The Passion
 of Christ

The Inscription on the Cross
"Pilate wrote a title also, and he put it on the Cross. And the writing was: Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews" (Jn. xix, 19).
GOOD FRIDAY! Each recurrence of this day is a new experience. That heart must be hardened indeed and utterly burnt out that would strive to and succeed in closing itself utterly to the impressions this day creates. Whoever has preserved even a spark of faith and charity cannot view the tragedy on Calvary without emotion. What stirs us so deeply is the clash between the most powerful contrasts: bloodthirsty cruelty and infinite compassion; deepest disgrace and royal dignity; hell-born debasement and Divine forgiveness; black guilt, enshrouding skies and earth in darkness, and the dawn of the day of Redemption; cries of salvation from the Cross, stirring prayers, mute weeping of faithful souls at the foot of the Cross, and wild shouting and blaspheming on the part of the mob of high and low degree.

All these contrasts meet and clash before the cross on Golgotha. By its very form the Cross appears as a sign of contradictions and contrasts, made up of guilt and redemption, disgrace and honor, lowliness and grandeur. As the wood of shame, the most disgraceful of all instruments of torture, it once cried out: "Ecce homo!" Behold the criminal between two other criminals! But the Cross also has an inscription which speaks a different language, announcing to the whole of mankind the royal dignity of Him Who was crucified. Concerning this the Holy Evangelist John reports: "Pilate wrote a title also, and he put it on the Cross. And the writing was: Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews." The meaning and import of this inscription shall be the substance of our meditation today.

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The Prophets foresaw and foretold that the Messias would come as king, and, however humble His coming in the flesh was, nevertheless a ray of kingly majesty illumined the stable at Bethlehem. This ray emanated from the star which led the Magi from the East to the manger. They shouted the question of His kingship into the country of the Jews and into their capital city: Where is the newborn King of the Jews, whose star we have seen? And as a king the Child at Bethlehem received their homage. Thenceforward, however, a dark cloud of lowliness and poverty concealed this kingship, and naught more was said of it. Once indeed the people, in a burst of enthusiasm, sought to take the Saviour by force and crown Him king. But He concealed Himself from them and fled into the mountain Himself alone (Jn. vi, 15).

But, beloved, at the moment when the Passion begins, the question of Christ's kingship is raised again and, like a golden thread, runs through all the disgraceful scenes and bloody abominations. The Saviour does not meekly permit, but Himself arranges for a royal entry into Jerusalem, with the multitude rejoicing loudly at His coming: "Blessed be the king Who cometh in the name of the Lord!" (Luke xix, 38.) At the trial, the high priests are the first to broach the issue of His kingship. Their charge addressed to Pilate declares: He says He is Christ, the King (Luke xxiii, 2); Pilate twice addresses the question to the Lord, and when he asks: "Art Thou a king then?" the reply is: "Thou sayest that I am a king" (Jn. xviii, 37).

Even Herod and the Roman soldiery, unwittingly, direct attention to the kingship of Jesus and provide Him with the royal insignia---Herod with the white festive robe, the soldiers with the mantle of regal shade, the crown of thorns and the scepter of reed. They intended it all as crude, cruel ridicule, but they were instruments of Providence, compelled to testify to Christ's kingship and to provide Him with those symbols of royalty which alone were worthy of Him and which He has retained through the centuries,-----not a precious crown, nor a scepter, nor garments fashioned of gold cloth, but rather the blood-red purple mantle and the jagged crown of thorns and the reed---fitting insignia for the King of suffering, Who to redeem mankind, ascends the throne of the Cross and goes to His death. Pilate presents Him as such a king to the Jewish people and all of mankind: "Behold your king" (Jn. xix, 14), and he determines the text of the inscription to be attached to the Cross. This inscription also contains the title of king: "Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews." By the Governor's command these words had to be inscribed in three languages, in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, so that the Jews and all the guests from the Græco-Roman World Empire, assembled for the Passover, might read and understand them.

