📖 Passover 5. The Crucifixion; what was said to and by Jesus

Some general facts about crucifixion and then we’ll look mainly at Mark’s account and John’s account.

Forgive me if I’m absolutely up front about the practice of crucifixion. It’s probably the most barbaric, public spectacle way of putting anybody to death that the world has ever known. The Romans took it on from the Greeks and the Greeks from we know not where. Tyburn in London was a very public place of execution, public in order to discourage others. But it became a horrible public spectacle like the guillotine in Paris. Crucifixion was worse than either of those. Because of the way we tend to talk about the crucifixion, and the way Catholics in particular get so familiar with crucifixes, it’s difficult for us to realise what it was like in Jesus’ day.

Apparently the earliest known depiction of Jesus on the cross is a tiny carving above a door in a college in Rome. It is from the fourth century and it seems that the memory of what crucifixion involved was still so vivid before then that they never depicted Jesus on the cross. Crosses yes but crucifixes no.

If I was elected pope I would use the twenty four hours before I was quietly removed to put out an urgent plea to have just one crucifix in each church and remove all the others, especially around peoples’ necks, and dusty ones in school classrooms.

The Roman authorities used crucifixion for slaves, for foreigners and for those we’d call terrorists. Roman citizens could not be crucified. You probably are familiar with that because Peter was crucified, Paul couldn’t be. Paul having grown up probably as a slave in Tarsus was then emancipated and became a Roman citizen before moving to Jerusalem. So at the end he was beheaded while Peter was crucified.

In Palestine in 4 BC the census which took Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem, was not just a way of counting numbers. In effect it was a poll tax, with all the unpopularity that poll taxes have. (In this country there have been bitter reactions to poll taxes as you may remember.) Following that one in Palestine, there was such an uprising, that the Romans crucified three thousand Galileans. And thirty years after the time of Jesus, there were again Jewish uprisings which eventually led to the siege of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple, but during the uprisings the Romans crucified so many people, especially again in Galilee that they couldn’t find enough trees, to provide wood to crucify anybody else. Crucifixion was vicious and would have had appalling memories for people.

I think I grew up thinking that crucifixion happened to just three people, Jesus and the two bandits. Somehow our tradition has isolated those. It is worth us trying to get back into the mindset of the people of that time. When Jesus uses phrases about ‘taking up your cross and following me’ we have a slightly domesticated version of what that must in fact have sounded like in his day. (Nothing to do with ‘gladly my little cross I’d bear’.)

Very often authorities leave few detailed accounts of shameful customs and we have no written accounts of how people were crucified. In 1965 some Israeli archaeologists uncovered a tomb which contained the remains of a crucified person. I think it’s the only time remains have been found. They dated the remains as AD 7 when Jesus was about ten. For some reason the Israeli authorities covered up any news of this finding. They thought that the Christians would latch on to it, not realising it could be slightly embarrassing to people who believe in the resurrection of Jesus if somebody finds his remains, but anyhow they did. In that case the culprit had been tied to the cross piece and then nailed to the upright but not in the way that our crucifixes show. In fact nailed with the feet either side of the upright with nails going through the ankle bones and held on with wooden washers to stop the feet pulling away.

A person who was crucified didn’t die from loss of blood, they didn’t die from trauma, they tended to die from asphyxiation. If you’re hung by your arms, at arms-length, you can’t in fact breath and in order to breath you have to push up on your legs to get air into your lungs. You can only hold that position for a very short time if your feet are nailed to the upright. The pain is excruciating. So a person who is crucified tends to spend their time pushing up, breathing and then having to relax again. It could take an hour, it could take a day. People are known to have spent a whole twelve hours on the cross before dying. You remember when evening was coming, on Good Friday, the soldiers saw that the two on either side of Jesus were still alive so they broke their legs. That’s because once your legs are broken you can’t raise yourself up anymore and you die of suffocation.

In Turin, in the cathedral, is the shroud in which Jesus was buried. It’s the sort of relic that people often deem unlikely as having existed for two thousand years. But, by and large if relics last a year then they last forever, if you see what I mean? Why the evidence of the Turin Shroud seems authentic is that it tells us details about crucifixion that all down through the ages, we’ve got wrong. One is the way that Jesus was fastened to the cross. The only reason that we know that Jesus was nailed and not bound to the cross is because on Easter day, he showed his wounded hands to his friends. It’s so important that the Risen One is the crucified Risen One. By the time Christians began to depict Christ crucified they always showed the nails through the palms of his hands. In fact it would be impossible for a person to stay on a cross in that way and the Shroud of Turin verifies that in fact they were nailed through the wrist bones. As soon as you realise it is clearly the only possible way it could be done.

