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 Pauls 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 Christs bloody
sweat in the garden. By now, in the languages of all nations, the Saviors
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 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 Christs 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 Christs divinity. The dead body taken down from the cross was still
the body of the incarnated God. Every drop of Christs 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.
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, Christs 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.
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
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
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
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 Christs 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,
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
mans 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, Davids 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 Gods 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 Gods 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
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 dont 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 ones 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 thats the way you feel about it. . . all
right, all right, no more Cross, at least of that kind, for you. I can see
you cant take it. The answer on how to combine the two is the prayer of
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 Gods 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 Gods 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. Thats 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 Gods 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