IN HIS trial, Jesus confronts the rulers of this passing age. On the surface, it is the religious and imperial authorities who pass judgment on Jesus. John, however, wants us to perceive the more fundamental reality. The real trial is not conducted by those worldly powers: it is they who now face judgment, as Jesus had predicted — “This is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil” (John 3.19).
Jesus tells Pilate that his Kingdom is “not of this world”, and yet that it has the ultimate authority. “You would have no power over me if it was not given from above.” He bears witness to — and, more than that, embodies — the ultimate reality of things. Pilate brings judgement on himself by his refusal to engage with this question of truth.
Jesus’s Kingdom is “more threatening” to Empire than “just another competitor” using the same methods (Rowan Williams, Christ on Trial). There is a freedom and a confidence in Jesus’s manner at the trial which stand in stark contrast to Pilate’s callous and calculating pragmatism. Christ’s appearance is “marred”, and yet he possesses an authority that rulers have never before “seen” or “contemplated” (cf. Isaiah 52.14,15).
As Christ stands before these powers in chains, he is the only figure who is truly free. He comes, not seeking to condemn, but with an offer of new life (cf. John 3.17). Their response, prefigured after the raising of Lazarus, is to seek its violent extinction. Yet what unfolds is the very opposite. While they put Jesus on trial, the powers of this world bring judgement on themselves. The tree on which they seek to crucify the Lord is the place where the victory of life is won.
The agony and humiliation of the cross bring new life to the world. Either side of the moment of Jesus’s death, John’s narrative presents us with images of the new life. These images emphasise its ecclesial nature. The Fourth Evangelist gives us a triptych, with the death of Jesus as the central panel, and two aspects of the Church — the relational and sacramental — on either side.
Immediately before his death, Jesus entrusts his mother and the beloved disciple to one another. Like so much in the Fourth Gospel, the narrative conveys both a specific historical encounter and a wider spiritual reality. Jesus, in his agony, makes provision for those closest to him. We, too, as members of the Church, receive the Blessed Virgin as our mother, and the beloved disciple as our brother.
After his death, Jesus’s body is pierced with a spear, and, John tells us, blood and water flow from his side. Julian of Norwich sees these as a sign of Christ’s labouring, as on the cross he brings a new creation to birth. They also symbolise the sacraments of baptism and eucharist, by which his saving death draws us into that new order.
John’s triptych shows us how the Church is both bound together and nourished by Christ’s death. At Calvary, Jesus does not simply salvage us as individuals from the dominion of death. He overcomes the estrangement that sin has generated between one human and another, “creating in himself a new humanity” (Ephesians 6.12).
The Letter to the Hebrews tells us that his sacrifice has opened for us “a new and living way” through the “curtain” that separated the holiness of God from sinful humanity. The language of our epistle is relational: believers are to “encourage one another”, “provoke one another to good deeds”, and “meet together”.
With public worship suspended, and physical distancing a vital part of slowing the spread of the coronavirus, the Church no longer has its usual rhythms of sacramental and relational life. As Anna Rowlands has observed, our context requires us to make “creative responses as sacramental Christians”, to continue to be “visible signs of grace and care”.
On the first Sunday after public worship was suspended, John 19.25b-27 was one of the lections. In the midst of physical separation, Christ now calls us into deeper relationships of mutual care, and invites each Christian to “behold” his Virgin Mother as our own.
While our liturgies are currently being conducted behind closed doors, the wider Body is united to them in spiritual communion. Our sacramental and relational lives continue to sustain us, because their source lies in the Paschal mystery — in the blood and water through which Christ brings his new creation to birth.