How terrible was the Passion really?
For the Catholics, having entered into Lent, and for the Orthodox, having still a few more weeks, we now reach that point in time in which the Passion should become a focal point in our meditation, but what do we know of it from a historical and biological perspective?
In our modern art we have the Cross as a lowercase “t” (or “crux immissa”). It is a cross where the top part of the shaft is above the cross beam. Although it may have been an uppercase “T” (or “crux commissa”) in shape, what our Lord carried to the top of Calvary had the top beam. This is a cross on which the cross beam is played on top of the up right. There are a few historical descriptions on the “crux commissa” showing different forms of crucifixion, the first example coming from Puteoli, Italy:
As you can see this man is crucified by his ankles. There has been one ankle found with a nail through it, a man named Yehohanan, found at Givat ha-Mivta. We can look to the Shroud of Turin and see Christ was crucified through the top of his feet. Digressing, in the Septuagint, the authors use “xulon didumon”, which means “the double wood” (Josue VIII,29). The vertical would have been fixed into the ground, which is called “stipes crucis”, and the cross beam or the moveable part was called “patibulum”. For the benefit of the executioners, the carpenters would have put a removable cross beam on top of a post in the ground, rather than building a “t” shaped cross. I imagine the patibulum is secured to the stipes, the stake in the ground, by having a shallow section on the cross beam to form a groove for the pole to sit in. The medium height crucifixes were designed so animals could eat at the bodies that were not claimed. Now that we have set the scene for how the cross looked I will now describe our Lord’s experience through a meditation on the Passion
We must start at the Nativity, since our Lord, having omniscience since his birth, knew, from a babe in the cold amongst the animals, with his mother and earthly father adoring and in awe of Him, what all of his suffering would entail in His Humanity. The first time he shed blood was during his circumcision eight days after his birth and in that moment of pain He could have used his suffering to redeem our sins. Since He is infinite, so is His suffering, but He knew that would not be much of a story. What is the pain He endured during that compared to His foreseen martyrdom? That Thursday night is when our Lord’s holocaust began, in the locked room with the Apostles.
For the meditation, place yourself at the time of Our Lord raising the bread and then the wine, His friends not fully understanding but eating of His own Flesh and Blood. Night passes on and He leads His friends to the grove of olives, where they often went to get away from the crowds. A few of them rest at the entrance, taking three deeper into the grove. From there He leaves them to pray and goes by Himself knowing His hour is drawing near. The traitor of Kerioth has left and there are still a few things left to do before He is finished and it is His will. The flesh of man is weak, He has spent his entire life knowing this moment is coming. The flesh begins to tremble as He bares the cup. There are two bitternesses that He takes in Himself. The first being the weight of all man’s sins from Adam till the end of time and the second, maybe the greater of the two, the baselessness and worthlessness compared to the Almighty. Only the saints among us can have understood the magnificence of our God. The weight gets heavier and heavier as he lets out “Father, if thou wilt, remove this chalice from me: but yet not my will, but thine be done.” His human life drains from Him but the weakness abides to the Divine self. He is alone, under such weight, His friends abandoned Him for sleep. So alone under a crushing weight. An angel is sent to give Him strength but at the same time He submits and finishes what He must do.
“And being in agony, he prayed the longer. And his sweat became drops of blood, trickling down upon the ground.” Luke 22:44 The weight starts to squeeze the blood from his body, thick clots of blood hit the ground. Such a surreal scene, but the beloved physician Luke notes it well. The weight of our sins has caused our Lord's capillaries to burst, as he sweats his body gets drenched in blood, staining His clothes. The night continues.
Iscariot now shows up to the grove with men from the temple, armed with swords and staves, and they have lanterns and ropes. As this criminal case must be judged by the procurator, as guards they have a platoon of Roman guards; finally the tribune of Antonia is with them to make sure things go as smoothly as possible. The Romans do not come into play yet; they are behind these crazed fanatics, aloof and contemptuous. Our Lord steps forward; one word from Him and it knocks his assailants to the ground, the last bit of His power, before he completely allows His Father’s plan to take its course. Our rock, Peter, takes the opportunity to cut off Malchus’s ear and, His last miracle, our Lord heals it.
The crowd finally recovers and they bind and drag our Lord away without any courtesy.
