Il Tintoretto 1518 – 1594
Christ Before Pilate
An imagined conversation between Pilate and a friend some years after his interaction with Christ…
What Pilate said One Midnight
I am glad you stayed after the others retired, Gaius. I want to talk. I’m not at all certain what I want to say, but I want to talk. It was a wretched dinner, wasn’t it? No, don’t (use) your fine patrician manners and protest that you enjoyed it. It’s too late in the night for even courteous lies. Lies use up so much strength. Past midnight there’s only enough strength left for truth.
What? No, I’m all right. It’s that word I used, that word “truth.” It slips up on me. I use it before I think. And then wince always, as if I had jabbed that old spear scar on my thigh.
But full apologies for the dinner, Gaius. You’ve never heard Pontius Pilate apologize before? Yes, I know the food was good. This is the best resort in all Helvetia. And the air here in the Alps should whet an appetite like a Damascene dagger. But you didn’t eat, nor did any of the other guests. And they excused themselves noticeably early for holidaying Romans. Because of me. Because I can no longer entertain. Because I poison the air with both my silences and my remarks, with a restlessness of eye, yet a vinegar of words that blisters even Roman hides. But I want to know why, Gaius. Because I know you’ll head back to Rome when the summer heat subsides there. And you’ll cover its seven hills with your gossip within a week. There won’t be a cloistered, intimate salon along all the Appian way in which you won’t have served up the rarebit of your news – that you saw me, Pilate, at Lucerne this summer. That it’s true that I’ve lost my grip. That I’ve aged twenty years in the few that have sped by since I lost my post in Judaea. That I spend my self-imposed exile gnawing the bleeding knuckles of melancholy, while Claudia looks on and pleads and weeps and babbles about the gods.
Oh, come, I can hear you, Gaius! How all the bleary eyes of your friends, and the jades they call their wives, will flock to you to hear a report that so suits their hopes. But whatever you tell them, I wanted you to know. Because – oh, because we once were close, before my failures isolated me. Or because, perhaps, confession needs no reason after midnight, since a burned-out heart must now and then blow its smoke in a different face. So here it is, Gaius. Let the slave fill your glass, and clutch it tight! I didn’t just lose my post in Judaea. That in itself would have been release from prison. It was something else I did, and what maddens me is that I don’t know what I did. But you might get an inkling if I say that I may have killed Caesar!
Oh, not our Caesar. No, I was serving him. The day I married Claudia, Gaius, Caesar said to me with that divine smirk, “Congratulations, Pontius. To marry a woman of royal blood is the best training for statesmanship that Rome can offer her sons.” That’s why I was so determined to rule well over the Jews. When the appointment came and the senate sneered knowingly, “Family connections,” I had to show them I was something other than a career soldier from the wrong side of the Tiber. And Claudia was with me. Imagine her going! What other provincial governor do you know whose wife shared his whole term of office? That isn’t the pattern Caesar encourages. Wives stay in Rome, vegetating luxuriously and pretending to pine, while the husband is abroad squeezing enough tax and graft from the provinces to come home and retire on.
Don’t squirm so, Gaius. Yes, the slaves can hear, but it isn’t news to them that I mutter treason.
We were to be the royal pair. Claudia and I. But you don’t rule the priests of Jewry. You bluff authority and they bluff humility, and each knows the other’s lying. You scheme and plan and awaken one morning to find yourself a child at cunning. And you lose dignity, and you lose respect, and you fear for your job, and you hate.
Here’s just one sample of how my record ran. I found no images of Caesar in Jerusalem. So I put them up. Placed them on the garrison of Antonia, overlooking the Jewish temple. The priests said nothing. But that night six thousand Jews surrounded the palace with a roar of prayer and chanting that went on night and day. I threatened a massacre and they bared their necks and chanted louder, six thousand of them, waiting for the sword. I removed Caesar’s image, and back home the Emperor whined that he’d lost face!
