What is Truth?

Good Friday of the Lord’s Passion: Isaiah 52:13 – 53:12, Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9, John 18:1 – 19:42.

With so much evil at work in the events of the Lord’s Passion and Crucifixion, it feels almost like an oxymoron to call this “Good” Friday, but Truth that is Christ, the Word of God, nailed and hung on a cross for all to see, that is the Good that we commemorate. This is what it means to be Catholic: to understand the ultimate good while acknowledging the evil; to stand in the face of our chaotic, sinful nature and embrace the saving reality of Jesus Christ rather than run screaming and crazed into the abyss of nihilism. Today’s readings , in particular, with the strong, in-control Jesus shown to us by St. John teach us that the Truth rises above the petty evils of the humans who try to have power over it.

The first reading from Isaiah is so striking. The Word of God speaks so clearly of His own Passion and Death through the mouth of Isaiah. He foretells the beating, scourging, and crown of thorns: “Even as many were amazed at him — so marred was his look beyond human semblance.” He foretells His blessed silence in the face of persecution: “Though he was harshly treated, he submitted and opened not his mouth; like a lamb led to the slaughter.” He foretells His ignominious death when he was treated like a criminal: “a grave was assigned him among the wicked and a burial place with evildoers, though he had done no wrong nor spoken any falsehood.” Such precision of detail in this prophecy!

But the most significant aspect of Isaiah’s prophecy is that the Word of God tells us the reason this Passion is endured. He says, “he was pierced for our offenses, crushed for our sins; upon him was the chastisement that makes us whole, by his stripes we were healed.” This idea of taking on sin as a “lamb led to the slaughter” was understood from the time of Moses in the use of the scapegoat. When instituting Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), the Word of God instructed Moses: 

Aaron shall cast lots on the two goats, one lot for the Lord and the other lot for Azazel. Aaron shall present the goat on which the lot fell for the Lord, and offer it as a sin offering; but the goat on which the lot fell for Azazel shall be presented alive before the Lord to make atonement over it, that it may be sent away into the wilderness to Azazel. … Then Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and sending it away into the wilderness by means of someone designated for the task. The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to a barren region; and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness. (Leviticus 16:8-10, 21-22).

Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur (1878), Maurycy Gottlieb | Wikimedia Commons.

So the scapegoat was in use in Judaism about 1500 years before Christ. About 700 years before He comes to earth in the flesh, through Isaiah, the Word of God sows in the memory of the Jewish people the significance of the new sacrifice He will accomplish: “through his suffering, my servant shall justify many, and their guilt he shall bear. … he shall take away the sins of many, and win pardon for their offenses.” As a new scapegoat, Jesus Christ will be the ultimate sacrifice, uniting the two goats Aaron was told to use, the son Isaac and the substitute ram Abraham sacrificed, and all of the millions of other sacrificial animals and food items the Jews had slaughtered and burned over the millennia. As the true Son sacrificed, Christ puts an end to the endless wheel of animal sacrifice. These animals could never intentionally take on the sins of all and in an overwhelming river of agape atone for humanity — only the divine Son of God, the Messiah, could do this.

Today’s readings shift in tone with the second reading from St. Paul to the Hebrews, when he writes, “we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God.” While Christ is the ultimate sacrifice, the replacement for the scapegoat, He is also God-and-man, who institutes the new covenant through Himself. He somehow seamlessly integrates the ultimate agency of “great high priest” with the supplication of a servant. John’s account of his Passion in the gospel reading shows us how He accomplishes this.

Note how differently the arrest transpires from the accounts in the synoptic gospels. Here, “Jesus, knowing everything that was going to happen to him, went out and said to them, ‘Whom are you looking for?'” He, knowing all, is the one who goes to them. It’s not Judas who holds the agency, the power, by going to Him and kissing Him on the cheek. It is Jesus who holds the agency and the power. This is emphasized when he tells them “I AM,” the same words used by God the Father to Moses. This is the moment of the great I AM, the Word of God, speaking truth in all its splendor. And this truth is too much for the guards to handle: “they turned away and fell to the ground.” Jesus is willing to be the sacrifice for all and to accept the Passion and Crucifixion, so He is not intending to scorch them with glory of God. But even so, just the sheer truth of the Word asserting His being and authority in His moment of glory sends shockwaves through the earth and humbles those with evil intent, against their will. So He must ask them again who they are looking for and then says, “I told you that I AM. So if you are looking for me, let these men go.” Even at the beginning of His humiliation, He is the one issuing instructions. Such is the power of God and the blindness of those who do not see it.

Arrest of Jesus

I love the response He gives to Peter when he cuts off the ear of the slave: “Put your sword into its scabbard. Shall I not drink the cup that the Father gave me?” By asking Peter this question, He maintains His Way, that is, to teach the self-searching and the bringing of oneself into right relationship with the Father, even in the midst of the heightened tension and passions of his arrest. His love for his disciples (and all of humanity) never dims; He is ever-constant in His mission to bring them closer to God, closer to understanding that accepting the “cup” given to you by the Father is the ultimate good and right thing to do.

Christ’s integrity is on full display throughout John’s account of the Passion. When questioned by Annas, He simply replies that He never hid in secret and always preached the truth in the temple area for all to hear. When the temple guard strikes Him for speaking this way (apparently this man considered it impertinent), Jesus replies: “If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong; but if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?” Jesus never wavers from “speaking rightly,” that is, bringing the truth of God to the world.

Altarpiece with the Passion of Christ: Flagellation (c.1480-1495), anonymous (German) | Creative Commons, courtesy The Walters Art Museum.

