A few years ago I conducted a retreat where I talked about the characters in John’s Gospel and how they related to Jesus. I asked the retreatants to see the similarities between ourselves and some of the personalities in John’s Gospel. This Sunday’s gospel reading is from Matthew’s Gospel, and I suppose we could do the same exercise with slightly different characters.
Simon of Cyrene
Simon of Cyrene picks up the cross for Jesus. Ironically, Jesus himself had already preached to his disciples – “take up the cross.” He spoke of the frightening image of Roman political terror as if it were a reality that had to be accepted. But he has also said, “my burden is light.” The cross isn’t that heavy if we have faith.
Do we take that opportunity to take up the cross like Simon of Cyrene, and do our fair to build a just and righteous community that truly witnesses to the gospel?
Pilate has been portrayed as a really terrible person by some historians and leaders of the church. Pope Benedict’s writings have implicitly shifted culpability for the crucifixion of Jesus to Pilate, the Roman procurator of Judea. Pope Francis has said that Pilate epitomizes indifference. Pilate is a complicated figure, as he did not want to take sides in a dispute among the Jews. Pilate wanted to maintain stability, avoid a confrontation with the local population, and assure Tiberius Caesar that everything is under control in this remote corner of the world.
However, Pilate finally washes his hands in the case of Jesus. Perhaps we can ask ourselves, “have we ever washed our hands or looked the other way at an injustice because it was expedient?”
Peter is the disciple closest to Jesus, save possibly John or Mary Magdalene. Holy Week is a difficult time for Peter. Being close to Jesus, he is the most fearful after his arrest. When asked if he knows Jesus, Peter adamantly denies it, not once but three times.
How many times have we said to ourselves, “you know, I promised myself I would never make that mistake again, and here I am.” Or, “I keep confessing the same sins in confession.” The Gospels tell us that the closest disciples of Christ were sinners as well. The example of Peter shows us that Christ works through imperfect people – sinners – in order to achieve his will. Though we may sin, the experience of Peter reminds us that we should never quit or abandon hope because we know that we are prone to make mistakes.
In the Gospel reading, we hear the crowd jeer Jesus and demand his punishment. Perhaps they were paid to say the things they said. Perhaps they were friends and family of the Temple leadership. Perhaps they felt threatened by Jesus.
Have we ever gone along with the crowd, even when we knew the crowd was wrong? Have we ever been pressured into doing something just to fit in?
Joseph of Arimathea
Finally, we come to the righteous Joseph of Arimathea. Mentioned in al four Gospel accounts, he was a member of the Temple leadership the Sanhedrin. He may have known Mary, the mother of Jesus, from her childhood. He may have known the father of John the Evangelist, Zebedee, whom Pope Benedict tells us was a Temple priest.
Either way, he was highly sympathetic to Jesus. After his crucifixion, he personally petitions Pilate to remove Jesus from the cross. Typically, the bodies of the crucified would have been left as an example to others. But Pilate agrees, and Jesus is given a proper burial.
Joseph is a just man who authentically bears witness to his faith. Have we ever borne witness to the faith when it was somewhat difficult? Then we can stand in solidarity with Joseph.