In our last reflection for Lent on the Monday of Holy Week, Matt Swaim and I will discuss Saint Thomas More's commentary on the arrest of Jesus in The Sadness of Christ
on the Son Rise Morning Show. Listen live here or on your local EWTN affiliate at about 6:50 a.m. Central, 7:50 a.m. Eastern on Monday, March 29.
St. John the Evangelist does not describe the Agony of the Garden in his Gospel. On so many Good Fridays, I've heard a priest explain how Jesus is totally in command in St. John's Gospel. The cohort, the Sanhedrin, even Pilate are the ones on trial, not Jesus. He is the King, He carries His own cross, He bows His head (first) and then gives up His spirit. All of this fulfills His statement in John 10:17-18: "No one takes it [His life] from me, but I lay it down on my own. I have power to lay it down, and power to take it up again. This command I have received from my Father.”
And Jesus' control over the events begins when Judas shows up with the cohort, as St. Thomas More, citing the Gospel of John, emphasizes that Jesus stuns the cohort as they seek "Jesus of Nazareth", stating "I am he"
. They draw back and fall to the ground--and More presumes that since Judas, who has just betrayed Him with a kiss, is standing with the cohort, draws back and falls to the ground too.
O saving Christ, only a little while ago, you were so fearful that you lay face down in a most pitiable attitude and sweat blood as you begged your Father to take away the chalice of our passion. How is it that now, by a sudden reversal, you leap up and spring forth like a giant running his race and come forward eagerly, to meet those who seek to inflict that passion upon you?
Then he applies this seeming change to us:
Hither, hither let all hasten who are faint of heart. Here let them take firm hold of an unwavering hope when they feel themselves struck by a horror of death. For just as they share Christ's agony . . . they will also share this consolation, undoubtedly they will feel themselves helped by such consolation as Christ felt . . .
More emphasizes that Jesus surrenders Himself at the same time He demands the cohort let the Apostles go: this is not a condition or a bargain. Just as He stuns them into collapsing to the ground by saying "I am he", Jesus commands them to let the others go. Thus He fulfills His statement to the Father, "Of those you have given me, I have not lost anyone" (John 18:19). Furthermore, More states: "He Himself by His hidden power had opened up a way for their escape." (pp. 79-80)
In the midst of his discussion of how Psalm 109:8 ("May his days be few, and may another take over his ministry"; also quoted in the Acts of the Apostles 1:20) foretells Judas' death, More writes a great defense of the Fathers of the Church and the Tradition of the Church in contrast to those who try to interpret the Bible on their own:
And nevertheless nowadays, first in one place, now in another, there are springing up from day to day, almost like swarms of wasps or hornets, people who boast that they are "autodidacts" (to use St. Jerome's word) and that without the commentaries of the old doctors, they find clear, open, and easy all those things which all the ancient Fathers confessed they found quite difficult. . . . But now these modern men who have sprouted up overnight as theologians professing to know everything, not only disagree about the meaning of Scripture with all those men who led such heavenly lives, but also fail to agree among themselves concerning great dogmas of the Christian faith.
More prays that they return to "the bosom of Mother Church" so that Christians will be united "in the true faith of Christ and joined in mutual charity as true members of Christ . . . " (pp. 81-82)
Another remarkable passage occurs when More meditates on the different fates of the Apostles and of Judas: Judas, "rejoicing and exulting", thinks himself safe, not knowing what will happen to him next (his remorse and suicide) contrasted with the Apostles, in danger of arrest, but destined to survive:
In this connection I am struck by the lamentable obscurity of the miserable human condition: often we are distressed and fearful, ignorant all the while that we are quite safe; often, on the other hand, we act as if we had not a care in the world, unaware that the death-dealing sword hangs over our heads.
Again, it's hard not to see More's own predicament in his next words:
Cruel is the appetite which feeds on the misery of others. Nor is there any reason why a person should rejoice and congratulate himself on his good fortune because he has it in his power to cause another man's death . . . For though a man may send someone else to his death, he himself is sure to follow him there.
More still holds out hope for the sinner's repentance and God's answering mercy--that no one would ever imitate Judas and refuse God's grace, "but rather may eagerly accept the grace God offers us and may be restored one more to glory through penance and mercy." (pp. 83-84)
There's a very long section (from page 85 to page 95) on the Severing of Malchus' Ear in which More describes St. Peter's history of trying to prevent his Master from suffering His Passion; whether or not it's ever right to commit violence to prevent the innocent from suffering, etc, but as More himself says when commenting on all the different meanings the Fathers of the Church had seen in this event, it would make "too long an interruption in the account of the historical events."
So I'm skipping over that to highlight the great soliloquy More gives Jesus to offer an exegesis on the verse from Luke's Gospel: "But this is your hour, and the power of darkness." This is a real tour-de-force:
Explaining why the authorities didn't arrest Jesus in the Temple or in any public place when he was preaching, teaching, and debating with them, He states:
It was because the time and the hour had not yet come, the hour fixed not . . . by your cleverness, but rather by the unsearchable plan of my Father, to which I too had given my consent. . . .
And so this is your hour and the power of darkness. This is the short hour allotted to you and the power granted to darkness, so that now in the dark you might do what you were not permitted to do in the daylight . . . You are in the dark when you ascribe my death to your strength . . .
But this is the hour and the brief power of darkness . . . For you yourselves create your own darkness, you put out the light . . . This is your short hour. . . .
But this hour and this power of darkness are not only given to you now against me, but such an hour and such a brief power of darkness will also be given to the governors and other caesars against other disciples of mine. And this too will truly be the power of darkness. (p. 100)
And Jesus alludes to the persecution of his disciples in the future, the suffering of martyrs--all driven by the prince of darkness, but doomed to defeat by God's power. The prince of darkness and the tyrants (Nero, Henry VIII?, and others) will succeed for awhile, but God the Almighty will destroy them in the end. Their time is short:
And so this hour of yours and this power of darkness are not long-lasting and enduring but quite as brief as the present moment to which they are limited, an instant of time always caught between a past that is gone and a future that has not arrived. Therefore, lest you should lose any of this hour of yours which is so short . . . be quick about it . . .
And Jesus again demands that the Apostles go free, while He allows the cohort to take Him.
As I did last week, I've given Matt Swaim (and you, I hope) a great deal to think about in these wonderful passages and meditations from The Sadness of Christ. Saint Thomas More, in the Tower of London, facing his own death, was still thinking about the other Catholics in England who would suffer because of the division Henry VIII and his supporters were bringing to England and the Catholic Church. While the majority had signed the oaths Henry VIII demanded, More had faith in Jesus that this hour of darkness would be brief in the eyes of God and His Providence. Therefore he was providing them with consolation and hope in the face of persecution, exile, and even death.
All the quotations are from the Scepter edition of The Sadness of Christ, presenting the Yale University translation.