We want the truth. Our hunger for truth is a basic human instinct –
an instinct that is every bit as real as the desire for love or riches.
Present us with a mystery, and we feel compelled to unravel it. That’s
why the works of Agatha Christie have sold in the billions. It’s why people
sat through countless episodes of “Lost” or “The X-Files.” We know “the
truth is out there” and we intend to find it. At a deeper level, the quest
for truth is the reason there’s a university sitting on the bluff where this
podcast is being made. It’s there in our motto: Veritas vos liberabit.
“The truth will set you free.”
Fragments of truth continue to turn up from time to time. But the
pure, unalloyed, mother lode of truth – the liberating kind — can be hard
to come by in this world. Perhaps its rarity makes it seem all the more
precious. During the years of Jesus’ earthly ministry, things were
different — because Jesus himself is the truth. Where Jesus was, the
truth was so powerfully present, that one could almost feel it… The truth
threatened to overflow its banks and flood into the consciousness of
anyone who met Jesus.
In the Book of Exodus, God spoke to Moses from a burning bush.
When Moses asked for God’s name, God replied, “I AM who am.” In
today’s gospel, Jesus questions the soldiers who have come to arrest
him. When they say they are seeking Jesus, the Nazorean, he tells them,
“I AM he.”
These words, so similar to those spoken by God to Moses out of
the burning bush, strike the soldiers like a hammer blow — revealing to
them at some deep, unconscious level, the truth of Jesus’ identity. They
retreat a few steps, and fall helplessly to the ground before the Son of
God. And they remain there — until Jesus himself reminds them of what
they have come to do. The truth is so powerfully present in Jesus, that a
few seemingly simple words from him cause it to physically overwhelm his
Everyone who met Jesus came face to face with the truth, and was
judged by it. It was impossible to sidestep the issue. Jesus is the Way,
the Truth and the Life. Accept it. Or deny it. No maybes. No Fifth
Amendment. No refusal to confirm or deny.
Simon Peter knew the truth. His faith in Jesus led him, during the
calm before the storm, to proclaim confidently, “Lord, I will lay down my
life for you.” But the truth has consequences. Discipleship has a cost,
and it was a price that Peter wasn’t yet ready to pay. When he was
tested he denied the truth: And the cock crowed.
And what of Pilate? He intended to judge Jesus, not be judged by
him. He was unconcerned with the fine points of Jewish theology. He
was a man of the world, impatient with religious squabbles. He wanted
only to dispense justice when it was practical to do so, and to keep the
peace when it wasn’t.
Under questioning, Jesus says to Pilate, “The reason I was born, the
reason I came into the world, is to testify to the truth. Anyone
committed to the truth hears my voice.”
Pilate, the pragmatist, responds, “Truth! What does that mean?”
Poor benighted Pilate. Of all the jaded, world-weary cynics who have
asked that question before or since, he was the only one who asked it
while starring truth straight in the face.
Like everyone who encountered Jesus, Pilate had met the truth
and would be judged by it. He was cleverer than most. He didn’t want to
commit himself. He wanted to wash his hands of the whole matter. But
in the end, Pilate handed Jesus over to be crucified.
Pilate resorted to irony — so often the last recourse of an able
intellect under siege. He tried to be sarcastic. He had an inscription
attached to the cross:
Jesus the Nazorean, The King of the Jews
It was an attempt at sarcasm, but the truth overwhelmed his malicious
wit. The inscription was true.
Truth can be hard to find in this world. . . but today it cannot be
avoided. It confronts each of us in the wood of the Cross on which our
Savior died, held out for us to kiss — to embrace — to make our own.
There can be no evasion. Bravado, finely crafted rationalizations, ironic
winks, and empty gestures are equally futile. They will not serve. This is
our “moment of truth.” How will we respond? Veritas vos liberabit.
Rev. Charles B. Gordon, C.S.C., is co-director of the Garaventa Center for Catholic Intellectual Life and American Culture at the University of Portland. He writes and records a regular blog called “Fractio Verbi.”