We can now imagine the rest of his lovely friends disappearing into the night. Peter and John follow our Lord, a little distance away, and Mark slips away from the guard leaving him holding only his tunic. Our Lord is dragged before Caiaphas, the high priest, and the Sanhedrin. It being the middle of the night, all are tired, and with Christ refusing to answer any question, for all of his teachings were public, a rage boiled up in Caiaphas, so they try a more physical tactic to get our Lord to answer: one of the guards lays a hard blow across the face and demands, “Answerest thou the High Priest so?” John 18:22
Nothing has been achieved this night. Our Lord is dragged from the hall, seeing his Peter who has already denied him thrice, pardons him with a look. One can imagine he is taken to an underground cell, the attendants smiling to themselves knowing the ropes are tight and that they can take some frustration out at the expense of the false prophet, who not long ago cast them to the ground with unknown magic. He is blindfolded and assaulted with slaps, blows, and spit upon. They will give him no chance to sleep this night.”Prophesy unto us, O Christ, who is he that struck thee?” Matthew 26:28 His body and clothes coated in dried blood. His head ringing like a bell, with one word he could whip them for existence, alas “he opened not his mouth”
In early dawn His second hearing takes place, false witness after false witness spew their lies, proving nothing. He must condemn Himself, by affirming His Divine Sonship, but these Jews are foaming at the mouth for the weight of Rome to come down on Christ, to give him his death sentence. Covered in dried blood and bruises, He is now dragged to the other side of Jerusalem, to the tower of Antonia, a palace of sorts. Now one should not be so hard on Pilate. Pilate’s only care is to keep his position, stuck between imperial orders and the sly and fiendish ways of the Jews. He has been taught nothing of pity, only duty. That is to serve Caesar. It must be stated while Romans despised those they ruled over, they had a lot of issues with the Jews, for there was fear of violence from them. Pilate, being a Roman, has reference and was in awe for children of deities, even “sought to release him [Christ]”. He wished to send Christ to Herod since He was a Galilean. As we know Pontius questioned Him anyway, this beaten and bloody man. Our Lord did not despise him and neither should we but the Sanhedrin cried and howled for blood, gnashing their teeth and foaming at the mouth for our Lord’s death. Had Pontius read the scriptures, he would have realized the Man that stood before him was not just any man and the King of the Jews would have weighed much heavier. Our beloved Lord was destined to be scourged.
While they stripped and tied Him to a pillar, our Lord held a special place in his heart for these men just doing their duty. He healed the servant and knew that one of the first to proclaim His divinity would be of their ranks. These men of Rome did not expect such a collective frenzy, not understanding Satan was there, fueling their madness. Two men, different heights, began to whip His flesh, leather thongs with sheep’s ankles or lead balls tied to the end. These whips would have caused such internal damage before breaking the skin, by the Shroud of Turin 300 visible lacerations were caused by the scourging. We do not know how many it took to start shredding the flesh, but from neck to ankles, inside his thighs, all the skin was ripped from His back, His front facing the column leaving it untouched. Stroke after stroke the whips cracked, only stopping to make sure the Man before them does not die. The flesh becoming tender, peeling, showing bones, blood pouring out, His whole back red against the white marble. Their prisoner soon begins to fail, sagging to the ground, painful shudders ripple through His body. The Romans, being experienced know when to stop, their satanic rage abides and they give the Christ a moment to rest.
He claimed to be the King of the Jews, this Fool, there cannot other be other rulers in Roman lands. They must mock him in front of His people. They will crush any rebellious notions with this act of humiliation. He is their king, he must not lay crumpled against the pillar. Quickly, they run off to grab the things they need to make this man the king he claims to be. They stand him up, throw an old legionary’s cloak of purple to show his royal status over his shoulders, a reed for his right hand, but a crown is needed. All Kings need a crown. (To this date we have only one account of such a devilish device). In a corner they find a bundle of wood, not regular wood, it is flexible and covered with long thorns, it was gathered from outside of the city for a cooking fire but it will do. Using a basket and flipping it over onto His Majesty's head, the Romans begin to beat it down onto him, needing to make sure it is secure. Blood begins to ooze down his hair, with each whack more and more blood pours down, but finally their masterpiece is finished but each man must honor royalty, they all come forward one by one, shudder in disgust, bow and say “Hail, King of the Jews!” He, barely standing, says nothing. Blood has drenched his face and coated his entire body. Pilate hears all the noises, thinking his men have satisfied the Jews’ blood lust. Looking from the railing of the praetorium he sees a wretched creature dripping blood and in stomach turning disgust he screams “Away with him, crucify him.”
