February/March 2016 - Vol. 84
Jesus betrayed in the garden
Whose Side Are You On?
Those Who Witnessed the Passion
by Carlos Mantica

I. Introduction

We often remark how much the world has changed, how different things now are if we compare them to those great old times that each one of us remembers with longing.

When we take a look into the world of Jesus, the world in which he lived seems to us so strange that we get the impression that all of that happened not just in a different age but in a different planet.

There is no doubt that things are different now in this world of computers, bombs and space rockets. But whenever I read the Gospel, what surprises me most is to see that everything in fact has changed... except for people. Everything is different now, but man continues to be the same. And in the gospels there are scenes that would seem to have been taken, not from something written two thousand years ago, but from yesterday’s newspaper. These are scenes that look like a catalogue, a sampler, a portrait of men whom we come across everyday – their ideas, their values, their attitudes. And in that catalogue, in that portrait, we can find ourselves too. I’m there.

I’m referring, for instance, to the scenes of the Lord’s Passion and Crucifixion. When we take a look at the actors that surround the Passion and Death of our Lord, we encounter a variety of characters and attitudes that can help us to see ourselves.

Who am I in that portrait? Where do I find myself among the multitude? Whose side have I taken in that story? And I say, “which side did I take” because, even though Christ died one single time and now lives and reigns for ever, the story of our salvation continues to be written today, and is determined precisely by the position we take concerning Jesus of Nazareth. At the end of the story there will only be two places – those at his right and those at his left.

I invite all of you, then, to peer for a while into those passages, trying to find ourselves in them. What role am I playing in the drama? Which of all those characters is me?

My plan is to meet each of those characters along the way of the cross, and see what they tell me. You can try to do the same.

II. The High Priest

The first character we meet is the High Priest. It is Thursday, April 4. The night has come, and the full moon announces the imminent celebration of the Passover. That night Jesus was arrested at Gethsemane and taken to the house of Annas, the father-in-law of Caiaphas, who was the High Priest that year (John 18:12-24). John, who was following Jesus at a distance, managed to enter the house because he was acquainted with Caiaphas, and he is the one who best narrates what took place there that night. Peter stays outside, but then John speaks to the maid who kept the door, who lets him in to stay in the courtyard with the servants and guards. Peter was brave, for shortly before he had cut Malchus’ ear at Gethsemane, and he now enters the place where the wounded man is sure to be staying.

The suffering of Jesus now begins. They start interrogating and torturing him. Caiaphas questions Jesus concerning his disciples and his teaching. Concerning those who followed him, Jesus replies thus:

              “I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all Jews come together; I have said nothing secretly. Why do you ask me? Ask those who have heard me, what I said to them; they know what I said.”

It is striking that these are almost the same words he had said in Gethsemane to those who came to arrest  him:

              Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs to capture me? Day after day I sat in the temple teaching, and you did not seize me. (Matthew 26:55)

This amounts to saying, I have always walked in the light; you walk in darkness. I have nothing to hide, nor do I act underground.

              When he had said this, one of the officers standing by struck Jesus with his hand, saying, “Is that how you answer the high priest?”

It’s always the same: the flatterer takes advantage of the defenseless in order to please the boss. And the Lord is stricken because he answers Caiaphas, and then he is tortured because he does not answer Pilate. If the prisoner does not respond... Speak out, you...! And then comes the slap and the kicking. But if he does respond, then... That’s not a way to answer the boss! And then the slap and the kicking come just the same.

Who is this Caiaphas who is questioning the Lord? He is one of those who first condemns and gives the sentence, and then starts to find out. John points this out (18:14):

              It was Caiaphas who had given counsel to the Jews that it was expedient that one man should die for the people.

              So from that day on they took counsel how to put him to death. (John 11:53)

The law said, “Thou shalt not kill.” The scribes say, “Someone has to die.”

But the most moving thing is that there are other persons who also seem to agree with Caiaphas: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It is expedient that Jesus should die so that his people can be saved.

There is only one difference – Christ is willing to die for us and instead of us, so that we can live forever. The others are willing to kill... for the good of the people. And that’s not the same thing.

