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Passion Sunday, Service of the Word, 21.03.21: The Passion according to Saint John


The Passion according to Saint John is possibly the greatest part of the entire Bible. In many ways it is unfathomable, not because we can’t get anything out of it, but precisely because we can get so much. It is an inexhaustible source of insight and understanding into the person of Jesus, the mission of Jesus and the mysteries of our salvation. Saints and martyrs across the centuries have found in St. John’s Passion their light, their strength, their inspiration and their boundless love for Christ. Far more important than anything I can possibly say this evening, the constant reading, study, meditation and contemplation of St. John’s Passion is something I commend and recommend to you all. It is a whole world of revelation. It will evangelise and sanctify you by its own power.


What I propose to do is simply to offer some reflections based on my own love for this text and on what experts, wiser and more intelligent than I will ever be, have taught.


A basic point is that the Passion in John is a living unity. The more you see and perceive that unity, the more you will understand of its individual parts. St. John must have spent years piecing this Passion story together for the purposes of providing us with a path into the depths of the mysteries and truth of Christ. Everything in it has been carefully chosen and positioned. The things he omits from it, and that we hear in the Passion stories of the Synoptic Gospels, are also for the purpose of directing our attention to what he considers more important. He has not sinned by omission, but has sought to lead us to greater grace by those omissions.


For example, in Gethsemane, there is no agony, no betraying kiss, no flight of the Apostles. Why? Because John does not want to portray Jesus as the broken man or fugitive of the Synoptics, but as the one who dominates events. He takes control of the situation. He takes the initiative and steps forward and asks the guards, “Who are you looking for?” He asks the questions, and they recoil. He gives the orders: “let these others go.”


Saint John has given his Passion a very clear structure. It is in five parts, or even five scenes you could say. John has a very dramatic flair and knows how to position people and give them their lines to maximum effect. He builds up the tension of the drama, all with the purpose of bringing out how Jesus is perfectly aware and in control of what is happening to him, knowing what he is doing and why, as if to underscore his divinity and the freedom with which he obeys the Father’s will.


The first of the five scenes is a prologue and the fifth is an epilogue. The prologue is the Gethsemane garden scene and the epilogue is the burial garden scene. The five scenes themselves  are arranged concentrically. John puts the scene with Jesus before Pilate at the centre. The scene before it leads up to that, and the scene after it flows from it.


I. Let’s take a look at the first scene or prologue, the garden of Gethsemane. It has three main themes. The first is a confrontation between Jesus and two groups of people. The first group of people is headed by Judas; it is the group of darkness or evil. The second group of people is headed by Jesus; it is the group of light and of the good. Jesus confronts both of these groups.  First, he confronts the Judas group by going out to them and asking them who they are looking for. Jesus assumes total control of the situation. When he says “I am He” in response to their demand for Jesus the Nazarene, he is deliberately revealing to them who he is: remember that “I Am” is the name of God. Judas and companions fall to the ground, a bit like Moses falling to his knees when God calls him from the bush. This superiority or triumph of Jesus over the evil group is the second theme. Once they get themselves together, Jesus freely hands himself over to them but demands that they let his disciples go. This is the third theme, the complete liberty of Jesus in accepting his passion. Going back to the first theme, Jesus has then to confront his own disciples, especially Peter who wanted to use violence to save him. Jesus tells Peter to put his sword away because, he says, no-one is going to stop him from drinking the cup the Father has given him, not even Peter! Again, Jesus is in control.


So, we can see that this prologue already gives us mammoth material for consdieration: first, the meeting of two opposing powers, the Light (Jesus and his disciples) and the Darkness (Judas and others); second, that the power of Jesus and those who are with him, believe in him, is the greater and triumphs over evil; third, these two extremes don’t mean that there is no grey in life but the grey must not lead to the obscuring of the need for a decision, either for the Light or for the Darkness; fourth, Jesus knows his passion is coming and embraces it freely, takes charge of it; fifth, Jesus commands that his own disciples be let go in order to protect them from being lost spiritually by the threat of martyrdom; sixth, by saying he will drink the cup the Father is giving him, Jesus is revealing that his Passion is the Father’s way of loving him and of loving us.


II. The second scene in the Passion according to John is the interrogation of Jesus before Annas and Peter’s simultaneous denials of him. Who was Annas? He had been high priest before Caiaphas between 6-15 AD and was deposed by the Romans, but he still wielded great influence because of his wisdom. He had no political or judicial authority, so his interrogation of Jesus was not a trial. In all probability, Annas is trusted by Caiaphas to interrogate Jesus first to try and get out of him who he really is.


