Sunday Bloody Sunday

Author’s Note: When I applied to write for Young Adult Catholics, my writing sample was a version of the piece below, originally a post on my private blog for Palm Sunday 2010. To some extent it is specific to last year’s lectionary cycle, but I talk about Holy Week tensions between Christians and Jews that seem perpetual. “The past is never dead,” William Faulkner wrote. “It’s not even past.” With that, off I go.

At Palm Sunday Mass yesterday, I was one of the lectors for Luke’s Passion narrative. This is the time of year when the priest doesn’t do the Gospel alone. I was the “Narrator.”

I had prepared with a guide*. It splices passages, emphasizes words. “They blindfolded and questioned him, saying, ‘Prophesy!’” It gives helpful hints for pronunciation. “Sanhedrin” = san-HEE-druhn. It tells me what emotions to convey. “Speak with a hostile tone here, as if through clenched teeth.”

This year, the book also told me Pontius Pilate was a nice guy.

Seriously, the ham-fisted procurator of Judea came off as comparatively awesome, about the same as poor, cowardly Peter. I didn’t have Pilate’s parts–those went to the “Voice.” But the book held me partly responsible for setting up situations like these:

Pilate comes across as sympathetic. His interest in Jesus grows steadily.

Pilate makes his best effort, arguing logically and convincingly.

Barabbas offers a glimmer of hope. Read as if you’re hoping Pilate might persuade them [to condemn Barabbas].

Pilate becomes more emotional now.

[Jesus’ execution] is a very reluctant decision.

To an extent, the lector’s guide was simply channeling Luke. Compared to the Sandhedrin and the Pharisees, Pontius Pilate is relatively neutral, even respectable in the Gospels, to the point that some Christians later revered him as a saint.

When Mark, the earliest Gospel, was written around 70 C.E., there was increasing conflict between “regular” Jews and Jews who followed Jesus. The conflict had climaxed by the completion of John (c. 110 C.E.). You see it in the portraits of Pilate.

Mark’s Pilate, while mostly exonerated (“wishing to satisfy the crowd,” 15:15), is also the most true to life, a blunt bureaucrat with little time for dithering even when blood is involved. By the time of John (twenty years after the synagogues formally expelled Christians), Pilate and Jesus are almost partners, engaging in cosmic and philosophical repartee (“My kingdom does not belong to this world,” 18:36; “What is truth?”, 18:38). John’s Pilate doesn’t wash his hands, and doesn’t need to; Jesus washes him verbally (“the one who handed me over to you has the greater sin,” 19:11).

Luke, written around 85 and featuring an anguished Pilate, is in the middle chronologically and otherwise.

But, while the writers had a lovers’ quarrel with Judaism, today we know the Romans were the ultimate villains. Jesus was executed by the state, so he had to tick off somebody with the power to throw the switch: the procurator.

Jesus preached anti-Roman values: the least is the greatest, turn the other cheek, lose the world but gain your soul. This drew crowds, and it was Pilate’s job to notice crowds. He probably watched Jesus for a while. He may have acted without provocation.

I say it again: we know better. This is important, especially in the context of publicly proclaiming the Passion. For it was not long ago, even into the last century, that Holy Week consistently offered Passion Plays.

In old Europe, these performances often riled up their audiences with self-righteous Gentile fury. Audience members regularly marched into ghettoes, shouting and throwing rocks at the “Christ-killers.” It bolstered an attitude that Hitler capitalized on. We haven’t lived it down yet.

Which is why, in the twenty-first century, going out of our way to emphasize Pilate-as-Hamlet at one of the biggest liturgies of the year should be a no-no, even if it’s what Luke seems to have wanted. I am a little piqued that my lector’s guide failed this test—and didn’t get caught.


* Graziano Marcheschi and Nancy Seitz, Workbook for Lectors, Gospel Readers, and Proclaimers of the Word 2010: United States Edition RNAB, Year C (Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 2009).


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