That began it, and your busy ears have heard long since how it went. Every feast day a threat of revolt. Every revolt more blood. Every throat that was cut for Caesar bringing a sharper rebuke from Caesar. We built a summer place in their north country. We ate their sickening buttered quail. we conspired with their native rulers. But there was no avoiding trouble, and I grew sullen and Claudia had her dreams. Her dreams and her Gods.
Suppose it helps, Gaius, to believe that there’s more to the world that you can see there? Does it help to endure what you do see there? I’d always boasted in the Roman code – if you can’t see it or touch it or use it or spend it or wear it, then it isn’t real, it doesn’t exist. But not Claudia. She had a Jewish hairdresser who talked to her of the Jewish God. One God, mind you! Which struck me as a sensible economy till I heard what He was like. An interfering God, one I’m afraid wouldn’t leave room in His kind of world for Rome. And it was from this Jewish servant girl we first heard of this Nazarene. I don’t know what He was. If I did – But I checked Him with spies. He seemed a harmless kind of traveling teacher such as thrive in that climate. And I couldn’t understand why the Jews were so upset by Him. Claudia heard Him twice when He was in the city, convinced me that His quarrel was with the Jews, not with us.
Well, we had just arrived in Jerusalem that night. It was the time of the great feast, and the air reeked as thick of revolt as it did of pilgrims. And toward morning I was hauled from bed by their high priest, a certain Caiaphas, my nominee for the prince of Rats. How our Roman senate could have used him! He’d managed to get me heavily in debt to him. Temple funds he had loaned me that he knew I didn’t intend to repay. And he had grown quite bold with his personal demands, and I was sick of it. Late this night he rouses me, all secrecy, all very much the sinister conspirator, to announce to me they had arrested this Nazarene. By night, mind you! Had tried Him at a hurried, trumped-up session of their Jewish court. Had convinced Him of blasphemy, a charge I just don’t understand. Somehow, it’s all tied up with their monopoly on God. But they were bringing Him to me at dawn, to be condemned to death by Roman law for sedition.
The high preiest’s warnings were always well staged. Never spelled out, but plain as the knifelike nose of his holy face that either I convict this Man or there’d be trouble with the Jews at feast time, the brand of trouble I couldn’t afford. I couldn’t sleep after he left. I paced those hot corridors. I finally dressed, full an hour before the dawn. It had all tumbled in on me, the impact of how trapped I was. The proud arm of Rome, with all its boast of justice, was to be but a dirty dagger in the pudgy hand of priests!
I was waiting in the room I used for court, officially enthroned, with clerk and guards, when they led Him in. Well, Gaius, don’t smile at this, as you value your jaw, but I’ve had no peace since He walked into my judgment hall that dawn! It has been years, man, but these scenes I’ll read from the back of my eyelids every night. You’ve seen Caesar when he was young inspect the legions. His air of command was child play compared with the manner of this Nazarene! He didn’t have to strut, you see. He walked toward my throne, arms bound, with a stride of mastery and control that by its very audacity silenced the room for an instant and left me trembling with an insane desire to stand and salute!
The clerk began reading the absurd list of charges, the priestly delegation punctuating these with the palm-rubbings and the beard-strokings and the eye-rollings and the pious gutturals I had learned to ignore. But I more felt it than heard it. I questioned mechanically. He answered very little. But what He said and the way He said it! It was as if His level gaze had pulled my naked soul right up into my eyes and was probing it there. And a voice kept singing in my ear, “Why, you’re on trial, Pilate!” And the Man wasn’t listening to the charges. You’d have sworn He had just come in out of friendly interest to see what was going to happen to me. And the very pressure of His standing there had grown unbearable, when a slave rushed in all atremble at interrupting court, bringiing a message from Claudia. She had stabbed at the stylus in that childish way she does when she’s distraught. “Don’t judge this amazing Man,” she wrote, “I was haunted by Him this night!”