Crucifixion was such an appalling and degrading way to kill somebody. There was a desperate attempt by some early Christian groups, who knew in their culture what crucifixion was about, to avoid the fact that God could choose that way for his salvific self-gift to the world. That may be why Saint Paul, who would have been as horrified as anybody else by crucifixion, why he quotes that famous poem in Philippians 2 – the one that starts ‘Being in the form of God’ comes to the point ‘but chose to lower himself and become as a servant is and to give his life in death’ and Paul adds the phrase ‘even death on a cross’ as though he is countering things that other people are saying.

By the time the first creeds came to be written it became extremely important in Christian faith to stress that Christ ‘suffered under Pontius Pilate, that he was crucified, that he did die’ and from that point was raised to life. Many of the credal statements come out of historical debates at the time. In this case affirming the fact that God had chosen such an appalling way to bring life to the world.

* * * *

The normal practise would have been to have the uprights for the cross in place at the site of crucifixion. So you can picture outside the walls of Jerusalem, the uprights at Golgotha, the Place of the Skull, the place for crucifixions, chosen to be next to one of the main routes in and out of the city. So all during that week, all during that Thursday and Friday there would have been people coming and going, coming and going and especially on the Friday afternoon. They were taking lambs to be slaughtered in the Temple and then bringing them back for the evening meal. I mean thousands of people and the place of execution was chosen to be that public, very like Tyburn in London. As I say, the uprights were probably in place already and the condemned one would carry a six foot beam which became the crosspiece. On arrival it is probable that the victim’s hands were tied or nailed to the patibulum that he had carried and it was then lifted up to a notch in the upright and secured. His feet were nailed either side. In most pictures of the Stations of the Cross and other depictions, for artistic sake it’s reasonable to have the whole cross, but it is very unlikely that anyone could carry such an enormous weight.

* * * *

They lead him away and Simon of Cyrene is co-opted to carry the patibulum behind him. It’s a strange detail to have included and almost certainly it’s because Simon’s two sons Alexander and Rufus were mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles and sometimes things are put in the gospel because they resonate with the people who are reading the gospel or hearing it at the time.

They come to Golgotha the Place of the Skull, because of its shape, a sort of rounded hill just outside the walls. He was given wine and myrrh as a sedative. As at the birth of Jesus they just say ‘Jesus was born’, so now at his death they simply say ‘they crucified him there’. The soldiers cast lots for his garment, we’ll come back to that because for John I think that’s a very significant moment. Then that inscription above his head in the four languages. Pilate desperately trying to justify himself to himself and have a final challenge to the Jewish authorities where thousands of people were passing.

In Matthew and Mark both bandits on either side voice deriding remarks at Jesus. As I am sure you are now aware Mark is never nice to anybody. Disciples for Mark are those who were there but failed to recognise. And then the passers-by taunt Jesus and remind him of that remark destroy this Temple and three days it will be rebuilt. It’s interesting that in Mark’s account the three things that are taunted are a repetition of the three accusations made during the trial and I thought it would be worth us just reading that for a moment.

* * * *

Can I just mention one thing before we do that? It’s impossible from the gospel accounts to be sure of what time Jesus died and indeed at what time he was crucified. In Mark’s account he talks about the third hour, the sixth hour and the ninth hour, which tend to be in their language periods as much as particular moments. So he is talking of nine o’clock-ish in the morning, midday-ish and then late afternoon, which seems rather unlikely time-wise, but is possible. But it’s thought that what Mark in fact is picking up, is that by the time he’s writing his gospel the early Christians had a Good Friday devotion, using psalms and readings from the prophets and that their prayer times were at the third hour, and the sixth hour and the ninth hour. He was crucified in the third hour, darkness came over the world in the sixth hour and he died at the ninth hour. They are all symbolic moments and their liturgies are a way of praying Good Friday in union with Christ’s own journey. Mark then takes that as the structure for his account of how the crucifixion took place.

Let us read from Mark Chapter 15.

