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Our Lady of the Rosary - Marian Retreat

Sorrowful Mysteries

Crowning with Thorns

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

Our present meditation is on the third Sorrowful Mystery, Our Lord's Crowning with Thorns. All the events we have indicates that Christ's crowning with thorns during His Passion was not part of either Pilate's legal punishment of Jesus nor, it seems, of the Jews demands for the Savior's humiliation. We may say Christ's Crowning with Thorns came on a sudden inspiration from the devil. All evidence of the Gospels indicates that the crowning with thorns was a spontaneous action on the part of the Roman soldiers stationed at the garrison under Pontius Pilate. Also unlike the Agony in the Garden and Christ's Scourging at the Pillar, the Crowning with Thorns is not narrated by all four Evangelists. To be exact, two of the synoptics Matthew and Mark, and John describe in detail the Crowning with Thorns.

The Mystery of the Mockery of Christ

Moreover, it is well to note that the while actual Crowning with Thorns was a single episode, it came as a part of a series of mockeries which began already under Herod and then reached it's peak under Pilate. A perfect synonym for the Third Sorrowful Mystery; it is the mystery of the mockery of Christ. As we've been doing let's first go over the narrative, then pull out the principal features and most importantly apply the basic lessons of this mystery to our own lives.

In each narrative it is clear that Christ was already not only under trial but it seems already condemned. St. John who briefly describes the actual crowning gives what seems to be the underlying motive for the soldiers to crown Jesus. It was, if you wish, the last straw that consummated Christ's humiliation. It was the insistence, the last charge of the Jews against Christ that He made Himself a King. Pilate tried every device to exonerate Jesus and release Him. The crowning charge was.., and Pilate then caved in. He claims to be a King and we Jews have no King but Caesar. As we said in our last conference – the liars! The last thing the Jews wanted, the last thing, is Caesar as their King. Now the narrative.

They Put a Crown on His Head Woven of Thorns

The longest and most detailed comes in Matthew. The governor’s soldiers, says Matthew, took Jesus into the Palace and gathered the whole company about Him. First, they stripped Him and arrayed Him in a scarlet cloak. Then they put on His head a crown which they had woven out of thorns and a rod in His right hand and mocked Him by kneeling down before Him and saying, "Hail King of the Jews!" And they spat upon Him and took the rod from Him and beat Him over the head with it. The Evangelist Mark does not add anything significant. He repeats Matthew almost word for word.

They Continued Heaping Insults On Him

Luke. St. Luke does not describe the actual Crowning with Thorns but listen, he does say that Herod before returning Jesus to Pilate – I'm now quoting Luke, "Herod together with his guards treated Him (that's Jesus) with contempt and made fun of Him and Herod put a rich cloak around Him and then sent Him back to Pilate." And although Herod and Pilate had been enemies till then, they were reconciled that day. The price of reconciliation between two tyrants was the mockery of Christ the King. Moreover, still Luke; Luke speaks of a previous mocking of Jesus by the guards who were watching over Jesus. How they mocked Him and questioned Him and beat Him, blindfolded Him while telling Him "play the prophet and tell us who hit you" and Luke concludes, they continued heaping insults on Him. Note the words that keep recurring; mocking, insults, ridicule, fun.

The Soldiers Slapped Jesus on the Face

Finally John. John who also, though more briefly, describes the actual Crowning with Thorns tells us moreover that soldiers slapped Jesus on the Face and he also further notes that when Pilate brought Jesus before the crowd – I quote John, " Jesus came out wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe." It is in that context with Jesus standing next to Pilate that the Latin words which have been come two of the most sacred words in our vocabulary. And Pilate spoke Latin; "Ecce Homo – Behold the Man." Psychologists tell us that for cruel people there is nothing that instigates the most fervid, vicious violence as the sight of blood. Christ's standing next to Pilate (we seldom say this but we should say it now) the only reason why that Man Jesus could stand after being scourged and crowned with thorns and beaten to an inch, or to use Roman measuring rod, a millimeter of His Life; the only reason why Jesus was still standing there, is because He used His Divine power to sustain His Humanity.