And it continues not being the same thing. There are some who are willing to die, but only if they can take with them as many people as possible. But even more numerous are the astute ones who do not hesitate to send others to their death... for the sake of the people.

All wars, invasions, political assassinations, acts of terrorism, kidnappings, ransacking, election frauds, dictatorships and armies have always been justified for the sake of the people. The people should be very happy, that there are so many persons thinking about their good.

But I don’t want to continue pointing OTHERS with my finger, the “bad guys” on this side or on the other side. Those who want to be Jesus’ disciples and to follow him, he has called to bear his cross too and to offer their lives for the sake of others. The Lord says no one has greater love than he who gives his life for others. And he also says that unless the seed fall on the ground and die, it will be fruitless. Being Christians involves dying to ourselves so Christ can live in us. 

But we always want the others to be the ones who die. It is she that’s got to change. It is he who has to yield. It is the rich who has to be screwed. It is the poor who has to pay. It is my dad who has to understand me. It is my son who has to open his mind. It is the government that has to do this. It is the people who have to protest. It is she that has to ask my forgiveness. It is so-and-so... it is always the other who has to die so I can be well. And the torture continues.

Brothers and sisters, there is one who has already died once for all, for the salvation of his people. And it is he who asks us to die to ourselves and take up our cross and follow  him, placing the others ahead of us.

III. The Sanhedrin

Jesus’ suffering goes on. He is now taken to the house of Caiaphas himself, where the elders and scribes are waiting. There Caiaphas questions him again, and condemns him as a blasphemer:

              “He has uttered blasphemy. Why do we still need witnesses? You have now heard his blasphemy. What is your judgment?” They answered, “He deserves death.” Then they spat in his face, and struck him; and some slapped him, saying, “Prophesy to us, you Christ! Who is it that struck you?”  (Matthew 26:65-67)

Please mark well – those who strike him and spit on him are not the guards, but the members of the Supreme Court. These are the ones who first slander him through false, paid witnesses, and then personally strike him and mock him. It is a habit of many powerful ones, to first kick and soil what they are about to eat, just like pigs do.

In their concern for condemning Jesus they have broken so many laws, that they now need to legalize their illegality. They have acted out of time and out of place – during the night, and in a private home. They have broken all the trial laws of Israel. That is why, when the sun rises, they take him to the Sanhedrin:

              When day came, the assembly of the elders of the people gathered together, both chief priests and scribes; and they led him away to their council... And they all said, “Are you the Son of God, then?” And he said to them, “You say that I am.” And they said, “What further testimony to we need? We have heard it ourselves from his own lips.” (Luke 22:66, 70-71)

Everything is now legalized. The secret midnight meeting has now been ratified by the judiciary.

IV. Pilate

They now take him to Pilate, the representative of the invading empire. His approval and help are necessary. Let this other guy bear the burden of this death. There are three lapidary sentences and an action that made Pilate immortal:

  1. What is truth? With this question, Pilate was trying to play the philosopher. But he cannot recognize truth when it is standing before him. He is blind to the truth, as so many of us are.
  2. I find no crime in him. And yet,
  3. I will therefore chastise him and release him.
  4. Pilate washes his hands and delivers Jesus over to them, for them to crucify him.

The Gospel is clear that Pilate condemns someone he judges to be innocent, through fear of losing his position, his peace and his lifestyle. The Jews said to him,

              “He stirs up the people, teaching throughout all Judea, from Galilee even to this place.” (Luke 23:5)

Pilate cannot allow troublemakers or agitators in Jerusalem, and these people say that Jesus is such. Pilate is a coward. The first thing he tries to do is pass the buck to someone else – Herod, the governor of Galilee. So he hands over the package to him. Later he has him scourged and tortured in order to awake in others a compassion he does not have.

But, in addition to being a coward, he is intelligent, and that makes him twice a coward. He knows that Jesus is not a dangerous revolutionary, and so he thinks about placing the Jews in evidence. He forces them to choose between Jesus and Barabbas, of whom scripture says clearly that he was a rebel. That is, he had already been condemned for the crime of sedition, of rebelling against the Roman government.

