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Holy Week is a week of paradoxes: the greatest evil and the greatest good occupy the same deed, the same space on the Cross, the same tomb.
At Wyoming Catholic College, the phenomenon known elsewhere as “spring break,” which sounds more or less restful, comprises an important part of our outdoor curriculum. Most students go on rigorous trips in the Mountain West — kayaking, rock-climbing, mountain biking, or canyoneering, for example — but for the past few years, an alternative has been to spend a week of intense preparation for a play, followed by two performances.
Ordinarily, we would not have a play at the beginning of Holy Week (a scheduling issue), but this year’s Richard III, directed by Diane Springford, provides a near-perfect contrast with the Passion. In his burning ambition for the throne of England, the deformed Richard (played with canny relish by Sean Susanka) artfully kills off all his rival claimants and becomes king by cynically using the appearance of piety to win support and disguise his ends. Once he has power, he orders the murders of those who have previously been of most help to him, including Buckingham, the Machiavellian counselor whose ambitions have built upon Richard’s. The night before his death, Richard is visited in his dreams by a ceremonial procession of the dead, all of whom remind him of his villainy and tell him, “Despair and die!” The next day, he gets the death he deserves, and his rival Richmond becomes Henry VII, ending the decades-long War of the Roses.
The characteristics of the “Machiavel” (which Richard calls himself) certainly did not originate with the 16th century “teacher of evil,” as Leo Strauss described him. They fit the practices of Caiaphas, the high priest in Jerusalem who sets in motion the plot to kill Jesus. After the raising of Lazarus, the chief priests and Pharisees warn the Sanhedrin that the signs worked by Jesus will lead the Romans to see Him as a danger to their rule: “the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” Caiaphas answers that “it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish” (John 11:50).
Caiaphas’ motives could not be more worldly. Jesus’ death — especially if the Jews themselves insist upon it — will mollify the Romans. He does not intend any benefit except the political one. But here we come upon the great paradox of intention. Just after the passage when Caiaphas suggests that one man die for the nation, the Gospel continues, “He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad” (John 11:51). In effect, Caiaphas as high priest announces the future of Christianity: the unification of all the children of God through the death of Christ.
Does his prophetic office save Caiaphas personally? Not at all, no more than being king saves Richard, even though his eradication of the remaining Yorks and Lancasters allowed Henry VII to reunify England. And what about Judas, who plays a crucial role by betraying Jesus to Caiaphas’ plot? It would have been better for Judas, Jesus says, if he had never been born, and yet he helps bring about the salvific death for which the Son came into the world.
Holy Week is a week of paradoxes: the greatest evil and the greatest good occupy the same deed, the same space on the Cross, the same tomb. For the past few days, I have been thinking about the tomb where Joseph of Arimathea lays the body of Jesus after His crucifixion. An urgency informs Joseph’s actions in Luke 23: “It was the day of Preparation, and the Sabbath was beginning. The women who had come with him from Galilee followed and saw the tomb and how his body was laid. Then they returned and prepared spices and ointments. On the Sabbath they rested according to the commandment.” After the Crucifixion, in other words, the women prepared the spices but did not take them to the tomb.
There is a daylong break in the action that exactly corresponds to the time that Jesus lies dead. Luke 24 begins, “But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they went to the tomb, taking the spices they had prepared. And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus.” I am no theologian, and I am sure that the Church Fathers have many meditations that take us much more deeply into this mystery. But sometimes a passage of scripture stands out with sudden clarity, as this one did to me. The entombment of Jesus, Who is God, coincides with rest “according to the commandment.” To enter the death of Christ is to enter the deepest meaning of the Sabbath.
Republished with gracious permission from Wyoming Catholic College.
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The featured image is “Christ before Caiaphas” (early 1630s) by Matthias Stom, and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.