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Barabbas or Jesus?

Barabbas and the Beauty of the Cross

Barabbas or Christ? Who would you choose? If the answer seems obvious, be careful. Our hearts are treacherous, and the happenings of Good Friday are proof that good men and women can make bad, evil, horrible decisions.

Pilate did not want to condemn Jesus. He seemed pushed into it. Pilate was a ruler. His decision held sway over the lives and fortunes of all in Palestine. And yet, he was mysteriously weak. He seems pushed to condemn Jesus at the trial. Jesus is handed over to Pilate with the express purpose of having him crucified. For the Sanhedrin, it is apparently a fait accomplit. Pilate is merely to carry out their orders. Things seem backwards. Our stomachs may be uneasy at the turn of events. It is well, for the events of Good Friday are stomach-turning and backwards.

Pilate was looking for a way out. “The crowd came forward and began to ask him to do for them as he was accustomed.” (Mk. 15:8). They were expecting one prisoner to be released in honor of the Passover feast. There was another prisoner who had been recently admitted. Barabbas was a thief (lestes) and awaiting a death sentence. He was a rabble-rouser and from low society. Surely, if given a choice, the crowd (ochlos) would choose the miracle-worker from Galilee, Jesus, to be freed. It seemed like a perfect plan.

“Barabbas (‘Son of the Father’) is a kind of Messianic figure. Two interpretations of Messianic hope are juxtaposed here in the offer of the Passover amnesty. In terms of Roman law, it is a case of two criminals convicted of the same offense – two rebels against the Pax Romana” (Ratzinger, 2011, p. 197). Pilate prefers that the non-violent Jesus be released. But the crowd thinks differently. A vociferous minority convinces the people to cry for the freedom of Barabbas and leave Jesus to die.

“Jesus’ followers are absent from the place of judgment, absent through fear. But they are also absent in the sense that they fail to step forward en masse.” (Ratzinger, 2011, p. 197). They will be silent until the day of Pentecost, when finally they preach the truth of the risen Christ to the same crowd.

Barabbas and Jesus, two “sons of the Father,” both stand before the judging crowd. One seems totally forsaken by his Father, as he will remember later from the cross. “My God, my God; why have you abandoned me?” (Mt. 27:46). What did the crowds see when they looked upon Barabbas and Jesus? Perhaps there was some sympathy for Barabbas, who had fought for the people. But how could they not look with greater compassion on Jesus, the misunderstood Galilean who had come to Jerusalem to announce the coming of the Kingdom of God? How could they behold him and fail to notice his beauty?

The role of beauty

How would beauty play into the judgment of the crowd? They choose the ugly, the sinful, the rebellious; and condemn in turn the beautiful, the wonderworker and the Savior. “Othering is a way of negating another person's individual humanity and, consequently, those that are have been othered are seen as less worthy of dignity and respect.” (Cherry, 2020) When someone is being punished, we feel a psychological need to differentiate ourselves. We dehumanize him, so he can be in a different category. This allows soldiers to be violent to enemy combatants. It allows us to direct our hate and prejudice towards people who are just as human as we are. We lose sight of the dignity of each human person when this happens. We lose sight of beauty.

We need to be sensitive to beauty if we are going to find God in the modern world. To enter into the aesthetic of the Passion, we could listen to a presentation of St. Matthew’s version of the Passion by Johann Sebastian Bach. The concert tells the story of the suffering of Jesus through the medium of music. The depiction of the Passion by Grunewald that is part of the Eisenheim altarpiece portrays the tragedy that took place two thousand years ago. Although the scene is tragic, the beauty and nobility of Christ shine through the ugliness. We are able to catch a glimpse of the beauty of the Cross.

Jesus came to save us from sin, but he also came to save us from ourselves. We have a curious tendency to be incredibly selfish. The choice for Barabbas is a choice for oneself. We choose Barabbas. We choose our old sins. We choose our own comfort. We choose our own will. When Jesus enters into our lives and turns things upside down, we respond with the crowd: “Crucify him!” (Lk. 23:21) We prefer a dead God who cannot intervene and interfere in our lives and decisions. When Nietzsche proclaims that God is dead, he means that he has been rendered irrelevant. When God dies, ugliness sprouts up and has nothing to counter it. We see the effects in the dictatorships and genocides of the last two centuries.

Contemplating Barabbas and Jesus, looking at beauty and ugliness, can help us to reach deeper into the mystery of the Passion of Our Lord.

He had neither beauty nor majesty

Cardinal Ratzinger points out the paradox of one of the psalms that priests pray in Vespers of the second week of the Psalter. It is Psalm 44 [45]. “The Psalm describes the wedding of the King, his beauty, his virtues, his mission, and then becomes an exaltation of the bride.” (Ratzinger, 2002). During the year, and during Lent, the third verse is used as the antiphon. “You are the fairest of the children of men and grace is poured on your lips.” This is truly flattering. It is easy to apply this psalm to Jesus. He is the good King, the one we love to love.

