In Jerusalem Christ's mood was differentsterner and sadder; at times almost bitter. Every evangelist must believe in his heart that if only he tries hard enough to deliver his message people will pay heed. Surely, what seems so clear to him will be clear to others! The hungry sheep look up, and he longs to feed them. Then he realises that even when they do follow, it is usually for the wrong reasons They will, as readily, follow any other shepherd who comes along, true or false. Christ did not know, when he lived on earth, but could easily have guessed, that before he had been long dead men would be killing other men in his name, and setting golden crowns on the heads of popes and kings to his greater glory.
What, I have occasionally asked myself, would the man whose fortunes we have been following have made of the Vatican or Lambeth Palace or the House of Lords? Christ was the Good Shepherd; he was listened to, certainly, but Tiberias, Capernaum, Caesarea, Jerusalem itself, went on their way regardless. In earthly terms, his mission was a failure; now he had to fulfil it in God's waywhich led to the cross.
I see Christ on the Mount of Olives, looking across at Jerusalem, deeply stirred as any Jew must be, because of its tremendous place in Jewish life and history. The city was very different then, of course, with the huge magnificent temple dwarfing everything else, and the towers of Herod's palace rising into the sky. Different, and yet the same; then, as now, a place of violence, of furious passions and bigotries. Roman soldiers patrolled the uneasy streets as Israeli ones do today; strictly orthodox rabbis, or Pharisees, scornfully eyed their laxer fellow-Jews, stonily averting their gaze from the Gentiles in
their midst, precisely as I've seen them doing on their way to the Wailing Wall all that remains of their once splendid temple, where they ceremonially bemoan its passing, as well as all the transitoriness and unsatisfactoriness of human life. Strange, majestic, bearded men, to me rather appealing, who resolutely refuse to accommodate themselves to the twentieth century which their more pliable countrymen have brought to their ancient city.
What could Christ do about Jerusalemexcept die there? In his eyes, the city was as surely moving towards destruction as the Gardarene swine when he sent evil spirits into themits fine buildings, its crowded streets, its synagogues, the temple itself, all doomed to destruction. So, like the Hebrew prophets of old, Christ foresaw the wrath to come, which duly came army after army sweeping in, the latest a Jewish one; the temple razed to the ground, to provide a site for other temples dedicated to other Gods than Jehovahnow a mosque; Jerusalem destroyed, to rise again and be destroyed again.
It was as though here was the world's soul, where all its bitterest conflicts and most searching dilemmas must be worked out; whence would come also its truest understanding and sweetest hopes. Looking over at Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives and thinking of all thisof the suffering and privations involved, of the narrow path God has set to salvation, Christ wept.
It was in such a mood that Christ drove the money-changers out of the temple. We all know the feelingthe blind rage that human beings should sully every place and everything with their hateful little cupidities. I confess that I have felt it in the Holy Land at the relentless exploitation of shrines and relics and credulities for gain. If I'd had the nerve I might well have hurled a stock of crowns of thorns at the head of their vendor! The next day, we may be sure, the money-changers were back in their places plying their trade as zealously as ever. They are at it stillin banks and stock-exchanges, in casinos and bingohalls, wherever the money-game is playedthat's everywhere.
Christ liked to walk out from Jerusalem in the evening to nearby Bethany rather than stay in the city, where he was always in danger, and whereas I like to thinkhe felt choked and oppressed by the dust and restlessness of the streets. In Bethany there were two sisters, Mary and Martha, and their brother Lazarus whom, when he was thought to be dead, Christ had called forth from the tomb itself. One gets from the Gospels a delightful picture of this household where Christ was always welcome. The sisters were quite different in temperamentMary thoughtful and imaginative, Martha practical and energetic. On one occasion, when Mary was seated at Christ's feet and listening to him with rapture, Martha, cumbered about much serving, humanly grew irritated. I see her in her working clothes, sleeves turned up, face flushed from the fire where she was preparing with loving care a supper she knew her guest particularly liked.
