The Choice We Face: Is It Christ or Barabbas?
COMMENTARY: There are many illustrations of this difficult-to-accept reality of sin, but one of the clearest, and most actual, is with regard to sexual morality.
From the time I was a child, participating in the reading of the Passion account on Palm Sunday and Good Friday has always been jarring.
The most discomfiting, even interiorly violent, part is the dialogue between Pontius Pilate and the crowd assembled in the praetorium. After parading a scourged Jesus in royal purple with a crown of thorns before them, the procurator asks, as part of the paschal pardon, whom the crowd wants released to them, Jesus or Barabbas.
I still remember as a young child looking around scandalized as packed churches full of adults, having been asked whether they preferred the Lord or a notorious prisoner (Matthew 27:16), revolutionary (John 18:40) and murderer (Mark 15:7), shouted out “Barabbas!” When Pilate asked what they wanted done to Jesus and everyone — including my parents — clamored repeatedly, “Crucify him!” I became sick to my stomach.
Later, in college, I attended a Good Friday commemoration of the Passion sung in beautiful polyphony except for that dialogue with Pilate, which was fittingly sung in the most discordant and diabolically shrill ways possible. Since ordination, even though I now say or chant the part of Jesus, it still staggers me, with the visceral disquiet of my childhood, to hear Christians bellow for Barabbas and clamor for Christ’s crucifixion.
How could anyone have shockingly barked for Barabbas and hollered for Jesus’ death? Archbishop Fulton Sheen, in his powerful meditations on the Way of the Cross, helps us all to see how in every moral decision we are faced with a similarly momentous choice.
“How would I have answered [Pilate’s] question had I been in the courtyard that Good Friday morning,” Sheen asked. “I cannot escape answering by saying that the question belongs only to the past, for it is as actual now as ever. My conscience is the tribunal of Pilate. Daily, hourly, and every minute of the day, Christ comes before that tribunal, as virtue, honesty, and purity; Barabbas comes as vice, dishonesty, and uncleanness. As often as I choose to speak the uncharitable word, do the dishonest action, or consent to the evil thought, I say in so many words, ‘Release unto me Barabbas,’ and to choose Barabbas means to crucify Christ.”
Every choice between good and evil, Sheen stressed, is between Christ and Barabbas-in-disguise. If Christ was crucified to take away the sins of the world, every sin, to some degree, is a choice for him to die.
We obviously don’t like to think about sin this way. We’d prefer to think about our sins, at most, as peccadillos, as a failure in spiritual manners, rather than a betrayal like that to which Judas, Peter and the other apostles succumbed on Holy Thursday, or like that to which the crowds, five days after hailing Jesus with palm branches, yielded on Good Friday. We may be urged on by popular opinion — like those in the courtyard were swept up by the instigation of those, including religious leaders, who wanted Jesus executed in the most sadistic manner possible — but we cannot evade personal responsibility for the connection between our sins and Jesus’ suffering and death.
There are many illustrations of this difficult-to-accept reality of sin, but one of the clearest, and most actual, is with regard to sexual morality.
Since the sexual revolution in the 1960s, the sexual ethics lived and proclaimed by Christ and the Church he founded has been subject to ridicule by various parties who have rightly grasped that the Gospel of human love in the divine plan stands as the biggest obstacle to their transvaluation of human sexuality, love, marriage, parenthood, family, children and life.
When given a choice between Christ and Hugh Hefner, Harvey Milk or Ru Paul, many in recent decades have said, “Give me Barabbas.” When presented between adoring the chaste Christ and staring at pornography, many have opted for the fallen passions that precipitated Christ’s Passion. When comparing the Christian idea of marriage and the family with the modern conception of husbandless or wifeless unions, fatherless or motherless procreation, and an approach to sexual activity whenever, wherever, however, with whomever one wants, many choose the way of lust rather than love.
Even when confronted with the undeniable casualties of the sexual revolution, like the victims of Robert Aaron Long, Harvey Weinstein, Jeffrey Epstein, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the others shamed by the #MeToo movement, the women enslaved and commodified through human trafficking, and all those whose lives have been upended because of the epidemic of broken families, marriages and hearts, there’s been the denunciation of the effects but a failure courageously to look at and eradicate the cause.
No connection is made between these rancid fruits and the poisonous tree that produces them. No connection is made, either, between such evils and the reason why Christ entered the world and was crucified. A wanton Barabbas continues to be defended at all costs, chosen and even celebrated.
The latest instance of this trend happened with the histrionic protests following the March 15 response of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) that removed any doubt that is not possible for the Church or her ministers to bless same-sex unions.
The clarification should have produced a yawn. The fact that it didn’t is because many had been led to believe, especially by false prophets, that the Church would eventually change her teaching on human sexuality to embrace same-sex relationships and sexual relations. When the Church reiterated her perennial doctrine, those false prophets and those who trusted them were flummoxed.
It’s reminiscent of what happened after Humanae Vitae was published in 1968, reiterating the Church’s teaching on the immorality of contraception in marriage: Those who had been predicting the Church to change her teaching became among the most notorious dissenters. Rather than defend the teaching of the Church or explain it, they sought to undermine not only the Church’s teaching on sexual morality but the Church’s moral teaching authority as a whole.
A similar thing is happening after the CDF response. A Belgian bishop, rather than fulfilling his oath to defend every teaching the Church definitively proclaims, said he felt ashamed of the Church and “intellectual and moral incomprehension.” Various priests criticized the language as hurtful and offensive, without making any attempt to suggest better language to convey the same truth. Others brazenly announced that they that they would rebelliously ignore the CDF decree and continue to bless not same-sex individuals, but same-sex couples and unions.
One of the U.S. critics of the CDF response, who has become well known in recent years for stressing we need to build bridges of welcome for all our brothers and sisters who identify as gay and lesbian, has been using his sizeable social media platform to publicize disapproval of the CDF response. Despite his many gifts, he does not use his talents explicitly to summon gays and lesbians to chastity. He insists that the LBGT community already knows Church teaching, but the shocked reaction to the CDF response shows that they obviously do not: Not only do they not know what the Church teaches on chastity but they also don’t know why it is part of the good news. They don’t know that the truth about human love in the divine plan is a far greater blessing than any sacramental.
These false prophets sadly do not love enough those they claim to care about, because they separate charity from truth and teach others to reject, rather than welcome, the way of life of Truth incarnate.
Rather than help those in need to embrace Christ and his call to true and chaste love, they have chosen to incite a media mob calling for Barabbas and insisting that those who so opt should be blessed.
On Good Friday, Pilate asks, “Whom do you want me to release to you?” Christ and Barabbas stand before us. To choose Christ means to deny ourselves, pick up our cross and follow him, metaphorically chopping off our hands and feet and plucking out our eyes if they lead us to sin and embracing his call to virtue and holiness. To choose Christ means to reject sin. This goes for everyone, no matter our state of life, no matter our sexual orientation.
And those who truly love Christ will similarly seek to have others choose Christ, embrace his call, and avail themselves of the graces given to live in accordance with his blessing.