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We Did This to Him

The Last Hours of Jesus: From Gethsemane to Golgotha

By Ralph Gorman

Publisher: Sophia Institute Press

Pages: 304

Price: $18.95

Review Author: Christopher Gawley

Christopher Gawley is an attorney in New York.

The Last Hours of Jesus was originally published by Sheed and Ward in 1960. Sophia Institute Press has put out a new edition, which includes minor revisions. Its author, Passionist Fr. Ralph Gorman, was a scholar who lived for three years in Jerusalem. His book reconstructs in dispassionate detail what transpired from Gethsemane to Calvary, an 18-hour period. Gorman uses the four Gospel accounts and selected contemporary sources of information to build a single narrative that reads like a forensic and factual report of an event, almost like a court pleading. He offers sidebars on the characters and their histories, and on the significance of certain events as they would have been understood by then-contemporary actors. To the extent that events or timing are muddled in one way or another, he presents, in the text or by footnote, the case for what he terms the most probable and likely sequence. But Gorman, as author, stays out of the way of the narrative. Given his writing style, he deserves approbation for this more than for any purported novelty or analysis he offers. He clearly presents what we know transpired during the most eventful time of human history. What emerges from his effort is a book that is very hard to put down.

The Passion is the seminal Christian event, and it cries out for understanding and contemplation. When a person becomes a believer, reflection on the Passion becomes an exercise in humiliation and empathy. No one who confesses that Jesus Christ is Lord and God can help being moved to tears over the horrors and calumnies He suffered for us and by us on Good Friday. We Christians flavor everything with the reality of the Resurrection.

The horror of the Passion becomes mitigated, or so it seems, in part because we “know” the ending. It might have been bad — even horrendous — but because our Lord is God and because we know He rises in the end, we think the harm of the Passion is somehow lessened, at least subconsciously. One of the salutary benefits of Catholic emphasis on the Passion is that the softened flavoring, inescapable as it is, is itself mitigated as we make the Passion grist for a large part of our spiritual life. Not only does the Resurrection not mitigate the horror of the Passion, it intensifies it upon reflection.

Fr. Gorman’s account lends itself to certain observations of the character of our Lord. His self-control and mastery over everyone around Him lead one to conclude that even though others exercised putative control over Him during his arrest, two trials, scourging, and execution, their control was illusory. Our Lord was always in control of the situation and to such a degree that even those who seemed to be in control were frustrated by their failure to elicit the normal reactions from what should have been a broken man. They wanted to condemn Him, and they wanted Him to accede to their power and whims. He refused. He answered their questions, if at all, in the terms He saw fit. Words that describe Him are patient, meek, steely, empowered, regal, just, merciful, courageous, decorous, and noble. More than these, one is struck by His sublime dignity — His otherworldly dignity — in the brutish business that was His execution. He demonstrates His majesty and makes every single detractor look small and insignificant by comparison.

A paradox revealed by meditation on the Passion is that even though our Lord was beaten, bruised, and executed in a particularly cruel and dishonorable way, it is man who is reproached. Our Lord might have been stripped of His garments when they nailed Him to the gibbet, but the soul who contemplates that horrendous scene is the one who is stripped. The Passion is an incomprehensible event, and the greater the sensitivity of the soul who considers it, the greater its incomprehensibility. Of course, we know that what the Catechism teaches of it is true and good. But really, the Passion operates to divest us of all pretension; it is the momentary puncture of the myth of our own goodness and decency. In a mysterious way, we did this to Him, and there isn’t a devout soul alive who hasn’t wrestled with that spiritual sentiment. The cruelty we show to others — even if no one else knows, save God — is laid bare when we go deep into the Passion. The response we muster in the sickness of our hearts is to hide our face and cry, Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.

But amid the horror — of both the sheer injustice committed against the Lamb of God and the revelation of our cosmic unworthiness of a God so merciful — the Passion reveals the depth of love our God has for us in that He would endure such a trial in expiation for our sins. Sin today has been forgotten — nay, it has become fashionable. The Passion shows the consequences of sin and the exorbitant cost of redemption. We have no license to complain about what the Jews or Romans did to our Lord; we have no right to stand outside as sympathetic observers and tsk-tsk what others did. We did it. And when we stand before the Judgment Seat of God, the full weight of our sins will bear down on us — unless, and only unless, we have turned our lives over to Him, confessed our evildoing, and amended our ways. The Passion demands no less; it is, in full living color, the reality of how sin rends and destroys. To borrow our Lord’s phraseology, if sin accomplishes such a feat with the green wood of our Lord’s goodness and innocence, what then will it accomplish with the dry wood and rot of our lives?

Yet we must do more than rend our hearts in despair over the treatment of our Lord 2,000 years ago. We must turn the maudlin into action and live our lives for Him. When we feel tempted to curse Caiaphas or Annas, or when we boil with anger at the soldiers who made sport of our King, those emotions must stimulate in us a firm intention to make a personal amendment. The Passion is not a lamentable past event; it is a present call to action — a warning and a gift. If we have been lax or slothful in our duties, there is no time for self-pity. The time to get right with God has never been more perfect, more fitting, and more appropriate than the moment in which we find ourselves right now.

Two caveats must be noted with respect to The Last Hours of Jesus. First, Fr. Gorman’s factual reconstruction does not dwell on mystical or typological aspects of the Passion. So, for example, he seems almost at pains to point out that Holy Mother Church has read much into our Lord’s bequeathal of the Blessed Virgin Mary to St. John as his mother. We commonly understand St. John as a representative of the Church in taking the Virgin Mary as his mother, and our Lord’s bequeathal of St. John to Mary as her son as likewise an appointment of the Blessed Mother to be mother to the Church forever. This type of insight, it seems, strays too far from the observable data to which Gorman moors the narrative. Accordingly, the book is best read with other books that do not feel so restrained.

Second, The Last Hours of Jesus isn’t deep in theology. Fr. Gorman indicates which Psalms our Lord quotes, and he similarly treats Old Testament verses that fit the narrative, but he offers no study of the prophetic nature of the Passion. He devotes little space to examining the inner thoughts or psychology of his subjects. If the data do not offer some insight, he does not conjecture.

These caveats aside, this type of work has its value. It is important to consider the factual entirety of what we know of the Passion without the interposition of an author’s spiritual or theological views. The unvarnished factual narrative of the Passion without embellishment is more than enough to push a man to sorrow. This book, however, should be read in tandem with, for example, What Jesus Saw from the Cross by French Dominican priest A.G. Sertillanges (also reprinted by Sophia Institute Press). Fr. Sertillanges delves deeply into the spiritual meaning of the Passion from a variety of angles. The reader transcends, as it were, the dry letter of history to love of God in appreciation for His immense sacrifice on the Cross. That said, knowing the dry history predicates appreciation of the mysteries of the Passion, and in that Gorman has produced an excellent work.

 

©2019 New Oxford Review. All Rights Reserved.

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