Today we look at the fourth Sorrowful Mystery of the Rosary.
Miryam of Nazareth would not, by most standards, seem to be a memorable person. She lived an obscure life. She is mentioned barely a handful of times in the documents of the Church her Son founded. She turns up briefly in Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Acts, and then vanishes (with the exception of a cameo in Revelation). During her earthly life she was a peasant woman, living on the eastern fringes of the Roman Empire, in a town of no importance, widowed, and with a single Son who would die brutally under the double condemnation of both her countrymen and their foreign oppressors. She never wrote a book, gave a speech, made a scientific discovery, won a battle, made a fortune, or demanded rights for Jews, women, peasants, or oppressed peoples anywhere. Indeed, the stigma her countrymen attached to her Son seems to have rebounded on her, so the chattering classes spoke of her, when they did, as someone who conceived her Son under shady circumstances involving a Roman soldier. Her chances of success in this world were simply non-existent and it’s quite literally a miracle she did not wind up as utterly forgotten as all the other nameless, toiling peasants who spent their days in the dust and diapers of ordinary life only to flop down at night, worn out, to sleep a few brief hours and begin the grind again.
Pontius Pilate, on the other hand, was very close to the top of the food chain. There was nothing he didn’t know about Roman power politics and what it takes to make it in the world. He had a long résumé of accomplishments in the Roman bureaucracy and had led a life of distinguished public service.
If Barbara Walters had shown up at his door to do a profile on him and asked, “What will you be remembered for?” he would have given a sober, thoughtful assessment of his economic policies, his achievements in the military, his grace under political pressure from special interests—the usual blah blah. The camera would have zoomed in on his handsome tanned face, his distinguished gray temples, his dark brown eyes, his sharp aquiline nose. It would have panned over the certificates and awards on his wall and then past the smiling pictures of the wife and kids (essential adornments for every politico). There would be a photo montage of his rise to success. There would be shots of Pilate walking along the Sea of Galilee with his dog and talking about his days on the football team or his early career as a crusading reformer against the Italian wine cartels. Barbara would lob him some softballs about his marriage and his wife’s struggle with sleep disorders. There would have been the usual probing about his alleged involvement with the secretary and the chittering this caused for the gossip columnists. He would shrug it off with a “Let’s not talk about what happens in private. I’m not perfect, but I believe in family values and my wife stands by me.” There would be a reverent retrospective on Pilate’s brave support of the Roman “choice” to expose infants, and his deep pride over the new aqueduct system (“I knew I had to stand tall on those issues.”). There would be the controversy over his “alleged” harsh treatment of fundamentalists (“Barbara, there are times when you have to break a few eggs to make omelets”). There would be brief interviews with friends and old opponents (“Ponty’s always been a straight shooter. We don’t always agree. Heck! Sometimes I think he’s dead wrong. But he’s a hard worker and a dedicated public servant!”). We’d hear from local religious fanatics about some alleged unfairness in handling the trial of an up-country preacher a few years back, but we would be assured with nods and winks that this is just sour grapes from members of a cult who, it’s widely believed, practiced cannibalism. It would end with the de rigueur faux humility we expect from “public servants”: “I’m not saying I’m perfect. But I know I’ve tried to do the best darn job I know how.” Then Babs would sign off with an appropriately empty TV coda: “Pontius Pilate: A Man to Remember.”
And so he is—every day, in every Mass and Rosary, in every language of the world: “Crucified under Pontius Pilate.” It’s a passage that seals him into our memories as surely as a slightly earlier passage in the same creed reminds us that God was “born of the Virgin Mary.”
The Virgin Mary and Pontius Pilate are the only two mere mortals mentioned in the Creed. These two people image the only two possible destinies we can choose. Whether we are rich or poor, talented or klutzy, lowborn or high society, mighty or weak, we shall be remembered for displaying either the power of the powerless Virgin who said yes to God, or the powerlessness of the powerful Pilate who used his power to crucify Christ.