Sunday, April 05, 2009

By his wounds...

This is Mr. Weber's address to students on Holy Week, April 6, 2009

We begin the most important week of the Christian year—the week we celebrate the death and resurrection of Christ.

We have become so accustomed to the image of the cross it is difficult for us to comprehend the extent of the suffering that death by crucifixion entailed. Crucifixion was the most brutal death a person could die in the Roman world—reserved for only the worst criminals, and designed to be painful, long lasting and terrifying to behold.

It typically began with a scourging. We often imagine scourging as a whipping, inflicting a sting from a high velocity “snap” against the skin. But Roman whips were short, with braided leather knots at the end. Inside the knots were pieces of bones or iron balls, so that when the whip hit the human body it was more of a "thud" that ripped into the skin. The prisoner was stripped naked and whipped on his back, buttocks and legs. Lacerations from repeated blows cut into the underlying muscles and sometimes, the scourgings were so brutal that a person’s entrails were exposed. When Jewish authorities did scourging, they would never do more than 39 blows as per Jewish law, but Jesus was scourged by the Romans, who had no regard for Jewish law or custom, and their standard for how many times a person was beaten was to bring the person literally to the edge of death.

After scourging, the convicted criminal had to carry the crossbeam of the crucifix to the place of crucifixion. The crossbeam was strapped around the back of the head and tied to the wrists and could weigh anywhere from 75 to 125 pounds. Tradition says Jesus fell three times on his way to Golgotha (in Latin, Calvary) and since his hands were tied, he had nothing to break the fall. There is some debate as to exactly where Golgotha was located, but Scripture says it was “outside the city walls”, and given that Rome wanted crucifixions to have the greatest deterrent effect possible, scholars believe it was near the main entrance to the city, so that passers-by could be reminded what happened to persons who challenged Rome’s authority.

Once at the site, Jesus would be thrown onto his back and nailed to the upper beam. Scripture says Jesus was nailed in his hands, but in ancient thought, the wrists were considered part of the hand, and had he been nailed through the hands, he would not have been able to hang without the weight stripping through his fingers. Most scholars now believe he was nailed at the wrist, between the radius and the ulna. His legs would have been pushed up in a near crouching position and swung to the side—different from the image of most crucifixes, and the nail would have been sent sideways through the back heels rather than through the front of the feet.

Despite there being an enormous amount of blood, Rome didn’t want people to bleed to death, which would have made death happen too quickly, so they avoided major arteries. Death from crucifixion comes surprisingly through suffocation. As the body hung, exhaling was very difficult, prompting the victim, because of the survival instinct, to push up with his legs through the nail so he could get a good breath, and this horrific hanging and pushing up could go on for 2-3 days before one collapsed. That’s why, in order to bring someone to a quick death, breaking the crucified person’s legs led to quick suffocation, as he had no way of pushing up to get a breath. (As an aside, it’s a unique testimony to how gruesome crucifixion was when getting one’s leg’s broken is considered an act of mercy). And one final thing: Our crucifixes always depict Jesus’ mid-section covered by a shroud. Given that the aim of crucifixion was to completely shame the victim, they were always crucified nude.

In my third year of teaching, as I was describing all this in some detail, a very sharp student raised his hand and asked me: “Mr. Weber, all this Christian pre-occupation with the crucifixion and death of Jesus seems morbid to me. People even wear crucifixes around their necks. If Jesus had died today, 2000 years from now would Christians be wearing little electric chairs around their neck?”

This is one of the best questions I’ve ever been asked as a teacher, and the answer is YES. Realizing that helps us understand the utter shame and humiliation of being crucified—for when we think of someone being killed in the electric chair, we automatically think that person must have been the worst of the worst—only mass murderers, we think, are killed that way. Surely no one who is good! Surely NOT the messiah! In fact, some scholars think the reason the Jewish leaders handed Jesus over to the Romans for crucifixion was to wipe out any foolish notion he could be the messiah. Had they simply stoned Jesus, a common form of execution between Jews, Rome wouldn’t have cared, but they had to have him crucified like a murderer.

You see, up until that time, many Jewish people had thought that the messiah—the anointed one—would be a great king. When Jesus came into Jerusalem in what we now celebrate as Psalm Sunday, they gave him a hero’s welcome, as if he were a victorious general, coming home after war. “Hosanna to the son of David!”, they shouted. The title “Son of David” was not a religious title, but a political one. They hoped that Jesus would become like David, the greatest king of Israel’s past, to free the Jewish people from their Roman oppressors. But when Jesus was arrested and Peter tried to fight for him, he said “He who lives by the sword dies by it” and told Peter to put the sword away. He then allowed himself, like a lamb led to his slaughter, to be scourged and crucified.

Why this great indignity? How could God allow his own Son to suffer so greatly and die like a common criminal? As the early Christians tried to understand these questions, they looked for inspiration from Isaiah, who had prophesied 500 years earlier:

He was despised and rejected by men,
a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.
Like one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

Surely he took up our infirmities
and carried our sorrows,
yet we considered him stricken by God,
smitten by him, and afflicted.

But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was upon him,
and by his wounds we are healed.

(Isaiah 53: 3-5)

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