In the vulgar, but nevertheless lively idiom of the contemporary world, we are with today’s Mass entering the phase of Christ’s ministry on Earth when it begins to go pear-shaped. Only last week we were recalling a happier moment, with the loaves and fishes. Jesus was being mobbed by admirers. The tone of that passage, I discussed last Sunday. I stressed the drollness in a couple of remarks, the “irony” in the moment when Jesus looks up to see the adoring crowd approaching, and must realize they are the same sort who will be, very soon, howling for His blood. I detect this irony not because I am always looking for light comic relief when reading Scripture (only sometimes), but because I think it is necessary to understand the passage.

Jesus Christ could see what is in man. And He could see it in a human way: from the inside, as a man himself, subject to every human temptation. He could understand that the people in the crowd, surging towards him enthusiastically, hadn’t really come to honour Him as very God of very God. They had come because they’d heard that He cures people of incurable diseases, that He performs other miracles, and might just do one for them. I should think nine in ten, minimum, had missed the part about, “Unless ye have faith.”

It should also be said that He loves those people, with a love beyond human understanding. I, for instance, wouldn’t have loved those people, even if they were coming to celebrate moi. I’d be secretly thinking, “Buncha monkeys.” I’d be summoning the will to smile. I’d be praying, “Why me, O Lord?” In other words, I’d be among those whom Christ loves, for no plausible reason. That Christ can love, or even stomach any of us, is among the divine Mysteries.

While there are, as Christians should expect, parallels in the world’s other “great religions,” there is nothing in any of them quite like this, where God, the very One who created the universe, and made Man, looks at it from the creaturely point of view. And from our human, creaturely view, that is the grandest of His miracles. It should bring home to us that extraordinary assertion in Scripture: that God made Man in His own image. And Christ is the very guarantor of that, clinched in his human pain and temptations.

This week we may consider His very human desire to cut and run. “Father, if it be possible, let this chalice pass from Me. Nevertheless, not as I will, but as Thou wilt.”

The Gospel today, from Saint John, chapter 8, verses 46 and forward, puts us in the thick of the action. The charge against Jesus is blasphemy; blasphemy against the very God. It is, though this is no longer funny, a charge of blasphemy against Himself. Those who make it know not what they do; but they are doing it with constantly increasing vehemence.

I find the passage very eerie. The crowd is pressing on Him, it will soon be throwing rocks. I don’t think it is my imagination: it is as if Saint John was there in person. Perhaps he was, and that explains it. An observation seems implicit in the text, that he saw something as he looked upon Our Lord: another transfiguration. Jesus speaks one moment more as a man, another more as God: to human eyes almost toggling back and forth. The faithless mob of course sees nothing but a mortal enemy: one helpless and surrounded small human person, by whom it has chosen to feel utterly threatened; two sparkling eyes to be put out; flesh to be pummelled into mincemeat. Their rage makes them blind, makes them swine.

For Jesus is a threat to more than public order. It is far worse than that. He is a threat to their smugness, their self-regard, their bourgeois spiritual comfort. They are, as we say, “losing it”; they now hurl charges that are self-refuting, such as that He is a Samaritan. Those who are smarter than their family pet should realize that in promising “everlasting life,” Jesus has been preaching the diametric opposite of Samaritanism. He has the bad taste to point this out. And as I note, Saint John — oddly enough, the most factual, or “journalistic” of the Evangelists — flags their literalism. By wantonly construing what Jesus has said about the Prophets in the most obtusely literal way (“Abraham is dead!”), his accusers display the human mind working at its least sentient level.

I called them swine: they are down to animals now. But of course, I have been unfair to swine. No pig could be so evil. For when humans behave like animals, they are so much worse than animals, and capable of acts the most ferocious predator is incapable of intending. That is why even the thinnest veneer of “civilization” is holy.

Forget gentle reader; it is time to remind myself that Jesus loves them.

It is curious that these passages have inspired men in a hundred later generations — men who call themselves Christians — to echo and reprise the very form of the malicious idiocy we see condemned in this passage, finding new ways to crucify, again and again. I refer to such phenomena as the anti-Semitism, the pogroms of Christendom; the allegations that, “The Jews crucified Christ.” (This was, incidentally, never the issue in the use of the misunderstood Latin word perfidius in the Old Mass.)

As W.H. Auden pointed out, only a bigoted and ignorant person could say that. “The Jews did not crucify Christ,” he explained. “It was the Romans. … Or to bring it up to date, the French.”

Or drop the wit, and make it plainer still: we, every one, would crucify Christ, and howl with the mob in the same situation, if only to save our own skins. Unless we wouldn’t: but to feel sure of it involves more of that bourgeois, smug self-regard.

I have been in mobs; the first time as a child of seven, being driven through a riot on the cross-bar of our family servant’s bicycle, trying to get me home safely from school in Lahore. (“Bill” was his name: a Punjabi Catholic.) That is when I first saw human blood trickling, quite literally in a gutter. It is still with me: it may be why I am squeamish about mob rule, or “democracy” as we call it today. The memory comes back: of what happens to the people in the crowd when the Devil takes them, and they become inebriated with their own collective power. Hell is no illusion: mine eyes have seen it.

And the alternative is to stand, and maybe hang with Christ. This will be — in the last day, in the last analysis — the only alternative. (Only through Christ; only through His Church.)

Lent has been long, and we have no doubt failed to observe it adequately. We always fail; we are weak, pathetic little humans. But in this final fortnight, it is time to take penitence seriously. We know what is coming, and can’t pretend we don’t. Gethsemane is no illusion.

Those who raise the Cross, yet omit the Man nailed to it, do not properly teach Christianity. For this will be a glorious, not a happyface Resurrection; for it involves the human race actually being saved. Meanwhile, something stands between here and there, that blocks our road Home. And we must deal with it, if we are going to get there.