Thursday, April 02, 2015

20 Observations from Thomas Aquinas on the Gospel of John's PassionNarrative

In the past, we here at have offered commentary on the Good Friday readings. (Here is last year's fine commentary from John Bergsma).

While the lectionary for Sundays and Holy Days follows a three year cycle, the readings for the Good Friday service remain the same every year. So you can go back and read those commentaries if you'd like--they are just as relevant now as they were when we originally posted them.

Instead of essentially re-doing a past post, I thought this year I'd offer something a little different. (Besides, I don't think I can top John's excellent work.) 

This year I'd like to highlight 20 Things Thomas Aquinas has to say about the Passion Narrative in the Gospel of John--the Gospel reading for the Good Friday service. 

A couple caveats.

First, I'm not going to get into some of the critical issues that could be raised. For example, Thomas assumes--as all the Fathers and Doctors do--that the author of the Fourth Gospel is meant to be understood as the Apostle John, the son of Zebedee. Many contemporary scholars, of course, reject that identification. I don't have time to deal with this issue here. Suffice it to say, there are good reasons to think the author is identifying himself as the Apostle John (for one treatment, listen to Mark Goodacre's podcast on the topic). 

Second, there are many aspects of Thomas' commentary on Jesus passion I have not included. Certainly, some will complain that I have left out some things I should have included and have included some things I should have left out. The only defense--dubious as it is--that I can offer is: "What I have written, I have written."  

The following quotes are all taken from St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel of John (trans. F. Larcher, O.P. and J. A. Weisheipl, O.P. with M. Levering and D. Keating; Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2010). 

1. On the two-fold involvement of the Jews and the Romans

Thomas has an interesting take on the structure of the Passion in the Fourth Gospel, which comprises John 18-19. Thomas divides the two chapters by saying that ch. 18 deals with Christ's suffering at the hands of the Jews, while ch. 19 deals with what he had to suffer at the hands of the Gentiles (i.e., Romans). He also emphasizes the role of three major parties in the Passion: the disciples, the high priests, and Pilate. 
"Christ’s passion was effected partly by the Jews, and partly by the Gentiles. Thus, he first describes what Christ suffered from the Jews; secondly, what he suffered from the Gentiles (19:1). He does three things regarding the first: he shows how our Lord was betrayed by a disciple; secondly, how he was brought before the high priests (v. 13); and thirdly, how he was accused before Pilate (v. 28)." (no. 2271)

2. On why the Passion begins in the Garden of Gethsemane 

Thomas explains that it was suitable for the passion to begin in a garden since such was also the site of the fall of humanity. In addition, it was fitting for Jesus' passion to commence in garden since the ultimate goal of the passion is to bring us to "paradise".
"This was especially suitable because Christ was satisfying for the sin of our first parent which had been committed in a garden (for paradise means a garden of delights). It was also suitable because by his passion he is leading us into another garden and paradise to receive a crown: 'Today you will be with me in Paradise' (Lk 23:43)." (no. 2275). 
Thomas picks up on this imagery again later when he comments on the significance of Jesus' burial in a garden tomb. 
"The place where Christ was buried is then mentioned, Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden. Christ was arrested in a garden, underwent his agony in a garden, and was buried in a garden. This indicates to us that by the power of Christ’s passion we are freed from the sin which Adam committed in the Garden of delights, and that through Christ the Church is made holy, the Church, which itself is like a garden enclosed." [no. 2468]

3. On how Judas knew where to find Jesus even though he left the Last Supper early

Throughout his treatment, Thomas addresses possible objections to the credibility of John's account. This is but one example of such a treatment. 
"Chrysostom says that it was Christ’s custom, especially at the major feasts, to bring his disciples there after supper and teach them the deeper meaning of the feasts, things that others were not ready to hear.[1] And so, because this was an important feast, Judas surmised that Christ would be going there after supper. It was Christ’s custom to teach his disciples these sublime matters in the mountains or in private gardens, seeking places free from disturbance so they would not be distracted. . ." (no. 2277)
4. Judas didn't even recognize Jesus

Thomas is a very close reader of the text. For example, he notes that it is odd that Jesus has to identify himself to Judas at all. 
"It could be expected that they might not recognize the face of Christ because of the darkness. But this darkness would not explain why they did not know Christ from his voice, especially those who were quite familiar with him. By saying, I am he, Christ shows that he was not recognized even by Judas who was with them and on close terms with Christ." (no. 2281)
5. On why Peter fought back even though Jesus had taught the disciples not to resist evil

