We continue our Passover, our three-day Paschal journey, and arrive today at the foot of the Cross, with Mary and John and the other faithful disciples. The event of Maundy Thursday took place indoors, in the evening; that of Good Friday outside, in the middle of the day, with people around, the cry of birds and the sky turned mysteriously dark. And again we can ask the question the people of Jerusalem asked on Palm Sunday: “Who is this?” Who is this, today on the Cross?
Every reading, every detail of today’s Liturgy offers answers to this, but let’s pause just on one. Of all unexpected places, it comes from Pontius Pilate. Let’s hear it again.
“Look, says Pilate to the crowd, I am going to bring him out to you to let you see that I find no case. Jesus then came out wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said, Here is the man.” And we remember the response from the chief priests and the guards, Crucify him! Crucify him!
Here is the man, says Pilate. He was, desperately, opportunistically, trying to save Jesus – saying to the crowd and the Jewish authorities, Do you really think this ludicrous figure, this clown of a king, is a threat to you or to the mighty Roman Empire? His ploy fails, and he does too. But we can leave him aside and pass to the other meaning to his words, the meaning John the Evangelist grasped and all Christianity since.
Behold the man! Ecce homo! It’s a call. Look at, contemplate, this figure. Who is he? The word the Gospel uses for “man” here is not the word for a male, but for the human being as such. Look at the human being. Look at him, because as Vatican II famously said, “only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light” (Gaudium et Spes, 22).
“Look!” So many ordinary Christians have. So many artists, too, brush in hand. Unknown iconographers from the East, famous names like Durer, Titian, Rubens, and Caravaggio, and many more recent too. On his desk in Rome St John Paul II kept a copy of an Ecce Homo painted by a 19th c. Polish artist and now canonised saint, Br Albert Chmielowski. Thus, every day of his pontificate, St John Paul II, the champion of human dignity, would look at this suffering man.
Look at him, the Gospel is saying, misunderstood and maltreated, clown-king, his face and back already running with blood, and see in him the Word made flesh and our true King.
Look at the one who, because his humanity belongs to the divine person of the Word, God’s Son, can hold and carry in his flesh, can include and cherish, every one of us, and all our experience – the One who is many. This is the One Isaiah described: “the man of sorrows and familiar with suffering… And yet ours were the sufferings he bore, ours the sorrow he carried”. This is the one whom Christians of the past, steeped in the Bible, saw “endur[ing] every kind of suffering in all those who foreshadowed him. Slain in Abel, bound in Isaac, exiled in Jacob, sold in Joseph, exposed in Moses. Sacrificed in the Passover lamb, persecuted in David, dishonoured in the prophets” (Melito of Sardis, On the Pasch). Behold the One, the Suffering Servant, who took on all the historic suffering of Israel. But we can widen this still further. Remembering how Eastern Christians call icons of the Ecce Homo icons of the Bridegroom, here is Christ hurting for all the degradations of his Bride, the Church, through the centuries: the thorns of mocked Christianity, the scourging of persecutions and also all the wounds Christians inflict on each other. And so to the widest circle of all. This is all mistreated humanity standing before us. For us children of the 20th and 21st centuries, this Man is simply suffering humanity as such, present, past and future, suffering that is loud and known, suffering hidden in silent tears. (Ukrainian Catholics will be celebrating a liturgy here tomorrow). Here, inscribed sacramentally in the body of a single man, the Man, are all the wounds of man’s inhumanity to man, all of sin’s effects. There is an Ecce Homo by a German artist, depicting a figure behind the barbed wire of a concentration camp (Otto Dix). This Man of Sorrows has not disappeared from history.
Who is this, though? Because “who” changes everything. Here’s a parable. The Japanese have an art-form called Kintsugi. It’s a form of ceramics. Usually, if a vase or a bowl or cup is dropped and shatters into little pieces, we say goodbye to it. Not so here: every piece is gathered up and glued back together. There’s a message already. But there’s more: gold dust is mixed with the glue. The cracks aren’t hidden, they are owned and honoured, heightened, beautified by gold. And so something more beautiful, more individual comes to be.
This is the Paschal mystery, surely. On Good Friday we witness the breaking of the vase, the shattering of the living body of Christ, and its discarding in a tomb. At Easter, we see it returned by the Father, the wounds now “holy and glorious”, golden with the glory of God. Ecce homo! Who is this one, who takes on himself all the effects of sin, our scourges and thorns and slaps, our suffering, dying and death? And who has the art, the skill, to repair and transform… Who indeed? Who indeed? “Come, let us adore”, “come, let us adore”, we will sing as the Cross is unveiled. What else is there to do?
St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 7 April 2023