Nine Principal Features of Christ's Being Crowned with Thorns

Now the principal features of Christ's being Crowned with Thorns. As we go through these Gospel accounts of what actually happened we find that there were no less, I counted nine significant features that characterize what we summarize by the crowning with thorns.

First. Jesus is taken by the soldiers into the Palace, into the palace of Pilate's Pretorium. Notice, nothing ever happens by chance. No crime, no sin, no act of violence, no cruelty is ever done by chance. God's permissive Providence is behind it. It just had to be a Palace, in anticipation of what was going to be done to the Savior. Royalty had to be symbolized by the very surroundings in which Jesus, in mockery, was Crowned with Thorns.

Second. Jesus is stripped of His own bloody garments. They must have been drenched in blood covering His just scourged Body, scourged, we are told, to the bone. Listen, the purpose of Roman scourging was to strip the flesh from the bones. They, then, tore off the garment He was covered with and clothed in (first act of mockery) in a robe of symbolic purple. He claimed to be a King – all right He deserves a royal robe.

Third feature. The soldiers then got some thorns, wove them into a crown and forced, pressed this crown on His Head. The key word, the key word in the Third Sorrowful Mystery is the verb crowning. Thorns, of course, caused immense physical pain but Christ was crowned to ridicule His claims to being a King. I've got to insert at least a sentence or two, we'll say more about this before the conference is over. Oh how Christ's Royalty has been maligned, opposed, denied, ridiculed over the centuries.

Fourth feature. A rod was placed into Christ's right hand. That's where kings hold their scepter as a symbol of their authority over the people. Again, before we go on, as often as I recite the Rosary, especially the Sorrowful Mysteries, the one thought that keeps becoming in my mind is – my Faith tells me that Man is God. If anyone could have prevented this being done to Him, it was Jesus, the Son of God. Yet He assumed a human will, the most fundamental reason for the Incarnation. Christ assumed a Human Will mainly that He might with His Human Will, voluntarily, willingly, knowing what He was doing and wanting to do it; accept the mockery, the ridicule that was being heaped upon Him. It is impossible to exaggerate the crucial, absolutely, fundamental importance of seeing that God assumed a Human Will, otherwise the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary become meaningless. He assumed a Human Will in order that he might freely, voluntarily accept what is God, he might even have, obviously, have prevented a Pilate or a Herod or an Annas or a Caiphas or the cruel soldiers from even coming into existence. There is no mystery deeper on earth, none exists, than why God allows sin! Why He allows injustice and cruelty and treachery and when we're dealing with the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary, we're not indulging in theology by saying that God allows evil in the world. Oh no! God became Man to allow human, bestial cruelty to be vented on Himself! I sincerely hope that all of you, either at some time or another, or by some person or another have been ridiculed, laughed at, insulted, humiliated. Because then you would call upon the meaning of the mystery of God becoming Man in order(and He chose to do this) to be insulted, mocked and ridiculed in order both to expiate our sins and to obtain for us, better, to give us the inspiration we need – ah, my friends, what stories I could tell! If you want to be a faithful priest and religious, you must be ready to accept ridicule. To my dying moment I will not forget the meeting I was to have with a priest in high standing in the Church. We were to have dinner at a, shall I say, palatial restaurant. He was picking up the tab. We met outside the restaurant. He was dressed in the latest male finery – it must have been a tailored suit – and his first greeting to me was, "Well, hello priest!" That's me, because I was in my clerics. Tensing, can't believe it. I smiled. I said, "Good evening."

Our fifth principal feature. Jesus is mocked by the soldiers. They bend their knees and ridiculed Him as people would genuflect before royalty.

