Nikolai Nikolaevich Ge
(1831 – 1894)
“What is the Truth. Christ and Pilate”
Nikolai Ge painted “What is Truth?” late in life after befriending author Leo Tolstoy. The painting was banned from exhibition for blasphemy. Firstly, the lighting solution of the picture was unusual. Jesus was in the shadows, and the figure of Pilate opposite was illuminated by the sun. Usually darkness was identified with evil, and light with good. Secondly, the very image of Christ was far from the view of the Church and the cultural norms of the time. Nikolai portrayed Jesus as exhausted, short, frail. This image caused rejection by the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church and by many spectators, including artists. The painting was removed from the exhibition by order of the Holy Synod.
Tolstoy placed his own influence at the service of the painter’s masterpiece. After the painting was removed from its St. Petersburg exhibition, Tolstoy wrote letters to critics abroad in an attempt to guarantee the good name of the painting in the foreign press. He promoted it also to put pressure on a Russian buyer to ensure that it remained in Russia.
“Father, your Word knocked at my door in the night.
He was captured, bound, and yet He was still speaking,
still calling, and as always, He was saying to me:
“Arise, hurry up and follow me!”
At dawn, I saw him a prisoner of Pilate and,
in spite of all the suffering of the Passion,
of the forsakenness He felt,
He knew me and waited for me.
You know that I am afraid, but Jesus is with me,
I must not fear any more.
I stay, Father, and listen attentively
to the truth of your Son speaking to me.
I watch and contemplate his actions, his steps.
May I follow him, such as I am,
throughout the life you have given me.
Enfold and fill me with your Holy Spirit”.
33“Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ 34 Jesus answered, ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ 35 Pilate replied, ‘I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?’ 36 Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here’. 37 Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice’. 38 Pilate asked him, ‘What is truth?’ After he had said this, he went out to the Jews again and told them, “I find no case against him’”.
This is the last Sunday of the Liturgical Calendar. This Sunday portrays Jesus as King of the Universe, a different form of kingdoms of the world. Jesus sits in a ‘Throne’ with no glory nor majesty; on the contrary, He is dirty, beaten and chained like a criminal. In the condition of a prisoner Jesus speaks of his being a ‘King’ to Pontius Pilate the Roman Governor. After this dialogue Pilate washed his hands and allowed the Jews to crucify Jesus, fulfilling in this way the salvific plan of God, the Father.
The passage we read today is part of the so called Roman Trial of Jesus (vv. 28–40). After a whole night of interrogation, beatings, jeers and betrayals at the hands of the Jews, Jesus is handed over to the Roman Authority to be condemned to death.
With his very death Jesus revealed himself as Lord. He is the One who came to give up his life; He is the just One who died for us, the unjust; He is the innocent One who saved us, sinners.
Jesus, the Bound King Handed Over
The verb “handing over” stands out in this section. It is repeated again and again from the beginning of the story of the Passion. In this passage, is put first in the lips of Pilate and then by lips of Jesus.
The “handing over of the Christ” is a theological truth, a truth that sets us on a journey of search for wisdom. It might be useful to seek out this verb in the pages of the New Testament:
At first it seems to suggest that the Father himself handed over Jesus his Son as a gift for all and for all time.
Jesus also takes the initiative to lay down his life for his sheep.
In all these passages, we contemplate our King bound and chained, willing to be crucified.
Jesus, the Messiah King
What stands out in this strange and mysterious dialogue between Jesus and Pilate is that Pilate calls Jesus, first “King of the Jews” and later only “King”. It is as though there was a trial in which Pilate comes understand fully the true identity of Jesus as Lord.
For the Jewish people of the time, the title “King of the Jews” contained the foundations and the kernel of their faith: the expectation of the Messiah of Israel.
Jesus is questioned and judged on whether he is the Messiah or not.
In the Roman Trial Jesus is revealed as the Messiah, the Consecrated and the Anointed of the Lord. He is the servant sent into the world to fulfil in his person all that the Prophets, the Law and the Psalms had said concerning him.
This is the Messiah: the King whose Throne is the Cross.
Therefore, according to the Jewish understanding, if the time of the Messiah has already arrived, then our time (Kayros), is the time of consolation of the Lord God; this is time when God sent the Lord Jesus to remain with us.