Gaius, I tried to free Him. From that moment on I tried, and I’ll always think He knew it. I declared Him out of my jurisdiction, being a Galilean. But the native king Herod discovered He was born in Judaea and sent Him back to me. I appealed to the crowd that had gathered in the streets, hoping they were His sympathizers. But Caiaphas had stationed agitators to whip up the beasts and cry for blood, and you know how any citizen loves, just after breakfast, to cry for another’s blood. I had Him beaten, a thorough barracks-room beating. I’m not sure why. To appease the crowd, I guess. But do we Romans need a reason for beatings? That’s the code, isn’t it, for anything we don’t understand?
Well, it didn’t work. The crowd roared like some slavering beast when I brought Him back. If only you could have watched Him! They had thrown some rags of mock purple over His pulped and bleeding shoulders. They had jammed a chaplet of thorns down over His forehead. And it fitted! It all fitted! He stood there watching them from my balcony, swaying from weakness by now, but royal, I tell you! In the teeth of that mob, not just pain but pity shining from His eyes and seaming His face. And I kept thinking, somehow this is monstrous; somehow it’s upside down. That purple is real! that crown is real! Somehow, these animal noises the crowd is shrieking should be praise! And then Caiaphas played his master-stroke on me. Announced there in public that this Jesus claimed a crown that was treason to Caesar. And the guards began to glance at one another. And that mob of spineless filth began to shout “Hail Caesar! Hail Caesar!” And I knew I was beaten. And I gave the order. And I couldn’t look at Him. And I did that childish thing, I called for water and there on the balcony I washed my hands of the whole affair. But as they led Him away I did look up, and He turned and looked at me. No smile, no pity, just glanced at my hands, and I’ll feel the weight of His eyes on them from now on.
But you’re yawning, Gaius. I’ve kept you up. And as active a man as you are needs his rest on holidays. Claudia will be asleep by now, rows of lighted lamps near her couch. She can’t sleep in the dark any more. Not since that afternoon. You see the sun went out when my guards executed Him. That’s what I said! I don’t know how or what. I only know I was there, that though it was midday it turned as black as the tunnels of hell in that miserable city, while I tried to compose Claudia, and explain how I’d been trapped, and she railed at me with her dream. She’s had the dream ever since when she sleeps in the dark. Some form of it. That there was to be a new Caesar, and that I killed Him.
Oh, we’ve been to Egypt, to their seers and magicians. We’ve listened by the hour to oracles in the musty temples of Greece, chattering their inanities. We’ve called it an oriental curse that we’re under, and we’ve tried to break it a thousand ways. But there’s no breaking it. Except – and even that might not, you see.
But do you know why I’ve kept going? deeper than the curse is the haunting, driving certainity that He’s still somewhere near. That I’ve unfinished business with Him. That now and then, as I walk by the lake He’s followiing me. And much as that strikes terror, I wonder if that isn’t the only hope. You see, if I could walk up to Him and this time salute! Tell Him I know now, whoever He is, He was the only Man worth the name in all Judaea that day. Tell Him I know I wasn’t trapped, that I trapped myself. Tell Him here’s one Roman who wishes He were Caesar! I believe that would do it. I believe He’d listen, and know I meant it, and that at last I’d see Him smile!
Yes, quiet tonight, isn’t it, Gaius? Not a breeze stirring down by the lake. Yes good night. You had better run along. No, no, I think – will you waken the slave outside the door and tell him to bring me a cloak, my heavy one. I believe I’ll walk by the lake. Yes, it is dark there, but I won’t be alone. I guess I never really have been alone. Yes, goodnight, Gaius!
[A Million Suns]
You stand eternal
The uncreated One
Who knows no end
The starry wonders
The vast expanses
Bound to Your command
You shine like a million suns ablaze
Wrapped in eternal light and praise
Jesus the First, the Last
The Bright, the Morning Star
You spoke creation
Life and all we are
Beyond all measure
An echo of Your power
You shine like a million suns ablaze
Wrapped in eternal light and praise
Jesus the First, the Last
The Bright, the Morning Star
You will reign forevermore
You are holy
You are worthy
Lord of all
- Hillsong United
Rembrandt – The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, 1633
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