Miryam of Nazareth would not, by most standards, seem to be a memorable person.
She lived an obscure life. She is mentioned barely a handful of times in the documents of the Church her son founded. She turns up briefly, playing a bit part in Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and Acts and then vanishes (with the exception — perhaps — of a cameo in Revelation).
During her earthly life she was a peasant woman, living on the eastern fringes of the Roman Empire, in a town of no importance, widowed, and with a single son who would die brutally under the double condemnation of both her countrymen and her foreign political oppressors. She never wrote a book, made a scientific discovery, won a battle, made a fortune or demanded rights for Jews, women, peasants or oppressed peoples anywhere.
Indeed, the opprobrium that her countrymen attached to her son seems to have rebounded on her, so that she was whispered of among some of the chattering classes as having conceived him under shady circumstances. Her chances of success in this world were simply non-existent and it is quite literally a miracle that she did not wind up as utterly forgotten as all the other nameless, toiling peasants who spend their days in the dust and diapers of ordinary life and flop down at night, worn out, to catch an old movie on the tube and turn in early.
Pontius Pilate, on the other hand, was a very big fish at the top of the food chain. There was nothing he did not know about Roman power politics and What It Takes To Make It In The World. He had a long resume of accomplishments in the Roman bureaucracy and led a life of distinguished public service.
If Barbara Walters had shown up at his door to do a profile on him and asked, “What will you be remembered for?” he would have given a sober, thoughtful assessment of his economic policies, his achievements in the military, his grace under political pressure from special-interest groups. The camera would have zoomed in on his handsome, tanned face, his distinguished gray temples, his dark brown eyes, his sharp aquiline nose. It would have panned over the certificates and awards on his wall and then past the pictures of the wife and kids (essential adornments for every politico).
There would be the brief photo montage of his rise to success. There would be the shots of him walking along the Sea of Galilee with his dog and talking about his days on the football team or his early career as a crusading reformer against the Italian wine cartels.
In the end, Mary and Pilate image the only two possible destinies we ultimately can choose.
Barbara would lob him some softball questions about his marriage and his wife's struggle with sleep disorders. There would have been the normal probing about his alleged involvement with the secretary and the titillation this involved for the gossip columnists. He would shrug it off with a “let's not talk about what happens in private. I'm not perfect, but I believe in family values and my wife stands by me.”
There would be the reverent retrospectives on Pilate's brave support of the Roman “choice” to expose infants, his deep pride over the new aqueduct system (“I knew I had to stand tall on those issues”). There would be the controversy over his “alleged” harsh treatment of fundamentalists (“Barbara, there are times when you have break a few eggs to make omelets”). There would be interviews with friends (“Ponty's always been a straight shooter. We don't always agree. Heck! Sometimes I think he's dead wrong. But he's a hard worker and a dedicated public servant”).
We'd hear from local religious fanatics about some alleged unfairness in handling the trial of an up-country preacher a few years back, but we would be assured with nods and winks that this is just sour grapes from a few wackos. It would end with the faux humility we expect from “public servants”: “I'm not saying I'm perfect. But I know I've tried to do the best darn job I know how.”
Then Babs would sign off with an appropriately empty TV coda: “Pontius Pilate: a man to remember.”
And so he is — every day, in every Mass and rosary, in every language of the world: “Crucified under Pontius Pilate.” It's a passage that seals him into our memories as surely as a slightly earlier passage in the same creed reminds us that God was “born of the Virgin Mary.”
The Virgin Mary and Pontius Pilate are the only two mortals mentioned in the Nicene Creed. In the end, these two people image the only two possible destinies we mortals ultimately can choose. Whether we are rich or poor, talented or klutzy, lowborn or high society, mighty or weak, we shall be remembered for displaying either the power of the powerless virgin who said Yes to God — or the powerlessness of the powerful Pilate, who bowed to pressure to crucify Christ.
How will we be remembered?
Mark Shea writes from Mountlake Terrace, Washington.