This discourse on truth in action and in word reaches a high point with Pilate. Taking up significant space in the gospel of John, this exchange displays for us the truth of God over and against a worldly relativism. Upon the question of his kingship, Jesus replies, “My kingdom does not belong to this world.” He establishes the foundation for His words and actions in an irreproachable source: Heaven, eternity. In his Roman worldview, Pilate may have understood this to mean Mount Olympus, home of the Roman gods. For any worldview, this claim is astonishing. But Pilate cuts to the chase, since Jesus uses the word “kingdom”: “Then you are a king?” Jesus’s response lays bare the question at hand, namely, how can a secular power judge God? This is a short-circuit of the fundamental relation of things. Jesus says: “You say I am a king. For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” So there we have it: Christ is here not for some earthly understanding of power or kingship, but to testify to the truth. And the way he speaks of truth is analogous to God Himself, since people can already “belong to the truth,” and these people listen to his voice. God and truth as presented by Jesus are the same, incorruptible thing. Truth (and God) is an undeniable thing, more real than the fantasies of power we lay upon the world.

Pilate’s response betrays the horrible relativism that blinds our eyes, plugs our ears, and stifles our mouths when it comes to God’s truth: “What is truth?” In the narrative, Pilate immediately goes to the Jews to say that he finds no guilt in Jesus, presumably because Jesus clearly has no intention of disrupting the secular power structures at work. But Pilate’s offhand “What is truth?” hangs in the air for us to weigh against the solid, undeniable truth of God-and-man in the shackled body of Jesus Christ. What is truth? Truth stands in front of you! Here He is, the great I AM whose utterance of His being makes men fall prostrate. The one who has openly taught in Jerusalem’s temple for years, the one whose truth is so real and cutting that the chief priests and elders can’t stand it anymore. But Pilate sees the world through political eyes, through a mind that seeks to live another day, fight another fight until death finally takes him. In this world where the prize is simply survival and worldly success as much as you can manage, truth becomes malleable according to the circumstance. This is a natural consequence of giving oneself only to this world. This moral relativism is an easy way to drug a conscience into a stupor so that it no longer bothers you. But conscience is the voice of the spirit God gives you at your birth. By smothering it with explanations that soothe it, you are turning your back on God, stifling His voice in your life. When you flippantly dismiss truth as something that we simply construct to take a stand on something arbitrary, you seek to place yourself outside of God’s law.

Christ Carrying the Cross (Cristo abrazado a la cruz), 1580s, El Greco | Wikimedia Commons.

Yet here in the gospel of John, even Pilate who has completely given in to moral relativism responds to something in Jesus. What is this mysterious something that convinces Pilate and leads him to say, “I find no guilt in him,” and offer to release him or Barrabbas? What else but the truth that Jesus Christ embodies in human form causes Pilate, even after the Jews take Barrabbas and demand crucifixion, to say, “Take him yourselves and crucify him. I find no guilt in him.” Even then, when they say Jesus made himself Son of God and Pilate “became even more afraid,” he goes to Jesus to have one last conversation. Jesus, shackled and unloved, asserts to Pilate that he “would have no power over me if it had not been given to you from above.” Jesus refuses to budge from his claim to truth from Heaven, showing Pilate that even he, the unbeliever in truth, is operating within its omnipotent sphere. Pilate, clearly shaken, “tried to release him.”

We know that this ends in Jesus’s crucifixion, that Pilate succumbs to the secular pressures of being an appointee of Caesar’s and grants the Jews their bloodthirsty wish. But it is striking to see how Jesus in his quiet statements of authority in God, as the bringer of the truth, holds Pilate in thrall over and against his self-proclaimed skepticism of truth. His interaction with Christ continues to resound in Pilate: “Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, ‘Jesus the Nazorean, the King of the Jews.'” And so perhaps Pilate doesn’t succumb as completely as we think. He proclaims the truth that came to him; he places the truth over the head of the Savior. When the chief priests ask him to change it to indicate that this was a claim that Christ made, not the truth, he responds, “What I have written, I have written.”

Christ on the Cross (1745-1750), Giovanni Battista Tiepolo | Wikimedia Commons.

Why is there so much focus on Jesus Christ as the embodiment of God’s truth on earth during this Passion? In short, this is the great belief of our faith. Jesus Christ wasn’t just another man, another teacher, prophet, or miracle-worker. He was (and is, as He is Resurrected, in Heaven, and our primary intercessor with the Father) the very Truth itself. What that truth says is, “I AM,” thus He is God. That truth gives us the greatest commandment, the Way to the Father. Our faith is that the historical particularities of the God-and-man in 33 AD matter. The Word of God was made incarnate at a particular time in a particular place, according to a plan that is not ours to understand in its completeness but to live within thanks to the grace of God and the saving work of His Son. Why does this matter? Because this real truth said real things and performed real actions. We can never accept moral relativism, in fact, we are called to repudiate the slipperiness of relativism with the very fiber of our beings. We believe in an absolute truth, that truth has been expressed by God on this earth in Jesus Christ — both his knowable words and works put down in the New Testament as well as his unknowable mystery. This is not fashionable. We live in an age of acceptance of all perspectives. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t accept others and all of the differences they represent. We absolutely should! But we accept them for the God in them, as brothers and sisters on the Way to God. We don’t accept viewpoints that seek to weaken or refute Jesus Christ’s sovereign claim to Truth. We don’t accept statements that place our Lord on a continuum of some-right-but-some-wrong things. We cannot become watered-down Christians! Look, today, at what our Lord did for us, becoming the ultimate sacrifice, the scapegoat to end scapegoats, shouldering the burden of humanity’s sins and still standing in the great truth of His “I AM.” Our response can only be a humble and truthful Lord Have Mercy!

Mural of the crucified Christ and Trinity above the altar at the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City, Utah (1918), Felix Lieftuchter | Creative Commons, image courtesy Lynn R. Johnson

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