Lord, she expostulated, cost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? Bid her therefore that she help me.
Christ's answer was perfect: Martha, Martha, thou art careful and trouloled aoout many things; but one thing is needful; and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her. It was Mary who subsequently poured a whole pound of very costly spikenard ointment over Christ's feet, and wiped them with her hair, earning a rebuke from, of course, Judas, who spoke on behalf of all charitable prigs at all times when he complained that the money spent on the ointment should have been given to the poor. In Christ's reply one may detect again that note of asuingent irony I like so muchLet her alone: against the day of my burying hath she kept this. For the poor always ye have with you; but me ye have not always. It is all perfectly described, and bears upon it every mark of truth.
Christ and his disciples celebrated the Passover together in the traditional way. Now he knew that his hour was drawing near, and insisted on washing the others' feet, showing them once more that every act of true humility is a sort of grace whereby the soul grows as the will, or ego, diminishes. Whosoever would be great in this world, he was always telling them is small; and whoever, through his sense of God's greatness, realises his own smallness, becomes spiritually great.
As things turned out, it was to be their last Passover; it was alsothough, of course, they didn't know itthe first Communion service. For the first time those mysterious words were spoken:
Take, eat; this is my body.... this is my blood of the new
testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins...
Words to be endlessly repeated, in every language, to the accompaniment of every variety of ritual, or in stark simplicity. At this original austere Last Supper, Christ showed how through the Blessed Sacramentthe bread he broke and the wine he sipped with his disciples he would remain always within our reach.
Thus the Christian religion was born here in Jerusalem two thousand years ago. It has brought to the world, as Christ said it would, not peace but a sword. Jerusalem itself remains a place of strife and fratricidal conflict, and Christianity's ostensible devotees remain divided and flounder, tragically and often absurdly, in their rivalries and uncertainties. In the world, Christ said to his disciples, ye shall have tribulation. A generation like ours, which has seen the two most destructive and cruel wars of history, and all that followed from them, will not be inclined to question thc inevitability of tribulation.
Christ, however, did not stop there. But be of good cheer, he went on, I have overcome the world. So he had, not as earthly conquerors do, by force of arms or fraudulent promises; rather, by seeing through the world, and the evanescence of its hopes and desires, and the utopian dreams which embody them. He showed us how to escape from the little dark cell our egos make, so that we may see and hear and understand, whereas before we had been blind and deaf and dumb.
It was at the Last Supper that Christ indicated his awareness that one of his disciples would betray him. He even pointed to Judas as being that disciple; Judas knew that Christ knew, and yet he could no more draw back than Macbeth could from murdering Duncan or Vronsky from seducing Anna. Mystics and great artists knowwhat is often hidden from other menthat our free will is shaped by our passions into an inescapable destiny. Prometheus is both bound and free.
At the Last Supper, too, Christ told Peter that that very night, before the cock crew, he would deny him thrice. Never! said Peter indignantly; never, never, never! Alas, poor Peter! He was, of course, subsequently forgiven, to become, as many Christians have believed, the rock on which Christ's Church would be built, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
Christ now went with three of his disciples to the Garden of Gethsemane, below the Mount of Olives. His soul, he said, was exceeding sorrowful, even unto death, and he wanted to be alone and to pray. So he left the disciples to sit and wait for him, and withdrew by himself. The earth's shapes and sounds and colours and living creatures, we should remember, were not less dear to Christ because of his divine destiny than they are to us; rather more so, if anything. To leave them behind, to die, so early in his earthly life, was still a deprivation even though his death was to put an end for ever to dying in the old pagan sense of finality.