Sixth. They taunt Him and what they say is significant. They say, "Hail King of the Jews." Now to the Romans the Jews were despised. And the puppet, King Herod had no power, a puff of wind was allowed to remain in office by the Romans because Herod was a useful tool. The Jews had no king. And the Romans knew it. We should also remind ourselves that by the time Christ came into the world, after centuries of the prophets in Israel being silent – one prophet after another, century after century – the Jews rejected, jailed and even killed. Finally, Yahweh sent them no more prophets. By the time Jesus came on the scene, we don't know the figures, but all the evidence indicates the majority of the Jewish people had only one messiah in mind, only one savior they looked forward to and that was another King David, another powerful, earthly monarch that would crush these hated Romans and deliver the chosen people as God did in Egypt from slavery. The expression "King of the Jews" had two very different meanings on the lips of the Romans and on the minds of the Jews. On the lips of the Romans it was an insult. In effect, the Romans telling the Jews, you slaves hah! you had kings, where are they? Rome, Caesar is your king. And for the Jews it was an agonizing hope and being by that time (that's the Jewish people) in the vast majority so secularized, the only king that most of them wanted was a king who wielded a sword and used an ax to destroy those who were enslaving the Jewish people. There were many enslavements of the Jews in their centuries of history but the two most important were the enslavement by the Pharaohs of Egypt and by the Caesars of Rome, because the Jews in Moses' time had enough faith in Yahweh. He delivered them from the yoke of the Pharaohs. But now that they were enslaved by the Romans, by the way the last historic enslavement of the Jewish people, no delivery now and the reason is, listen to this, what God wished to teach the Jewish people but how thick-skulled they were as the inspired writer tells us, the real enslavement from which the Jews needed deliverance was not, as our learned, modern liberation theologians are saying, not from the misery or even the oppression of human injustice on earth, but delivery from sin!

Seventh feature. Just one simple sentence. They spat into His Face. And as we go through these features we've got to keep telling ourselves Christ could not only not allowed this to happen to Him, He could have prevented the whole Passion and here is the place to do it. If there is one thing that St. Ignatius in his Spiritual Exercises is mainly at pains to point out to those who make a retreat – the pinnacle of the Spiritual Exercises is what Ignatius calls the Third Degree of Humility where you not only humbly submit your will to the Will of God by avoiding mortal sin; you not only surrender your will to the Divine Will by avoiding venial sin, but the third and highest degree of humility in order to become more and more like Jesus whom you claim to love, you will choose humiliation. The Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary of the Son of God who became the Son of Mary so that with His human will He could choose to be humiliated, including in our seventh feature being spat in the Face.

Eighth. The soldiers take the rod and then beat Him over His crowned Head. Anytime you think you've endured enough for Christ, go back, back to the Gospels and reread the account of the Crowning with Thorns.

Ninth and last feature. After the crowning Jesus is brought before the crowd by Pilate. It is one thing to be humiliated by, say one person or even by a group as in the case with Christ being crowned with thorns by a garrison of soldiers. The crowning of, the humiliation of the crowning with thorns with Christ standing next to Pilate. What a contrast between earthly power and the power of God. We don't have words to describe – we read what was written, we think about the words and then we ask God; Lord help us to understand the meaning of Your being crowned with thorns and brought out as a spectacle of infamy. We don't know what Pilate expected; he should have known the Jews better. It is as though they had been inoculated with a drug of furious, malicious anger. They saw this bloody Man standing next to, we may be sure, a gorgeously attired Pilate and they shouted, "Crucify Him, crucify Him!" And when Pilate asked them. "Shall I crucify your king? We've no king but Caesar."

It's time I think for some lessons for all of us. The history of Christian spirituality has literally volumes of commentary on the meaning of Christ's Crowning with Thorns for our lives. These Mysteries of the Rosary, let's keep telling ourselves, are not only to be believed or even just to be meditated on; they are to be lived, And if there's on thing that I trust you will be able to do because you've made these spiritual exercises; you'll be able to live the Rosary better and more faithfully in your lives.

The Crowning with Thorns Was to Expiate Our Sins of Pride

First lesson. The dominant theme in this Third Sorrowful Mystery is that Christ allowed Himself to be crowned with thorns to atone for the sins of pride. Every commentator from the earliest centuries in the Church to the latest – the Crowning with Thorns was to expiate our sins of pride. Even as the Scourging, remember, to expiate sins of lust. It is surely not coincidental that the first two sins in every listing, over the centuries, of what we call the capital sins are pride and lust. Everything else that man does in offending God stems either from pride or, and from lust.

It Was Pride that Caused the Fall of the Human Race

Second lesson. It was pride which first caused the fall of the human race. There would have been no need of a redemption because no one would have had to be redeemed had there not been pride. Very well, God became Man (how well I know what I'm saying) You've heard this before; I've said it many times before. But what a difference between knowing something, even believing something firmly, and realizing it! It was pride that caused the fall of the human race. It is, therefore, because of pride that God became Man and chose, not merely tolerated; chose to be humiliated. And the humiliation He deliberately underwent was, for our purpose, the humiliation of being Crowned with Thorns.

