THE CROWN OF THORNS A CROWN OF IGNOMINY
|Die Dornenkrönung, Melker Altar von Jörg Breu dem Älteren, 1502|
1. When we behold any person in great suffering, a common sentiment of humanity evokes feelings of compassion in our hearts. This sentiment is so deeply rooted in human nature that it extends its sympathies even to animals. Suffering has for the human heart something sacred and mysterious. It calms passions, it quells hatred, and subdues revenge. These effects are produced even by the public sufferings of a condemned criminal. His punishment is, in a certain sense, an atonement to justice. His resignation in suffering, and his willingness to shed his life's blood, is a sacrifice offered to the sanctity of law and order; and the restoration of order and law, thus effected, reacts on the victim, and sanctifies it in the estimation of mankind. Hence, in all civilized nations, some public respect is shown to a poor criminal who accepts the punishment decreed against him by legitimate authority, and bears it with virtuous resignation.
2. Our most holy Lord was not and could not be a criminal. But the more innocent and holy he was, the more patiently and meekly he endured the flagellation to which he was condemned by the Roman Governor Pilate. During the scourging at the pillar his delicate body had been covered with wounds. His sacred flesh had been harrowed and lacerated with horrible whips, armed with iron hooks. But Jesus bore this martyrdom without a word of complaint, without a murmur. We have seen him crowned with thorns and he was silent. Such heroic fortitude in suffering, such virtuous patience should gain for him the respectful compassion of all beholders, and the commiseration of his executioners. Soldiers, above all classes of ordinary men, are disposed to admire manly courage and fortitude in suffering. But every feeling of humanity seems extinguished in the hearts of these cruel men towards our suffering Lord. Their malice exceeds the barbarity of savages. No savage cruelty ever crowned any human victim with thorns, as those pagan soldiers have done with the innocent Son of God. Instigated by the demons of hell, they proceed to heap insults and mockeries upon the Victim of their barbarity. We will stop to witness this new outrage of human malice against our blessed Lord, that, whilst impiety mocks him, our faith and devotion may honor and worship his adorable person.
3. We have to consider the deep humiliations endured by the incarnate Son of God, on the occasion of his crowning of thorns. It was then that the prophecy of Isaias was fully realized when our Lord was despised and made to appear the most abject of men. Every honest feeling of self-respect, every sentiment of manly honor was crushed in him and trampled to the ground by those heartless executioners. God has implanted in the human heart deep sentiments of honor. These are reminiscences of our former greatness, and the cherished badge of our original dignity. Man had been created by God great and glorious. "We were made a little less than the angels. We were crowned with glory and honor. We were set by God over all the works of His hands." (Ps. 8:6)
The sin of our first parents has not entirely degraded the dignity of our human nature. We are conscious of our superiority over all the material creation in the possession and use of our intellectual faculties. Man, standing erect on this earth, and calmly surveying this vast universe, hears an inward voice, proclaiming him the lord of all visible creatures. "I have said you are God's, and all of you the sons of the Most High." (Ps. 81:6) No wonder, then, that man conceives in his breast a high sentiment of his dignity, and deeply feels and resents every humiliating insult offered to him. Sentiments of honor are engendered in the human mind, not only by the remembrance of our former dignity, and by the consciousness of our present powers, but much more by faith in our future destiny. "Behold what manner of charity the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be named and should be the sons of God.... Dearly beloved, we are now the sons of God; and it hath not yet appeared what we shall be. We know, that when he shall appear, we shall be like unto him; because we shall see him as he is." (Jn. 3:1) Our origin, our present condition and future destiny are the three sources of all our honest sentiments of honor and self-respect. The better these are understood and appreciated, the more exalted and refined our idea of honor will grow in our mind. Hence, the wise man says: "A good name is better than riches, and good favor is above silver and gold." (Prov. 22:1) And in another place the Holy Ghost says: "Take care of a good name; for this shall continue with thee more than a thousand treasures precious and great. A good life hath a number of days; but a good name shall continue forever." (Eccli. 41:15) This sentiment of honor and self-respect, having been implanted in the human heart by our divine Creator and first Teacher, the more wise and virtuous any person grows, the more anxious he is to preserve his good name. Hence, we find by experience that all wise and prudent persons, and more especially all saints and servants of God, were and are extremely careful to avoid everything that may bring disgrace and infamy upon their character.
