April 9, 2017
Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord
“Hosanna to the Son of David;
blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord; hosanna in the highest”
They brought him to the place of Golgotha (Place of the Skull). They gave him wine drugged with myrrh, but he did not take it. Then they crucified him.… It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified him. (Mark 15:22–23, 25).
When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him and the criminals there, one on his right, and the other on his left. [Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”] (Luke 23:33–34a)
So they took Jesus, and carrying the cross himself he went out to what is called the Place of the Skull, in Hebrew, Golgotha. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus in the middle.… When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his clothes and divided them into four shares, a share for each solider. (John 19:16b–18, 23a)
In the ancient world, there was no punishment more painful, terrifying, and dehumanizing than the cross.
It is not simply that Jesus died or even that he was put to death by corrupt people; it was that he endured the death reserved only for the lowest and most despised.
We are the inheritors of centuries of artwork and piety that present the cross as a moving religious symbol. We wear it as jewelry, and we hang it on the walls of our homes as a decoration.
But for the men and women of Jesus’ time, a person condemned to this manner of execution would be stripped, nailed or tied to a cross-bar fitted into a stake, and then left for hours, or in many cases days, to suffer the excruciating pain of very slowly asphyxiating while rocking up and down on wounded hands and feet in order to breathe.
The mocking of the crucified, which is frankly described in the Gospels, was part of the execution. When finally the tortured criminal died, his body was allowed to remain on the cross for days, permitting animals to pick over his remains. Jesus’ rapid burial was exceptional, a favor specially offered to Joseph of Arimathea, a high-ranking Jewish official.
To be sure, the Gospel proclaimed by the first Christians involves the glorious resurrection, but those initial evangelists never let their hearers forget that the one who had been raised was none other than the one who had been crucified.
So what exactly is happening on the cross? Why could God not simply have pronounced a word of forgiveness from heaven and dispensed with all of the blood and horror of the crucifixion?
The scriptural authors understand sin not so much as a series of acts, but as a condition in which we are stuck, something similar to an addiction or a contagious disease.
A mere word of forgiveness, uttered from the safety of heaven, would never have affected the needed transformation. No amount of merely human effort could possibly solve the problem.
Some power has to come from outside of us in order to clean up the mess; something awful has to be done on our behalf in order to offset the awfulness of sin. With this biblical realism in mind, we can begin to comprehend why the crucifixion of the Son of God was necessary.
Something had to be done—and God alone could do it. On that terrible cross, Jesus took upon himself the worst of humanity and swallowed it up in the ever greater divine mercy.
Jesus’s Passion and death are not the end;
they point to the joy of the Resurrection.
“By His wounds, we were healed” (Isaiah 53:5)