Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Pilate's Wife

 Funny story: at Mass on Sunday I did my schpiel about noticing which character from the Passion spoke to you, and perhaps returning to that character this week.

After Mass the sacristan came up to me and said, As soon as I said that, Pilate's wife just leapt right out at her.  She wasn't sure why, but that's the character that grabbed her.

And then a few minutes later another lady from the parish came up to me and said exactly the same thing: as soon as I made that suggestion, Pilate's wife leapt out.  And a third lady, overhearing our conversation, agreed. Pilate's wife -- that's who spoke to her.

Pilate's wife is mentioned only in the Gospel of Matthew, and only here in the Passion.  Pilate has just asked the crowds who they want released, Jesus or Barabbas, and before they can answer we get this short passage:

                           While he was still seated on the bench,
                           his wife sent him a message:
                           'Have nothing to do with that righteous man.
                           I suffered much in a dream today because of him.'

 Pilate's wife never appears again, and the dream is never described.  Which hasn't stopped artists, filmmakers and writers down the ages from imagining. In fact, her character figures in such varied materials as some of the English mystery plays of the Middle Ages, Cecille B. DeMille's classic film The King of Kings, Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, a Charlotte Bronte short story and many works of art.

But why? What's the enduring appeal of this mysterious woman?

I wonder if it's the fact that she is the one character in the story that's just like us. She knows for a fact that the crucifixion of Jesus is a terrible thing.  Others might feel that way, but she's got more that that -- she's been told in a dream.

So maybe she appeals to some of us today because she's like a stand in for us, crying out as we want to cry out that this cannot happen.  That this is bad news. That, to quote a scene from Planes, Trains and Automobiles, "YOU'RE GOING THE WRONG WAY."

I don't know about you, year after year on some level I go into the reading of the Passion sort of hoping against hope that maybe this time it'll end differently.  They'll choose Barabbas. Peter will man up and break Jesus out of prison. They won't crucify him.  It's ridiculous, I know. (And come on, the ending is not the cross, right? It's resurrection and revelation and mission.)  But still -- to hear the one who loves us walked through this horrible sequence of events again and again and not be able to stop it.  Ugh.  So painful.

And yet maybe the invitation for us in the story of Pilate's wife is not to run away from all that pain, but to let it affect us. To stand there powerless to change the course of events, both in the life of Jesus and elsewhere and be forced to bear witness.

In so many ways, conversion begins with a broken heart.        

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