Ampleforth Abbey

25 February 2018

Good Friday 2017

Homily given by Fr Prior at the Liturgy of the Passion on Good Friday (14th April 2017). Readings of Year A: Isaiah 52:13 – 53:12; Psalm 30; Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9; John 18:1 – 19:42

(Image: 16th century Coptic/Egyptian[?] icon - click here for full image and details)

Reading that Gospel story we know so well, I was struck by the choices that were open to the main characters. Starting from the beginning, it is clear that Judas had a choice. He decided to betray Jesus. Why, we don’t really know. Did he want the money? Had he lost patience with Jesus as he tried to teach his disciples that he was to be a suffering servant not the Messiah that he had expected? In any case, Judas had a choice, and he chose wrong. Peter also chose wrong. He was weak, he was afraid, he panicked, but he realised his mistake and repented.

The priests, too, had a choice. Annas, Caiaphas and the rest could have sat down with Jesus and gone into the matter. With humility and openness and in a prayerful spirit they could have openly and sincerely examined Jesus’ claims. They could have authenticated Jesus. But perhaps they were worried about their status; perhaps they were cynical and not sincere. In any case, they missed their chance, and they decided to present Jesus to Pilate.

What about Pilate? I feel a bit sorry for Pilate. He was the Governor of a not very important province of the Roman empire. And it was difficult – it was just as difficult then as it is now to see how to bring peace to the Middle East. One of the problems was about gods. Whenever the Romans conquered a country, they allowed the gods of the local people to be worshipped alongside the Roman gods: the old gods were assimilated into the Roman cult. That’s what happened with the Greek gods, the Egyptian gods, even no doubt the British gods. But the Jews were awkward. They held on to their own God and would not worship any Roman god.

Now Pilate is presented with an argument about whether Jesus was the Messiah. Was this a religious question or a political question? Pilate could have left it to the Jews to decide, and simply release Jesus, and the Jews would presumably have stoned him to death. But Pilate made his choice to treat Jesus as a political leader. The titulus – the wooden board above the cross of all convicted criminals gave the crime: stealing; murder; revolt; whatever. Pilate decided to write Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews. Was this mere cynicism? Was this just to cover his back with Caesar? Or was it the beginnings of faith? In any case, Pilate had a choice – and he chose to put Jesus to death, the death of a criminal.

And the people had a choice. Who were they to cheer for? Barabbas or Jesus? The convicted revolutionary or the saviour? After all, not very many days before they had welcomed him with shouts of Hosanna. But they chose to cheer for Barabbas, someone they knew to be a brigand, and to condemn Jesus to death.

And Jesus had a choice. But his choice is different. He knew what he was doing, he knew that his death was inevitable, and that his death would paradoxically be the moment of triumph. He comes across in John’s Gospel not as a powerless foolish victim, pushed from pillar to post, but as someone in control. This travelling preacher with his rag-tag band of followers somehow scares both the Jewish authorities and the might of the Roman power. And he does this not by any threats, but by the power of his message, and the truth that begins to shine through that he is truly the Christ, the Messiah, the only Son of God.

Yes, he is the victim of other flawed men, with their dubious motives. Everything he did was done in love. He was sent by the Father, and in all he did, he chose to be obedient to the Father. He chose to act as Isaiah prophesied, “surrendering himself to death and letting himself be taken for a sinner, while he was bearing the faults of many and praying all the time for sinners.” This is what Jesus did, and so “he became for all who obey him, the source of eternal salvation,” our hope and our redemption.

(Image: Ampleforth Abbey Church after the Good Friday Liturgy)