4. Now let us reflect that our Lord is the incarnate wisdom of God. He is eternal and essential holiness. It is he who has infused this noble sentiment of honor and self-respect in the human heart. It is the light of his wisdom and the heat of his divine charity that enhances it in our soul. It is he who, through his inspired word, commands us to take care of our good name. Can we, therefore, for a moment suppose that his good name was not very dear to him? ... Surely not. We read in the Gospel that when the Jews contemptuously called him a Samaritan possessed by an evil spirit, our Lord mildly rebuked them for this insult, saying: "/ have not a devil, but honor my Father, and you have dishonored me." (Jn. 8:48) Our blessed Redeemer deserves the most sincere honor and profound homage of angels and men on account of his divine perfections, being equal and co-eternal to the Father, "who hath appointed him heir of all things, by whom also he made the world; who, being the splendor of His glory and the figure of His substance, and upholding all things by the word of His power, making purgation of sins, sitteth on the right hand of the Majesty on high, being made so much better than the angels, as he hath inherited a more excellent name above them." (Heb. 1) The extraordinary sanctity of his life among the Jews, his constant practice of the most exalted virtue, his admirable wisdom and prudence, his stupendous miracles, his active charity, his universal beneficence, his humility, patience and meekness, should have gained for him the universal respect of mankind. Our divine Lord desired this esteem and respect in proportion as he desired the glory of his heavenly Father and the true happiness and eternal salvation of men. He came upon earth to redeem and save mankind. For this object he preached the gospel of grace; he instituted Sacraments; he selected his Apostles, and appointed them heralds, ministers and representatives to all the nations of the earth. He commanded them to establish his spiritual kingdom for the happiness and salvation of mankind. But, to obtain this grand object and sublime end, it was absolutely necessary that the founder of this holy religion should enjoy among men a very high and unexceptional reputation for wisdom and sanctity. Fix well, Christian reader, this maxim in your mind, before you undertake your meditation on the humiliations, outrages and insults heaped on your divine Lord and Master at his crowning of thorns.
5. Before proceeding, however, we must make another reflection. The science of good and evil, of pain and joy, of honor and dishonor, is acquired more fully by contrast. We cannot form a correct idea of evil except we learn first what is good. Joy is better relished when we have suffered pain, and pain is never fully understood except by persons who have enjoyed the blessings of perfect health. Nobody feels more deeply the crushing burden and oppressive weight of disgrace and insult than he who has been high in dignity and in the esteem and favor of the great ones of this world. Our divine Savior had been esteemed and honored by the people of Palestine. They admired his wisdom, they were charmed by the power of his popular eloquence; they were attracted by his sweetness and kindness; they wondered at his miracles, they honored him for his extraordinary holiness, His very enemies were forced to acknowledge his superior gifts and qualities. The Pharisees envied his virtue; the scribes dreaded his doctrines; the Jewish priests were angry at his burning zeal for the glory of God and the salvation of souls, which they had no courage to imitate. The Roman Governor and King Herod gave evident proofs of the esteem they had for him.
6. All this, however, is but a thin shadow of the real honor and high esteem manifested towards our Lord by the angels of heaven. One of the highest archangels was sent to announce the profound mystery of his Incarnation, and to proclaim the titles of his sublime dignity. "Behold," Gabriel said to his most holy Mother, "Behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and shall bring forth a son; and thou shalt call his name Jesus. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Most High: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of David his father: and he shall reign in the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there shall be no end." (Lk. 1:31) Nine months after this, our Savior's birth was by angelic messengers heralded to mankind in the following words: "Behold I bring you good tidings of great joy, that shall be to all the people; for this day is born to you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord, in the City of David. . .. And suddenly there was with the angels a multitude of the heavenly host, praising Gad, and saying: "Glory to God in the highest; and on earth peace to men of good will." (Lk. 2:10)
