As our journey through Lent continues, we will put ourselves in the perspective of Pontius Pilate and his wife in the drama that was the passion and death of Jesus Christ.
Pontius Pilate could be considered one of the most complex characters in this portion of the gospels. He was the Roman-appointed governor of Judea from 26/27 AD – 36/37 AD. During his administration, there was a lot of tension between the Romans and the Jewish people, so when Jesus was brought before him, with the crowd’s insistence that He be crucified, he likely felt a lot of pressure coming from every direction. Certainly many, if not all of us, have found ourselves in situations where discerning the correct answer has been difficult. Perhaps you have had to mediate between two friends or family members. Or perhaps you’ve found yourself voting for “the lesser of two evils” in an election. However, you have experienced these types of difficulties, you are surely aware that often the right answer is not always glaringly obvious in the moment, even if it becomes more obvious in retrospect.
Each gospel account of Jesus being brought before Pilate reveals how Pilate was disturbed by the situation and reluctant to have Jesus crucified. This tells us that, on some level, he knew putting this man to death for nothing more than claiming He was a king, was wrong. However, he also knew that if he did not have Him crucified, there would be an uprising in an already tense climate and there was no way to predict how much further damage it would cause. Put yourself in the place of Pontius Pilate and feel the anxiety he had over making this single decision. To his credit, he did not take the decision lightly and even attempted to try to negotiate with the Jews to spare Jesus’ life. He gave them several opportunities to change their minds by appealing to their reason. In John’s gospel account, Pilate tells them on three separate occasions that he finds no guilt in Jesus, yet they continue to insist He be crucified. As a last resort, he agrees to release one prisoner for the Passover feast, hoping they would choose Jesus over the thief and murderer, Barabbas. Have you ever found yourself pleading with someone to do the right thing only to be met with obstinate resistance? If so, than you can imagine Pilate’s stress and frustration in this moment.
To add to Pilate’s anxiety, the gospel of Matthew includes his wife’s counsel to him to not cave to the crowd. “While he was sitting on the judgement seat, his wife sent word to him, ‘Have nothing to do with that righteous man, for I have suffered much because of him today in a dream’” (Matt 27:19). This is the only mention of Pilate’s wife in the official canon of scripture, but we do have some other useful historical sources that mention her. There is a gospel of Nicodemus and the writings of the ancient Jew, Josephus, that both mention Pilate and his wife, which the Church has deemed credible. In these documents, we are told her name is Claudia Procula and that when she tells her husband about her dream, he is deeply concerned. There is no text that describes the substance of her dream (though there has been much speculation), but it was enough to upset them both. Nicodemus tells us that when Pilate went back to the Pharisees after the dream, they were able to twist it around and convince Pilate that is was more proof of Jesus’ evil sorcery. While we don’t know what happened with Claudia after she delivered the message to Pilate, the movie, The Passion does a great job of imagining what might have happened. In the movie, Claudia is watching the scourging of Jesus from an upper room of her home. Seeing Mary, His mother, suffer through watching the abuse, she is moved with compassion. She brings cloths down to the courtyard and helps Mary and Mary Magdalene wipe the blood of Jesus off of the ground. Knowing that she was adamant He not be punished, it is not a far stretch to imagine her acting in some way similar to this scene. Have you ever been in Claudia’s shoes? Have you ever been a bystander, watching the effects of sin cause very messy outcomes, knowing there was nothing you could do, despite your best efforts, but stand by and be there for others as it falls apart?
As I stated earlier, there has been plenty of speculation about the content of Claudia’s dream. One “tradition” (meaning, not part of official Church teaching through Tradition) that has been passed down through the centuries, says that in her dream, she heard portions of the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds connecting her husband to the death of Christ in many different languages: “…suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.” Hearing his association with this great tragedy throughout the future and amongst all people, terrified her to her core, and rightly so. Have you ever noticed that when we pray either of the creeds, Pontius Pilate’s name is the only one besides God (all three persons) or Mary that is specifically mentioned? Have you ever thought about why that is? By identifying Pontius Pilate by name in our creeds, we make Jesus’ humanity all the more real by placing Him in a real historical context. Pontius Pilate was an actual governor within the Roman Empire at the time and Jesus was a real person he encountered during his ten-year administration. His name adds to the historical relevance of the presence of Jesus Christ on this earth in human form during a particular time. So, in that sense, Pontius Pilate tethers Jesus to our human history.
Now comes the million-dollar question: What happened to Pilate and Claudia after Jesus was crucified? As Catholics, we do not rely solely on Scripture for truthful information, rather, we also are able to look to our early Church ancestors (who were closer in time and space to the events at hand) to understand what they believed. The gospel of Nicodemus (4th-5th c.), Origen (c 184 AD-253 AD), and St. Augustine (354 AD-430 AD), among others, all claim that both Pilate and Claudia converted to Christianity shortly after the crucifixion. In St. Augustine’s Sermon 201, he says Pilate, like the Magi, bore witness to Jesus as King of the Jews, “so that they might take their seats in the kingdom of heaven with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob.” As a matter of fact, there are some Eastern churches that honor Pilate and Claudia as saints, which would indicate a certainty in their conversions. We hear all the time that we need to place Jesus at the center of our marriage and we must always lead one another on the path to heaven. For Pilate and Claudia, Jesus literally became a central figure in their marriage. They came face to face with the person of Jesus, watched Him suffer by Pilate’s own decision, which facilitated both their conversions, and ultimately led them to heaven. Married couples always face trials. Hopefully they are never as dire as the death sentence of an innocent man, but how do we allow those trials to transform our marriages for the better?
This week, spend some time imagining yourself in Pilate’s and Claudia’s places. Feel their anxiety in those moments, but then imagine their peace in coming to the realization that Jesus is Lord and died to set us all free.