We cry when we leave our homes to venture out into a world we long to explore. So Christ was sorrowful that the time had come when he must leave loving friends and disciples, the road to Bethany in the deepening dusk, the Lake of Galilee and the fishing boats coming in with their catchesall the familiar scenes and dear companionship he had known on earth. O, my Father, he prayed, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt, reflecting, as he must have done, how easy it would be for him to slip away by himself, back to Galilee, and a happy private life there like other men, with a wife, children and all the other mitigations of the loneliness and mystery of our human fate. How easy, and how impossible!
He found the disciples asleep, and rebuked them rather irritably: What, could ye not watch with me one hour? Then he again went off by himself to continue with his prayers, returning to find them once more asleep. This time he let them be. What did it matter now? Soon the Garden of Gethsemane resounded with the noise of a mob armed with swords and staves (a few days before it had been palm leaves) who were looking for him. Judas, to earn his thirty pieces of silver, proceeded to identify him with a kiss and a Hail, Master!and Christ was apprehended. Someone drew a sword in his defence, but Christ quickly told whoever it was to put up his sword, for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword. Thereupon, we are told, all the disciples forsook him and fled. He was alone.
Now began for Christ the farce of the judicial proceedings against him, intended to give his execution a show of legality. There is, of course, no such thing as earthly justice, and cannot ever be; only the will of the strong over thc weak, dressed up with more or less propriety according to the antiquity of the procedure. Judges have to wear wigs and robesas Pascal pointed outto hide the inadequacy of the justice they dispense, which would otherwise be all too apparent. Christ maintained a contemptuous silence while witnesses of sorts were being cross-examined at the house of Caiaphas, the High Priest, where he had been taken. It was only when Caiaphas asked him pointblank if he was the Christ, the Son of God, that he deigned to reply, and then only to say: Thou hast said.
It was enough. Blasphemy! Caiaphas shouted. There was no need to hear any more witnesses, he went on, and asked those standing by what they thought. He is guilty of death, they obediently answered, and proceeded to mock and insult Christ, and knock him about, in a style that has become all too familiar in the various utopias of our time.
That same morning Judas tried to return his thirty pieces of silver to the priests and elders who had given him them, but they would not receive the money back. So he threw the coins on the temple floor and went and hanged himself; a man, it seemed, on whom all the darkness in the universe had settled. Was he, too, forgiven at lasta beneficiary from the death he helped to bring about? Surely Christ died even for Judas.
The High Priest and the elders were not entitled to impose the death sentence; so they took Christ, bound, to Pontius Pilate, who was.
What was the cause of their relentless hostility to Christ? Neither his messianic claims, nor his occasional Jewish unorthodoxies, it seems to me, account for the bitter resentment he aroused in them. There were others at that time in Judea who claimed to be Messiahs, and for the most part Christ conducted himself like a strict and pious Jew.
No, as I see it, Christ's real crime was simply that he spoke the truth, which is intolerable to all forms of authoritybut especially ecclesiastical. Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free, Christ said. In the eyes of Caiaphas and his associates, as later in the eyes of Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor, Christ had to die because the truth he spoke and the freedom he offered undermined the authority other men claimed and exercised.
When Pilateto me the embodiment of every colonial "over. nor that ever was, so that I see him in a grey frock-coat and topperasked Christ whether he was King of the Jews, he replied: To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Pilate, no fool, was impressed. What is truth? he muttered, and went out to Caiaphas's men to tell them that he found no fault in Christ, and to suggest that he should be released on the occasion of the Passover. No ! they shouted, No Give us Barabbas !a Jewish partisan who was also due to be crucified. Pilate shrugged and gave way; it didn't matter much to him either way. How surprised he would have been to know that this obscure affair would keep his memory alive centuries after the Roman Empire he served had ceased to exist.
Now the Roman soldiers, bored with the whole affair, indulged in a sick joke. They stripped Christ and put a scarlet robe on him; then crowned him with a crown of thorns, affecting to pay him homage: Hail, King of the Jews! As so often happens with sick jokes, theirs rebounded on their own heads. Had they but known it, in making fun of this King of the Jews, they were mocking, not Christ, but their own caesar, and every caesar, king or ruler that ever had been or was to be. They were making power itself derisory for ever. Thenceforth, for all who had eyes to see, thorns sprouted underneath every golden crown, and underneath every scarlet or purple robe there was stricken flesh.