Whilst a portion of the angelic hierarchy announces the birth of our divine Lord, and proclaims his dignity to mankind upon earth, this glorious event is solemnized in heaven with greater magnificence and glory. God the Father addresses these words of loving welcome to our infant Savior: "Thou art my Son: this day have I begotten thee." . .. Then, turning to the countless millions of His angels, He says: / will be to him a Father, and he shall be to me a Son," and immediately commands all the angelic spirits, in heaven and upon earth to do homage to His Incarnate Word; "Let all the angels of God adore him. "... Hereupon St. Paul remarks: "He that maketh His angels, spirits; and His ministers, aflame of fire, says to His Son: Thy throne, O God, is forever and ever; a scepter of justice is the scepter of thy kingdom. Thou hast loved justice and hated iniquity; therefore God, thy God hath anointed thee with the oil of gladness above them that are partakers with thee .... Thou in the beginning, O Lord, hast founded the earth; and the heavens are the works of thy hands." (Heb. 1) At these magnificent words of the Godhead, all the angelic spirits fell down prostrate in profound adoration before the majesty of the incarnate Word and exclaimed: "Thou art worthy O Lord our God, to receive glory and honor and power; because Thou hast created all things." (Apoc. 4:11) This angelic homage and adoration, which began with the incarnation and birth of the Son of God, has never ceased for a moment; but it has been continued ever since and will last during all eternity. Legions of angels remained round the crib of Bethlehem to protect our infant Savior from the crafty and cruel designs of the impious King Herod. They escorted him in his exile into Egypt; they faithfully ministered unto him on the mount, and were ever ready to serve him at the least indication of his will. An angel comforted our agonizing Lord in the garden of Gethsemani, and legions of angelic spirits, armed with swords of fire, would in an instant have destroyed all his enemies, had he granted them permission. All these holy angels in an attitude of the most profound respect accompanied our Savior in every stage of his sorrowful passion, and witnessed his dreadful sufferings and deep humiliations during the mystery of the Crown of Thorns.
7. To the honor and adoration offered to our Lord by the angels of God, we should add the marks of respect, homage and love manifested to him by the highest and holiest person upon earth. We shall not attempt to describe, because we are unable to conceive the depth and intensity of adoring love which filled the mind and heart of his immaculate Virgin Mother, and of his adopted father, St. Joseph. Holy Elizabeth and her saintly husband Zachary, honored our Lord before his birth. We behold humble and simple shepherds in profound adoration before the crib of our newborn Savior; and the wise Kings of the East, kneeling before him, profess their belief in the mystery of the Incarnation, by their words and by their conduct. They offer to our Lord the emblematic gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, intending thereby to express their faith in the reality of his assumed human nature, honoring him as their King and worshipping him as their God. Holy Simeon and the venerable prophetess Anna adored our infant Savior in the temple of Jerusalem; "praised the Lord, and spoke of him to all that looked for the redemption of Israel" (Lk. 2:25, 36)
St. John the Baptist, the greatest among the prophets, and most holy among the children of men, speaking of our Lord, said to the Jewish people: "I indeed baptize you with water: but there shall come one mightier than I, the lachet of whose shoe I am not worthy to loose. He shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and fire." (Lk. 3:16) The apostles, the evangelists and all the disciples of our Lord were filled with admiration at the sublimity of his doctrine, the power of miracles, and splendor of his sanctity. They worshipped him as the incarnate Son of the living God; and preached this dogma through Judea and Galilee to all the people.
We learn from our Lord that many ancient prophets and pious kings ardently desired to see and worship him. But this extraordinary and miraculous privilege was granted to two only. These were Moses, the most meek among men, and Elias, the most zealous of the prophets. We will learn this fact from St. Mathew, and close our remarks with it: "Jesus taking with Him, Peter, James and John, his brother, bringeth them up into a high mountain apart. And he was transfigured before them. And his face did shine as the sun; and his garments became white as snow. And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elias talking with him... And a bright cloud overshadowed them. And behold a voice out of the cloud saying: This is my beloved Son, in whom lam well pleased; hear ye him. And the disciples hearing, fell upon their faces." (Mt. 17:1) We are now called upon to witness the most astounding spectacle ever beheld by angels or by men since the creation of the world. Our divine Lord in the hall of Pilate, is the object of the most complete and astonishing contrast. The prophecy of holy Simeon is now fully realized. He is made the sign and the center of the most opposite contradictions. Whilst God with His angels, and the holiest persons upon earth, unite in honoring him; the most wicked and vilest of men heap upon our Lord the most cruel outrages, and the most humiliating insults. Here, indeed, the contrast is most complete and striking. It is painfully humiliating to be disgraced and outraged, soon after having been highly praised and honored. But what is singular in the person of our Savior is, that whilst he is actually honored, praised and worshipped by countless millions of angelic spirits and by the greatest saints, he is at the same time publicly derided, mocked, outraged and insulted by the most wicked and impious men instigated by the devils. The knowledge our divine Lord has of the sacredness of his person, the holiness of his life, the sanctity of his mission, and of his sublime dignity, intensify his feeling of disgrace and humiliation beyond the comprehension of created intelligences. Hence, deeming it impossible to explain by words this profound and astonishing mystery of the crowning of thorns, let us contemplate it in its awful reality ....