A close look at this scene shows that there are two main themes in it. The first is that Jesus identifies himself as the Revealer, the One who makes God known. The questions put to him are not political, they don’t ask him about any claims to be a king or messiah. They revolve around matters of teaching, doctrine and discipleship. Jesus was a teacher in the synagogues and in the temple. In the other gospels, Jesus speaks in the open air, from a boat, on a mountain, etc.. But in John, Jesus is only ever in private conversation with individuals (Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman, etc.) or he speaks publicly in the synagogue or temple. John emphasizes in this scene that Jesus’ teaching is for everyone, it is universal. He does not speak in secret but openly for all the world to hear. He is the Revealer of the Father to the whole world, he is the Light incarnate, no-one can come to the Father but through him.


Yet, the world does not always receive him. This is the second main theme of this scene: the refusal of men to believe. And John rather graphically symbolizes this refusal, first, by the physical blow dealt to Jesus by the guard who angrily asks him, “is that the way to talk to the High Priest?” and, second, by the denials of Peter.


The blow from the guard is not so much about causing pain as a contemptuous humiliation of Jesus, a radical disrespect for him. Jesus takes the blow but again shows his command of the situation by asking the guard if his blow was justified, which it was not, just as the refusal to believe in Jesus is never justified. The officer who struck Jesus thus comes to represent in St. John’s theological symbolism all of those who have irrationally rejected the Revelation of Christ. But the same is true of Peter’s denials. The rejection of Jesus symbolized in the guard’s blow is actually fulfilled explicitly in Peter’s denials. John makes no mention of Peter’s angry oaths or of his repentant tears. He sticks to the core fact: while Jesus is inside testifying insistently that he is the Revealer of the Father, Peter is outside protesting that he has no connection with this Jesus.


This theme of Revelation and Rejection, with the exception of a smaller group who accepted him, is the main theme of the Gospel of John, and therefore of the Passion according to Saint John. We see it before Annas, but it recurs throughout the Passion story. Indeed, the Passion story is constructed around it. The Cross is seen not so much as the sacrifice of Jesus as the revelation of Jesus as King of Truth, a truth rejected openly, cynically and violently.


John gives no details of the political trial of Jesus before Caiaphas. The reason is that a human, political judgment runs on a more superficial level. For Jesus, the only real judgment is the position a person takes with regard to Him. If you believe in Him, in His Word, you are saved; if you do not, you stand judged and condemned. So in John’s Passion, it is not Jesus who is judged but the Jews who rejected him. Their refusal of him is their own judgment. Judgment is not measured in relation to the Jewish or even Roman laws, but in relation to belief or disbelief in Jesus as the Revealer of God.


III. This brings us to the third and central scene of the Passion according to St. John. John divides it into seven parts with, again, the central part, the fourth, being the crowning of Jesus with thorns, the back-handed recognition of him as the King of the Jews, as the King of Truth.


John begins this scene by remarking that it is the morning of the day before Passover, in contrast with the night of Judas. It begins at 6am, he tells us. We will also see that it ends at 12 noon. The whole scene takes the six hours when the sun is on the ascendancy. In other words, the triumph of Jesus is arising. At noon, Jesus will be led out to be crucified, coinciding with the time when the lambs are being prepared to be slaughtered for the Passover which will begin at 6pm.


Let’s look quickly at the seven parts. The first recounts a first dialogue between Pilate and the Jews bringing Jesus for condemnation. Pilate goes out to the Jews and is irritated and impatient with them. It was a tricky situation at a tricky time, the Passover, and he wanted to avoid any uprising. But they pressed him to give Roman help to execute Jesus.


In the second part, Pilate goes back inside and interrogates Jesus on the charge that he was a king. This was a purely political interrogation in comparison with the one by Annas. We need to remember that the term “king of the Jews” meant one thing to the Jews, another to Pilate and yet another to Jesus. To Pilate it is purely a political matter. Jesus as a king would be a threat to Caesar. For the Jews, Jesus as king would make him both a political leader of Israel and also the Messiah sent by God, and they could not reconcile that with Jesus’ perceived blasphemy, saying he was the Son of God. For Jesus, there is no question that he is a king, but his kingship is not of this world. His kingship consists in bearing witness to the Truth, in being the Revealer of the Father and in bearing in himself the salvation of the world. When Pilate asks Jesus outright if he is a king, Jesus neither denies nor affirms it: “it is you who say it”, he responds to Pilate. In other words, I am a king but not the way you mean it. In my person, I reveal the Father. I am the Son of the Father who reveals the possibility for men themselves to become children of God in and through me.


Jesus pushes things further with Pilate, for he says that “whoever is of the truth listens to my voice.” In other words, if he is who he says he is, then people must welcome him and his teaching. His truth gives light and moulds the heart, it is living water transforming who drinks it. The Spirit is the power within the Word which produces this transformation. As this truth is established in hearts, the Kingdom of Jesus is established. Christ exercises his sovereignty to the degree a person allows himself to be re-created as a child of God.


