Pilate’s Holy Saturday

This year our church’s Maundy Thursday service began with each person at our table drawing from a bag the name of a disciple. For the rest of the service, we’d then try to imagine the story from the point of view of that follower of Jesus. My son, for example, drew Simon the Zealot. Fittingly, I was Thomas.

Leonardo, The Last Supper
Leonardo da Vinci, “The Last Supper” (ca. 1495) – Wikimedia

As we worshipped last night in the lengthening shadows of Good Friday and then woke to the silence of Holy Saturday, my mind has continued to speculate.

If all we know of Simon from his brief mentions in LukeActs are his politics, then I imagine him following a downward trajectory. Having hoped to see Roman imperium replaced by Jewish independence, how excited he must have been to see Jesus enter Jerusalem, David’s capital, in a kingly procession. How easy it would have been for him to forget some of Jesus’ recent words: that in his kingdom, “the last will be first, and the first will be last”; that he was going to Jerusalem “to be mocked and flogged and crucified.” For when Jesus actually arrived in that city, he fulfilled the centuries-old promise of Zechariah:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
    Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
    triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
    on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

How confused that Zealot must have been when his king bathed his feet, like the lowest of slaves. How angry he must have been when his king meekly accepted arrest, not even allowing Peter to defend him — let alone calling on God to “send me more than twelve legions of angels.” How humiliated he must have been to see his fondest dream turn to terrifying nightmare, as Jesus was indeed named “King of the Jews”… so said the sign just above a thorn-crowned head gasping for breath.

Caravaggio, The Incredulity of St. Thomas
Caravaggio, “The Incredulity of St. Thomas” (1602)

And what of Thomas, who had so recently urged the other disciples to follow Jesus wherever he would take them: “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” But once Jesus neared his true destination, it became clear that Thomas was in the dark: “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Did the “inconsiderate zeal” that John Calvin attributed to Thomas evaporate as the way of Jesus led to the truth that his life would end on a cross? Like all the others, Thomas deserted Jesus at his arrest. He may have witnessed the crucifixion, but apparently he was frightened or disillusioned enough to split off from the company of disciples — when the risen Jesus appeared before them, Thomas was not there.

Wherever he was that day after the crucifixion, I imagine Thomas entertaining the same doubts as Simon and everyone else who had followed a man they knew to be moldering in a tomb.

But I also imagine at least one man in Jerusalem spending that day not tortured by doubt, but reassured that the world was exactly as he knew it to be: Pontius Pilate.

Surely he wasn’t thrilled to start yet another day languishing in a colonial backwater, but at least the local religious lunatics didn’t wake him up to deal with yet another troublemaker speaking pious gibberish. He could forget that his encounter with that carpenter’s son — What was his name again? Jesus, but which one: Jesus Barabbas, or the other? — had left him “greatly amazed,” as his interrogation turned upside-down and he found himself being questioned by someone who didn’t behave remotely like any other prisoner in his experience.

Ciseri, Ecce Homo
Antonio Ciseri, “Ecce homo” (1871) – Wikimedia

“What is truth?”, he had asked. Not the laws of the gods, he had seen again, but the laws of indifferent nature, being worked out in all their amoral cruelty on a cross.

For Pilate could tell himself once more that there were no kingdoms but those of this world, and none greater than Rome. Pilate wouldn’t live to read Tacitus, but even if it was true that what Romans called “empire” was merely a violent usurpation, a desert masquerading as Pax Romana, what of it? Such was the human experience. If Pilate knew his Thucydides, he knew that “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”

And if these particular weaklings insisted on spiritualizing the political, well, Pilate knew better. He had “realized that it was out of jealousy that they had handed him over.” The next time the chief priests deluded themselves into thinking they had any kind of power and brought before him another Christos, he would know to substitute more earthly words for their claims of “blasphemy.”

Let the superstitious make an omen out of an earthquake. Pilate was unshaken: the world was as it had been and always would be.

Of course, it wasn’t. But how easy it would be to fall back into that belief today. In a week when schedules are disrupted by time off from work, long journeys, and additional worship, there is little to set apart Holy Saturday. Today tempts us to normalcy, to reassure ourselves that nothing is all that different, that no change threatens to permanently inconvenience our lives.

But if the tomb-opening tremors of Good Friday weren’t enough to shake us out of that delusion, remember that Resurrection also brought an earthquake. May Easter dawn with the realization that Jesus is not who his followers and murderers thought him to be. And so, that the world will never be the same again.