...can you say that the one whom the Father has consecrated and sent into the world blasphemes because I said, 'I am the Son of God'?
Irony is often used in humor; it cleverly intrigues the mind which knows one reality but is teased by a word or suggestion of something different. Recently, after a bumpy ride to the VA off-site parking lot, I told the shuttle driver he'd missed one pothole.
Saint John's irony is not humorous, but he uses it to point to a very great mystery. When Pilate places Jesus on his own judgment seat we recognize that Jesus is, in fact, the judge of the world. Crowned with thorns by soldiers, and mocked with a sign over his head, "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews," we understand that he is indeed a king. It's irony, but it's not funny.
Strangely, we could not recognize Jesus as our savior if he were not mocked by his enemies and crowned with cruel thorns. Our king could never wear ermine and purple and a crown of silver or gold. To be our Savior he must suffer as we suffer; without it our suffering would be unredeemed and pointless.
Saint John's irony points far beyond humor to the very heart of Revealed Love. The faithful are not amused by his irony but fascinated; we find ourselves peering ever more deeply into this fathomless, inexplicable mystery.
Today, a week before Good Friday, Saint John reveals why Jesus must be crucified. It is because he has said, "I am the Son of God;" and because he speaks the truth. This is the greatest irony of all, Jesus must die because he is the Son of God.
Some contemporary Jewish scholars have said that his statement, if it was blasphemous, was not a capital offence by the laws of that time. He was not guilty of a crime. Nor was he condemned for a crime. He was condemned for who he is.
The condemnation and execution of Jesus, like the execution of criminals in the United States, was heavily wrapped in deniability. Who condemned him to death? Pilate? The Sanhedrin? Herod? Judas and the fleeing disciples? The mob? Each party could point to someone else as the responsible one.
Sister Helen Prejean has shown how American executions are conducted in the same way. The jury determines the prisoner should be executed but they know the law requires a series of appeals to higher courts. If he dies they didn't do it. But neither did the judges who accepted the jury's decision; nor did the Governor who did not interfere. And the executioner was only carrying out the will of the state. No one killed the prisoner but he died. Nor is anyone guilty of Jesus' death.
The drama of Holy Week, beginning on Palm Sunday, unfolds with inexorable momentum. Jesus must die not for what he has done but for who he is.
A gay man in the hospital told me his pastor had said he was condemned to hell because of who he is. I could argue with that priest but I could not claim he never said it. I don't know who condemned my patient. Unfortunately, so far as I could tell, the Veteran was not relieved by my contradicting what he had heard.
As Christians we often examine our conscience and ask God to reveal our sins. We want to know if we should be condemned for what we have done, and we want time to repent. If we've done no wrong we consider ourselves innocent.
But in Holy Week we consider the greatest irony of all, that an innocent man is condemned to a painful, humiliating death for being the Son of God. And by his wounds we are healed.