Jesus, the Martyr King
Jesus answered Pilate, “I came to witness to the truth”. The Greek verb used in this sentence is a clear allusion to martyrdom: A witness is a martyr, one who reveals his identity and faith in the way s/he lives and by the shedding of his/her blood. Jesus gives witnesses to the Truth, to the Word of the Father. He gives his life for this Word. Jesus gives His Life for the life of all. He gives His Word as the True Word of God. He gives his Love for us to love one another. Jesus is the Amen, the faithful and true Witness, the Beginning and the End of God’s creation.
We do not seek further words, we only stay near to the Lord, to his breast, like John on that “night”. Truly, Jesus is our breath, the vision; He is the “yes” we give to serve the Father, and our brothers and sisters, to witness love. Jesus is the faithful One, the One always present, the Truth that transforms us as we listen to Him.
We are called to serve and bear witness to our King and our Lord Jesus.
He is the Bound King handed over; He is the Messiah King; and He is the Martyr King.
Like Saint Paul we can also claim that we know him, the One we have believed in.
The Gospel of John, in the double Trial of Jesus, shows us that He was condemned to death because neither Pilate nor the Jewish listened to Him who is the Truth of the Father.
By contrast, the Kingdom must dwell in hearts of the disciples of Jesus.
During his entire life Jesus bore witness to the Truth and He chose the Cross as his throne.
“The king rejoices in your strength, LORD.
How great is his joy in the victories you give!
You have granted him his heart’s desire
and have not withheld the request of his lips.
You came to greet him with rich blessings
and placed a crown of pure gold on his head
He asked you for life, and you gave it to him—
length of days, for ever and ever.
Through the victories you gave, his glory is great;
you have bestowed on him splendour and majesty.
Surely you have granted him unending blessings
and made him glad with the joy of your presence.
For the king trusts in the LORD;
through the unfailing love of the Most High
he will not be shaken.
Your hand will lay hold on all your enemies;
your right hand will seize your foes.
When you appear for battle,
you will burn them up as in a blazing furnace.
The LORD will swallow them up in his wrath,
and his fire will consume them.
You will destroy their descendants from the earth,
their posterity from mankind.
Though they plot evil against you
and devise wicked schemes, they cannot succeed.
You will make them turn their backs
when you aim at them with drawn bow.
Be exalted in your strength, LORD;
we will sing and praise your might.
“O Lord our God, you alone are the Most Holy King and Ruler of all nations.
We pray to You, Lord, in the great expectation of receiving from You,
O Divine King, mercy, peace, justice and all good things.
Protect, O Lord our King, our families and the land of our birth.
Guard us we pray Most Faithful One.
Protect us from our enemies and from Your Just Judgment.
Forgive us, O Sovereign King, our sins against you.
Jesus, you are a King of Mercy.
We have deserved Your Just Judgment
Have mercy on us, Lord, and forgive us.
We trust in Your Great Mercy.
O most awe-inspiring King, we bow before You and pray;
May your Reign, your Kingdom, be recognized on earth”. Amen.
“The people keep their distance, just to see what is happening.
They are the same people who were pressing in on Jesus when they needed something, and who now keep their distance.
Given the circumstances of our lives and our unfulfilled expectations, we too can be tempted to keep our distance from Jesus’ kingship, to not completely accept the scandal of the Cross which unsettles and disturbs us.
We prefer to remain at the window, to stand apart, rather than draw near and be with him. A people who are holy, however, who have Jesus as their King, are called to follow his way of tangible love; They are called to ask themselves, each one each day: ‘What does love ask of me, where is it urging me to go?’ ‘What answer am I giving Jesus with my life?’”.
 Romans 8: 32: “Since God did not spare his own Son, but gave him up to benefit us all, we may be certain, after such a gift, that he will not refuse anything he can give.”  Ephesians 5:2.25: “just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. I lay down my life for my sheep  Matthew 25:15: “What are you prepared to give me if I hand him over to you?  John 18: 30, 35: “If he were not a criminal, we should not be handing him over to you. The Son of Man… will be handed over to the pagans”.  John 19:16: “Finally Pilate handed him over to them to be crucified. So the soldiers took charge of Jesus”.  John 18: 33: “Are you the King of the Jews?”  Acts 2:36 “Therefore let “all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah”.  John 17:17: “Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth”.  Revelation 3:14: “To the angel of the church in Laodicea write: This is the message from the Amen, the faithful and true witness, who is the origin of all that God has created”.  2Timothy 1:12: “… Because I know whom I believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him until that day”.