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Jesus Christ Suffered Under Pontius Pilate,
was Crucified, Died and was Buried

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

If we wish to know how important is this article of the Creed, all we have to do is read Saint Paul’s statement to the Corinthians. He says, “I judge myself not to know anything among you but Jesus Christ, and Him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2).

We cannot exaggerate the importance of understanding the passion, death and burial of Jesus Christ. They are the highest proof of how much God loves us. They are also the deepest inspiration for our loving God in return.

We profess to believe that Jesus experienced suffering, crucifixion, death and burial. These four experiences of the Savior are the most extensively described narratives in the Gospels. No less than four hundred verses in the evangelists narrating events that lasted less than one full day. Evidently the Holy Spirit, who inspired the evangelists, considered these events extraordinarily important. Important? They are the dividing points in human history.

Sufferings of Christ

After the Last Supper, Jesus took His eleven disciples to the garden of Gethsemani where He was accustomed to pray. He left eight of the eleven at the entrance to the garden and took Peter, James and John closer to Himself.

The Savior went off by Himself and prayed three times, repeating the same prayer, “Father, all things are possible to you. Remove this chalice from me; yet not my will but Thine be done” (Luke 22:42). Nowhere else in Sacred Scripture is Christ more clear about His true humanity. He instinctively shrank from pain. The sufferings He dreaded were not only the scourging, crowning with thorns and crucifixion. Nor were they only what He would endure during His mortal stay on earth. He foresaw how many people in the centuries to come would reject His grace and pay the tragic consequences of their sin.

Saint Luke, the physician, is the only one who describes Christ’s bloody sweat in the garden. By now, in the languages of all nations, the Savior’s agony has become synonymous for the most excruciating pain that a human being can experience. He sweats blood to show us that to be human is to suffer. He also taught us that the proof of genuine love is suffering. He finally taught us that, being human we naturally dread pain, which is another word for whatever is contrary to our will. But our love for God is not only not lessened but heightened by our patient endurance of pain.

The Crucifixion

The most humiliating and painful form of capital punishment in the Roman Empire was crucifixion. Two facts of history should be emphasized in speaking of the crucifixion of Christ. His enemies wanted Him to be crucified and He chose crucifixion. Those who rejected Jesus wanted Him to undergo the most agonizing form of death ever devised by the genius of man. Yet He wanted to be crucified. Why? In order to teach us how super-humanly Christ loves us. If there is no genuine love without suffering, the highest degree of love is manifested by the most painful form of suffering.

What are we saying? We are affirming that the crucifixion is the acme of divine affection. God not only became man out of love for us. But He chose the most extreme form of suffering to prove the extremity of His love.

Death of Christ

Why should we profess to believe in Christ’s death if we have already said that He was crucified? The reason is rooted deeply in our faith. God became man to redeem the world from sin and its consequences. The most fundamental consequence of sin is death. God assumed a human nature so that He could expiate our sins by dying for our redemption.

When the Holy Trinity decided to redeem the human race, the Second Person assumed a mortal humanity in order to expiate our sins by assuming the penalty which mankind was to suffer for its estrangement from God.

What happened when Christ died? His human soul separated from His human body. After all, that is the essence of bodily death. However, both the soul and the body of Christ, though separated from each other, remained united with Christ’s divinity. The dead body taken down from the cross was still the body of the incarnated God. Every drop of Christ’s blood on Calvary was hypostatically united with the Second Person of the Trinity. So too the soul of Christ remained united with His divinity.

Did Christ have to die? Absolutely not. He chose to suffer the penalty imposed on mankind in order to restore us to the friendship of God and the heavenly destiny which had been lost by our sins.

The Burial

Jesus Christ was buried in the tomb in order to verify His death. The Jews buried their dead by wrapping up the dead body in a shroud. There was no way that an enshrouded corpse could rise from the grave.

Moreover, Christ’s burial was both a commemoration and a promise. It reminds us of how far God was willing to go to restore us sinners to His friendship. He went the limits of incarnate charity by submitting to the humiliation of having His dead corpse buried in the grave. We should remind ourselves that humilis, which is the Latin for “humble,” comes from humus, which in Latin means the “dirt” or “ground” on which we walk.