In the third of the seven parts of this scene, Pilate, clearly unimpressed that Jesus is any real threat, goes back outside to the Jews and proposes the release of Barabbas. Barabbas probably fought for a kind of false messianic hope for Israel, a purely political one. The contrast with Jesus could not be greater. This contrast is like the contrast we saw in the Garden, between Jesus and Judas, the good and the evil.


In the fourth part, Jesus is taken by Pilate’s command and humiliated by the soldiers, flogged and crowned with thorns. Unlike the synoptic Gospels, John focuses on the kingship of Jesus: the crown, the purple robe. John does not say that these were taken off Jesus after the soldiers were finished with him, leaving the reader with the impression that Jesus goes to calvary dressed in them to find his throne on the cross. What matters here for John is not the derision of the soldiers but the title, the King of the Jews. The passage emphasises the royal homage given to Jesus (albeit ironically) which is positioned between the outrage of the scourging and the outrage of the blows. Here we see again what was mentioned in the scene before Annas: the revelation of Jesus as King and the violent rejection by men. St. John uses irony: the soldiers were letting off steam, playing with Jesus, but the profound theological reality is the real meaning which the soldiers could not grasp. The eyes of faith perceive that Jesus is founding and establishing his kingship in his Passion, that he is revealing his divine sonship through obedience to the Father.


In the fifth part, Pilate brings Jesus out in his royal regalia, probably considering him to look so ridiculous as to imply that no-one could seriously think of him as a threat, never mind a king. “Ecce homo”, he says, as if to tell the Jews that they should stop making a fuss over such a simpleton. Pilate is being proud and contemptuous. But St. John has a different meaning to the “Ecce homo” phrase. He is referring to the incarnation, the God-man. He is also referring to the title Jesus used of himself, “Son of Man”; this title refers to the one in whom the revelation of God’s work of salvation is realized and who will share God’s power of judgment. So although Jesus is present to the Jews as one condemned, humiliated and suffering, yet in spite of everything, he is radiant with royal power and majesty and clothed with the power to judge, a power that will be seen later in the passion.


In the sixth part, Pilate goes back inside to talk with Jesus. Pilate was running scared because the Jews had now said Jesus had claimed to be a son of God. Pilate realises that the purely political plane had now been left behind. He is unsettled. He asks Jesus, “where are you from?” Something is eluding him. Saint John gives to Pilate’s question a much profounder meaning. Jesus has said in the Gospel that he comes from the Father and returns to him. Jesus does not answer Pilate at first, but when Pilate threatens him Jesus responds. “You would have no power over me if it had not been given you from above.” Jesus is not giving Pilate a theory as to the origin of political power. Jesus is saying that he himself is in this situation before Pilate by will of a higher power, the will of the Father. Pilate is the means to the end of the kind of death which the Father had pre-established to be for the Son.


The seventh and final part of this scene is the climax of the trial. Pilate not only does not condemn Jesus but proclaims him openly as King of Palestine: “Behold your king!” In fact, even if in irony and contempt, Pilate sits Jesus down on his own judgment seat, something emphasised by John in giving us the Greek and Hebrew names for it: the Pavement, Gabbatha. In other words, it is not Pilate who judges Jesus but Jesus who judges the Jews who refuse to believe in him. This is the summit of the whole Passion story for John: it was the solemn proclamation of the messianic kingship of Jesus who is also judge. In judging Jesus, men are in fact judging themselves. The Jews quickly respond to Pilate that Jesus should be crucified, and in so doing they pronounce sentence on themselves. John’s irony is complete: the opposite is happening of what seems to be happening.


This trial is cosmic. The Jews represent the world. The real antagonists are not Jesus and Pilate, but Jesus and the Jews in representation of the world. Jesus is presented as king of the Jews, but in reality it is the condemnation of the world that is taking place. On the symbolic level, what we see in this scene is the basic meaning of the crucifixion and Easter, the exaltation of the Messiah-King and the condemnation of the sinful world.


IV. The Passion now moves to its fourth principal scene which can simply be entitled, from Gabbatha to Golgotha. Golgotha is the carrying out of the meaning of what happened at Gabbatha. At the latter, Jesus sits on the judgment seat; at the former, he reigns from the Cross; at the latter, the judge is assisted by two legal experts; at the former, Jesus is flanked by two criminals; at the latter, Jesus was presented to the Jews with “Behold your king!”; at the former, it is written “Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews.” John provides the detail that Jesus “took his own Cross” which means he took it to himself as his own as something of great value. Thomas Aquinas said that he carried it as a king carried his sceptre.


John gives us five parts in this scene. First, the argument about the inscription on the Cross. It demonstrates the rival determination between Pilate and the Jews: Pilate was determined that Jesus was their King; they were determined to reject him. Pilate prevails. John makes a great deal of the various languages of the inscription and that it was near the city. His point is that the Cross is the final offer of salvation to all nations. The royal sovereignty of Jesus is definitively established and proclaimed on the Cross.