Whom do you want released – John Paul II, or Che Guevara? And they answered, “We want Barabbas” – the insurrectionist. 

Brothers and sisters, there are people who find no use for intelligence or compassion. These people are seekers of personal comfort, they are cowards. They are willing to do anything in order to keep their jobs, their influence, or to please someone else. These are the people who sell their conscience, who let themselves be bribed. They are the faint- hearted, the ones who always try to pass responsibility on to others, the ones who wash their own hands.

Or perhaps we would identify more with the crowd. “Crucify him!” They want no peaceful leaders.

It is funny – the name “Bar-Abbas” means “Son of the father” (others translate, “son of the teacher”). They prefer the “son of the father” who is a revolutionary, an insurrectionist, willing to kill for their sake, than the Son of God who is peaceful and willing to die for their sake. Release Barabbas!

V. Herod

Only Luke records the visit to Herod. Herod seems to be in the middle of a party and wants to be amazed or amused. He is willing to take sides with Jesus under the condition that Jesus will perform a little miracle for him. 

              [Herod] was very glad, for he had long desired to see him, because he had heard about him, and he was hoping to see some sign done by him. (Luke 23:7)

He wanted to see him, for the same reason many a TV show where some evangelist performs miracles. Only the spectacular aspect of Christianity is of interest to them. I am not sick and I have no interest in what they are going to say; but if people get healed there, I have to go and see. If the Pope comes, I won’t miss him. If the Lord acts powerfully in this retreat or gathering and performs a miracle, I will be excited and will clap my hands, but then I will go home and go on with my life as if nothing ever happened.

If they don’t get what they expected they get angry and mock at the whole thing, which is what Herod did. “And Herod with his soldiers treated him with contempt and mocked him; then, arraying him in gorgeous apparel, he sent him back to Pilate” (Luke 23:11).

VI. Those Who Were Absent

I know that we respond with disgust at the characters we have found up to now. None of us is one of them. It is always THE OTHERS who look like them.

And yet there is a group which, in my opinion, is still more contemptible and notorious. This is the group of those who were absent, the great absent ones.

  1. Those who once followed him and acclaimed him, but are not there today. Some of them out of cowardice, like his closest acquaintances. Others, like the ones he will meet later on in the way to Emaus, due to disappointment. Christ was not what I expected. He did not do what I wanted him to do. He did not preach what I liked.
  2. Those who one day proclaimed him as king because he fed them. First three thousand, then five thousand. They are not there any more.
  3. The people of the very city of Jerusalem where he will be crucified today, who just the Sunday before had received him with palms – Hosanna, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!  – and who today join the mob to cry out Crucify him, because the tide has changed and it is not wise to take sides with the loser. No doubt many are only following the slogans of the portable carry-on mob that had been operating since seven thirty a.m. in the courtyard of Fortress Antonia, when Jesus was taken there, and which we shall shortly see in action once again by the cross.
  4. The innumerable ones who had been healed by Jesus, who are today playing the blind, the deaf, the mute, the lame, out of convenience, and who look at Jesus as at a leper.
  5. Peter, who said, “even if all of them forsake you, I will not,” did not trust his own courage too much, and is not there. James, who together with John had said he could drink the cup. Thomas, who had said when they were approaching Jerusalem, “Let us all go to die with him.” Nicodemus, who always acted in the dark.

I know that Jesus felt in his heart a deeper pain due to all these absences, than due to the scourge strikes of the torturers.

VII. The Carry-on Mob

Let’s now try to see how the portable carry-on mob is moved from place to place and operates as a means to shape “public opinion”, the voice of the people.

Behind it are those who throw the stone but hide their hand, those who slander without showing their faces. We find these by the cross in Matthew 27:41-42: “So also the chief priests, with the scribes and elders, mocked him [grumbling among themselves and passing on the slogan], saying, ‘He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him.’”

The soldiers are the first to repeat the slogan. This is recorded in Luke 23:36: “The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him vinegar, and saying, ‘If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!’”

That looks like mere coincidence. But the carry-on mob goes on repeating the slogan, until finally, as is recorded by Matthew 27:39-41, “those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads and saying, ‘You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the son of God, come down from the cross.” (Where did I hear that before?).