Pontius Pilate

It is not coincidental that Pontius Pilate should be identified in the Apostles Creed. Pilate symbolizes the sufferings and persecution of the Church, which is the Mystical Body of Christ.

The enemies of Christ were the religious leaders of the Jewish people who envied Him. They were, as Jesus more than once told them, hypocrites. They were the chosen priests and teachers of the Chosen People. Yet they misled those whom they were to lead. Their hatred of the Savior was grounded on envy. Thousands followed Jesus to listen to His words. They spent days, even without food, to hear what He had to say. The Scribes and Pharisees had to resort to the most extreme means to have people even pay attention to them. The result was inevitable. This hated Nazarene must die.

There were three main charges which the Jews brought against Jesus. “We have found this man,” they claimed “perverting our nation, and forbidding the payment of taxes to Caesar and saying that he is Christ the king” (Luke 23:2).

As we know all these charges were malicious. They were also political in nature. Yet they were enough to sway the cowardly Pilate to condemn Jesus to death.

This has been the history of the Catholic Church ever since. By now millions of faithful followers of Christ have shed their blood for their fidelity to the Savior. Without exception, it has been the Pilates of every age who have been used by Christ’s enemies to persecute the Church He founded. The Neros and Attillas, the Huns and Communists have been the agents of the devil in persecuting faithful Christians. But let us be clear. No less than on the first Good Friday, so over the centuries it has been the apostate Christians who have used the State to crucify the martyrs of Christianity.

Prayer and Suffering

What Is Christian Suffering? We begin then by looking at what may seem plain enough on the surface, but is not as plain as many people think, namely, just what is suffering? As commonly understood, suffering means the experience of pain. It may be, and for many people it is, mainly bodily pain due to a variety of causes. Every organ of the human body, every limb and every joint, in fact, every cell is capable of greater or less, and at times, excruciating pain.

So great is the horror of bodily pain that annually billions of dollars in our country are spent by those who can afford it to avoid pain or lessen pain. And every drugstore is a symbol of man’s dread of pain and his desire to be relieved of bodily suffering. But there is pain not only in the body. It is not just our body that suffers, it is we. There is also pain in the human soul. To be rejected by those we love is pain. To be misunderstood and worse still to be misrepresented is pain. To be passed over when others are chosen, or ignored when others are recognized and praised, or forgotten when others are remembered, is pain. To have strong desires, noble desires like union with God and a sense of His nearness, and not have these desires fulfilled, as the mystics tell us, is great pain. To make mistakes and as a consequence be embarrassed, or to do wrong, then have to live with the memory of our sins, is pain. So the litany of pain goes on and its experience is suffering.

But Christian suffering is not the mere experience of pain, nor even just the tolerance of pain. In the Christian philosophy of life suffering is to be sanctified and the sanctification of suffering is called sacrifice. It took me twenty years to reach that definition. I share it with you.

Every human being suffers, some more and some less, but all have to undergo pain. But sadly and most tragically, not everyone sanctifies his suffering to make it a sacrifice. And it is here that Christianity has so much to teach the world. In fact so much to teach Christians. So we ask: how do we sanctify our sufferings such as they are and change them by divine alchemy into sacrifice? We do so through the mysterious power of prayer.

What Do I Do When I Suffer Prayerfully? Now that is a new term, I suppose. When I suffer prayerfully I do many things but especially these:

First, I see that behind what I endure is not the person or the event or the mishap or even the mistake (as obvious as these may be). I acknowledge that the real active agent responsible for my suffering is the mysterious hand of God. When David on one dramatic occasion, while on the road, was being insulted by a certain Shimei who cursed the king, called him a scoundrel and a usurper and began to throw stones at him, David’s armed guard exclaimed, “Is this dead dog to curse my Lord, the king? Let me go over and cut off his head?” But David would not let him. “Let him curse,” he replied. If Yaweh said to him: ‘Curse David,’ what right has anyone to say ‘why have you done this?’ Perhaps Yaweh will look on in misery and repay me with good for his curse today.” Unquote: David, inspired by Yaweh. First, then, when I suffer prayerfully I recognize that God is behind the suffering and I humble my head in faith.
Second, when I suffer prayerfully I trust that God has reasons for permitting what I endure and that in His own time and way, the experience now suffered will eventually somehow be a source of grace. What David did in the Old Testament, Christ, the Son of David, not yet born, enabled him to do by anticipation because of the mystery and the merits of the Cross. If ever we are tempted to doubt the value of suffering patiently, according to the will of God, we have only to look at the Crucifix. Talk about the value of suffering! But the value derives not from physical or spiritual pain. It comes from the Infinite God who showed us-this is God teaching us-who showed us by His own passion and death how profitable prayerful suffering can be. The most important single lesson mankind had to learn- the meaning of suffering and its value. It took God to teach us. And He had to resort to the extreme expedient of becoming man and suffering Himself to prove to us –that suffering is not meaningless; that it is not valueless; that undergone prayerfully, it is the most meaningful and valuable experience in human life.

For reasons best known to the Almighty, once sin has entered the world, grace was to be obtained through the Cross, which really means through the voluntary acceptance of God’s will crossing mine. This voluntary acceptance on our part is what the Father required of His Son as the condition for opening the treasury of His mercies. It is still the condition today for conferring these blessings on sinful mankind.

Suffering Elevates Prayer. No one who understands even the rudiments of Christianity should doubt that prayer is necessary for every believer if he wants to be saved. It is further well known that progress in virtue and growth in holiness depends absolutely on fervent and frequent prayer. What is perhaps not so well known is that prayer has interior depths that are not exactly the same as having mystical experiences or having ecstasies or even going through what some of the great friends of God, as Francis of Assisi or Catherine of Siena received from the Lord-those are depths (though I suppose, more accurately, are heights of prayer). We are talking about depths. These interior depths of prayer are not the phenomena that some people mistakenly take to be God’s special presence and evidence of the miraculous diffusion of His gifts. The depths of which I am speaking are those of the souls in love with Christ the Savior in prayer, when this prayer is joined with suffering willingly undergone or even willingly undertaken as evidence of a generous heart.

There is a passage in the writings of St. Ignatius that I almost hesitate quoting for fear of having him misunderstood. The saints sometimes said strange things. But it is worth the risk in order to make more clear what I think is so much needed today to protect people from what I consider the heresy of instant mysticism. When all sorts of fads and gimmicks are being sold to the faithful as means of becoming holy or discovering “their oneness with the Absolute,” I quote St. Ignatius:

“If God gives you an abundant harvest of trials, it is a sign of the great holiness to which He desires you to attain. Do you want to become a great saint? Ask God to send you many sufferings. The flame of Divine Love never rises higher than when fed with the wood of the Cross, which the infinite charity of the Savior uses to finish His sacrifice. All the pleasures of the world are nothing compared with the sweetness found in the gall and vinegar offered to Jesus Christ. That is, hard and painful things endured for Jesus Christ and with Jesus Christ.”

We may object that these are the sentiments of a great mystic who, as all mystics, spoke in symbolic terms and is not to be taken literally. Not so. They are the prosaic words of all those who believe that the most pleasing prayer to God is the one that proceeds not only from the lips or even from the heart indeed, but a heart that is suffering in union with the heart of the innocent Lamb of God. Not all the faithful are called to the heights of this kind of prayer, although no Christian is exempt from his share in the life of the Master whose prayer to His Father was so efficacious because it was constantly elevated by the Cross.

Other things being equal, the more my prayer life is crucified, the more meritorious it becomes. The more what I say to God is combined with what I offer to God, the more pleased He will be. The more petitions to the Lord are united with sacrifice willingly made, the more certainly what I ask for will be received, there is such a thing as cheap prayer. I call that comfortable prayer. There is such a thing as dear prayer. I call that sacrificial prayer. I don’t know where the idea came from that the essence of prayer is, well, just praying and, presto-we have satisfied our prayerful duties and can go on to other things. Not at all. Prayer is an ongoing enterprise and its continuance is especially prolongation of what I say to God (which may not be much) with what I endure and suffer for God (which can be very much).

