The trial of Christ and the trial of the Church

In Passiontide, which embraces the two weeks leading up to Easter, the Church in mourning contemplates the sorrowful events that marked the last year of the life of the Redeemer of the world (Passion Week) and the last week of His mortal life (Holy Week).

With the approach of Good Friday, the Church’s voice trembles with sorrow, and soon she will utter her inconsolable laments for the death of her divine Bridegroom. “The sky of Holy Church grows ever darker,” writes Dom Guéranger. The divine Redeemer, made man for love of man, is about to atone for human sin by taking the place of His guilty brothers. He clothes himself with our sins, the Prophet says, as with a garment, and becomes sin for us in order to bear it in His flesh upon the Cross and destroy it with his death (cf. 1 Pt 2:24). 

In the Garden of Olives all the sins committed by guilty humanity, from the dawning of the world until the consummation of the ages, flow like slimy waves into the most pure soul of the Saviour of the world, which thus becomes “the receptacle of all human vileness, the sink of creation” (Mgr Gay). So the Father must treat Him as accursed, since it is written, “Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree” (Gal 3:13). For our salvation it was truly necessary for Jesus to hang on the wood of the Cross, so that life should be given to us by the wood that had brought us death, and that he who had triumphed in a tree, by a tree should in turn be defeated (Preface of the Cross).

The Sacred Liturgy notes that, “since our ancestors had been deceived by Satan, a divine stratagem was needed to foil the serpent’s artifice.” St Bernard explains this by saying that, “since Jesus had only the appearance of sin, it was precisely this appearance that masked the trap into which Satan fell.” And St Augustine, “By a just permission of God, Lucifer lost the right of death that he had over sinners the day in which he was reckless enough to use it against the Righteous.” An unprecedented and unparalleled struggle takes place between the prince of death and the God of life, but “by immolating himself, Christ triumphs”, and — in the greatest of divine paradoxes — in dying He gives us life.

On Palm Sunday, He advances like a conqueror, surrounded by honours from the crowd that acclaims, “Hosanna to the Son of David, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, the King of Israel.” But after this brief and fleeting glory, the Son of man is subjected to a disgraceful sham trial. Condemned to the worst of tortures, meant not only to kill Him but also to erase His memory, He ascends the Cross, a precious throne which His Blood “adorns with royal purple”.

David’s oracle was fulfilled: “God has reigned from the wood”, which from an object of ignominy has become the banner of the king and our only hope in this Passiontide. “Let us prostrate ourselves before the Cross, since it is through it that joy has come to the whole world” (Liturgy). And to demonstrate that it is only from this salvific perspective that the Church looks upon and adores the Holy Cross, Christian artists of the past changed the crown of thorns into a heraldic and royal crown.

The Sacred Liturgy, overturning — with its language and symbols — our human understanding, does nothing but reflect the wise and mysterious plan of God, inexorably realised in its fullness despite of the guile of men and the most insurmountable obstacles they pose. Indeed, in triumphing over human baseness, it shines more gloriously, since God, in His providence, calculates in advance the minutest obstacle that men can put in the way of His divine plans.

This is why the psalmist sings, “The kings of the earth stood up, and the princes met together, against the Lord and against his Christ… He that dwelleth in heaven shall laugh at them: and the Lord shall deride them” (Psalm 2:2,4). God not only mocks cunning human tactics and perverse reasoning, but He overturns them with sovereign wisdom, making them serve His inscrutable purposes. And in fact, during the Saviour’s life, while the scribes and Pharisees had tried to destroy Him and cover Him with ignominy, they did not understand that, with the ignominy with which they wanted to cover Him, they were preparing His greatest triumph.

The Saviour of the world was condemned by the Jews through petty political opportunism towards the Roman authority, but — never as then — they made Pilate, who represented that authority, a miserable laughing stock in their hands. And he, who in cowardice claimed to wash his hands of that infamous trial, has been remembered by all Christians for 2,000 years, every time the Creed is recited. The Jews pretended to condemn Jesus in defence of their nation, and solemnly proclaimed that they had no other king but Caesar. 

They “pretended to fear popular sedition, and resorted to it when they wanted the people to condemn Jesus to death on the Cross. They pretended to condemn Jesus out of love for the truth, and resorted to false testimonies; they pretended to kill Him for the love of the Law, and violated the Law” (D Ruotolo). The result of a sham trial, Calvary also presented itself as a deception. “The Redeemer appeared to you as a man, and He was God; He appeared to you as a criminal, and He was holiness itself; He appeared to you as cursed, and He was the blessing of the human race” (ibid).

More precisely, He — by becoming a curse for us — hung the decree of our condemnation on the Cross. It was under this appearance of falsehood that man obtained blessing and salvation. The Redeemer was covered in blood, and his Mother was at his feet to present Him, thus disfigured, to the Father. “That blood seemed like the horror of pain, and it was love; those thorns seemed like opprobrium, and they were a royal crown; those nails seemed like the bloody shackling of freedom, and they were the definitive enfranchisement from slavery … Everything was, if you’ll pardon the expression, a divine deception, because in this divine fiction the blessing fell on the King of love for us, and Mary Immaculate was the Mother of blessed regenerated humanity” (ibid).

Passiontide is not a simple historical memory of these events relating to the person of Jesus; it is a reality for the entire Mystical Body. The drama of Golgotha extends to the whole Church, which, with Christ as its head, relives the Passion of its Lord. The shameful trial of our Lord Jesus has not ended. Pascal rightly said that Jesus is in agony until the end of the world.

But, in reality, all the mysteries of the Lord’s life continue and will continue in his Church until the consummation of the ages. Including His trial. Now as then we witness the defection of the apostles, the betrayal of Peter, the lies created to destroy His Body and, if it were possible, erase it from the world’s memory. Jesus’ trial was a farce and a deception, but a “divine deception”, because it did not escape the order of things as willed by God.

As with all the details of His life, no detail of the Passion of the Redeemer escaped the divine economy of His mysterious providence. The same happens for His Church. If, in its human component, it is captive to the world and its sirens, if the modernist Sanhedrin sells it for thirty denarii, if Peter betrays it and the apostles run away in fear from a shameful and infamous worldly trial, there still remains a little flock around the Most Holy Virgin who, at the foot of the Cross, petrified with pain, contemplates, now as then, the death of her Son and the salvation of the world.