Throughout his commentary, Thomas highlights the spiritual development of the disciples. In the case of Peter striking the high priest's servant, Thomas explains Peter manifests his spiritual imperfection.
The second question is why Peter struck the servant of the high priest, since our Lord had told them not to resist evil (Mt 5:39). One could answer that they were forbidden to resist someone in order to defend themselves, but this did not apply to defending the Lord. Or, one could say that they had not yet been strengthened by a power coming from above: “Stay in the city, until you are clothed with power from on high” (Lk 24:49). And for this reason they were not yet so perfect that they could not resist evil entirely. (no. 2289)
6. On Peter and John, the two apostles who follow Jesus after his arrest

In addition to speaking about the way the spiritual growth of the disciples serves as a model for believers, Thomas also reflects on the way certain disciples represent different ways of following Jesus. Peter thus represents the "active life", while John represents the contemplative life. Thomas draws out some interesting implications of the portrayal of Peter and John on the basis of this reading.
"In the mystical interpretation, these two disciples indicate the two ways of life in which Christ is followed: the active life, which is signified by Peter, and the contemplative life, signified by John. Those in the active life follow Christ by obedience, 'My sheep hear my voice' (10:27). Those in the contemplative life follow Christ by knowledge and contemplation. . .

These two disciples followed Christ because they loved him more than the others did; and so they were the first to come to the tomb (20:2). And it was these two who came because they were united to each other by a stronger bond of love; and so they are frequently mentioned together in the Gospel and in the Acts, where we read that 'They sent to them Peter and John' (Acts 8:14), and again that 'Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer' (Acts 3:1)." (nos. 2301-2302)
7. On why John was the one who let Peter into the high priest's court yard

Two things stand out here. First, Thomas makes the interesting inference that John's family was associated with priestly circles. Second, assuming the "other disciple" is the author, Thomas makes some suggestions on why he is not named in the story. Third, following from the point made above (no. 6), Thomas highlights the implications of the story for the contemplative and active life.  
"It was John who entered first, with Jesus, as this disciple was known to the high priest … while Peter stood outside at the door. Although John had been a fisherman and had been called as a young man by Christ, he was still known by the high priest, either because John’s father was a servant of the high priest, or a relative. John did not mention that the high priest knew him because he was proud, but because of his humility, so that the fact that he was the first to enter, with Jesus, into the court of the high priest, ahead of Peter, would not be ascribed to his virtue and superiority rather than to his acquaintance with the high priest. Thus he says, as this disciple, John himself, was known to the high priest. Consequently, he was able to enter with Jesus into the high priest’s court, where Christ had been led. While Peter stood outside; this was like a foreboding of his future denial: “Those who saw me, fled outside from me” (Ps 30:12).

Mystically understood, John enters with Jesus because the contemplative life is one of familiarity with Jesus. . . Peter stands outside because the active life is busy with exterior things: “Mary sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving” (Lk 10:39).

Here we see how Peter was let in due to John’s intervention, because the other disciple, John who was known to the high priest, went out and spoke to the maid who kept the door, with the intention of bringing Peter in, and then he brought Peter in. The mystical interpretation of this is that the active life is brought to Christ by the contemplative life: for just as the lower reason is directed by the higher reason, so the active life is directed by the contemplative life. . ." (nos. 2304-2306)
8. On why Jesus permitted Peter to betray him

I have to think Pope Francis would probably like this line:
"Our Lord permitted Peter to deny him because he wanted the very one who was to be the head of the entire Church to be all the more compassionate to the weak and sinners, having experienced in himself his own weakness in the face of sin. . ." (no. 2309)
9. On why Jesus protested being struck on the cheek when he himself taught that his disciples should turn the other cheek

Thomas focuses on the way Christ's actions in his passion are a model for believers. In fact, interestingly, Thomas goes on to show how Christ's actions help to also clarify aspects of his teaching.
I say to this, with Augustine, that the statements and commands found in sacred scripture can be interpreted and understood from the actions of the saints, since it is the same Holy Spirit who inspired the prophets and the other sacred authors and who inspires the actions of the saints [2]. . . Thus, sacred scripture should be understood according to the way Christ and other holy persons followed it. Now, Christ did not turn his other cheek here; and Paul did not do so either (Acts 16:22). Accordingly, we should not think that Christ has commanded us to actually turn our physical cheek to one who has struck the other. We should understand it to mean that we should be ready to do this if it turned out to be necessary to do so. That is, our attitude should be such that we would not be inwardly stirred up against the one striking us, but be ready or disposed to endure the same or even more.[3] This is how our Lord observed it, for he offered his body to be killed. So, our Lord’s defense is useful for our instruction. (no. 2321)
10. On why John says that the Jewish Leaders had yet to eat the Passover when the Synoptic Gospels tell us Jesus' Last Supper was a Passover meal. 

The Synoptics tell us that Jesus ate the Passover on the night of his last meal (cf., e.g., Luke 22:15). The Fourth Gospel, however, explains that the high priests could not go into the praetorium because they would be defiled and so not be able to eat the Passover (cf. John 18:28). How do we explain this possible discrepancy? Lots of solutions have been offered. 

