People of the Passion: Malchus

Then Simon Peter, having a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s slave and cut off his right ear. The slave’s name was Malchus- John 18:10 RSV

Servant of the High Priest

When the Temple guards arrive in Gethsemane to arrest Jesus, among them is a person referred to as the servant, or slave, of the High Priest. John is the only evangelist who provides the name of the servant: Malchus. Perhaps this was because John knew the man personally. (In the Gospel according to John, the “other disciple” who accompanies Peter to the house of the High Priest in order to witness the trial of Jesus is “known” to the household and allowed to enter. It is generally accepted that the “other disciple” is John himself, so it would make sense for him to know the High Priest’s servant personally.)

Captain of the Guard

Most adaptations of the Passion tend to interpret servant simply as “someone who serves in some capacity.” Thus, Malchus is usually shown as a member of the Temple Guard. In Louis de Wohl’s historical novel The Spear, Malchus is captain of the Guard, and was originally dispatched to arrest Jesus when He was preaching in the Temple and was almost stoned for saying that He existed before Abraham. Like The Spear, the History Channel miniseries The Bible presents Malchus as captain of the Guard while the Passion of the Christ presents him as a minor member. The only exception to the presentation of Malchus as a member of the Guard I could find is this video, presumably from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. 

All four Gospels record that one of the disciples of Jesus cut off the ear of Malchus (or at least part of it). Only the Gospel according to John identifies that disciple as Simon Peter. Thus, Malchus is the sole victim of the sole abortive attempt by one of Christ’s disciples to save him from arrest and eventual execution.

In the Gospel according to Luke, Jesus heals Malchus by replacing his ear. This is the first of three ways in which Luke’s Passion Account differs from the other Synoptics. The Gospel according to Luke, which is the only one that includes the parable of the Prodigal Son, is often referred to as the “Gospel of Mercy.” In each instance, Christ is shown demonstrated mercy or consolation to someone in the course of His Passion. This first instance is notable, because Christ shows mercy by healing someone who has been wounded in the process of arresting Him, an arrest that will lead to His death. Here, as in everything He does, Christ shows us a perfect example of how to live. In this case, He radically practices what He preached when He said, “Love your enemy and do good to those who persecute you.” Healing the ear of Malchus is the last miracle that Jesus performs before His Resurrection.


Roberto Bestazzonni in The Passion of the Christ

Scripture makes no mention of Malchus after the arrest of Jesus. For some reason, no detailed tradition has risen up around him as it has other minor figures in the Passion narrative. In The Passion of the Christ, Malchus stays kneeling on the ground dazed, in the exact spot where Christ healed him, for several moments before being roused by one of his comrades. In The Spear, Malchus is mentioned, alongside Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, as part of the crowd listening to Peter preach on Pentecost. It is implied that he is baptized (presumably by the man who sliced off his ear 53 days earlier!) and becomes a Christian. In her Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, (which both The Spear and The Passion of the Christ use as source) Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich wrote, “Malchus was instantly converted by the cure wrought upon him, and during the time of the Passion his employment was to carry messages backwards and forwards to Mary and the other friends of our Lord.”

In The Bible miniseries, he is still in the employ of the High Priest after Pentecost and gives the order for Peter and John to be flogged after their arrest. If that was what actually happened, perhaps it simply took him a little bit longer to come to the light. Perhaps, witnessing such a change in Peter and the other Apostles from what Malchus briefly witnessed in the Garden, sealed the deal on a nascent belief he had nurtured since that fateful night. Being healed of a grievous wound by the man whom you were sent to arrest would undoubtedly have had a profound effect on Malchus. It is highly unlikely that he would have been unchanged or continued in opposition to Him after His Resurrection.


The Agony in the Garden

And He withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and knelt down and prayed, “Father, if thou art willing, remove this cup from me; nevertheless not my will, but Thine, be done.” And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening Him. And being in an agony He prayed more earnestly; and His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down upon the ground.

–Luke 22:41-44 RSV

The First Sorrowful Mystery

The First Sorrowful Mystery of the Rosary is the Agony in the Garden. The Agony in the Garden is the beginning of Christ’s Passion. It is where Our Lord first begins to suffer. The bloody sweat recorded by Saint Luke are also the first drops of blood shed by Our Lord.

Saint Luke, who is believed to have been a physician, describes an actual medical condition known as hematridosis. It occurs when capillary blood vessels burst, causing them to fill the sweat glands with blood. It is extremely rare and is only caused by extreme physical and emotional stress.   In Gospel according to Matthew, Christ tells His Apostles that He is “sorrowful, even to the point of death.” Thus, the stress to his soul was so great that His capillaries burst, causing Him to sweat blood. Even before His Crucifixion, Christ was undergoing the most intense suffering and anguish known to man.

Why was Christ in such great anguish?

Saint Luke writes that when the time approached for Jesus to travel to Jerusalem for the final time, that He “set his face” (some translations include, “like flint”). The image brought to mind is of a person who knows that he is about to undergo something painful but who resolutely sets himself to do it and endeavors to not yet his pain or trepidation show in his face. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus prophesies His Passion in words that make it clear that He knows exactly what is in store for Him. Thus, He was no doubt inwardly preparing Himself for His Passion for a long time.