Second, there is the seamless robe, of which the synoptics say nothing. The seamless robe should be related to the net with the 153 fish, after the resurrection, which did not break. In the bible, the tearing of a garment was a sign of division among the people. In John, the theme of unity is very strong. He is emphasizing here that the worst thing that could happen is division among the people of Christ, the Church. Christ died to reunite the scattered children of God. The seamless robe is the one, true Church of Christ. It is, however, born from and focused on Christ crucified. The unity of the Church is at its birth, although its future was not to be one of seamless unity. At its birth there are Mary and John. The unity is symbolised in them.


Third, there is the spiritual motherhood of Mary. This is one of the high points of the Gospel of John. It is linked with the Wedding Feast of Cana and with the seamless robe scene. Jesus addresses his mother with the unusual word “woman” at both Cana and the Cross. At Cana, Jesus manifested his glory as the Messiah to his disciples, and that he is the Bridegroom of the Church. In doing this, he anticipated the full revelation of himself as the Messiah on the Cross. The new community of the people of God us united around Mary and the Cross. The last messianic action of Jesus before dying was to establish the spiritual motherhood of Mary, the unity of the new people of God. As the Woman, Mary now has the spiritual function of the Daughter of Zion, who welcomes all her children into her home. In Mary the Church begins. She is the original cell of the Church in her maternal role. Like Mary, the Church is holy, virgin and mother. In the real use of words, Mary cannot be both Mother of the Church and image of the Church, but symbolically she is. Similarly, John is son of the Mother and an image of all Christ’s disciples. He personifies the perfect disciple, the faithful follower of Jesus.


Fourth there is the thirst and death of Jesus. His thirst is for our salvation, his desire for the coming of the Holy Spirit, as if a prelude to his actual death when he “gives up the Spirit.” The mission of Jesus was complete in the Mary and John scene, so now Jesus is on the threshold of death, his death being the means by which he breathes forth the Spirit. The age of the Holy Spirit is what Jesus thirsts for, whose work carries on and deepens Christ’s own mission.


Fifth, we have the blood and the water. By this scene, John gives us an interpretation of the death of Christ. The legs of Jesus were not broken exactly as those of the lambs slain for the Passover were not broken. In other words, Jesus is the true paschal lamb of the New Covenant. The pierced side releases the blood and water which symbolize the fruits of Christ’s earthly life and his passion. The last drop of blood signifies the end, the fullness of Christ’s self-giving love to the Father and to us. “It is consummated”: this is Christ’s cry of victory as the messianic king on the throne of the Cross. The water is the symbol of the Spirit he breathed forth in his act of dying. So the mention of the blood looks backwards to the life of Jesus and its fulfilment in death, whilst the mention of the water looks forward to the life of the Church of those purified by the Spirit in baptism and given through faith the gift of eternal life.


The mingled blood and water speak to the truth that the Spirit and Christ work together. They are not separate, and even less opposed, agents of our salvation. The Spirit impels us to unite ourselves to the blood of Jesus and so to live out in our way what that blood symbolizes, namely, the obedience of the sons and daughters of God to their heavenly Father, his interior oblation of himself, his saving love for the brethren.


V. And finally, there is the fifth scene or epilogue. It echoes the first. Just as the first was in a garden, so is the last. There is already a hint of Easter in this scene. Two things are striking. First, the explicit mention of the Preparation of the Passover. Second, the incredible quantity of ointments and spices brought for the embalming. This suggests how the royalty were buried, a suggestion of splendour. Buried with royal pomp is the sign of Christ’s victory. Right up to his burial, John prolongs the theme of the kingship of Jesus which dominates the whole story of the Passion. The mention of Preparation for the feast, is not just the Jewish Passover, but the day of Resurrection. The perfume of the ointments is John’s way of expressing the glory of Jesus.


The drama of the Passion according to Saint John is still playing itself out today. Jesus is still the Revealer of the Father and the One in whom salvation is to be found. Men must take a stance towards him, since human existence only has any meaning in relation to him. Either you believe in him, and so live in union with him and as his disciple; or you reject him, either openly or by indifference. To refuse to believe in him is to participate in the drama of those who judged him and crucified him, that is, it is to judge and crucify yourself. And yet his Cross still stands at the crossway of the highways into and out of Jerusalem. He still hangs there, crowned with thorns and reigning from the tree. Who he is, is still written in every language of the world above his sacred head. And any man, of whatever condition, can still go to him there beside Mary and John and find faith and salvation by looking upon the one they have pierced, and weep for him as for an only son. Even those who judge him in the thrall and thrill of human life can, at the last, still look towards his Cross and be saved. Ecce homo! Behold the man! Behold your Salvation! Behold your God!