On Ash Wednesday I mentioned I was reading What Jesus Saw from the Cross by A. G. Sertillanges for Lent, and I have to say this is one of the best devotional books I have ever read. Perhaps it’s the very best devotional I have ever read. As I said then, Sertillanges contemplates what Jesus saw and thinks as He is pinned upon the cross, meditating on the Passion events.
Not only are the meditations profound, but the writing is superb! Here’s for your appreciation an extended quote from the passage where the crowd turns against Jesus. Notice how Sertillanges shifts subtly perspectives from Pilate to Jesus to the crowd several times to create different angles, perceptions, and views. Notice how he changes the pacing of the syntax, accelerating as the actions and emotions build, slowly down to provide contemplative commentary. This passage, and along with many other passages in the book, are truly passages I wished I had written. Sertillanges, a French Dominican friar, had written the work in his native tongue, but whoever translated it—it doesn’t say in my Sophia Institute Press 1996 edition—did a remarkable job. There is a note on the copyright page that says the book “was published in French as Ce Jésus voyait du haut de la croix by Ernest Flammarion of Paris in 1930. An English translation was published by Clonmore & Reynolds Ltd. in Dublin in 1948.”
Here is the passage, taken from the chapter titled, "His Enemies."
The incredible thing is that it should have been found possible to mobilize against Jesus so many people who for various reasons ought to have been His friends. They had received from Him nothing but benefits. His word had awaken their slumbering hearts; His goodness had won their affection; His miracles had aroused their admiration; His condemnation of abuses could not but command their sympathy; and His promises of happiness, even if they were not believed, must at least have flattered their dreams.
What is their grievance? That the leaders of the Jews should have hated Jesus is perhaps intelligible, but the enmity of the crowd is most mysterious. It is only at the last moment that it becomes manifest, and then only under the stimulus of encouragement from the priests.
At the beginning of His sacred ministry Jesus had applied to Himself the words of the prophet: The spirit of the Lord is upon me, wherefore He hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor. He hath sent me to heal the contrite of heart, to preach deliverance to the captives, and sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord, and the day of reward (Luke 4:18; Cf. Isa 61:1-2).
This program had aroused intense enthusiasm. It is true that there was annoyance at some of His reproaches, and that among His own people Jesus had already experienced something of the fickle moods of mankind. Still, on the whole He had been well received by the masses.
If Jesus complained of their tepidity and their incredulity, of their selfishness and their demands, He did not attribute hostile sentiments to His hearers. Often He had been acclaimed; they had wanted to make Him king. He was received and welcomed with gratitude, and during the last few days since the raising of Lazarus, their love for Him seemed to have reached its zenith.
“A great prophet has arisen in the midst of us! God has visited His people! He has done all things well! Never has man spoken as this man! He is Elijah! He is John the Baptist risen again, or one of the prophets! He is the messiah: Hosanna to the son of David! Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord! Such were the cries that saluted Him.
Even during the Passion itself, at Pilate’s house, the crowd does not seem ill disposed at first. The leaders had not summoned them; it was hardly likely! Had it not been for Judas and the opportunity he offered, they would willingly have postponed the satisfaction of their hate to avoid this concourse. “Not on the festival day,” they said, “lest there be a tumult among the people (Matt 26:5).
The crowd has assembled for reasons of its own. They have a right to have a prisoner released to them this day, and they are going to claim that right. Perhaps they are thinking of Barabbas, perhaps of Jesus, who is at this moment is appearing before the tribunal (Mark 15:11-13).
Unhappily for the popular choice or for its constancy, the leaders take a hand; they have time to do so, for this is the interval during which the procurator’s wife interrupts the proceedings. The mutual explanations of the pair must have taken a moment or two, and it was natural that a certain time should be allowed to claimants to decide upon their choice.
