by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
In the Book of Genesis, Abraham believed that God wanted him to sacrifice Isaac, the child for whom he and Sarah had prayed and waited so long. God intervened and stopped Abraham from sacrificing his beloved son (Gn 22: 1-14). The idea of human sacrifice seems inconceivable to us today, but it was a common practice among many of the pagan religions with which Abraham was familiar.
Our reflections on the Passion now bring us to Calvary. What God would never require from us, we required of him. As we embark on our observance of Holy Week, it is a moment for all of us to ponder the depth of God’s love for us revealed on Calvary.
Before Pilate handed Jesus over for crucifixion, he first had him scourged. Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ” provides a gruesome but accurate portrayal of the brutality of the Roman practice of scourging. By the end of this flogging, the flesh on the back of a man was a bloody, shredded mess. It was so painful that most victims were not able to remain conscious through the entire ordeal.
After his scourging, Jesus remained in the custody of Pilate’s personal guard while the details of the crucifixion were arranged. The Roman soldiers took this opportunity to mock and abuse Jesus. They stripped him of his clothes, placed a crown of thorns on his head and threw a military cloak over his naked body. The soldiers alternated between feigning homage of him and striking him. When they had had enough of their “fun,” Jesus was given back his own clothes and led to Calvary.
John’s Gospel makes the point that Jesus carried his own cross (Jn 19: 17). It was, in fact, the Roman custom to force the one to be crucified to carry the beam of his cross to the place of execution. The Romans also made the one condemned to die take the longest possible route to the execution site so that as many as possible might see him and be deterred from similar crimes.
The other three Gospels introduce the character of Simon of Cyrene, who is pressed into service to assist Jesus with carrying the cross (Mt 27: 32). This is an indication that, after the scourging, Jesus was not physically able to carry the cross all the way to Calvary.
Once the condemned man arrived at the place of execution, he was nailed to the cross. In Jerusalem, it was customary for the one crucified to be offered a drink of drugged wine, prepared by some of the Jewish women as an act of mercy, attempting to deaden the excruciating pain. Jesus refused the narcotic, making clear that he did not want to mute or avoid any portion of the pain being inflicted upon him (Mt 27: 33).
Today, we talk about what are termed “humane executions.” Capital punishment through lethal injection was introduced because it was considered a less painful way to kill a man.
This was not a consideration in the time of Jesus. The Romans used crucifixion precisely because they considered it the most humiliating and painful way to execute someone. In fact, it was illegal to crucify a Roman citizen, no matter what his crime. It was the type of execution reserved for revolutionaries and the lowest types of criminals. The Romans left the crucified to die slowly from exposure, dehydration, loss of blood and usually the final cause of death — asphyxiation.
It was not just physical suffering that Jesus endured. Constantly during his hours on the cross, he was taunted for claiming to be the Son of God. Hecklers baited Jesus to save himself — promising, if he did, that they would then believe in him.
In the midst of all this cruelty, in St. Luke’s Gospel, Jesus prays for mercy for his executioners because of their ignorance of what they are doing (Lk 23: 34). St. Luke also describes the encounter with Jesus by the one in Christian tradition known as Dismas, or the “Good Thief.” Dismas was one of the two crucified alongside of Jesus. While the other criminal joins in ridiculing Jesus, Dismas defends Jesus and makes, in his own way, a beautiful profession of faith. The Lord rewards the faith of Dismas with the promise: “This day you will be with me in Paradise” (Lk 23: 43).
Perhaps the greatest suffering of Jesus was not the excruciating physical pain, nor even the insult and taunts of those present at the crucifixion, but his awareness of all the sins of humanity whose weight he bore on Calvary. The “Catechism of the Catholic Church” devotes several paragraphs to rejecting clearly the notion that the Jews of Jesus’ time or Jews throughout history were responsible for Christ’s death on the cross.
Instead, the catechism states: “In her Magisterial teaching of the faith and in the witness of her saints, the Church has never forgotten that ‘sinners were the authors and the ministers of all the sufferings that the divine Redeemer endured.’ Taking into account the fact that our sins affect Christ himself, the Church does not hesitate to impute to Christians the gravest responsibility for the torments inflicted upon Jesus, a responsibility with which they have all too often burdened the Jews alone” (no. 598).
The catechism goes on to quote the “Roman Catechism” on this matter: “We must regard as guilty all those who continue to relapse into their sins. Since our sins made the Lord Christ suffer the torment of the cross, those who plunge themselves into disorders and crimes crucify the Son of God anew in their hearts (for he is in them) and hold him up to contempt. And it can be seen that our crime in this case is greater in us than in the Jews. As for them, according to the witness of the Apostle, ‘None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.’ We, however, profess to know him. And when we deny him by our deeds, we in some way seem to lay violent hands on him” (no. 598).
One of the effects of prayerfully meditating over the Passion is a strengthened determination to resist sin in our lives, realizing its devastating cost. In his Letter to the Romans, St. Paul beautifully articulates why we should be in absolute awe of the remarkable love of God revealed from the cross: “For Christ, while we were still helpless, yet died at the appointed time for the ungodly. Indeed, only with difficulty does one die for a just person, though perhaps for a good person one might even find courage to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5: 6-8).
If you have not yet this Lent received the sacrament of penance, I urge you to do so. Reading the Passion and gazing upon a crucifix are great tools to foster true contrition in our hearts, realizing the result of our sins.
The African-American spiritual asks the question: “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” Sadly, our sins were present on Calvary. Thankfully, Jesus extends the same forgiveness to us that he did to his executioners: “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do” (Lk 23: 34).