The inscription they put over his head, the charge against him was the ‘King of the Jews’ and with him they crucified two bandits, one on the right and one on the left. Those who passed by derided him, nodding their heads and saying ‘Aha you who would destroy the Temple and build it in three days’”. Remember how cryptic and crucial that remark of Jesus’ was.. “...and I will build it in three days.” “Save yourself now, come down from the cross and we shall all believe.” As I mentioned before true prophets never prophecy to order and they will never take up challenges to save themselves, it’s only false prophets who do that.

“In the same way the chief priests, along with the scribes are also mocking and saying amongst themselves ‘he saved others but he cannot save himself.’” - one of the mocking phrases that came up at the trial scene if you remember – “‘Let the Messiah, the King of Israel’ – ha, ha, ha – ‘just come down from the cross and we shall all believe.’ Those who were crucified with him also taunted him.”

Mark is succinct in his account of things but also quite structured and he records the main accusations during the trial being repeated now during Jesus’ time on the cross.

May I just have a slight digression? Christians down the ages have pondered the seven recorded sayings of Jesus on the Cross. But in some ways that can be misleading if you think that Jesus might have been on the cross for three hours, and ponder the amount that was going on during that time. We don’t know what he said or what he was praying, what his closest friends tried to say, we just don’t know. What are on record are probably a few extracts from the whole. So the question then is: why do they record what they do record out of a much bigger story, rather than those seven words he said or prayed?

Now I don’t know whether any of you pray the psalms as regular prayer forms, but they’re part of the air that any pious Jew simply breathed and one of the remarkable things about the growth of the Christian church is that the Christians always have used the psalms and indeed many parts of the Jewish scriptures especially the prophets, as part of their own prayer life. The psalms have an extraordinary power to pick up and give meaning to any human experience. I’ve been praying psalms as part of monastic prayer and the prayer of the church for fifty years. I was sitting in our chapel the other day, praying one of the psalms, I wouldn’t like to say how often in the past I’ve prayed it. But I was suddenly bowled over by four verses which were talking about how the wealthy in their day carried on as though there’s no God and as though anybody who is not part of their own set doesn’t matter. And the psalm reflects that those who live in that blind self-justifying pursuance of wealth and power, carry in their mental agenda the seeds of their own demise, their own destruction. And I sat there thinking this is exactly what’s happened in the entire international banking world in the last six months. And the people who suffer most are the people who had nothing to do with its downfall. How often had I prayed that psalm and now it had broken through.

It seems very possible that during his long agony on the cross Jesus was praying and using psalms. And the words recorded in the gospels are a few extracts to suit their narrative.

* * * *

Before we turn to Saint John, can I just have a word or two about Luke. You’ll see that I’ve underlined what we call the seven words on the cross, but it’s amazing how Luke always picks up on the sensitive parts and the mercy of God and the faithfulness of Jesus’ followers. So it’s in Luke you have ‘Father forgive them’. Amazing, asking God to forgive those who’ve brought about his death. It’s Luke who records that Jesus says to one of the two on each side, that beautiful sentence, “this day you will be with me in Paradise”. It is Luke who records Jesus “Father into your hands I commit my spirit” which is from the psalms. And he dies.

* * * *

In John’s account of the crucifixion he uses the same structure of narrative, called a chiasma that he did for Jesus’ trial.

If you look at the diagram of how John recalls his memory of Jesus’ crucifixion you’ll see that his introduction includes Jesus carrying his cross, his being crucified and lifted up.

You will now be familiar with the way in which John says things in a very simple first-reading way. But he is writing half a century later having pondered and shared with others the memory of what he witnessed. He has come to see deeper references with hindsight.

Jesus ‘was lifted up’. On the cross, yes. At Easter? Yes. At his Ascension? Yes. He had promised to his disciples, to you and me, ‘If I am lifted up, I shall draw all to myself.’ We ponder and pray that, but should not force its meaning. The conclusion over on the right: Jesus was taken down and buried.

Then episode one: The inscription above his head ‘The King of the Jews’. And Pilate refusing to reword it.

And across at Episode 5: The flow of blood and water from the side of Christ. At first obvious meaning, but on pondering we recall the blood and water flowing from the sacrificed lambs in the Temple – flowing into the valley and bringing life to all, as the prophet had visualised.

Episode 2: Jesus’ seamless tunic and the soldiers dividing his clothing.

Clothing has deep significance. We think right back to Adam and Eve and God’s first act of redemption in providing lederhosen to cover their nakedness.