Pilate has just given them the option: “Which of the two will you that I release unto you?” And he has shown them in which direction his own inclination lies: “Will you that I release unto you the king of the Jews” (Mark 15:9)? Left to themselves, those in the crowd might answer in the affirmative, but the leaders are rousing them now; their high priests have control over them, in spite of their complaints. Moreover, Pilate has irritated them by twice referring jocularly to “their king” (Mark 15:9, 12).
King, king, always the king! And a broken-down king at that! He rouses their derision more than their pity: a Messiah in chains before a Roman governor! This seems to be the kernel of the matter in the eyes of these Israelites, who yesterday were enthusiastic, a few moments ago were in doubt, and now are suddenly hostile and furious.
Mobs do not like to be disillusioned; and the man who disappoints them may pass in a moment from the rank of a national hero to nothing, and even to less than nothing. The sympathies of the mob are liable to revulsions. Many a crashing fall in history has been due to no more than this.
Think what a disillusionment it is for the Jews to see Jesus in this condition before Pilate, to say nothing of the other accusations against Him to which that condition easily lent credit. The Liberator of the chosen people appearing as a leader of sedition before a Roman tribunal and unable to acquit himself of the charge! This is the Pualine “scandal of the Cross” (Cf. 1 Cor 1:23) by anticipation, and we can understand that an infuriated crowd will leave Him to His fate.
From disappointment they pass to spite, from spite to anger, and under the ceaseless encouragement of their iniquitous leaders they are easily roused to exasperation. The word cross has been spoken; it is taken up and repeated. The penalty of crucifixion has been so often inflicted on Jews that they are surprised at the hesitation of the governor. Once they have rejected Jesus, He is nothing more nor less for them than an agitator and an enemy of the empire. “What you have done to so many others,” they answer in reply, “Crucify Him!” (Matt 27:22; Mark 15:13; Luke 23:20-21; John 19:15)
Once the change of feeling is thus achieved, the taste of blood now begins to intoxicate the mob; a thrill of cruelty runs through them all. To any further questions or objections the maddened crowd has only one reply, given with increasing violence: “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” And it does not stop there; it involves the whole people in its own responsibility, and not only the present generation but posterity as well: “His blood be upon us and upon our children!” (Matt 27:25)
And that prayer will be answered. But what a tragedy for Him who would have gathered this thankless people “as the hen gathers her chicken under her wing!” (Matt 23:37; Luke 13:34) He has come to them with a message of happiness, and they hate Him and blaspheme. If that message was only a dream it was at any rate a dream of goodness; and their only answer is the nightmare of death.
This people, which has awaited and expected Him for many centuries, receives Him and fails to know Him for what He is. He who was to come is come, and He departs carrying all His blessings with Him. His nation scorns Him, kills him, drives Him forth; even dead they will have Him only outside their walls. And while He dies they scoff and sneer. Even those who have not come to see Him die are over there on the terraces of their houses, waving their arms and crying out like madmen. And Jesus, whose Cross raises Him above the level of the walls, can see these traitors to His love, these distant enemies.
As the procession passed the Gate of Ephraim, those who had been waiting there since the great news came from the praetorium, who had heard the legal formula “Go, lector, prepare the cross!” pronounced, must have broken forth again into tumultuous fury. For now it was their fury that they showed, not their desires or their requests. The cruel gaiety of this day had gone to everybody’s head; the word cross was on the lips of them all, and the word blood and the word death, mingled with Galilean, rabbi, prophet, Messiah; and every word was uttered with a sneer.
Every savage instinct latent in the heart of man was awake; souls frothed over with rage, and this anticipatory delegation of those who in every generation would hate and oppose Christ, vented itself in a cry of satanic joy.
The darkness and the other portents that are soon to appear will damp this delirious frenzy. A thrill of fear will pass through the city; hearts will be heavy; those who now acclaim the death of the Savior will beat their breasts. Once more the fickle crowd will change, in its emotional and childish fashion. Yet the problem still remains: how did this transformation which we have described become possible? General explanations do not satisfy the mind; is there not one which perhaps goes deep to the heart of things? (pp. 156-61)