But during Holy Week, the Church changes the antiphon. Now, it takes the words of Isaiah 53:2: “He had neither beauty, no majesty, nothing to attract our eyes, no grace to make us delight in him.” This antiphon can help us to understand the harsh judgment of the crowd. They beheld the Prince of Peace and condemned him to a fate of death. When Pilate tried to win their sympathy by showing a scourged, beaten man, they saw only weakness and someone despicable. Pilate’s Ecce homo, behold the man! became the introduction to the cruelest of tortures and the most painful of betrayals.

The mystery of beauty and contemplation plays out in the interpretation of this psalm according to the two different antiphons. The Fathers of the Church questioned whether Jesus was beautiful. “Implicit here is the more radical question of whether beauty is true or whether it is not ugliness that leads us to the deepest truth of reality.” (Ratzinger, 2002). Jesus teaches us during Good Friday that “the beauty of truth also embrace offense, pain, and even the dark mystery of death, and this can only be found in accepting suffering, not in ignoring it.” (Ratzinger, 2002)

Pain and the continued search

Pain has something to do with beauty in the Greek world. “Man, says Plato, has lost the original perfection that was conceived for him. He is now perennially searching for the healing primitive form. Nostalgia and longing impel him to pursue the quest; beauty prevents him from being content with just daily life. It causes him to suffer.” (Ratzinger, 2002)

We are called to something greater than what we already possess. And yet, it is so easy to go back to that which we already have, or think we have. We are drawn into desiring material things, while spiritual things that are much greater await us. Barabbas symbolizes for us this material world. We want that which is easy and that which is appealing to the senses. A Savior like Jesus seems like a bitter pill to swallow.

Without pain, we would be content with what we already have. We need pain to spur us on to seek holiness and perfection.

The good thief

“People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (1Sam. 16:7) Jesus was crucified next to two thieves. The word in Greek is lestes, the same word used to describe Barabbas. These are evil men, just like Barabbas. And just like Barabbas, there is still a chance for salvation. When everyone else looked at them as poor wretches who were accepting their fate, Jesus saw something more. This kindness and compassion would invite one of the most outrageous petitions in all of history.

The good thief directed himself to Jesus. When his companion reviles the Lord, he replies “have you no fear of God, for you are subject to the same condemnation? And indeed, we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal.” (Lk. 23:40-41) Before anything else, he recognizes his own crime and sin. He does not appear before God demanding salvation but acknowledges his own guilt. He turns to Jesus and says “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” (Lk. 23:42) Maybe he had heard rumors of the preacher from Galilee. Maybe he had wanted to visit him. Maybe he thought that in another life he could have even come to follow him. But as it was, he merely wanted to be remembered by Jesus.

Here, we have another opportunity to contemplate the reality of beauty and ugliness. Jesus has been scourged, spat upon, fallen under the cross and is crucified. He is certainly not in a position of power. Yet, the good thief has the good sense and the aesthetic to recognize him as the greatest of men, indeed as one who is not merely a man.

For those contemplating the scene, it could seem like a curious departure from the accustomed way that things played out. It could be recorded as a peculiar exchange between a few men moments before their death. It could be seen as a pitiful cry for help. But God does not see the way men see. He sees the heart. Jesus looks deep into the heart of the good thief and promises him everything: “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Lk. 23:43)

The Beautiful will save us

“Is there anyone who does not know Dostoyevsky’s often-quoted sentence: ‘The Beautiful will save us?’ However, people usually forget that Dostoyevsky is referring here to the redeeming Beauty of Christ. We must learn to see him.” (Ratzinger, 2002) Looking at Christ in the mystery of the Passion, we are called to confront beauty and ugliness, truth and deceit. This serves as fodder for our prayer, so that we can grow more affectively united to Christ. This is a great way to look at prayer. “The most powerful prayer unites mind and heart so that the mind produces the fuel for the fire burning on the altar of the heart.” (Bishop Ignatius Brianchinov, cited in Groeschel, 1983, p. 141)

When Barabbas heard of Jesus pardoning the good thief (lestes), perhaps he received hope for himself as well. He too was a thief (lestes). Would he too be able to steal Heaven? Part of the message of this Good Friday is that Heaven is within reach for all of us. This is not because of our own merit, but because of the infinite goodness and mercy of God. All we have to do is to choose Christ and live our life accordingly.

We can only be saved if we choose to recognize the beauty of the Cross. What are the painful situations in our lives that can be transformed into redeeming crosses?

Barabbas or Jesus, who do you choose?


Cherry, K. (December 13, 2020). What is Othering? Verywellmind.

Groeschel, B. (1983). Spiritual Passages. Crossroad Publishing Company.

Ratzinger, J. (2002). Contemplation of Beauty. Crossroads Initiative.

Ratzinger, J. (2011). Jesus of Nazareth. Holy Week: from the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection. Ignatius Press.

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