It was customary at crucifixions to affix a white tablet, setting forth the name and crime of the person crucified, to the section of the upright beam of the cross extending above the cross-beam. On the Cross of Jesus Christ there was no other guilt to be recorded than that He was the King of the Jews. Pilate had written truly, even though he had yielded to malice. He wished to be avenged on the high priests, who had coerced him into pronouncing the death sentence, and on the entire Jewish nation, by nailing to the Cross, as it were, Israel's hope for the Messias and holding it up to the ridicule and ribald laughter of the mob. The high priests feel this, and are greatly vexed. They send a deputation to Pilate requesting him to change the inscription: Do not write, King of the Jews; people might believe He was really our king; write rather: He said he was king of the Jews; His crime was that He unjustly set Himself up as king. But Pilate curtly replies: What I have written I have written, not a letter shall be changed.

St. Augustine declares that Pilate was influenced at this moment by Providence; a secret voice commanded him not to yield.  The inscription was not to be changed. It announces the most momentous  truth in the history of the world, and the Roman Governor, in the designs of Providence, was to see to it that this truth could be read from the Cross through all centuries: Jesus of Nazareth is the Messias-King, promised to the Jewish people, and His Kingdom, as indicated by the use of the three world-languages, extends over the entire world and embraces all nations.

It is not my intention today to show how Pilate's unintentional prophecy has been realized in the course of centuries. But I do wish to direct your attention to the fact that its fulfillment began as soon as the inscription was affixed to the Cross. The moment the Lord ascends the throne of the Cross, he begins to rule as king. He draws the eyes and hearts of all unto Himself, as He had foretold: "If I shall be lifted up from the earth, I will draw all things to Myself" (Jn. xii, 32). The attraction is not external pomp, but the intrinsic beauty of His dignity, His miraculous patience, the royal color of His Blood, the jewels of His Wounds, the diadem of thorns with the sparkling rubies of the drops of Blood adhering to them.

The opening act of His reign is marked by the proclamation of a general pardon. He commends His enemies to His Heavenly Father: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." He Himself pardons the penitent thief. Because he had honored Him as King ("Lord, remember me when Thou comest into Thy kingdom"), this man was permitted to hear the consoling words: "This day thou shalt be with Me in Paradise." On the Cross the Saviour founded His dynasty. His Mother is to be the mother of the great family of the faithful. ("Son, behold thy mother; woman, behold thy son.") And when all was fulfilled, He Himself announced with a loud voice the completion of the founding of the realm, the victory of His Kingship: "It is consummated!" While He yet hangs on the Cross, His enemies are already judged and destroyed, the power of Hell is overcome, the Old Covenant is ended and the New Covenant goes into effect.

Thus the inscription became a reality on the very day on which it was nailed to the Cross. That was the beginning of the kingdom of Jesus Christ; and this beginning prefigures its entire later history. He will ever remain---while time, measured by earthly standards, endures---a crucified king, wounded and bleeding and crowned with thorns. For although He has entered into eternal transfiguration, He still continues His Passion on earth in the sufferings and persecutions of His Church; but His victory also is continued in the victories of His followers over the world and the devil and in the invincibility of His Church.

Even today mankind is divided into two camps under the Cross. On the one side are those who raise their clenched fists and cry out: "We will not have this man to reign over us" (Luke xix, 14), who join the mob in reviling and mocking Him, who storm against the Cross and would fain cast it out of the schools and out of public life. But let them rage as they will, and try as hard as they can, their final achievement is ever the same as that of Pilate and Herod and the high priests and the impenitent thief.

In the other camp are those who recognize the kingship of the Crucified Saviour, who are inseparably united with Him by faith, hope and charity; who are related by the ties of blood, in the highest sense of the word, to Him and His Holy Mother; who, therefore, along with Mary and John and Magdalen and the penitent thief, share in the fruits of the Redemption, in the blessings of His kingdom, and in the glory of His triumph.

Our place is beside the Cross. We will keep faith with our Crucified King, live and labor for Him, fight and suffer for Him. We will oppose every attempt to dethrone Him, for His is the most lawful kingship and the most bountiful in blessings---the one kingship which brings salvation and assures peace. Then, too, it is the most powerful, the most invincible, the eternally victorious kingship. Therefore, woe unto those who oppose it, for it will be their ruin. The godless, we read in the Apocalypse, shall fight with the Lamb, but the Lamb shall overcome them, because He is the Lord of lords and the King of kings (xvii, 14). Amen.

A Sheaf of Sermons Selected from the Writings of
Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur, 1929

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