Yet, on the night before His death, His resolve seems to falter. He prays, “Father, if thou art willing, remove this cup from me; nevertheless not my will, but Thine, be done.” He does so not once, not twice, but three times. He is not rejecting His saving mission but He is asking His Father if there is not some other that it can be accomplished.

Truly God and Truly Man

There are those who reject the idea that Jesus was afraid on the night before His death. The main reason is that to fear would be to doubt and that as the Son of God, Jesus would never doubt. This has led to such ludicrous explanations as Jesus actually praying to His Father to keep Him alive until His crucifixion, because he was in danger of dying in the Garden (which clearly goes against the plain text of Scripture).

To enter fully into the mystery of the Incarnation is to understand that Jesus was fully human. Not only did He have a human body, but he had a human mind and soul, human emotions and a human will. (To deny any of these is to embrace heresies that have long been declared anathema by the Church.) All of these were of course hypostatically united to His divine will which was itself in perfect union with that of His Heavenly Father but that does not mean that Jesus, as a human, did not fear the excruciating pain of a crucifixion.

Yet, none of that means that He was unwilling to undergo His Passion. Nor does it somehow diminish His Passion and Death for us. If anything, it amplifies it. Our Lord asked His Father if there was another way. When His Father answered there was not, He willingly and fully submitted Himself to His Father’s will and went to meet those who were sent to arrest Him.

In this, as in all things, Christ sets a powerful example for His followers. He said, “If anyone wishes to follow after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.” However, we are not to seek out suffering and certainly not martyrdom. Suffering is something that we accept, not something that we are to seek. If it is God’s will that such things befall us, we should, as Our Blessed Lord did, pray, “Not my will, but Thine be done.”

Another Aspect

saint-christopher-1524When Saint Christopher bore the Christ Child across the raging river on his shoulders, the Child grew so heavy that the exceedingly strong Christopher could barely carry Him. When Christopher to the Child that He felt as heavy as the whole world, the Child responded that was because he “bore the sins of the whole world.”

In the Song of the Suffering Servant, the prophet Isaiah prophesies of Christ, “On Him was laid the iniquity of us all.” In order for the death of Christ to serve as atonement for sins, He had to take on the guilt of those sins. This was every sin that had been committed up to that point and every sin that would be committed from that point until the end of time, from the most banal venial sin to the most heinous of mortal sins.

Saints have hypothesized that in the Garden, Christ witnessed all these sins at once as He accepted the burden of them upon His soul. Sin not only offends God, but it grievously wounds His Heart and this pain must have been intensely overwhelming for Our Lord. In addition to this, sin separates the sinner from God. Upon accepting the guilt of these sins, it stands to reason that Jesus would have felt an intense separation for His Father, made all the more excruciating as He prepared to endure His Passion.

Could It be…Satan?

In his Gospel, Saint Luke records what I consider to be one the two most terrifying words in Scripture, “And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time.” One needs only to look at recent cinematic portrayals of the life of Christ to see that many have interpreted the “opportune time” to be Christ’s agony in the garden of Gethsemane. Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, the CBS television film Jesus, and the stop-motion animated The Miracle-Maker all include Satan in the Garden of Gethsemane, tempting Jesus to despair, abandon His saving mission and flee from His imminent crucifixion.

Left: Rosalinda Celentano in The Passion of Christ, Top Right: Jereon Krabbe in Jesus, Bottom right: William Hootkins (voice) in The Miracle Maker

Interestingly, in none of these portrayals is there an angelic appearance to counteract the demonic, despite the mention of an angel in the Gospel according to Saint Luke. The Gospel according to Saint Matthew mentions angels coming and ministering to Jesus after His temptations in the desert. While we might be tempted to think of the angelic presence as a soothing comfort from Christ’s agony, Saint Luke writes that the angel was sent “to strengthen Him.” I believe that this is a hint of Satan’s presence in the Garden, with the angel being sent as “back-up” (so to speak) for Jesus in His conflict with the Tempter. One wonders as well if perhaps the “twelve legions of angels” that Our Lord reminds His Apostles He can call upon His Father to send to His aide were not actually present, invisible, waiting for their Lord’s command to drive off the demonic powers arrayed against Him.

New Adam, New Eve

Satan’s presence in the Garden also fits into the understanding of Our Lord as the New Adam and Our Lady as the New Eve. The temptation scene in The Passion of the Christ ends with Christ stomping on the head of a snake that has slithered out of the robes of Satan. While not mentioned explicitly in Scripture, this scene is an obvious reference to the Protoevangelium: “I shall put enmity between you and the woman and between your offspring and her’s. He shall crush your head while you strike at his heel.”

The Church Fathers saw Our Lady as the New Eve because Our Lord is the New Adam. The twelfth chapter of the Apocalypse, famous for its depiction of the “Woman Clothed with the Sun,” also explicitly identifies Satan as the “that ancient serpent…the deceiver of the whole world.” Whereas the original Adam and Eve rejected the will of God out of disobedience and thus fell to sin and death, the new Adam and Eve obediently accept the will of God.

