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Sermon on the Passion

Mgr. Ronald Knox
Mgr. Ronald Knox

INTRODUCTION
This sermon was preached by Fr. Ronald Knox at Our Lady of Victories in Kensington, London in 1921, just two years after he became a Catholic priest. Proclaimed in the brief window of peace between the wars, the Church in which he preached was later decimated during the Blitz.

Ronald Knox is reckoned by many to have been the one of the finest English preachers of the Twentieth Century. He subsequently became Catholic Chaplain to the university of Oxford and single-handedly completed a translation of the Bible still in use today. He died on August 24th, 1957, aged 69 and is buried in Mells, Somerset. Evelyn Waugh, his friend and literary executor later published a well-regarded biography. His sermons, of which the following is but one topical example, combine high rhetoric, rare wit, deep biblical scholarship, and pastoral sensitivity. In this homily, we are drawn into some vivid closing scenes of Christ’s earthly life, “The Trial.” We are invited to ponder His silence, and then the significance of his few choice words during, both of which point to who He claims to be. Knox proceeds to canvass before roundly rejecting currents of Biblical criticism, which sought to gainsay Christ’s divinity. Such judgment, he argues with great brio, ends in our own judgment. Though his style is certainly of its time, appreciation of the singular combination of gifts that Knox brought to the pulpit rightly endures.

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 Preached at Our Lady of Victories in Kensington, London, 1921

Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of Mary, claimed to be the eternal Son of God. His acts were deliberately calculated to identify him with the promised Messias. I have urged that his words when he is (as it were) taken off his guard are the words of a God speaking in the outward form of man. I have urged that the hints which he let fall in his parables and in the comparisons he used are proper to conscious divinity. I have urged that his silence, and the silence which he imposed on others, during his lifetime, is even more eloquent testimony to his divine origin and act, or word, or hint. And now we are left to consider the closing scenes of his natural life, during which that strange silence of his finds its culmination, and is broken at last.

Throughout the whole of his process, his silence itself upon the notice of his accusers. “He held his peace and answered nothing “, says St Mark of the trial before the high priest. “Herod” “says St. Luke “questioned him in many words. But he answered him nothing. “”Pilot saith to him” (this is St. Matthew), “Dost thou not hear how great testimonies they allege against thee? And he answered him never a word, so that the governor wondered exceedingly.” That silence as his judgement is the crown of a life of silence; we must guess his riddle, he will not tell us. Surely, surely, you can see what he means from the very accusations these bewildered hirelings of witnesses are making against him. “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it up again in three days “ — cannot you see that he speaks of himself? The judges sit there baffled, and the secret which love pierced long since, when Peter made his confession, hate still cannot master. Notice that the whole trial leads up to the high priest’s question, and the whole issue depends upon it; it’s patience worn out at last, he turns to the prisoner, and adjures him by the living God to tell them whether he claims to be — what? A Prophet? A Reformer? A national leader? A disturber of the public peace? A king, lineally descended from David? None of these things agitate, or could agitate such an audience as this. But —does he claim to be the Christ? Does he claim to be the son of the blessed God?

And this answer? We will give the critics every consideration; we will go to the pet document, the primitive document, the Gospel of Saint Mark. And Jesus said to him “I am”. The same utterance that once went in thunder down the slopes of Sinai, now breaks the silence of the judgement-hall. St. Luke supplies us with the commentary: “if I tell you, you will not believe me; and if I question you, you will not answer me “. The time has gone by when they might have unravelled his secret for themselves, and fallen at his feet with the Prince of the Apostles; now it is too late. God defend us from all that dreadful statute of limitations which he sets upon his graces! That all-seeing eye, from which no human heart can hold its secret, has read at a glance the shrivelled souls opposite, and found then confirmed in evil; no need, then, for further mystery; he may disclose himself. And at the disclosure, the high priest rends the garments of his now usurped authority and the hall rings with cries of “Blasphemy”. The word is passed round to such as can best rule by their arts the sympathies of the mob; the matter is settled now: only a little browbeating, to silence the scruples of an ineffective governor, and the carpenter who claim to be a God will be hurried to his death.

But stay! What voice is this that breaks through their clamour with demands for reversal of the verdict and reprieve? Breathless, and easy, yet confident of a just contention, still hugging his precious pile of documents, rushes in — the higher critic. “Stop, stop “, he cries; “let me explain –– it is all a ghastly mistake. Your witnesses have misunderstood, or, perhaps, wilfully misrepresented the facts; the prisoner you see before you never blasphemed. He calls himself the Christ; that is the Messias — a general title for the great national hero who is to arise and deliver Israel from its foreign rulers; it is not the Scriptures, but a particular interpretation of the Scriptures, which invests that promised delivery with circumstances of divinity. He claims to be the Messias that is, to usher in a new dispensation, a fuller self–revelation of God to man: you must not hold him responsible for all the theological associations which the use of such language may conjure up for you. True, he goes on to call himself the Son of God; but then, we are all sons of God. Not one of us but claims God for his Father, however far we have strayed from him, by whatever infidelities we have offended him. This man, then, your prisoner, claims God for his Father by the common right of humanity. Only, there are degrees of sonship: each of us, in proportion as he has realised the fact of God’s Fatherhood, and made its lesson his own practising and by preaching the law of human brotherhood, appropriate to himself in a special sense the title of Son. Believe me, sirs, this man is nearer to God than you know. You Pharisees, with all your heroic loyalty to the traditions of your race; you Sadducees, with your broad-minded appreciation of modern tendencies and a civilisation other than your own; you Scribes with all your industrious learning in the letter of the Old Testament – there is something you have all missed, and this man has found it. Do not be misled by his use of sonorous titles, by Oriental imagery in which he pictures to you the terrors of a future judgement: recognise in him, as I do, a heaven-sent teacher who has received divine illumination – may we not even call it inspiration? – in a very special degree, though he be not different in kind from the clay of our common fashioning. To kill him is to make a hero of him, perhaps (such is popular superstition) deify him. Forget your scruples, reverence him as a Master, and let him go in peace.”