Obeying, the Romans rip the cloak off our Lord’s back, tearing away freshly dried blood with it, causing blood to pour from him again. He is dressed with his own clothes but they quickly become drenched. A beam is found for Him to carry, they balance it on his shoulder. By what miracle does our Lord have strength left to carry such a load, 125 pounds (56.6kg) he must carry to Golgotha.The journey is not very far, just 1950 feet (594 meters) but He has no shoes and the road is covered with rocks. One foot in front of the other he struggles on. Two thieves join him with similar loads. Our Lord falls once to his knees, his escorts lift him up, not too roughly in fear that He may die at any moment. The rough wood digs into the raw flesh of His shoulder. He loses his strength and falls, unable to catch Himself, and the beam falls with Him. The soldiers pull Simon of Cyrene from the crowd and force him to help with the load. Finally at the top of the hill, Christ sinks to the ground, knowing his journey is over but not yet finished.
Being skilled at their task, the Romans work quickly and strip Him of all His clothes. The lower pieces are cut away with speed but the cloak, oh the cloak again has dried to his back. Like pulling the dressing of a wound too early, the skin comes with it. Each tear of the flesh sends shocks of immense pain, only multiplying the more the executioners pull but our Lord does not whimper, moan, or cry out. Blood begins to flow from his raw back, but He must be flipped over. His neck, back, arms, legs, groin, everything bleeding gets small rocks and dust in it. The executioners, knowing their trade well, take their measurements and pre dig out the holes for the nails to be put into. One assistant holds the arm out and down with the palm up. The executioner grabs one long square nail, pricks the wrist to open up the hand and begins to drive home. Just a few taps and the nail is in but Christ has not yet cried out, the other arm is pulled tight, with his median nerves cut and nails in through both hands, He is unbearable pain. But does not cry out. His torturers are not done, He must now be brought upon the cross.
These fiends get our Lord to his feet, two Romans on each side of the beam, first they get Him to sit up, then they get Him standing. His legs trembling, drenched in dried blood, He barely is standing in the position of a cross. How blessed are we to such a wonderful savior! The Romans slowly walk him back by pulling on the nails until Christ is up against the stake. With a motion of skill and strength they pick up the beam and place it on top of the stipes. They finish with the nail on top. The body, dangling in the air and only being held up by the nails, is causing the arms to stretch out obliquely. His head is weighed down by the crown and as it sags forward blood visibly drops from his face to the ground. Now the last thing is to bind the feet. They are stretched and bent so they are flat on stipes. The left is against the wood and the right is on top. The nail is lined up and with one quick tap it's driven in between the middle metatarsal bones. A few more taps drive the nail into the wood. The Romans then leave him to secure the two thieves.
The roar of the Jews raises in triumph as they watch him sag more and more. Unable to fill His lungs with air they watch him pass out and come to, their laugher and mockery falls on deaf ears for He has already forgiven them. His thirst grows however, not having anything to eat or drink since the night before. He will conquer His humanity till this final moment. He only wishes to feel all the pain to its fullest. But the thirst grows. So much sweat and blood have been lost but He will decide the hour! He is able to speak a few times but the asphyxiating lungs are getting worse, bringing Him in and out of consciousness. Passing out allows the lungs to fill with air but he must stand against the nail to relieve the grotesque stretching of His arms. There are only a few more things left to be said. Coming to He gets out "Father, forgive them." Yes, He forgave us, each sin we commit is a lash against his neck or a tip of the nail, but He forgave us. Passing out and coming to, his lips cracking with dryness. The only relief is moments after he wakes up. He sees his mother and his friend John beneath him. One last thing He decides to give us. Only a few more breaths left, He gives His mother to us. With a dry tongue and cracked lips: "Son, behold thy Mother…" We must wonder when Lord will you at last die? End your suffering Lord. We will await you on Easter day. Flies begin to pick the open wounds, laying their eggs. His nerves on fire, lungs in burning for air, but he suddenly becomes very cool. The sun has hidden itself, driving the flies away, 3 o'clock draws near. Coming back to, He lets out his only complaint in a roar "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" But not abandoning his only Son, the Lord gives Him some relief: a sponge with wine is risen up to him and drained in his mouth. Standing up straight, in His final moments, He goes on his accord and says it is finished…
"May you be blessed, O Lord, for our sister the death of the body" Saint Francis of Assisi