You can see that Matthew notes that it was “those who passed by”, because Christ was crucified by the road, close to the gates of Jerusalem, on a holiday when the city was packed with people because of the Passover. It is the ones who passed by, and yet they already know something that is supposed to be known only by those who had been present at the house of Caiaphas and at the Sanhedrin: that he had been falsely accused of having said that he could destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days. And they repeat the slogan that the organizers of the rally were saying just among themselves, “Save yourself and come down from the cross.”

What a sad role the mob plays! What a sad role partisan mobs play urged by need and servilism! And what a sad role we play when we repeat so readily what others want us to say, without first pondering it in our hearts! Many more people have been crucified and continue to be crucified by our tongues, by “public opinion”.

VIII. Those Who Take Advantage of the Situation

Next to them, you can bet there’s going to be the group of those who take advantage of the situation. By the cross, it is the soldiers who take advantage of their own position and authority in order to gamble over Jesus’ tunic and distribute the cloak among them.

The cloak was distributed by cutting it, that is, dividing it into pieces, as some authorities do with things that are not theirs and that are not very valuable. But the tunic was a fine item. It was the seamless, one-piece tunic, which had no doubt been woven by Mary. It was his mother’s gift. They don’t divide something as valuable as that, but gamble over it to see who’s lucky enough to get it.

IX. The Fearful Ones

And in front of them is the largest group of all, that of the fearful ones. “There were many women looking from afar,” says Luke 27:55.

Women... and surely men too, but they all preferred to look at the show from a prudent distance.

I don’t want to offend anyone, for it was a courageous man who told us that Everyone is the master of his own fear. It’s just that in the whole history of the human race, no greater injustice, or with greater hatred, has ever been committed than the one that was committed that afternoon against the only just man that has ever existed.

I don’t think I’m more courageous than Peter, but, just like Peter, my acts of cowardice hurt me. And it is less cowardly to stay at a distance, powerless, than abusing, striking or mocking the defenseless who, nailed to a cross that should have been ours, asks the Father to forgive them because they know not what they are doing. And it was all done in order to please the powerful, to go with the trend, to obey the slogans, to echo the public opinion.

X. The Bad Thief

There is another group, quite present among our people, which is represented at the crucifixion scene by the bad thief.

Their suffering only increases their fury, which they then unload over the innocent, without seeing or acknowledging their own faults.

This is possibly the most Nicaraguan-like of all groups. And no one asks forgiveness for them, who are instead praised and glorified.

Like the bad thief, they are people who suffer a lot. I’m referring to all those people whom hunger and suffering, abandonment, ignorance, alcohol, drugs and promiscuity have led to burglary, to squatting in somebody else’s land, to ransacking, to murder, to servile attitudes, to deceit, to violence. They then dump their fury without acknowledging any of their sins, and without caring whether their victim is an innocent.

In Nicaragua they feel fully entitled to commit any kind of crime, for the very fact of being poor. Many, like the bad thief, are willing to repeat the slogan: “If you are really the Christ, come down from the cross!” (Luke 23:39). ‘If you really are the representative of Christ on earth, pray for peace!’, as the Sandinistas yelled at the square during the first visit of John Paul II to Nicaragua.

Maybe if you just follow the current of those who are in power and if you act against the innocent, you will be taken down from your own cross.

XI. The Show - Lovers

And here reappears the old group of those who never lose hope of watching a good show.

“Some of the by-standers said, ‘This man is calling Elijah.’” And when the soldier came up to give him vinegar to drink from a sponge, they said, “Let him alone, let us see if Elijah comes to save him!” . (‘Don’t ruin my show with a gesture of mercy!’)

Those Who Knew How to Respond

We have seen a series of characters who witnessed the passion, and I’m now in danger of neglecting other characters in whom we also can find a reflection of ourselves, or from whom we may have something to learn. I’m referring to people who did know how to respond when they met Jesus that day.

 XII. Veronica

I’m thinking, for instance, of that woman whom we have happened to call Veronica, the one who wiped the face of Jesus.

