When Jesus “came down from heaven” it was not simply to be born in Bethlehem. He came further and further down, to poverty, rejection, pain, betrayal, death, and finally, to the depths of the grave through crucifixion, the very worst form of death Hell ever invented. There is no abyss he has not seen, no depth he has not plumbed.
The first movement of that descent begins in a place where many of us encounter Hell: in a bureaucracy. Pilate had a long resume of accomplishments in the Roman bureaucracy and had led a life of Distinguished Public Service. If Barbara Walters had asked him “What will you be remembered for?” he probably would have given her the usual blah blah. It would have ended with the normal faux humility we expect from “public servants”: “I’m not perfect. But I’m sure I’ll be remembered for doing the best darn job I know how.” And so he is remembered—every day, in every language of the world: “crucified under Pontius Pilate.” There are the only two mortals mentioned in the creed: Mary and Pilate. These image the only two destinies we mortals ultimately can choose.
John’s ambiguity in describing the trial before Pilate is striking. Just when it looks like Jesus is the victim, John reminds us that, by God’s mysterious Providence, he is calling the shots. Jesus tells his disciples he has power to lay down his life and power to take it up again. He offers judgments of his judge Pontius Pilate. He is clothed in royal purple and a crown of thorns by people who have no idea he is really and truly entering on his reign by these tokens of his Passion.
The Passion itself is more than simply the expiration of Christ. It involves not simply the stopping of Jesus’ heart, but the breaking of it. For his own unfathomable reasons, our Lord willed that he suffer, not simply die in his bed at a ripe old age. We shall never be able to really comprehend this: we can only receive it. Yet, by his stripes, we are healed.
And when the moment comes for his death, it comes not because of some accident of myocardial rupture, but because Jesus chose that moment to “give up his spirit”. In that willed and chosen act, Jesus gives up his Spirit to the Father for us, making us sharers in his Spirit.
The seal on this promise of the Spirit is the Resurrection. Many people complain of the Resurrection as a crass, crude, physical ending to the Gospels. Such people prefer a Jesus who rose spiritually and lives on in the hearts of Nice People Everywhere—which is to say they prefer him dead. The thing is, as Peter Kreeft has noted, resurrection is a crass, crude, physical thing because death is a crass, crude, physical thing. That’s why he was buried and did not fade into mist like Yoda or Obi-Wan. The world thought it was burying a corpse. God knew we were burying a seed that would sprout on the third day.
Why the third day? Jesus hints at a possible explanation when he calls his Resurrection a fulfillment of “the sign of the prophet Jonah”. Jonah’s three day adventure in the belly of the whale was a sign to the hard of heart that they were hard of heart. The inference about our fallen race is not a flattering one.
When people speak of Jesus “fulfilling” the Scripture, they often have in mind the notion that the Old Testament has a series of Nostradamus-like “messianic predictions”. According to this scenario, all the attentive first-century Jew had to do was follow Jesus around with his Messianic Prophecy Checklist and say, “If this guy is Messiah, then according to the Checklist, his mother will be a virgin, he heal the sick, cleanse the Temple, and die and rise from the dead.” But, of course, nobody was expecting anything of the sort. And the reason is simple: people didn’t see Jesus fulfilling the Scripture until after he did so. It was a case of 20/20 hindsight. With a Great Collective Apostolic Forehead Smack, the early Church looked at the life of Christ and only realized after it was all over that he was hidden in plain view in the Old Testament and they had not seen it. That was why the Risen Christ had to practically rub the disciples’ noses in their own Bibles on the Emmaus Road and interpret to them in all the scriptures “the things concerning himself” (Lk 24:27).
This means that the Resurrection—though a wonder we never expected and a startling reversal which suddenly turns tragedy to joy—is also what all things have been about all along. Newer than a newborn and older than the universe is the Lamb slain from the foundations of the world.