Friday, April 3, 2015

Chesterton for Good Friday

Joseph of Arimathea did better than he knew, said G.K. Chesterton.

Chesterton's musing is of a piece with another startling reconsideration provoked by someone else's gift-wrapped insight.

Here's what I mean: The irony of "putting to death the author of life" is something I've heard priests expound on in Good Friday sermons over the years (Peter's poetic phrasing in Acts 3:15 is marvelous), but I don't remember anyone dragging Pontius Pilate into the parlor game of "who was the first evangelist for Jesus?"

That question is an occasional pastime among Christians who know just enough theology to mull it over with friends, because while Scripture identifies John the Baptist as Jesus's herald and two brothers as the first apostles whom Jesus himself called, Scripture also offers glimpses of other possible contenders for the "early evangelist" crown: John's mom is in the mix for having asked her much younger relative how she (Elizabeth) was so blessed as to receive a long visit, in that famous "Who am I that the mother of my Lord should come to me?" Similarly, old man Simeon at the Temple realized he was in the presence of the Messiah before Jesus was old enough to walk, although we don't know whether Simeon lived long enough afterward to share his joy with anyone other than Mary and Joseph.

Some thirty-three years later, the centurion who grasps the significance of the Temple veil being mysteriously torn from top to bottom when Jesus dies can't help but exclaim, "Surely this man was the son of God!" -- and that insight makes him something of an unexpected evangelist, too.

But how does Pilate -- "cowardly lion" and career politician -- come within hailing distance of evangelization? The Church Fathers explained, but I can't quote them from memory, so I'll settle for this insight from Fr. Robert Barron:

"In an absolutely delicious bit of irony, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, places over the cross, the declaration, in the three major languages of the time, that Jesus is the King, effectively de-throning Caesar and becoming, despite himself, the first great evangelist."

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