THE CROSS AND THE SHAME
As they were going out, they found a Cyrenian man, Simon by name, and they impressed him into their service, to bear Jesus’ Cross. When they had come to the place which is called Golgotha (which means the Place of a Skull), they offered him wine mingled with gall to drink, and, when he had tasted it, he refused to drink it. When they had crucified him, they divided his garments among them by casting lots for them; and as they sat there, they watched him. Above his head they placed a written copy of the charge on which he was being executed: “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.” Then they crucified along with him two brigands, one on the right hand and one on the left. Those who were passing by kept flinging their insults at him.
They kept shaking their heads and saying, “Destroyer of the Temple, and builder of it in three days, save yourself If you are really the Son of God, come down from the Cross.” In the same way the chief priests also with the Scribes and the elders jeered at him, “He saved others,” they kept saying, “He cannot save himself. He is King of Israel. Let him come down from the Cross now, and we will believe on him. He trusted in God. Let God rescue him now, if he wants him; for he said, `I am the Son of God.'” The brigands too who were crucified with him hurled the same reproaches at him.
The Story of the Crucifixion does not need commentary; its power resides simply in the telling. All we can do is to paint in the background in order that the picture may be as clear as possible.
When a criminal had been condemned, he was led away to crucifixion. He was placed in the centre of a hollow square of four Roman soldiers. It was the custom that he should carry the cross beam of his own cross; the upright was already waiting at the scene of execution. The charge on which he was being executed was written on a board; it was then either hung round his own neck, or carried by an officer in front of the procession; and it was later affixed to the cross itself. The criminal was led to the scene of crucifixion by as long a route as possible, so that as many as possible might see him and take warning from the grim sight.
Jesus had undergone the terrible scourging; after that he had undergone the mockery of the soldiers; before all that he had been under examination for most of the night; and he was, therefore, physically exhausted, and staggering under his Cross. The Roman soldiers well knew what to do under such circumstances. Palestine was an occupied country; all that a Roman officer had to do was to tap a Jew on the shoulder with the flat of his spear, and the man had to carry out any task, however menial and distasteful, that was laid upon him. Into the city, from one of the surrounding villages, there had come a man from far off Cyrene in North Africa, called Simon. It may be that for years he had scraped and saved to attend this one Passover–and now this terrible indignity and shame fell upon him; for he was compelled to carry the Cross of Jesus. When Mark tells the story, he identifies Simon as “the father of Alexander and Rufus” (Mk.15:21).
Such an identification can only mean that Alexander and Rufus were well known in the Church. And it must be that on that terrible day Jesus laid hold on Simon’s heart. That which to Simon had seemed his day of shame became his day of glory.
The place of crucifixion was a hill called Golgotha, so caned because it was shaped like a skull. When the place was reached the criminal had to be impaled upon his cross. The nails had to be driven through his hands, but commonly the feet were only loosely bound to the cross. At that moment, in order to deaden the pain, the criminal was given a drink of drugged wine, prepared by a group of wealthy women of Jerusalem as an act of mercy. A Jewish writing says, “When a man is going out to be killed, they allow him to drink a grain of frankincense in a cup of wine to deaden his senses…. Wealthy women of Jerusalem used to contribute these things and bring them.” The drugged cup was offered to Jesus, but he would not drink it, for he was determined to accept death at its bitterest and at its grimmest, and to avoid no particle of pain.
We have already seen that the criminal was led to execution in the middle of a square of four Roman soldiers; criminals were crucified naked, except for a loin cloth; and the criminal’s clothes became the property of the soldiers as their perquisite. Every Jew wore five articles of clothing–his shoes, his turban, his girdle, his inner garment, and his outer cloak. There were thus five articles of clothing and four soldiers. The first four articles were all of equal value; but the outer cloak was more valuable than all the others. It was for Jesus’ outer cloak that the soldiers drew lots, as John tells us (Jn.19:23-24). When the soldiers had divided the clothes, they sat down, on guard until the end should come. So there was on Golgotha a group of three crosses, in the middle the Son of God, and on either side a brigand. Truly, he was with sinners in his death.
The final verses describe the taunts flung at Jesus by the passers-by, by the Jewish authorities, and by the brigands who were crucified with him. They all centred round one thing–the claims that Jesus had made and his apparent helplessness on the Cross. It was precisely there that the Jews were so wrong. They were using the glory of Christ as a means of mocking him. “Come down,” they said, “and we will believe on you.” But as General Booth once said, “It is precisely because he would not come down that we believe in him.” The Jews could see God only in power; but Jesus showed that God is sacrificial love.
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