you, Barabbas or Jesus?" sting us and bring the blush of indignation to our cheeks, when we think who our Lord was, the Eternal Son of God, the beloved of the Father and the Child of the Immaculate Mother! How we resent the insult! This man who is now rejected as a common murderer for three years had done nought but deeds of mercy and kind ness. He had brightened the dark eyes of the sightless and opened the ears of the deaf to the sound of loved voices. His touch had cleansed the leper, had given strength to the halt and the paralytic. Even the dead, at His bidding, had risen from the grave and now in return for all this, He is set on a level with the man who had robbed ,the widow, the orphan and the poor; the man whose hands were stained with human blood, who if the law had had its way would have been crucified out there on Calvary long ago. This man, steeped in crime is dragged from his filthy dungeon and preferred to the Son of God, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Wild cries free this malefactor and clamors for innocent blood bring about the condemnation of Mary's loving Child. Yes, they chose Barabbas, and it was a terrible insult and an unspeakable crime.
But let us pause a moment. What about our choices in life? Have we not uttered in deeds, which speak louder than words, deeds that are trumpet-tongued, have we not uttered: "Not this man, but Barabbas, crucify Him, crucify Him"? Had the man or the woman who neglects Holy Mass on Sunday, who lies abed reading the Sunday paper and fails in the duty incumbent upon all under penalty of sin, been outside the Praetorium on that Good Friday, he or she would have echoed the cry of the Jews: "Not this Man, but Barabbas." Such people prefer their sloth to the will of the Master who died for them. The parents who send their children to so-called fashionable schools, thus compromising their faith and often co-operating in having the faith stolen from their young hearts, such are teaching their children to cry out in later years: "Let Him be crucified!" They will not do it, of course, in so many words, that would be deemed vulgar, whereas it is really blasphemy; but they will do it by their lives, by their minimizing of a faith they never really learned and loved. They will do it by mixed marriages, which will weaken a faith that at best was never robust, but always anemic.
Protracted absence from Holy Communion, because an illicit passion will not be given up or sacrificed, is a louder "Crucify Him, crucify Him" than that which rang out on that Good Friday, in the Praetorium of Pilate. The man who spends his wages in the saloon on Saturday night, and allows the wife and children to suffer, that man cries out in his life, "Not this Man, but Barabbas." The employers who pay starvation wages and defraud the laborer of that which is rightly his, commit the sin which cries out to Heaven for vengeance; they too cry out, "Crucify Him, crucify Him." The woman who darkens her home, ruins her husband's peace of mind and her family's happiness by her extravagance and waste and love of fashion, by her neglect of the duties of the fireside, that woman prefers Barabbas to Christ.
Let us then turn some of our indignation away from the Jewish rabble and the howling mob of Good Friday upon our own lives, upon our own choices, and upon our own purposes. Let us see that our lives are so lived that, had we been in that throng on Good Friday, we would have been found with those who sympathized with our suffering Master; let us so act that we would have been found with our Blessed Saviour, and not with those who shouted for His Blood.
- from The Mountains of Myrrh, by Father John O'Rourke