Mary did this first at the Annunciation with her fiat (“Let it be done to me according to thy word”) and Christ does it now with His words, “Not my will but Thine be done!” In the Garden of Eden, the first Adam rejected the Will of God and disobediently stretched out his hand to the tree and brought sin and, as a result, death into the world. In the Garden of Gethsemane, the new Adam accepts the Will of God and will obediently stretch out His arms upon the tree to erase sin and give life unto the world.

Lord Jesus Christ,

Grant us, we pray, the grace to be truly sorrowful for our sins, for which you suffered so greatly and which caused you such bitter agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. Amen.

The Glory of These Forty Days

The glory of these forty days
we celebrate with songs of praise;
for Christ, by whom all things were made,
himself has fasted and has prayed.

– Attributed to Pope St. Gregory the Great

Today marks the beginning of the forty day period of penitence before the celebration of Our Lord’s Passion, Death and Resurrection during the Paschal Triduum of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil. It is forty days because of the forty days that Christ spent in the wilderness prayer, fasting and being tempted by the Devil immediately prior to the beginning of his public ministry.

The funny thing is that Lent is not actually forty days, by anyone’s calculations. If you count the number of days from Ash Wednesday until Holy Saturday (the day before Easter) you get 46 (7×6+4). Now, most people do not count Sundays as days of Lent because technically every Sunday is a celebration of Our Lord’s Resurrection and therefore a time of rejoicing. It’s the same reason that except for the highest of holydays, if a feast falls on Sunday, the Sunday celebration takes precedence or is moved (this year, the Solemnity of St. Joseph gets bumped forward to Monday because March 19th is a Sunday). If you subtract the Sundays, you get forty days.

But…then you run into the problem of the Triduum which is technically one giant feast and it’s own liturgical season. (Pay attention this year: there is no dismissal from the Mass of Our Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday and no greeting of the people at the Easter Vigil. It is one, three-day long liturgy.) So you would have to subtract the last three days of the forty day period and come up with thirty-seven days. Adding back the Sundays does not help because now we have forty-three days.

But I digress…

Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust

Contrary to popular belief, Ash Wednesday is not a holy day of obligation. You would never know this because so many Catholics go to Mass to get ashes. Even Catholics who do not make it to Mass for holydays of obligation or even most Sundays, make it to Mass for Ash Wednesday. While that is kind of sad, a priest can use this opportunity to call those wayward Catholics in the pews (as well as the rest of us…we are all wayward in some way or another) to a deeper sense of repentance.

After all, that is really what Lent is all about: repentance. In the ancient times, those who wished to show repentance from sin would publicly rend their garments, put on sackcloth and sprinkle ashes in their hair. (As an example, this is what the people of Nineveh did in order to avert the destruction prophesied by the prophet Jonah) When the priest or minister puts the ashes on a person’s forehead, he does so with an admonition. The classic is “Remember man, that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return.” This is a warning of our own mortality that hearkens back to what God told Adam after he sinned in the Garden of Eden. This connection makes it a reminder that as St. Paul wrote, “The wages of sin are death” and that one day, we will die, and be judged for our sins. Now, is the time to repent, for we could be called before the judgment seat of God any day, no matter how young or healthy we might be.

More recently, priests and ministers have been offering a more straightforward (and less somber) admonition: “Repent and believe in the Gospel.” This is taken from Scripture as well, as they are the words of both John the Baptist and Jesus Himself as they preached the imminent Kingdom of God. It is a simple statement of what we are called to do during Lent, and the ashes on the forehead are an outward symbol of that.

The ashes are supposed to be in the shape of a cross, but in reality they could be any number of things. Above is a handy guide to deciphering them.

The Real Point of Lent

To further our discipline, which is an absolute requirement to battle sin and, ultimately its author, most Catholics, during Lent, embrace some form of penitential practice, above and beyond what the Church obliges each and every able-bodied Catholic to do, under pain of mortal sin. While this often takes the form of a mortification of the flesh, such as giving up certain foods or sleeping without a blanket, it can also take the form of engaging in some sort of pious exercise such as praying the Rosary or going to daily Mass.

While I plan to do both of the aforementioned types of penitential practices, one thing I hope to accomplish this Lent is to write meditations on different aspects of Our Lord’s Passion. The Church provides multiple devotional frameworks for such meditations. Chief among these are the fourteen Stations of the Cross, the five Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary and the seven Last Words of Christ. Added together this only make twenty-six. Since, I would like to make this a devotional practice for Lent, I have decided to add enough to make it forty, primarily by also meditating on the Passion as seen by some of the players in it such as Malchus, Pontius Pilate, Simon of Cyrene, Veronica, Dismas and Longinus. Adding meditations on the Sunday Gospels as well one of two one-offs on various subjects related to the Passion would bring that number to (more or less) forty.

I have tried to so something similar in the past and have always failed. I would very much like to succeed this year. I think success would be more likely if I knew people were actually reading these posts and gaining something from them. Therefore, I humbly invite you to take this Lenten journey with me, starting today.