So pleaded the higher critic before that tribunal of hate, and I confess that, hideous as are the faces of the judges in their cruelty, I find something noble in their scorn. What? Bring this sorry apology before a court so impanelled? On a question of fact they might disagree, did disagree until the prisoner made his own avowal. But on a question of law, cannot those scribes, who have pored till their sight failed over the sacred documents, be trusted to determine whether “Son of God “be a blasphemous title or no? Granted that the Pharisees were blinded by hatred, it was not a Pharisee but a Sadducee who rent his clothes and cried, “What need of further witnesses?” The high priest, as the enemy of the Pharisees, had rejoiced, perhaps, at those diatribes against hypocrisy and formalism which had left the withers of his own caste unwrung; it is for nothing that he has been suddenly turned from an impartial judge into a fanatical accuser? Is it nothing to the critics that such a man should grow white with anger at the bare mention of the Christ? The court will take no cognizance of such a halting defence, nor does the prisoner need it. Believe me, the vacillations of Pilate were no less futile and Peter, when he thrice denied his Lord, did him no greater disservice.

He stands there patient, not needing our interference. He stands his trial not only before the Jews, his contemporaries, but before all generations of men; judge him they must, misjudge him they may, if they will. Only you must accept his own definition of the issue, not seek to flatter him with half divine titles, too high praise for a madman, too cold homage for a God. He claims, not merely to defy death or to despise it, but to have conquered it. “Destroy this temple”, he says (and we did not need St John to tell us that he referred to his own body), “and in three days I will raise it up”; he means “My heavenly Father will raise it up”? No; “I will raise it up.” The challenge is a perfectly straightforward one: only St John records the actual occasion which produced it; but the witnesses at the trial of preserve the fact for us, and the leaders of the Jews believed those witnesses; “Sir, we have remembered that the seducer said, while he was yet alive, after three days I will rise again.” Now if Jesus of Nazareth claimed to be a king, or a popular leader, or a prophet, or a reformer, that challenge is meaningless. It is a business–like challenge only because he claimed to be God. “Kill me”, he said, “and, if I am only human, you will be rid of me; if I am more than human, you will perforce acknowledge the justice of the test.” You may call him a seducer, or you may hail him as God; in either case, the story of the Gospel will take rank as a tragedy. But tell us that there was never any challenge, never any test, and that only a pale phantom left the garden tomb on Easter morning – then you have left us now that a tragedy nor a theology; you have only spoiled a story.

You will tell me, perhaps, that the tragedy of the passion seems to you all the more real as a tragedy, if you are allowed to suppose that the chief actor in it was really helpless; could not, if he would, have defended himself. “Surely” you say, “if it is really true that he who was crucified on Calvary hung there at his own free will, making, at every moment of his three hours, a deliberate choice of death; if he parted from his mother only for two short days of absence, comforted the penitent thief against ultimate terrors he himself could not experience; gave way in his weariness to a desolation which came short of despair – then you have made a fine pageant of Calvary, but the human interest is gone. For me (you say) the true pathos of the situation, the element in it that challenges and provokes my tears, is that utter helplessness and hopelessness which your God-man could neither bring upon himself nor feel. It is enough for me that a man who lived generously for what he believed to be his mission died heroically for what he believed to be the truth. Is not this enough (you ask) to bow a man’s knee in homage to that divine inspiration which could make so noble a thing of our weak humanity? God forgive me if I lack altogether the instinct of reverence, but it seems to me that your story, though it be moving, is neither a very remarkable, nor a very new one. Word for Word, step for step, the story of Jesus of Nazareth seems, by your way of it, to be the story of Savanarola, and I had as soon say my prayers to Savanarola as to your Christ.

But if that God–man we Catholics worship did truly walk the earth, if the Immutable grew to manhood, and the Impassible suffered, and the Immortal died, then I say that to me the three hours on Calvary are more, not less, of a tragedy for the divine personality, that is veiled and unveiled in their passing. If there are really angel legions that stood all about, hand on scabbard, ready to interfere in that history at a single word from the Hero of it – a word which was never given; then there is no detail in the story, no circumstance that invests it whether of Jewish hate or of Roman scorn, that does not become alive with irony – and what is tragedy, if it be not irony? A visionary hated, an innocent man misjudged, an unbefriended victim done to death – that is an old story, a story of every day. But, God rejected by his own people! Eternal Justice arraigned before a human tribunal! The Author of life sighing out the last breath of the human soul! Tell us, if you will, that it is only a story, and we children to believe in it; only do not try to tell it us without the point!

He sat, and sits, in judgement upon the men that have made themselves his judges. His sentence will be pronounced when the time has gone by for regret, or reconsideration or excuse. He will divide us into two classes, only two – those who confessed, and those who denied him. He will point us to one of two destinies, only two –- to be confessed or to be denied before his Father in heaven. Judge honestly, then, for to him all hearts are open; judge anxiously, for it is you who will sustain the sentence.

From R Knox “The Pastoral Sermons of Ronald A. Knox” ed. Philip Caraman SJ (London: Burns & Oates, 1960) pp. 378 – 383