8. Behold, then, the King of Kings sitting on a cold stone, crimsoned with his own blood, an old military cloak is contemptuously thrown on his wounded and gory shoulders. A reed is thrust between his hands tightly bound with cords.... Look and see the sovereign Lord of heaven and earth with a reed of derision in his divine hands for a scepter, a filthy scarlet rag on his bleeding shoulders for his kingly mantle, a crown of sharp thorns on his adorable head as his royal diadem. A cold stone forms his imperial throne. Only a stony heart can behold him without emotion. These pretended courtiers, having placed upon our Lord all the insignia of mock royalty, proceed now to offer him their affected homage... They assume the most insulting attitudes of profound contempt for his person. They fill his ears with vulgar expressions of coarse ribaldry, and vent upon him the most opprobrious and blasphemous epithets. These cruel men snatch the reed from the hands of our dear Lord and repeatedly strike with it the Crown of Thorns over his head, causing it to shake all over and driving the thorns more deeply into his head, sending a thrill of pain through every limb and
a pang of agony to his sorrowful heart. These heartless monsters brutally slap the face of the eternal Son of God, and disgorge their disgusting phlegm upon his divine countenance. In conclusion, bending their knee in mockery to the ground stained with his life's blood, these impious men salute our Lord, and jeeringly say to him: "Hail, thou King of the Jews." (Mt. 27:29) Thus the prophetic vision of Isaias is more fully realized. The appearance of the most beautiful of the sons of men is so horribly deformed that his nearest relations and most intimate friends can no longer recognize him; here are the sad words of the Prophet: "There is no beauty in him.... Despised and the most abject of men: a man of sorrows, and acquainted with infirmity, his look was, as it were, hidden and despised.... Surely he has borne our infirmity and carried our sorrows, and we have thought him, as it were, a leper, and as one struck by God and afflicted....But he was wounded for our iniquities, and bruised for our sins...The Lord hath laid upon him the iniquities of us all." (Is. 53:2)
9. We cannot find in history any man so covered and overwhelmed with opprobrium and contempt, as the divine Son of God. "Truly he is the most abject of men." Derision is hard to bear. No man with any sense of honor can submit to it, without at least doing great violence to his feelings, Derision can proceed only from the low mind and corrupt heart of vulgar persons. But to be mocked and derided in public, to be derided when we are enduring agonies of pain; to be derided and mocked for virtues and for our meek behavior in suffering, to be mocked and derided by our own executioners, to bear all this with meekness surely requires a virtue superior to that of human nature. Derision, however, has a sharper and more pungent sting when directed against an innocent victim of oppression, against a noble and high personage, and especially, against a man of superior wisdom, held in high estimation by the largest and best portion of mankind. Derision in words is painful enough, but when to derisive expressions are added acts of mockery and insult, each of which increases the pain and confusion of the noble and innocent victim, then indeed the martyrdom of suffering and debasement is complete. He is the most abject of men. Dionysius the Carthusian says: "The Jews, not satisfied with inflicting cruel blows upon his body, heaped insults, derisions and blasphemies upon the head of our Lord Jesus Christ." Could we believe that if God became man for man's salvation, he should receive this horrible treatment from the objects of his divine charity? Yet to the eternal confusion of human nature, such has been the fact, and this awful fact is described in the Gospel. "Then the soldiers of the Governor, taking Jesus into the hall, gathered together unto him the whole band: and stripping him, they put a scarlet cloak about him. And platting a Crown of Thorns, they put it upon his head, and a reed in his right hand. And bowing the knee before him, they mocked him, saying; Hail King of the Jews." (Mt. 27:27) St. Mark adds that these cruel and brutal men: "struck his head with a reed and spat on his face." (Mk. 15:19) Lastly we learn from St. John, who most likely was present at this horrible scene, that the executioners struck with hard blows our suffering Lord in various parts of his wounded and bleeding body. "They came to him and said: Hail King of the Jews, and they gave him blows." (Jn 19:3) This conduct of our Savior's enemies is so extraordinary that the wisdom of God must have concealed under it deep and useful mysteries which we are now going to consider in the following chapter...