The ancient world had no better expression of power than the Roman Empire. The Romans had the best schools and the most learned teachers. Their armies marched all over the known world at the time, subduing every foe. Roman engineering feats – bridges, great buildings, and the like – were the envy of all those seeking a permanent reminder of achievement. All these expressions testified to Rome’s power, but perhaps nothing epitomized it better than Roman law.
Long after Roman schools had passed out of existence, long after Roman armies stopped conquering enemies, and long after their buildings had been reduced to rubble, the power of Rome was still being felt through the law. That was due to the Roman rejection of caprice when it came to untangling disputed claims by parties in conflict. Even Saint Paul sought its protection and favor when he was imprisoned at the end of his ministry and about to be whipped. “Is it lawful,” the apostle intervened in his own defense, “to scourge a man who is a Roman citizen and has not been tried?” (Acts 22:25) And, thus, was there no scourging of the apostle.
During the forty days of Lent, it’s good for us to recall this backdrop to Jesus’ last days, both the positive side of legal systems and the negative – their abuse and limitations, even in the best systems, as revealed by Jesus’ crucifixion and death. They also remind us of the things that go beyond any merely human law. In Saint John’s Gospel, for example, Jesus appears before Pontius Pilate, the personification of Roman law, to answer the charge that he is a king. “You say that I am a king. For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” (Jn 18:37)
“Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice,” (Jn 18:37) Jesus proclaims. All of what Jesus just says being lost on Pilate, the procurator dumbfoundingly asks, “What is truth?” (Jn 18:38)
When the truth does not matter, should we be surprised that justice is similarly mocked? For that is exactly what happens next. Pilate lets Barabbas, a certifiable insurrectionist, go free in a cowardly capitulation to the crowd. Jesus, meanwhile, is unjustly handed over to be crucified.
The travesty of justice in the trial of Jesus is about to give way to a new conception of power. It is expressed most profoundly by Saint Paul in a passage referred to as the kenosis. It is indicated by the apostle in his Letter to the Philippians, wherein the attitude of Jesus is described there as a self-emptying. (cf. Phil 2:7)
Emptying is the opposite of arrogating. Jesus did not arrogate anything to himself during his earthly ministry. In his apostolic letter Salvifici Doloris (1984), Pope Saint John Paul II comments that God desires to act especially through suffering. He wishes to make his power known in weakness and the emptying of self. And this is precisely what we, too, reflect in Lent.
The suffering of Jesus severely weakened him. According to a certain tradition, Jesus falls three times along the Via Dolorosa under the weight of his Cross. Notwithstanding this weakness in his humanity, the emptying out by Jesus is in hitting the ground. The ground of his humanity – and ours – is humility. For Saint Paul then says, Jesus humbled himself, becoming obedient unto death. (cf. Phil 2:8)
The humility of Jesus does indeed bring him to the Cross. But not everyone approaches death in this way. The unrepentant criminal alongside of Jesus on Calvary exhibits nothing but pride and vainglory to the very end. “Save yourself and us,” (Lk 23:39) he immodestly rails. He fails miserably in grasping the meaning of kenotic sacrifice. The repentant criminal, on the other hand, humbly confesses that “the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal.” (Lk 23:41) Dismas then makes this request: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Lk 23:42), which leads to the Lord’s promise “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”
The kenosis has one more element deserving of our attention. In the early Christian hymn inserted by Saint Paul into his Letter to the Philippians, the Lord’s attitude is described as ruling out any “equality with God something to be grasped.” (Phil 2:6) Jesus is God; he is revealed as the Beloved Son. As early ecumenical councils (Nicaea I and Constantinople I) make clear, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are of the same substance and share an inherent equality in the Blessed Trinity. In the perfection of Love, there cannot be any room for “grasping.”
This does not, however, prevent those outside the perfection of Love from trying to assert equality with God. It turns out that this kind of “grasping” is as old as man himself. In the Book of Genesis, the serpent tells the woman Eve that she will not die if she eats the fruit from the tree in the middle of the garden – in direct contradiction to what God had told her. (Gn 3:1-3) “You certainly will not die,” the serpent tells Eve, “God knows well that the moment you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods.” (Gn 3:4-5)
Our fallen condition means that we think we can be gods and, as it were, de-throne the One Who is God. Sin is always a tragic choice in which we deceive ourselves, somehow foolishly thinking we are on par with the One Who created us. Yes, we are made in the divine image and likeness (cf. Gn 1:27), but having an image and likeness are not the same as being God. Sin does not threaten God’s Being. What it does is stroke our egos, not with the purpose of taming them and bringing them under control but of inflating them, leading us to abandon truth for power.
*Image: Ecce Homo by Hieronymus Bosch, c. 1490 [Städel Museum, Frankfurt, Germany]. The ghostly figures in the lower left corner may represent the family that commissioned the work. Overpainted at some point, the figures reappeared recently during cleaning and restoration.