Friday, 10 April 2009

The Choice (An Easter Story)

Ecce Homo. (Behold, the man.) Painting by Antonio Ciseri (1821-1891).

THE most frightening scene in the Bible isn’t to be found in the Book of Revelations, but in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. It’s the scene where Pontius Pilate asks the people of Jerusalem to choose between Barabas and Jesus.

The gospel writers paint a vivid picture.

There, on the balcony of the Governor’s palace stands Pontius Pilate. In the open space below a vast crowd seethes and churns, their faces uplifted: hungry, expectant.

Pilate holds up his hand. The Roman legionaries lining the palace courtyard snap to attention, spear truncheons slamming against shields with a deafening crash. The crowd falls silent, standing there motionless in the sweltering mid-day heat, waiting for the Governor to speak.

Pilate motions to the Centurion guarding the prisoner, Jesus. The man pushes the preacher forward. A low murmur sweeps through the crowd as he steps into view.

"I have spoken at length to this man", says Pilate, "and can find no fault in him. He has certainly done nothing to merit a death sentence. He will be flogged and released."

This is not what the servants of the Sanhedrin, Israel’s religious high court, want to hear. Jesus has challenged its authority. His teachings leave little place for the strict hierarchy and expensive religious observances which have for centuries underpinned its social and economic power. Pilate’s job is to kill the man – not set him free.

Their leader begins chanting: "Crucify him! Crucify him!" Scattered through the crowd, his men take up the chant. "Crucify him! Crucify him!"

Pilate is momentarily distracted. A servant passes him a message from his wife.

"Don’t have anything to do with the holy man Jesus. He has appeared in my dreams – such terrible dreams. My husband, I am frightened. Don’t get involved."

Like all Romans, Pilate is deeply superstitious. He turns towards Jesus and their eyes meet. There is understanding in the preacher’s eyes, and compassion. Is that the hint of a smile upon his cracked and swollen lips? Pilate looks away.

"Think man, think!" he upbraids himself. "There must be some way out of this."

The Passover Pardon! The Roman Governor smiles. It has become the practice of Rome’s chief representative in Judea to every year release one condemned local prisoner to honour the Jewish people’s most sacred feast. He had planned to release Barabas, one of the band of religious terrorists known as Zealots. But these sectarian fanatics kill as many Jews as they do Romans. If he asks the crowd to choose between Barabas and Jesus, surely they’ll choose Jesus? Pilate motions for the prisoner Barabas to be brought forward.

"Which of the two do you want me to release to you?", he shouts above the ragged chanting of the Sanhedrin’s agents. "Jesus or Barabas?"

What Pilate does not know is that amongst the crowd are scattered not only agents of the Sanhedrin, but Zealots. They have heard a whisper that Barabas may be offered for release, and they have gathered to make sure it happens.

The chant goes up: "Barabas! Barabas!"

Pilate is stunned. "But this man Jesus has done nothing wrong!"

"Crucify him! Crucify him!", shout the men from the Sanhedrin.

The Zealots pick up the chant. "Crucify him! Crucify him!"

Momentarily forgetting who and where he is, Pilate berates the crowd. "A week ago you were calling this vagabond your king! Would you crucify your king!"

The leader of the Sanhedrin’s men seizes his chance: "We have no king but Caesar!"

Pilate recoils as if struck. "What am I doing? Haggling with a mob. As good as recognising the Gallilean’s claims! If this gets back to Rome I’ll be finished!"

He calls for a servant to bring him a bowl of water.

Once again he lifts up his hand for silence.

"This man’s blood will not be on my hands!", he cries, ostentatiously washing them before the crowd. "You want Barabas? – then have him and be damned! But remember, the choice was yours."

He turns towards the preacher, the water still dripping from his hands.

"Is this the kingdom you would rule, Jesus of Nazareth?" he whispers. "Is that the love that sets men free?"

The preacher says nothing, but his gaze shifts from the Governor’s tormented eyes to the drops of water falling around his feet.

And they are crimson.


c novak said...

Thank you Chris for bringing a fresh take on this timeless tale, enjoyed reading it in my local paper.

Joe Hendren said...

When you wrote this were you thinking of Jesus or Brian :)

branko said...

Can you tell me who has paint this picture above? I'am searshing for years. Thanks!

Chris Trotter said...

Branko, the painting is by the 19th Century Italian painter, ANTONIO CISERI (1821-1891). The painting, by far his most famous work, is called "Ecce Homo" - Latin for "Behold, the man."

branko said...

thanks a lot