There is no act of heroism in her. She simply came out to meet Jesus and wiped his face that was full of sweat, blood and spit. What we admire in her is her heart. No doubt she did many other things like that, before and after that beautiful gesture. She embodies all those silent women who, in an anonymous way, help the needy and the suffering.

No one knows who this woman is. She has been mistakenly called Veronica, due to the famous Canvas of Veronica where the face of Jesus remained printed. It is quite possible that this canvas never existed as such, but is rather the same Shroud of Turin, with which the body of Christ was wrapped to place him in the tomb, and where the image of his whole body remained printed. For centuries it was folded, showing only the face. It was called the Veron-Icon, a mixture of a Latin and a Greek word which means “the true image”, and subsequently someone must have given the name Veronica to the woman.

No one knows, then, who this woman actually was. We only know what she had in her heart. Just the same, we usually do not know the name behind a lot of good actions that occur around us.

XIII. Simon of Cyrene

The next character we find is one who has been forced to be there. This is Simon of Cyrene. He was coming from his workplace, peered in to look at the crowd, and was forcefully recruited to bear Jesus’ cross up to Calvary. You may wonder what merit there is in doing this by force.

And in fact, there is no merit in that. Simon’s merit was that in that human refuse, totally devoid of strength to bear his own cross, he was able to recognize the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords, and then follow him beyond the cross. We know it was so because Mark tells us that Simon was the father of Alexander and Rufus, two members of the Christian community in Jerusalem. This means that Simon entered the community, and was wise enough to proclaim the good news to his children, who also became disciples of Jesus.

XIV. The Centurion

Once we get to the foot of the cross we find a soldier. He is an officer of the invading Empire, a Roman centurion. He is alien to the beliefs of the Jewish people, or, in other words, an ignorant in religious matters. And yet it is this centurion, together with Thomas the unbeliever, the first one to recognize Christ as the Son of God.

“Truly this man was the Son of God” (Matthew 27:54).

XV. The Magdalene

By the cross there is a prostitute. She is with Mary, the mother of Jesus, and she will be the first one to whom Jesus appears after the resurrection. In this sense, she will also be the first apostle in announcing the Good News even to Peter himself – the news that Christ is alive and has risen. 

What lesson can we learn from Mary of Magdala, the neighborhood prostitute, possibly the same woman from whom Jesus cast out seven demons? In my opinion, it is the most important lesson for many of us here: that the multitude of her sins do not separate her from her Lord. Much was forgiven her because she loved much, and she trusts in her Lord’s love and forgiveness. Because, no matter how great your sins might have been, greater is the love and the forgiveness of him who gave up his life for you.

She does not fear the murmuring of the bigots who criticized Jesus because he was in her company. She does not fear the good women who would undoubtedly gaze at her with suspicion or speak softly behind her back. She does not fear her former colleagues, who would no doubt say now to her, as has happened to many of us: ‘Look at that pious woman! She has no shame! Who does she think she’s deceiving?’

She fears nothing, because there is nothing that can now separate her from the love of Jesus.

XVI. The Good Thief

Facing her, and next to Jesus, another man is hanging who is very much like her. This is Dimas, whom we call the good thief. He was a thief, and probably a good one. I don’t think he had been crucified just because of a slip of the hands committed out of necessity. He was no angel.

And yet he is the only man to whom Jesus guaranteed heaven, right here on earth: “I assure you, today you shall be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). He is the only saint canonized by Jesus himself.

The reason is that, like Mary Magdalene, he recognizes he is a sinner, and has faith in Jesus Christ. He trusts in the Lord’s mercy and places himself in his hands. “Lord, remember me when you come to your Kingdom.” And he defends Jesus Christ: “...he rebuked his companion, saying, ‘Have you no fear of God, you who are under the same punishment? We are suffering with reason, because we are paying the just punishment of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong’” (Luke 23:41).

And then he committed the greatest theft in all history, for that afternoon he stole Paradise itself.

XVII. The Apostle John

Next to Mary the Magdalene there is a young lad. He is the youngest of the apostles, to whom the Lord will then grant reaching such an old age, that the word was passed on that he would never die. This is the apostle John, the mystic and poet in the group.