Pride is at the Heart of Every Sin

Third feature. Pride, then, is at the heart of every sin. And if we're going to expiate our own sins and unite our expiation with that of Christ we like Him must not only expect or patiently endure(how this needs to be said.) We are to choose to be humiliated. All I know is that becoming a religious and trying to become a faithful religious will mean accepting, choosing humiliation . Living in a religious community, my dear friends and fellow religious; living in a religious community requires that you accept and expect and I dare to say without asking for it – love humiliation.

We Must Be Humble - You Don't Hide Pride

Fourth Feature. If we are to unite ourselves with Jesus Christ, we then like Him; the one single lesson that Our Lord told us, remember, to learn from Him we must be humble – humble in heart, humble in mind, humble in speech, humble in action. It doesn't take long – you can meet a perfect stranger – I won't even want to estimate. I'd say a minute is enough. And only you'll fathom the depths of that stranger's personality in one minute. Let me tell you – pride reveals itself. You don't hide pride, you just don't! And what years of effort and what years of fervent prayer are required to master our manifestations of pride and my friends, you do not master the manifestations of pride unless you have cultivated deep down interior humility of heart. And one way, our fourth lesson, one sure way of becoming more and more like Jesus is to be willing to be humiliated as part of God's mysterious Providence in our lives. I hope I'll be plain – God will not allow us to say something silly (pardon the Anglo-Saxon) to do something dumb. Humiliation may come consciously and deliberately on the part of other people, but we don't need other people to humiliate us. In any given day we can do enough stupid things ourselves to make fools of ourselves and be – I like the word – duly humiliated. One day I thought I'd have the courage to count the number of humiliations – little things. I began when I first got up in the morning. By mid-afternoon I'd already counted fourteen humiliations. I thought I'd stop – that's enough for one day.

We Were Created for the Kingdom of Heaven

However there is one more profound lesson taught by Christ's Crowning with Thorns. And that is Christ's Kingdom is indeed a real Kingdom. It is a Kingdom because He established the Church in this world but like the kingdom of the Caesar’s is not a Kingdom of this world or for this world. Christ allowed Himself to be mocked, spat upon, slapped and Crowned with Thorns that we might realize with Him and like Him that the Kingdom for which we were created, and for which He underwent His Passion (how this needs saying) for the Kingdom of Heaven!

Mary is the Mother of Sorrows and the Queen of Martyrs

Sixth and final lesson. The Rosary as we know is the Rosary of Our Blessed Mother. All the evidence we have from Tradition is that Mary as much as she could witnessed Christ's suffering and Passion. We are assured that Mary stood in the crowd and heard the mob crying for the crucifixion of her Son. She saw Him, as one Father of the Church after another tells us; she saw Him bleeding, drenched in blood, the blood He had received from her. And she suffered along with Him. The five Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary are mysteries surely of Christ's Passion; they're also mysteries of Mary's Compassion. That is why, especially why, she is the Mother of Sorrows. We now address her as Queen of Angels, Queen of Patriarchs. Ah, but the one title that we especially need to have in mind during the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary – she is the Queen of Martyrs.

Christ is Our King

I thought I would close this meditation by quoting from the prayer for the Mass of Christ the King. As you know, on the last Sunday of the liturgical year we now celebrate the feast of Christ the King. Let's not forget that Christ is our King. He teaches what we need to know. He provides us with the means of sanctification. And He has, especially has, a right to command us and we have the duty to obey. But listen, the closer intimacy that Christ our King calls us to follow Him in – the more He will require of us: That we become like Him our King, indeed, but our King who on earth was Crowned with Thorns.


The opening prayer for the feast of Christ the King and our closing prayer for this meditation. Let us pray: Almighty and Merciful God, You break the power of evil and make all things new in Your Son Jesus Christ, the King of the universe. May all in heaven and earth acclaim Your glory and never cease to praise You. We ask this through Our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, One God forever and ever. Amen. In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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