Thomas sides with the explanation of Jerome and Augustine: "Passover" could refer to either the feast of Passover or to the entire Feast of Unleavened Bread which followed (cf. Luke 22:1: "Now the feast of Unleavened Bread drew near, which is called the Passover").
". . . we should say with Jerome, Augustine [4], and other Latin Fathers [5], that the fourteenth day is the beginning of the feast; but the Passover refers not just to that evening, but to the entire time of the seven days during which they ate unleavened bread, which was to be eaten by those who were clean. And because the Jews would have contracted uncleanness by entering the residence of a foreign judge, they did not enter so that they might not be defiled, but might eat the Passover, that is, the unleavened bread." (no. 2334)
11. On what "My Kingdom is not of this world" means

Thomas is not at all opposed to finding multiple possible meanings in a given passage.
"Sometimes the word kingdom means the people who reign, and sometimes the authority to reign. Taking the word in its first sense, Augustine [6] says, My kingdom, that is, my faithful—you 'have made them a kingdom … to our Lord' (Rev 5:10)—is not of this world. He does not say they are not 'in the world' (17:11), but that they are not of this world, because of what they love and imitate, since they have been wrested from it by grace. For this is how God has delivered us from the power of darkness and has brought us into the kingdom of his love.

Chrysostom [7] explains this sentence by taking kingdom in the second sense, and says, My kingdom, that is, the power and authority which makes me a king, is not of this world, that is, does not have its origin in earthly causes and human choice, but from another source, from the Father: 'His dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away” (Dan 7:14).'" (no. 2351)
12. On the crown of thorns
"They mock him with a crown, because it is customary for kings to wear a crown, a crown of gold: 'A crown of gold upon his head' (Sir 45:12). The Psalm (20:4) mentions this: 'You set a crown of fine gold upon his head.' And the soldiers plaited a crown of thorns, and put it on his head, the head of him who is a crown of glory to those who belong to him: 'In that day the Lord of hosts will be a crown of glory, and a diadem of beauty, to the remnant of his people' (Is 28:5). 
It was appropriately made of thorns, because by them he removes the thorns of sin, which pain us through remorse of conscience: 'Break up your fallow ground, and sow not among thorns' (Jer 4:3). These thorns also take away the thorns of punishment which burden us: 'Thorns and thistles it shall bring forth to you' (Gen 3:18)." (no. 2375)
13. On the purple robe
"Secondly, they mock him with clothing. The soldiers … arrayed hint in a purple robe, which was the sign of a royal dignity for the Romans. In 1 Maccabees (8:14) we read that when the Romans ruled they wore a crown and were clothed in purple. This clothing of Christ in purple fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah (63:2): 'Why is your apparel red, and your garments like his that treads in the wine press?' At the same time it indicates the sufferings of the martyrs, which stains red the entire body of Christ, that is, the church." (no. 2376)
14. On the mocking address of the soldiers and their beating of him
Thirdly, they mock him the way they address him: they came up to him, saying, Hail, King of the Jews! It was the custom then, as it is now, for subjects to salute their king when they came into his presence: “And when Hushai the Archite, David’s friend, came to Absalom, Hushai said to Absalom, ‘Long live the king! Long live the king!’ ” (2 Sam 16:16).

As for the mystical interpretation, those greet Christ mockingly who profess him with words “but deny him with their deeds” (Ti 1:16).

Now he mentions the real dishonor shown to Christ, and struck him with their hands, in order to show that the honor they did gave him was in mockery: “I gave my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard” (Is 50:6); “With a rod they strike upon the cheek the ruler of Israel” (Mic 5:1)." (no. 2377)
15. On the disagreement between John and Mark over the time Jesus was crucified
"He adds, it was about the sixth hour. This does not agree with Mark (15:25), who says, 'And it was the third hour, when they crucified him.' [8] It is clear that Christ was before the tribunal before he was crucified.

According to Augustine [9], there are two explanations for this. The first, and better, is that Christ was crucified two times: once by the tongues and words of the shouting Jews, 'Crucify him, crucify him' (v. 6), and the second time by the hands of the soldiers who nailed him to the cross. Now the Jews wanted to blame the crucifixion on the Gentiles. And so Mark, who wrote his gospel for the Gentiles, blamed it on the Jews, saying that Christ was crucified by the Jews when at the third hour they shouted, 'Crucify him, crucify him.' It is John who follows the real time and he says, it was about the sixth hour. For when Christ was on the cross it was at the end of the fifth hour and at the beginning of the sixth, when darkness came and lasted three hours, that is, until the ninth hour. He says, about the sixth hour because the sixth hour had not yet begun.

