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Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
“And carrying the cross, by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull which in Hebrew is called Golgotha.” The Roman Empire’s routine for crucifixion was always the same, though it was never ordered upon a Roman citizen. Crucifixion was considered a form of punishment so cruel, leading to a death so egregious, that it was reserved only for the vicious crimes committed against the Empire by residents of Rome’s occupied territories. After the trial had been heard and the criminal condemned, the judge uttered the feared sentence: “Ibis ad crucem,” which means, “You will go to the cross.” The condemned man was then assigned to four Roman soldiers who would carry out the punishment. A scourging often preceded the crucifixion, perhaps to break the criminal’s spirit, but most certainly to weaken the body. Then and only then was the heavy wooden cross placed upon his shoulders. Often the criminal had to be beaten and lashed, even as he staggered to the place of crucifixion. Before him walked an officer with a wooden placard on which was written the crime for which he was to die, and he was led through the streets to the place of his execution. And so on that tragic, Good Friday, as it was the practice, a Roman soldier walked a head of Jesus with the charge against him written on the wooden placard, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.”
The procession was a grotesque warning to the crowds. There was, however, a merciful purpose in such an act. The placard which was carried was there so that if anyone could bear witness in favor of the condemned man, he might come forward and do so. In such a case, the procession was halted and the case retried. No one came to bear witness on Jesus’ behalf.
In Jerusalem, the place of execution was called the Place of the Skull, Golgotha, in Hebrew or in Latin, Calvary. It was beyond the city walls, for no executions were allowed within the walls of the city. Most likely Golgotha referred to a rocky hillside that appeared as a human skull. And Jesus already bruised and bleeding, his flesh torn to ribbons by the scourging, and carrying his own cross, himself was led by a soldier to the place where he was to die.
“There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them.” The words are so brief. There is no description of the pain, nor a word about the physical agony. All that we read in scripture is a mere shadow of the crucifixion. We are told nothing of Christ being laid upon the wood, of the nails being driven home into the feet and hands, of the intolerable shock as the crossbeam and victim were lifted up and placed into the socket, nor of the long crawling hours of shame and pain.
Now you may be wondering, so why have the evangelists chosen to be so succinct in their commentary on Jesus’ death? Was it because the ancient world already knew the reality of the crucifixion so well and it wasn’t necessary? Perhaps. Or was it because Jesus, as the Son of God, already knew the final outcome of his death, and was therefore was unaffected by pain and suffering. I don’t think so. Scripture clearly records the loss and emptiness Jesus’ felt. In St. Mark’s Gospel we read, “My God, My God. Why have you forsaken me?” And in St. John’s Gospel, we hear of Jesus’ physical needs heard in the words, “I thirst.”
So why does scripture record so little about Jesus’ death and crucifixion? Why, you may ask? Because, I believe that it is in this story of Christ’s crucifixion that the evangelists would have us meditate on how the world reacted to Jesus’ life giving passion and death. Holy Scripture reveals three human responses of those who pass beneath the shadow of the cross.
First of all, there are those who hear the word of Jesus and are outraged by his demands. Pontius Pilate was obstinate in his belief. “What I have written, I haven written.” He did not order this to be written on the placard because he believed that the crucified Jesus had divine authority over his life. No, Pilate issued his decree to spite the Chief Priests who had power over the crowds. Pilate ordered the placard to be hung outside of the city in Hebrew, Greek and Latin, where all people could read it. The Jewish authorities didn’t want Jesus to place demands upon their lives, neither did Pontius Pilate. And perhaps neither do you? Yes, even if Christ has offered himself for you, you are outraged that his word touches and rebukes you. You stand as one beneath the cross who doesn’t want Jesus to have any hold on your life.
Second, there are those who, although they are very near to the God’s word present in the loving figure of Jesus Christ, are still very indifferent to him. The four Roman soldiers were oblivious to the man dying on the cross. They would each receive their proper share of his wordly goods, and one a little bit more. A criminal had only five personal items of value- sandals, headdress, belt, and tunic, and of course, the piece of greatest value, the robe or outer garment. With the toss of the dice, each soldier received one item. But the robe was seamless, woven all in one piece. To have cut it into four pieces would have been rendered it useless, and so they threw the dice again to see who would possess it. Yes, one final toss of dice. Perhaps that’s how you are standing beneath the cross of Christ this night. You’re waiting your fair share, and perhaps a little bonus, but in the meantime you remain indifferent and oblivious to anything that your Lord and Savior desires of you and your life.
Finally, there are those who in spite of the ridicule and laughter, hear the word of Jesus, and honor, embrace and obey them. “Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ‘Woman here is your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is you mother’ and from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.” Yes, there were those who listened to Jesus’ words, even on the cross. “After this when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said, “I am thirsty.” So the unknown friends, near the cross, in spite of the curious glances of the Roman soldiers and the disdain of the Chief Priests, put a sponge full of wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth.” Yes, there are those who even who hear the word of Jesus and keep it.
Which of the three are you, my friends? As Jesus calls from the cross are you the one who is outraged that he places demands upon your life? Or are you the second? Do you linger beneath the cross, indifferent to his voice? Or you one of the faithful followers, who in spite of the critics of the world, listen to his voice, honor his desires and obey him? So often, we are like Pilate and the Chief Priests and the soldiers beneath the cross of Christ, and we refuse to allow Jesus to have his say in our lives. Instead, we remain indifferent to him even in his dying on the cross. But for those who do listen, and hear his voice, there is good news- even on this Good Friday. For those who listen, Forgiveness has been offered, the promise of the life eternal has been spoken, and new life has been given, graciously, as a gift, for you, if you will have it. Which of the three are you? Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.