There followed the Crucifixion. Christ humped his cross along the Via Dolorosa (if that was indeed the way he took to Golgotha) until he was too weak to continue, when another took it for him. Three crosses were set up, with Christ's in the middle and a thief on either side, and the long agony began. The crowd of spectators, I imagine, consisted, as such crowds usually do, of the curious, the morbid and some casual passersby. In this particular case, there were doubtless a few of Caiaphas's men to keep the jeering going and some Roman soldiers. A group of women, we are told, stood on the outskirts his mother, Mary Magdalene and others from Bethany and Galilee. At one point he was given vinegar to drink; just before he died he was heard to cry out in a loud voice: My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?
Thus ostensibly it all ended in defeat and despair. 'Well, that's all over,' Caiaphas and his friends must have thought. How wrong they were! It was only beginning. Not defeat, but a fabulous new hope, had been born; not despair, but an unexampled joy, had come into the world. Christ died on the cross as a man who had tried to show his fellow-men what life was about; he rose from the dead to be available for ever as an intermediary between man and God.
How, rose from the dead ? After his death on the cross, we are told, he was seen by the disciples and others on numerous occasions; the stone in front of the tomb where he was laid was found to have been removed, and the tomb to be empty. These are matters of legitimate historical investigation; what is not open to question is that today, two thousand years later, Christ is alive. The words he spoke are living words, as relevant now as when they were first spoken.
Shortly after Christ's death on the cross, two men were walking along the road to Emmaus, a village some seven or eight miles distant from Jerusalem. One of them, Cleopas, may have been connected by marriage with Christ's family. As they walked along they naturally talked about the Crucifixion and its aftermath; so absorbed in their talk that they scarcely noticed when a third man drew alongside and walked with them. He broke in to ask them what they were talking about so earnestly, while looking so sad.
Obviously, Cleopas said, he must be a stranger if he hadn't heard of the recent happenings in Jerusalem. Then they told him how Christ had been crucified (although they, Cleopas and his companion, had trusted that it had been he which should have redeemed Israel), and how certain women of their company had gone to the tomb where he had been laid, and found it empty, seeing at the same time a vision of angels who said that he was alive.
Thereupon the stranger went through the scriptures with them, showing that everything that had happened had been foretold. By this time they had reached the house in Emmaus they were making for, and the stranger would have gone on alone, but the others pressed him to stay with them for it is toward evening, and the day is far spent. He accepted their invitation. When they sat down to seat, and he broke bread and blessed it, they recognised him at last. He was no stranger, but their Saviour. Then he disappeared. Cleopas and his companion could not even wait to finish their meal, but hurried back full of joy and hope to Jerusalem, along the road they had so lately travelled, to tell the others of their marvellous experience. On every walk, Christ came to tell us, whether to Emmaus or Wimbledon or Timbuktu, there is the same stranger waiting to accompany us along our way, if we want him.
The rest of the story of Christ belongs to history. Terrible things have been done in his name; the doctrine of unworldliness which he preached has been twisted to serve worldly purposes; the cross on which he died, besides inspiring some of the noblest lives which have ever been lived, and some of the noblest thoughts and creations of man, has also served as a cloak for some of the basest; his gospel of love has been enforced with the rack and the whip, and driven home with the sword.
Let others better qualified than I work out, if they can, the gain and the loss, in human terms. Here, where he was born, lived and died, we may remember how miraculously, none the less, his light continues to shine in the dark jungle of the human will, as Ia true child of these troubled times, with a sceptical mind and a sensual disposition, most diffidently, unworthily, but with the utmost certaintytestify.
The Commentary of three television programmes. B.B.C.2 10, 11 and 12 March 1968
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