The second explanation is that the preparation of the Passover was mentioned, and our Passover, Christ, was about to be immolated. Thus the preparation of the Passover is the preparation for the immolation of Christ. This preparation began at the ninth hour of the night, when the Jews shouted, to the captured Christ, 'He deserves death' (Mt 26:66). If to the three remaining hours of the night we add the three hours of the day, when Christ was crucified, we can see that he was crucified at the sixth hour of the preparation, although this was the third hour of the day, as Mark says. And it was appropriate that he was crucified at the sixth hour because by his cross he restored human nature which was created on the sixth day." (no. 2405)
16. On why Calvary is called "the place of the skull"
"Chrysostom [10] tells us that there are some who say that Adam died and was buried at this very place. This is why it was called Calvary, from the skull (calvaria) of the first man. And just as death reigned there, so there also Christ erected the trophy of his victory.

However, as Jerome [11] says, this is the popular interpretation and attractive to the people, but it is not true, because Adam was buried at Hebron: “Adam the greatest among the Anakim was buried there” (Jos 14:15). So we should say that this place was outside the gate of Jerusalem, and it was there that the heads of the condemned were cut off. It was called Calvary because the skulls of the beheaded were strewn there." (no. 2416)
17. On Jesus entrusting his mother to John 
"As to the first he says, When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, Woman, behold, your son! He is saying: Up to now I have taken care for you and watched over you. Now, you take care for my disciple. This shows the eminence of John.

Before, when the Mother of Jesus said, “They have no wine,” (2:3), he replied, “O woman, what have you to do with me? My hour has not yet come,” that is, the hour of my passion, when I will suffer by means of what I have received from you [my human nature]. But when that hour comes I will acknowledge you. And now that the hour has come, he does acknowledge his mother. Yet I do not have the power to work miracles through what I have received from you [my human nature], but rather through what I have from the generation of the Father, that is, insofar as I am God." [12] (no. 2440)
18. On why Christ said, "I thirst"
"By saying, I thirst, he showed that his death was real, and not just imaginary. . ." (no. 2447)
19. On the water and blood that flowed from the side of Christ
Another reason why this happened was to show that by the passion of Christ we acquire a complete cleansing from our sins and stains. We are cleansed from our sins by his blood, which is the price of our redemption: 'You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your fathers, not with perishable things, such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot' (1 Pet 1:18). And we are cleansed from our stains by the water, which is the bath of our rebirth: “I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses” (Ez 36:25). . . And so it is these two things which are especially associated with two sacraments: water with the sacrament of baptism, and blood with the Eucharist.56

Or, both blood and water are associated with the Eucharist because in this sacrament water is mixed with wine, although water is not of the substance of the sacrament.57

This event was also prefigured: for just as from the side of Christ, sleeping on the cross, there flowed blood and water, which makes the Church holy, so from the side of the sleeping Adam there was formed the woman, who prefigured the Church. (no. 2458)
20. On the possible meanings of the passage, "They shall look upon him whom they have pierced" (Zech. 12:10)
"They shall look on him, he says, at the coming judgment. Or, they will look on him when they have been converted to the faith, and so forth." (no. 2462).

[1] Chrysostom, Hom. in Io. 83. 1; PG 59, col. 447; cf. Catena aurea, 18:1–2.
[2] Augustine, Tract. in Io. 113. 4; PL 35, col. 1934–35; cf. Catena aurea, 18:22–24.
[3] Aquinas, Summa Theologiae II-II, q. 64, a. 7, ad 5.
[4] Augustine, Tract. in Io. 114. 1; PL 35, col. 1936; cf. Catena aurea, 18:28–32.
[5] See especially Alcuin, Comm. in S. Ioannis Evang. 7. 40 (vers. 28); PL 100, col. 974; cf. Catena aurea, 18:28–32.
[6] Augustine, Tract. in Io. 115. 2; PL 35, col. 1939; cf. Catena aurea, 18:33–38.
[7] Chrysostom, Hom. in Io. 83. 4; PG 59, col. 453; cf. Catena aurea, 18:33–38.
[8] Aquinas, Summa Theologiae III, q. 46, a. 9.
[9] Augustine, Tract. in Io. 117. 1; PL 35, col. 1944; cf. Catena aurea, 19:12–16.
[10] Chrysostom, Hom in Io. 85. 1; PG 59, col. 459–60; cf Catena aurea, 19:16–18.
[11] Jerome, Comm. in Matt. IV. 27. 33; PL 26, col. 209; cf. Catena aurea, 19:16–18.
[12] Aquinas, Summa Theologiae III, q. 43, aa. 2–3.
[13] Aquinas, Summa Theologiae III, q. 62, a. 5; III, q. 66, a. 3, ad 3.

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