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WEEKLY REFLECTIONS

~ Entering the Meaning of Passion ~


Alexander the Great brought the practice of crucifixion to Egypt and Carthage from Persia. The Romans refined it to a form of torture and execution with precision that resulted in excruciating pain during prolonged dying. Our word, “excruciating,” comes from the Latin, “excruciatus” or “out of the cross.” I note “precision” because the Roman executioners were well trained in the exact placement of the spikes through the wrists and the metatarsal bones of the feet so as to not sever veins or arteries or break bones and joints required to hold a person’s weight on the cross. (The Scriptures refer to the piercing of the “hands” as did the Romans. Wrists were considered the “hands,” the base of them, and not considered part of the arms. Hands chopped off for punishment were cut below the wrists.)

The median nerve of the wrist and hand was severed or damaged however, causing a claw-response paralysis of the hands and excruciating pain down the arms meeting the incredible pain from the nerve damage in the feet. The intent was to inflict great pain without the victim dying from bleeding. The feet were not nailed to a block on the post of the cross to help hold the body, but so the person could push up with his feet to take the weight off the diaphragm so he could exhale. When the person would push up to exhale intense pain from the median nerves in hands and feet would shoot through the body. The feet where nailed to prolong the agony. Breaking the person’s legs below the knees would bring death due to asphyxiation quickly.

Roman law required the crucifixion victim be given a sour drink of wine and myrrh to help take a little edge off the intense pain and aid the mental endurance to prolong the process of torture before dying. By design, crucifixion itself wasn’t manifestly bloody. But Roman law also required pre-crucifixion scourging or whipping of the person’s back to lacerate skin and muscle and to expose epidermal nerves. The induced bleeding was monitored so to not induce pre-crucifixion death. The flailing of flesh, muscle and nerve would, however, magnify the suffering with every movement, with every touch or removal of clothing, with every movement required for breathing on the cross as rough wood rubbed raw nerve and muscle.

These severe wounds would weaken the victims and intoxicate them with pain, but not to the extent that they could not carry the cross beam the third or half mile outside the city walls to the permanently mounted wood shafts upon which they would be hung. (Jesus, however, with the added torture and blood loss from thorns hammered into His head, needed help and got it, since the Roman execution guard feared His pre-mature death on the way. The ordering of Simon into Roman service in helping Jesus was not an act of Roman compassion.) In the process of being nailed and hung, the scourging wounds would scream pain, become filled with grainy dirt, and emit smells that attracted vermin from flies and burrowing insects (finding places in the ears, eyes, noses and mouths) to vultures and wild animals that were allowed to tear the still alive and conscious body.

Due to the calculating and precise application of measured torture against the onset of death, crucified persons would typically hang for perhaps a week, even longer. The bodies were usually left as food for predatory animals. Roman law allowed the family of the victim to take the body, but only after securing a decree of permission from the local Roman judge or governor. And before the family could do so, the execution guard had to certify death, by either skelokopia (breaking of the legs) or by lancing the heart through the right side of the chest.

When I was a little child, the way the Christian teachings and stories were presented led me to think that only Jesus was scourged and crucified. Yes, there were two others with Him, but the images depicted in books showed them bound with ropes on their crosses while Jesus was nailed. My imagination horrified me as I wondered what that death felt like. I was taught that God used Jesus to die in my place, yet I also knew I was going to die anyway, but go to heaven instead of hell. Confused, I wondered if He was a substitute for me, why then wasn’t He in hell forever in my place too? I knew the story of Abraham being ordered to sacrifice his son, and just at the last moment that horrible task was called off and a ram was substituted. But the ram wasn’t good enough, I was taught, because animals couldn’t die in my place since the destiny of death in sin was hell and animals didn’t go to hell. But as far as I could understand, neither did Jesus, not forever anyway, like I was destined. “The penalty (wages) of sin is [eternal] death” and Jesus took my place but somehow He didn’t incur eternal death as I would have.

My little analytical mind grew more confused when I learned through my historical readings that Jesus was only one of the thousands who suffered crucifixion. This Reflection opened with a technical description of a common practice performed by many cultures before the Romans. My purpose was to underscore that historical reality and how refined execution by crucifixion became over a couple of centuries, not to horrify the reader with the degree of torture of this form of capital punishment.

As a child I learned the apostle Peter had also endured crucifixion, but upside down. I thought that must have been worse than Jesus’ crucifixion! So my attention turned to the anguish of Jesus just before His arrest. Jesus couldn’t have been sweating blood, being “filled with sorrow to the point of death,” needing an angel to strengthen Him so He wouldn’t die there in Gethsamane, and praying three times for God to find another way, if another was possible.

Physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually, Jesus was far stronger and willed than Peter and all the other thousands that faced death by crucifixion. Horrible as the prospect of crucifixion was, something else must have been going on.

Another source of confusion was encountering the verse, “He was made sin for us.” (2 Corinthians 5:21.) That, however, was the spark of a tiny grasp of this mystery. I was never taught I was made of sin. I am sin-full, and “in sin I was conceived.” (Psalm 51:5.) But “made” of sin? No. I am made of matter, soul and spirit. Jesus was “begotten, not made” by God. Yet, at the crucifixion, He was “made sin.” Now I was getting somewhere in comprehending a tiny bit of what this intense, blood-sweating passion of Jesus was about, and it wasn’t about His fear of the Roman means of crucifixion over that of the Jewish means of stoning or any other mode of execution. It had to do with being “made sin.”

My delightful and free explorations in the beloved forests as a child often resulted in my being covered with mud and slime or soaked with water and dirt. That washed off. I was never made into mud, slime, water or dirt. I was made fun of, but never made fully into the fun of others. I despaired and I got angry, but I was never fully made of despair or anger to the exclusion of my essential being. If I had been, I would have died, since there is no life in fully and completely being made into despair or anger or humiliation to the exclusion of all else. Otherwise, I would have cried, “Oh God, my Father! Why have you forsaken me? Forsaken me to this?” because I would have seen everything through the eyes of incarnate despair, anger or humiliation into which I was made, blind to all other realities of being.
 
These musings of my personal experience are infinitely trivial compared to pondering what it meant for the pure, immaculate Incarnation of the Holy Spirit of the Creator of all to have been “made sin” (while not ever having sinned), as opposed to just “dying for our sins.” It is a passion of incomprehensible love! Let’s reflect on that next week.
 

John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D.
Spiritual Resource Services
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