Peaceful Endurance Through Prayer. We still have one more reflection on our general theme of prayer and suffering that should not be omitted. How to maintain one’s peace of soul while undergoing whatever trial God may send us? This is no trivial question because for failure to answer it- either at all or at least satisfactorily- I am afraid that many otherwise good people do not grow to the spiritual stature that Providence intends for them and certainly do not accomplish in their service for others all they could.

What are we saying? We are asking ourselves- each one- a very special question. How can I live up to the sublime teachings of my faith and suffer as God wants me to without becoming anxious, worried and irritable in the process? Christ could not be plainer in telling me to bear the Cross; He could also not be plainer in telling me not to worry, but to be at peace. The problem is this: how do you combine the two? How can I practice the one- that is, carry the Cross; and maintain the other-that is, be at peace? I am afraid that sometimes God, after having sent us some splinter of the Cross, almost tells us: “Well, if that’s the way you feel about it. . . all right, all right, no more Cross, at least of that kind, for you. I can see you can’t take it.” The answer on how to combine the two is the prayer of sacrifice.

We begin by admitting, without delusion, that suffering means suffering and there is no disguising the fact. But there are two sides to every painful experience- there is objective pain and there is subjective reaction. The same objective source of pain- say a cut or a wound in the body, an insult or humiliation in the soul- can produce only a mild reaction in one person and invoke a delirium of agony in another. Or even the same person, on one occasion is not much disturbed over the painful experience he has, and at another time, feels it excruciatingly or worries or can worry himself sick over some future suffering with convulsive fear. Our interest here is not to know how psychologically to cope with the trials of life so as not to suffer more than we should; it is rather to see how we can preserve ourselves in peace whenever God’s hand touches us, or He asks us, as He does, to carry our Cross.

The method, we said, is through prayer and sacrifice. What does this mean? It means that whenever any trial enters our life, no matter how small, we prayerfully place ourselves in God’s presence and voluntarily accept the trial. I said we should do this no matter how small the trial may be, and one index of how big we are or how grown-up spiritually is the little things that can rock us. After all, most of our difficulties are not individually major problems and there is great wisdom in spelling them out and dealing with each one as it comes. That’s a side issue, just to mention it: one trial at a time. These trials can be humiliatingly small things taken separately but together they can become oppressively big.

A priest confrere of mine tells the story of a pilgrimage he once attended and how during the pilgrimage he shared his room with another man. The priest said, “Hardly had my partner gone to bed than he began to snore loudly, loud enough to waken the dead. At first I started to be impatient, then I willed to listen to the snoring and hear it clearly, tranquilly observed it and, a little later, fell asleep. Waking up once during the night (the noise was terrific!), I used the same method again and returned to sleep.”

There are in the lives of all of us countless sources of annoyance- all kinds of noise and distasteful persons, places and things. We can be opposed or oppressed but we should never be depressed by no-matter-what tribulation enters our lives. The way to retain our peaceful serenity is to promptly ask God to endure what cannot be changed or in His own time to change what for the time being is to be endured. What God wants of us is a pure sacrifice unalloyed by our reluctance to suffer at His hands or made worse than His Providence intends. What He wants us to endure is all the pain that He wants to give us, being sure He will never give us more than we can bear. What He does not want is to have us spoil the opportunity for sacrifice by making an issue of what is, after all, the normal way He deals with those whom He calls His friends. This is God’s way of embracing those that He loves. What God wants is that we, by resigning ourselves to His gracious will, may do His will-which can sometimes be hard but always it is to be done in peace. This is what Christ must have meant when He told us: “My yoke is easy and my burden light.” Surely, serving God does mean carrying the yoke and the burden that He sends us. The secret is to see in prayer that they are His yoke, His burden that He places upon us, and let us be sure that is plenty and for that we have the grace. If we can keep this vision before us through life, we shall not, of course, be spared the Cross-that would be unthinkable-but we shall be at peace. Peace is the absence of conflict between wills, here between the will of God and ours. It is open to everyone who is willing to pray and live by His prayer: “Lord, not my will but Thine be done.”

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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