In due course clothing carried deep significance. The inner garment symbolic of the true self, the ultimate ‘me’. The outer garments symbolic of the role a person is called to: a policeman, a judge, a pope, a Salvation Army officer.

When I was younger and afraid of being too self-consciously ‘catholic’ I used to be embarrassed by vestments. I somehow thought they were clericalism. But I came to see that as very naive, that vestments are the opposite of pointing to Father so-and-so, they are pointing beyond him to the Christ he is re-presenting.

When Paul, in one of his letters, refers to us maturing in Faith as ‘putting on Christ’ he is using a clothing metaphor. No longer ‘I’, in a self-interested sense, but Christ in me.

John tells us that the executioners divide Jesus’ outer garment but don’t divide his inner seamless tunic. Ponder that.

Episode 4, (balancing 2), Jesus cries out ‘I thirst’. There’s a reference there, I think, back to the woman by the well? The conversation between Jesus and the woman starts with ‘I thirst’. The whole theology of the fourth gospel is an understanding of religion as being born out of God’s hunger for his people, not out of people’s hunger for God. This is of supreme importance to our Christian faith. It makes Christianity a unique faith in the whole world’s history, that we are in the presence of a God who hungers for us more than we can ever hunger for God, who takes the initiative in all things, calling for our response. The God who in his Son dying on the cross can cry out ‘I thirst’. It’s a great cosmic cry, God’s hunger and thirst to draw all into God’s being. It is so important because a lot of our folk and a lot of oneself too, is still treating God as a concerned spectator who’s given us moral commands and is watching as a sort of rewarder for good actions. That’s what Jesus is trying to counter in most of his preaching. God loves us first. As the Father loves the Son and the Son loves us it’s out of that dynamic that we learn the art of loving.

The executioners offer wine and then he cries out ‘It is fulfilled’! What a powerful cry, the great cosmic cry of Christ saying: ‘Everything I’ve come for is now fulfilled’!

* * * *

I’ve spoken about the beginning and end, episodes because they focus on the centre page of the pamphlet which is surprisingly, Jesus saying to his own mother and the Beloved Disciple ‘behold your son, behold your mother’. I think it is because, for the author of the fourth gospel, this is one of the birth moments of the whole church to come, of all of us. It is Jesus’ gift that the disciple’s ability to say ‘yes’ to God’s will binds them into Christ and forms church. Jesus’ mother, is supremely the archetype of the one who is able to hear the word of God and do it. Mea fiat, may it be done according to your will, is absolutely at the heart of all Christian fidelity. And the Beloved Disciple, by his presence at the Supper, the Cross, and the Easter tomb also becomes an archetype of the ‘yes to God’s will’. And to unite Mary and the Disciple at the dawn of what becomes church, was important. They are both lay folk, not part of the clergy, they are not part of the apostles. For the fourth gospel, the twelve clearly have their place, but the heart of the church is the church, its folk living the will of God in their daily lives. Mary and the Beloved Disciple become figures for that. And invite us to be at the Supper, at the Cross and at his Resurrection.

* * * *

We are going to finish now but just one final word. Jesus was taken down from the cross and laid in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathaea. All the evidence is that it was a temporary arrangement, partly because it had to be done in a hurry before sunset because of the Sabbath and Passover feast starting, and partly because it sounds as though they were going to remove him and take him back to Galilee. We know not. We do know, as the Shroud of Turin verifies, that Jewish burials used a piece of linen twice a persons’ length. (The Shroud of Turin is about thirteen feet long.) That would have been put in the tomb, the body laid on it with its feet at one end, a cloth tied round the mouth to hold it closed and then the rest of the shroud brought back over the body and possibly tied round in a couple of places to hold all together. On the Shroud of Turin you have the reverse side showing marks of where he’d been scourged and beaten on his back. Then you’ve got the marks from his front on the other half. It helps to have a picture of that. You remember when Peter and the Beloved Disciple go to the tomb it’s precisely the way the cloths are lying that persuades them that Jesus’ body hasn’t been stolen. And although it’s not quite clear from the text which cloth is which, it sounds as though the whole of the shroud is simply lying there and the piece of cloth that was round the head is to one side. But however they are lying, they couldn’t have been in that position if somebody had stolen the body. We’ll come back to that when we ponder Easter morning.

* * * *

Can I just thank you for these meetings during Lent. For those of you who ever give talks you know it’s a two-way process and your faith and prayerfulness and love have been very tangible and I thank you for having me. Thank you indeed.