When Pontius Pilate asked his infamous question, “What is truth?” (John 18:38), he represented the heart of our time. To look at the facts and idea of Jesus of Nazareth, it’s an appropriate question. Why should the life and death of this man be the hinge of human history? There’s loads of good teachers in history, loads of meaningful religions, what makes Jesus true above all other claims to truth?
Christianity has always required a personal encounter with the risen Christ. Charles Wesley had grown up in the Christian faith, and was serving as a pastor before he experienced a personal and powerful awakening, where Christ moved from being an intellectual concept or historical figure, and became the powerful, risen God-man. For Wesley, and for most Christians, this awakening happens after a realization that this historical person really was also God, that this person who was God died for the sins of humanity, that this person who was God died…even for me. Soon after his awakening, Charles wrote a hymn about his personal, emotional, psychological encounter with the God of the universe on a cross…died he for me who caused his pain? For me who him to death pursued?
After imagining the sort of awakening that inspired Charles Wesley’s “And Can It Be” hymn, I pictured Pilate washing his hands. Pilate’s haunting question to Christ, “What is truth?” is a dramatic scene that reminds me of the casual observer who doesn’t see Jesus as anything more than another man, and who certainly doesn’t recognize Jesus’ death as being “for me.” I think as Christians we are always having awakenings, where we realize that we have become unfamiliar with Christ, that we have forgotten how personally he comes into our lives, how casually we have washed our hands of his death. Most of us aren’t the Roman soldier, actively nailing Christ to the cross…we’re Pilate, disinterested and disengaged from the passion of Christ, snarkily avoiding the personal encounter with the crucified Christ with the assumption that no one can really know what is true.
Holy Week tends to be a time of awakening for me.
Right after the death of a young college friend, I was in a Tenebrae service where the liturgists began stripping the altar and removing all of the decor from the sanctuary in silence. The church had a banner that read, “He Is Risen!” As I watched them take that banner down, my imagination kicked in… If what we believe is not true, if he is not risen, if death wins, none of this matters, nothing has changed…nothing. And suddenly, it was as though the risen Christ was ablaze in my face…there in the silence of that stripped sanctuary. It was as if I was face to face with the crucified Christ, risen. The idea of Christ gave way to the presence of Christ in a way I had never experienced before…and I had had a pretty big awakening years before as a teenager. Holy week forces us to slow down, to look at the God-man who knit us together in our mother’s womb, whipped and crucified…for me. This week, may you slow down long enough to look upon Christ crucified and find a spark of truth awakening in you.
This week begins a series I’m doing through Charles Wesley’s hymn: And Can It Be That I Should Gain, each week focusing on a new verse and a new part of the body that connects us to the experience of awakening. Comic fans may notice my layout is inspired by Frank Miller (I’ve been reading his 1983 graphic novel Ronin on repeat for weeks now). Check back in the next few weeks to see how the hymn-comic story pans out!