March 29, 2024

Good Friday – George Yandell

Forty years before the birth of Jesus, Rome’s first heated swimming pool was built on the Esquiline Hill, just outside the city’s ancient walls. The location was a prime one. In time it would become a showcase for some of the wealthiest people in the world.[From Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, Tom Holland, Basic Books, New York, 2019, pp. 21- 24]

Not far from the Esquiline, it took a long time to reclaim the Sessoriumfor gentrification. Years later the vultures still wheeled over that site. This remained what it had always been: The place set aside for the execution of slaves. Exposed to public view like slabs of meat hung from a market stall, troublesome slaves were nailed to crosses.

No death was more excruciating, more contemptable, than crucifixion. To be hung naked, ‘long in agony, swelling with ugly welts on shoulders and chest’, helpless to beat away the clamorous birds: such a fate Roman intellectuals agreed, was the worst imaginable. This was what made it so suitable a punishment for slaves. Lacking such a sanction, the entire order of the city might fall apart. Luxury and splendor such as Rome could boast were dependent on keeping those who sustained it in their place. [ibid]

As Tacitus wrote, “After all, we have slaves drawn from every corner of the world in our households, practicing strange customs, and foreign cults, or none—it is only by means of terror that we can hope to coerce such scum.”

The Romans were reluctant to believe crucifixion had originated with them. Only a barbarous people could have developed such savage, cruel torture. Everything about the practice of nailing a man to a cross, a crux, was repellant. Order was what counted. 

Such was the opinion of the Roman governor of Judea and Galilee in Jesus’ day. Herod Antipas, the “King of the Jews”, collaborated with the Roman authorities. He supported Pontius Pilate’s attitude. That’s why on the road leading up to Jerusalem there were permanent wooden pillars with crossbeams on which the bodies of the crucified were displayed.  Just as on the Esquiline Hill in Rome. The message was clear- follow the rules of the empire, keep order, or you too could wind up here. Terrorists, beware.

The two men crucified with Jesus were not bandits, as we sometimes translate the text, but insurrectionists, freedom fighters, or “terrorists”, depending on the point of view. Crucifixion was used specifically for people who systematically refused to accept Roman imperial authority. Ordinary criminals were not crucified.  Jesus was executed as a rebel against Rome between two other rebels against Rome. [Borg/Crossan, The Last Week, p. 147] How to comprehend the horror, the stench of that road- it’s beyond understanding. Yet that’s what the friends of Jesus did- they braved the stench.

They watched, some closer by, others from a distance, as Jesus was nailed to the crossbeam which was in turn raised and fastened to the pillar. The Roman guards nailed his feet to the pillar. Everywhere around him was the stench of death, the cries of those already crucified ringing in his ears. His body on the cross was not high above the onlookers, but just above eye-sight level of those watching him. So close.

Not crucified as a slave, not as a bandit, but yes, crucified as an insurrectionist. Rome couldn’t tolerate anyone who was acclaimed as the Son of God- that title was reserved to Caesar Augustus and to the emperors who followed him. 

His friends were in a macabre theater of death. To see someone you love suffering in great pain and to be unable to make it go away is one of the greatest agonies we endure as humans. It can be worse than actually suffering ourselves. Physical pain damages and wounds our bodies, but watching someone you love suffer goes deeper. That is emotional pain born out of love. It cuts right to the heart of you…. We can alleviate the pain of the dying one, but no pill can ease the pain of grief of those who survive him. [Some of this from an article “Grief is the Price We Pay for Love” by Kevin Morris in The Anglican Digest, Spring 2016 issue.]Most of the disciples of Jesus could not stand by and watch their teacher and friend suffer. They loved him greatly. But they ran off. They hid. Maybe they were afraid they’d get arrested too. But they couldn’t bear watching their beloved mentor die in such excruciating pain. [Adapted from the article above.]

At the end, the only ones standing by, present near the cross, were women and one man. John’s gospel tells us they were Jesus’ mother Mary, his aunt, Mary wife of Clopas, and Mary of Magdala and the beloved disciple. Luke says there were other women as well.

Where were the other disciples and friends of Jesus? Where were the crowds of people he had fed and healed? All gone away. Afraid to face the pain, afraid to look into the eyes of someone whose agony they could not relieve. Those who stayed by the side of Jesus were few, but they probably loved him more than the others. 

Luke records these events at the time Jesus breathed his last: “darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two.” John Dominic Crossan says the tearing of the temple curtain was symbolic- God tearing his clothes in grief. Think of Mary, his mother. She was the first to hold him when he came into the world, and she was likely one of the last to hold him when he went out of it. Her presence there at the cross fulfilled the words the priest Simeon had said to her when Jesus was born, “A sword will pierce your own soul too.” And now it had happened. The centurion could have pierced her own side with the lance and it would have hurt less. [ibid] And so we grieve with Mary, with all the friends of Jesus. The horror pierces through 1990 years to us, today. The Lord of Life is crucified.