Image: Entry of Christ into Jerusalem, a 1617 oil painting by Anthony van Dyck
How would you respond when you are unfairly treated and wrongfully accused? First, you remain calm. You do fight, not with an angry emotion but with dignity and faith. That’s what Jesus did during His trial.
Today’s Passion narrative takes us to this scene. Jesus beheld submission blended with innocence. Jesus was at peace with God that He didn’t need to answer a single accusation. The religious leaders knew the best way to influence Pilate. Not through his own judgement of Jesus, not through the religious leaders themselves directly, but by the voice of the multitude.
Manipulation can be organized or unorganized, conscious or unconscious, politically or socially motivated. Today, public opinion is widely thought to be heavily influenced by the media, and many politicians concerned with public opinion often attempt to influence it, using advertising or rhetoric. One of the struggles of the collective opinion on a specific topic is how it can be influenced by misinformation.
John Locke considered that people were subject to three laws: the divine law, the civil law and most importantly in Locke's judgement, the law of opinion or reputation. We live in a democracy where public opinion matters. Citizens vote for their government officials who represent the citizens’ ideas and concerns in government. Citizens can also contract their officials when they want to support or change a law. Locke regarded the law of opinion as of the highest importance, yet he didn't consider it as a suitable influence for governments because dislike and ill opinion force people to conform in their behaviour to social norms. It is not necessary to oppose democracy by its simplest definition – rule by the people – but, rather, seek to question or expand this definition.
Think about the case with Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, in the trial of Jesus. Pilate knew the right thing to do – releasing Jesus, yet he did a terribly wrong thing, in obedience to the multitude and in cooperation with the aristocratic leadership.
The corrupt leadership induced their followers to prefer Barabbas to Jesus, the pleasures of sense to the salvation of their souls. What would you have done if you had been in that crowd? No one sympathized with Jesus. They all said, “Let him be crucified.” No one stood up to say, “Hey, you guys are wrong. Stop bullying Jesus! He is innocent!”
Even one of the disciples denied his association with Jesus, affirming it with an oath in the face of accusation that he was with Jesus. With Peter we may repent and be forgiven by the endless love of the Lord.
Jesus was forced to carry the wood He would hang upon to be crucified. Crucifixion is the cruelest capital punishment ever invented by humankind, producing a slow death with maximum pain and suffering. The English language derives the word excruciating from crucifixion, meaning “out of the cross.”
Imagine: The weight of the entire cross was typically 300 pounds. The victim only carried the crossbar, which weighed anywhere from 75 to 125 pounds. When the victim carried the crossbar, he was usually stripped naked, and his hands were often tied to the wood. The upright beams of a cross were usually permanently fixed in a visible place outside of the city walls, beside a major road.
The victim’s back was first torn open by the scourging, then opened again as the congealing, clotting blood came off with the clothing that was removed at the place of crucifixion. When thrown on the ground to nail the hands to the crossbeam, the wounds were again opened, deepened, and contaminated with dirt. While attached to the upright cross, each breath would cause the painful wounds on the back to scrape against the rough wood of the upright beam and were further aggravated. Driving the nail through the wrist severed the large median nerve. This stimulated nerve caused bolts of fiery pain in both arms, and often resulted in a claw-like grip in the victim’s hands.
Beyond the severe pain, the major effect of crucifixion inhibited normal breathing. The weight of the body, pulling down on the arms and shoulders, tended to lock the respiratory muscles in an inhalation state, thus hindering exhalation. The lack of adequate respiration resulted in severe muscle cramps, which hindered breathing even further. To get a good breath, one had to push against the feet and flex the elbows, pulling from the shoulders. Putting the weight of the body on the feet produced more pain, and flexing the elbows twisted the hands hanging on the nails. Lifting the body for a breath also painfully scraped the back against the rough wooden post. Each effort to get a proper breath was agonizing, exhausting, and led to a sooner death.
Not only that, insects would light upon or burrow into the open wounds or the eyes, ears, and nose of the dying and helpless victim, and birds of prey would tear at these sites. Moreover, it was customary to leave the corpse on the cross to be devoured by predatory animals. If the victim did not die quickly enough, the legs were broken, and the victim was soon unable to breathe.
When Jesus said, If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me, we need to remember the suffering of the Lamb of God who took away the sin of the world on the cross. The cross wasn’t about religious ceremonies; the cross was a way to execute people. Like the crowd in the Gospel narrative, people today still reject Jesus and choose another, their Barabbas. It might be lust, intoxication, or the comforts of life.
Two thousand years after the crucifixion of Jesus, we have ritualized the cross. How would we receive it if Jesus said, “Walk down death row daily and follow Me”? Taking up your cross wasn’t a journey with a return ticket; it was a one-way trip. It is terrible to be forced to endure such torture, but to freely choose it out of love is remarkable. Has Jesus not gone to the most extreme length to demonstrate that love? Can we ever doubt the love of God who sacrificed His only Son to redeem us?
“My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” Jesus cried out to the Father in agony, with powerful emotion. Nothing torments a person when in pain more than mockery. When Jesus most needed words of comfort and kindness, the passers-by reviled and scorned Him. Jesus had to suffer all this in total isolation. He was cut off from the community. Why? So we could be joined to His community.
Our experiences of isolation can be redeemed and made into opportunities of fellowship with Him. When experiencing pain and suffering, we know we must have hope, not based on anything in this world but according to God's promises. Our hope must be based on our faith and trust in Christ and the forgiveness that He offers to those who believe in the power of the resurrected Christ. Our Lord is the eternal God who became flesh and blood at a point in time in history, without giving up his divine nature, to give a further revelation of God to humanity.
So we say: Thank you, Lord, for your immeasurable love and mercy!