Tag Archives: Rowan Williams

What is Truth?

The Gospel reading for today, St. John’s Passion narrative (John 18:1-19:42) can be found here.

 Within St. John’s Gospel, the trial of Jesus looks a little like the Tower of Babel.  Jesus and Pilate really aren’t speaking the same language, leaving Pilate with the haunting question, “What is truth?”  While Pilate doesn’t know it, he’s about to hang the Truth up on a tree, like a scarecrow.  Rather than seeking understanding, Pilate’s question actually constitutes a desperate sort of evasion.  As Archbishop Rowan Williams has observed, “We constantly try to start from somewhere other than where we are.”  Whatever Pilate wanted to know, it didn’t have much to do with the Truth.

Within this trial, Jesus tells Pilate, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”  This passage echoes with Jesus’ earlier claim:  “My sheep hear my voice.  I know them, and they follow me.  I give them eternal life, and they will never perish.”  John 10:27-28.  Good Friday, then, operates not so much as a historical marker as a beacon in the darkness, calling out for us to remember, to belong to the truth and listen to Christ’s voice.

The crowd then makes a monstrous barter, condemning Jesus and allowing Barabbas to go free.  I sometimes wonder what Barabbas did with the balance of his life, how he spent his remaining years.  Did this “bandit” come to comprehend what had happened?  I also wonder whether we, like Barabbas, understand that Jesus’ death means that we can live, and will never perish?

Pilate then has Jesus whipped, and Jesus returns before the crowd in a purple robe and a crown of thorns.  While Caesar wore a laurel wreath, we wince at the idea of this twisted symbol of Jesus’ kingdom.  After a Roman scourging, Pilate mocks Jesus and the crowd, telling them “Here is the man!”  (Ecce homo!).  The suggestion that this broken, frail, bloody person could be a king was laughable.  The soldiers mocked Christ by calling him “The King of the Jews.”  As usual, John places words of deep truth within the mouths of those who don’t understand what they’re saying.

The trial results in Jesus’ inevitable condemnation, and He carries his own cross to the Place of the Skull (Golgotha).  Even in this final hour, the world mocks Jesus under a sign bitterly describing Him as the King of the Jews. Jesus says “I am thirsty” and is given a sponge soaked in sour wine.  Here,we encounter St. John at his most ironic, at his most paradoxical understanding.  In this moment of shame, unbearable pain, and within this passion, God reveals His glory.  When Jesus spoke of being glorified, somehow, this is the moment He meant.

Jesus tells his mother that the beloved disciple is now her son; he tells His beloved follower that Mary is now his mother.  Just as He had done in life, in death, Jesus re-defines the nature of “family”.  Squarely confronting His own mortality, Jesus establishes a new notion of kinship (into which we all are adopted).

Finally, after a day filled with countless agonies, Jesus announces “It is finished.”  Through the life and death of Jesus, God’s glory has been fully made clear.  Somehow, this broken, pathetic figure wearing a crown of nettles manifests “glory.”  Nailed to the cross, we find glory in the intersection of divinity and humanity, the intersection of light and darkness, the intersection of life and death.

God has shown us the final consequences of our brokenness  and of our hatred.  Through it all, He has managed to reveal divine love despite everything we could do to avoid it.  His capacity to love and forgive always infinitely surpasses our capacity to wound, our capacity to destroy, and our capacity to distance ourselves from the Living God.

Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a poor sinner,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Advent (Learning to Wait)

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
        so that the mountains would quake at your presence–
as when fire kindles brushwood
        and the fire causes water to boil–
to make your name known to your adversaries,
        so that the nations might tremble at your presence!
When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect,
you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.
Is. 64: 1-3.

In our world today, most of us have concluded that the problem with instant gratification is….it takes too long.  We aren’t accustomed to waiting:  for the economy to recover, for our children to figure out how to behave, for a new car, or for God to fix things.  The Psalm for today reflects exactly that kind of impatience.  The reading perfectly explores our Advent expectations, as we ask God, “Where, exactly, have you been?  Have you even noticed what’s going on down here?”

Many of the Advent readings address exactly this deep longing within the Jewish people, as they waited for someone to lead them out of slavery in Egypt, as they bore the shame of the Exile, and as they waited for God to redeem this world that just wasn’t working.  They had waited for thousands and thousands of years and they knew that something had to change.

The season of Advent centers on precisely this deep, overwhelming conviction that something must change, and only God can make a difference in this situation. This notion leads us to the second Advent impulse:  our need to prepare ourselves for this coming change.  Thus, we sometimes refer to Advent as “the little Lent.”

We listen to John the Baptist calling us to “make straight the path of the Lord.”  John warns us that we aren’t ready for God’s arrival into our lives, that we cannot begin to understand the radical difference Jesus will make in the world.  The Baptist cautioned the first century Palestinians that only repentance would prepare them for the cataclysmic difference that Jesus would make.  Only that repentance would prepare them for the truth of Christ.  He is still warning us of that today.

Rowan Williams once said, “During Advent, we try to get ourselves a bit more  used to the truth – the truth about ourselves, which is not always very  encouraging, but the truth about God above all which is always  encouraging. The One who comes will come with a great challenge. It will  be like fire on the earth as the Bible says. And yet the One who comes  is coming in love. He’s coming to set us free. And that’s something well  worth waiting for.”

I wish you a very holy season of Advent.  Shabbat shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2011 James R. Dennis