Everything in him speaks to us about his youth. In Gethsemane the guards want to arrest him, grabbing him from his clothes, and then, just as we used to do in our games as children, he puts off his clothes and runs naked, leaving the guard with the clothes in his hands. But this has been more of a strategic withdrawal than a flight. Together with Peter, he follows the Lord from a distance, and with Peter he enters the house of Annas. He is the one who best narrates all the events of that night.

It is he who at some point notifies Mary about all that is taking place, and accompanies her along the Via Dolorosa and up to the foot of the cross. He will never separate from her any more. When he hears from Mary the Magdalene the news of the resurrection, he is the first to arrive at the tomb because he outran Peter.

John stays next to his Master all the time. Even though there is nothing he can do, he never denies him or forsakes him.


And finally, the great silent woman. She is always present at the turning points of her son’s life, but always in the background, silent and humble. It is the handmaid of the Lord, now become our mother. She never breaks down with sorrow.

I have said some time that her husband, the Holy Spirit, was undoubtedly in her and with her at all times. ‘Full of grace, the Lord is with you!’ Otherwise, it would be impossible to understand such steadfastness, such strength, such elegance and majesty in a woman, a widow who would hardly be fifty years old, and who is now losing her only child in a dreadful death.

If a tree is known by its fruit, she must have been, and still is, an extraordinary woman, if she conceived and brought up such a child. Jesus no doubt looked like his mother. His Father had no physical appearance, so he could only resemble her. He’s just like Mary, and Mary is just like him. That is why the two of them are now actually on the scaffold. In his case, the nails are going through his hands and feet. In her case, a sword of sorrow is going through her heart, as had been prophesied to her. He is our Redeemer, she is our Co-Redeemer. Blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus!

XIX. Conclusion

Brothers and sisters, we have walked the way of the cross and met those who witnessed the passion. I could now ask you, is there any one among them whom you could consider a mirror of yourself? Perhaps not in his or her character, but in attitudes, in values, in ideas, in his or her position towards Jesus Christ. Where do you place yourself among those who witnessed the Passion? What group do you belong to?

And yet, what I would now like to tell you is that it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter what group you have belonged to up to now. Don’t become bitter by looking back. Jesus did not suffer for you to suffer too. Jesus did not die for you to continue in a state of death. Death is just the step before resurrection. Jesus is alive, and what he wants is for you to have life, and life in abundance!

Yes, even if you have been a sinner like Mary the Magdalene. Even if you have come here by force or just by chance, like Simon of Cyrene. Even if you have been condemned by men for serious crimes, like Dimas [the good thief]. Even if you are completely ignorant in religious matters and do not understand the enormous wonder that is opening before you because you came across Jesus... even if you are at the service of the enemies of Christ, like the centurion... you can respond today to the cross, to the saving blood of Jesus Christ, and take part in his resurrection and in his glory!

Whoever confesses me before men --says the Lord--, I shall confess him before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before men, I will deny him before my Father... (Luke 12:8)

I would like to end with a parable that the Lord wrote for you:

Then Jesus told them this parable: “Who among you, if he has a hundred sheep and loses one of them, does not leave the ninety nine in the field and goes to look for the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he is so happy that he puts it over his shoulders and, upon arriving to his house, gathers his neighbors and says, ‘Congratulate me, because I have found the sheep I had lost.’ I assure you that, in the same way, there is more joy for one sinner who repents, than for ninety nine righteous ones who have no need for conversion.

Brother or sister, you can be that joy of the Lord, who does not want to drag you or push you or accuse you, but to carry you on his shoulders and celebrate having found you.

> See other Living Bulwark articles by Carlos Mantica

This article is adapted from the book, From Egghead to Birdhood (hatch or rot as a Christian), (c) copyright 2001 Carlos Mantica.

Carlos Mantica is a founder of The City of God community (La Cuidad de Dios) in Managua, Nicaragua, and a founding leader of the Sword of the Spirit. He served as president of the Sword of the Spirit between 1991 and 1995.

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