24 Hours That Changed The World:
Today, as we continue our journey through the last 24 hours of Jesus’ life, we come to what would appear to be the final scene in the story: the crucifixion.
Having finally arrived at their destination, Golgotha, which means, literally, “Skull Hill” – an outcropping of rock just outside the city walls – the soldiers quickly and brutally execute their task by nailing Jesus to the crossbeam Simon of Cyrene has carried for him, and hoisting him up, attaching the crossbeam to the upright.
As we confront this scene, we are forcibly reminded of something we often forget: before the cross became a piece of jewelry we wear around our necks, become it became a brass centerpiece on an altar, before it became the symbol of the Christian faith through the ages and throughout the world, the cross was a cruel instrument of Roman terror, the ancient equivalent of a gallows or a guillotine.
n fact, crucifixion was so cruel a means of execution it was not used for all criminals, but only certain criminals, those who had threatened or disturbed Roman order, such as runaway slaves or rebel insurgents. As a social deterrent, it was as public as possible, in such a place so as to say: “Threaten Rome and this is where you will wind up.”
For example, following the slave rebellion under Spartacus in 73-71 BC, mass crucifixions followed. To deter other slaves from revolting, the Roman General Marcus Licinius Crassus crucified 6,000 of Spartacus’ men along the Appian Way from Capua to Rome.
The goal of Roman crucifixion was not just to humiliate the criminal (they were crucified naked), or even to kill them quickly, but to make them suffer the maximum amount of pain over the maximum amount of time. After death, it was generally forbidden to remove the body from the cross, but to mutilate and dishonor the body of the condemned by leaving it to be consumed by vultures or wild dogs, a grave dishonor.
Despite its frequent use by the Romans, its cruelty did not escape even some of their eminent statesmen. Seneca said that if you knew there was a likelihood you would be arrested and crucified, it was better to commit suicide. Cicero called crucifixion the “extreme and ultimate punishment of slaves” and the “cruelest and most disgusting penalty.” The Jewish historian Josephus called it “the most pitiable of deaths.” Among the Jews, it was forbidden as a means of execution.
Despite all that he had said and done, the fact that Jesus had died in such a vile way is THE shocking fact that colored all subsequent interpretation.
For example, a mere 20 years later, the first one to write, the Apostle Paul, wrote in his 1st Letter to the Corinthians:
“God didn’t send me out to collect a following for myself, but to preach the Message of what he has done, collecting a following for him. And he didn’t send me to do it with a lot of fancy rhetoric of my own, lest the powerful action at the center—Christ on the Cross—be trivialized into mere words.”
The Message that points to Christ on the Cross seems like sheer silliness to those hellbent on destruction, but for those on the way of salvation it makes perfect sense. This is the way God works, and most powerfully as it turns out . . .
While Jews clamor for miraculous demonstrations and Greeks go in for philosophical wisdom, we go right on proclaiming Christ, the Crucified.” (1 Corinthians 1: 17, 18, 22, The Message)
Some 15 years later, when he wrote to the Philippians some 15 years later, the cross was still central to his thinking, when he wrote:
“Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death — and the worst kind of death at that — a crucifixion.” (Philippians 2: 5 – 8, The Message)
Through the centuries, others followed Paul in seeing the key to what God was about in Christ, most clearly in the crucifixion. The German Reformer Martin Luther, for example, at the time of the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, found himself put off by a “theology of glory”, finding God too awesome, too overwhelming, to be comprehended by human works and reasoning. On the contrary, like Paul, Luther encountered God’s presence and love most powerfully in the “theology of the cross,” almost hidden. For it is there that the love of God for us is most powerfully revealed, in weakness, in suffering, in forsakenness, even in dying.
But that’s not the most important thing. What’s the most important thing? Not what others thought, but what you think. What is the meaning of the cross for us? What does the cross of Jesus Christ mean to you?
Finally, let’s ask ourselves again the question of the series: where do we see ourselves in the story? Among the bystanders and passersby, who mock Jesus? As one of the thieves crucified beside him: one of whom mocks, the other of whom honors him. In the hardened soldiers, who gamble for his garments; or the one who confesses: “This man was innocent! A good man, and innocent!” Are we like Jesus’ disciples, on the periphery, watching from a distance? Or are we like Mary, his mother? Can you imagine her there? If you could get close enough, if you could just reach up there, to touch Jesus face, what would you say?
When you enter St. Peter’s in Rome, it takes a moment to grasp the awesomeness of the space in front of you, Bernini’s massive altar, Michelangelo’s dome. But all of that is put into perspective if you’ll only turn right. There, off to the side, is to be found one of the most famous sculptures in history, Michelangelo’s Pieta, finished in 1500 when Michelangelo was just 25 years old.
There, out of marble, Michelangelo expressed for himself – and countless others – the most obvious outcome of the cross. There, cradled in the arms of Mary his mother, still young and beautiful, is the dead, lifeless body of Jesus. There is a look of resignation on her face. You can almost hear her say, “So this is what it comes to.” His life. Our lives.
So we shall see?