In the Nicene creed, the creed that many churchgoers proclaim in worship each Sunday, the creed that dates back to the fourth century, only two humans are actually mentioned: Mary and Pilate.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
One of the most fundamental statements of the early church, all about who God is, and Mary and Pilate are the two who get top-billing for humanity. Mary, I understand. There was great controversy over Jesus’s beginnings – human, divine, mirage, flesh – a lot of that comes back to what Mary did, or did not do, said, or did not say, carried, or did not carry, incarnated, or did not incarnate. But Pilate, why Pilate?
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate. In looking back at all four gospels, Pontius Pilate plays no small role. He seems to be symbolic of the Roman Empire as a whole. Each gospel writer seems to take a different approach to the “trial” that ultimately ends in Jesus’s crucifixion. John’s account, I find especially interesting. Here is how their exchange culminates:
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.” 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.
Jesus reveals to Pilate his mission, a mission that John has emphasized in discourse after discourse. It is a different mission that we hear from the other gospel writers. To testify to the truth. And then we get Pilate’s quixotic reply, What is truth? If we look back a few chapters, we see that Jesus has said that he is the truth and that it is the truth that shall “set you free.”
I love Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s sermon on this topic. He says that it is “Not our deed, not our courage or strength, not our truth, but God’s truth alone.” And that to be free does not mean to be “great in the world, to be free against our brothers and sisters, to be free against God; but it means to be free from ourselves, from our untruth, in which it seems as if I alone were there, as if I were the center of the world; to be free from the hatred with which I destroy God’s creation; to be free from myself in order to be free for others. God’s truth alone allows me to see others. It directs my attention…and as it does this, I experience the love and the grace of God. It destroys our untruth and creates truth. It destroys hatred and creates love. God’s truth is God’s love, and God’s love frees us from ourselves to be free for others. To be free means nothing else than to be in this love, and to be in this love means nothing else than to be in God’s truth. The people who love, because they are freed through the truth of God, are the most revolutionary people on earth.”
I wonder if Pilate got any of that, Pilate who kept returning to the mob outside asking, “Really? You want me to do what to Jesus? But, you know I don’t really have a charge against him?” Lies, baseless accusations, pitted against the truth. And the crowd insisted that Jesus was a subversive, bent on undermining the empire. “Do your duty, Pilate,” they told him. And instead of listening to the truth, he listened to his duty and to the riotous horde.
So, as the Nicene Creed was written under the watchful eye of the Emperor Constantine in 4th century Rome, we get this enigma of a person as the representative of Roman power. Was it a warning? Was it a reprieve from blame? And when we look at Pilate next to Mary, truth destroyer (is that too strong?) and truth bearer, what do we take from that? Maybe these two humans embody what it means to be human. Though Mary is portrayed as accepting of the role God asked her to play, it doesn’t appear that she ever understood who Jesus was any better than Pilate. Maybe including them in the creed, in what we believe, gives us hope that one day we too may know the truth. And the truth will set us free.