A brief meditation on the Cross.
The hymn tells us that on a green hill, far away, our dear Lord was crucified to save us all.
It is the central fact of Christianity. You can go wishy washy on practically anything else in the Christian faith these days, but the Cross remains the central point – fixed and established.
How we interpret the Cross can vary. Indeed the way we look at it does change from century to century, and ‘theories of the atonement’ change century by century.
The central beliefs about the meaning of the Cross include :
It is God’s outreach to human beings
It reflects Gods love for human beings
It was the culmination of a life of goodness lived by Christ
It was the most costly thing Christ could ever do
God suffered along with Christ on the Cross
Death could not hold him.
The empty Cross signifies the risen Christ
Those seem to me to be to be at least some of the basic and minimum beliefs a Christian must hold about the Cross. They are the bedrock of being a Christian. Other beliefs are also a necessary part of Christian belief, of course: the giving of the Spirit, the fellowship of the church and many others. But here I want to just think about the Cross.
We call it ‘the Cross’ and that in itself masks the true horror of the event. By calling it the Cross we turn towards the post resurrection picture of an empty Cross – Jesus has risen, and we can rejoice in that. We have lost today the sense of shock and revulsion that a crucifixion created in first century Jewish society. It was the ultimate deterrent of the Roman Occupying power, but we pass it over casually, almost as if there were no pain or horror attached to it. As if having an empty Cross to celebrate implies we can forget or ignore what went before.
It is almost impossible to think ourselves into the awfulness of a crucifixion. To start with the man was naked – no loin cloth. This vital fact changes the whole ethos of the occasion, because any crucifixion was the final act of humiliation of a human being. It was an assault on the victim’s sense of his own basic humanity. It was a total rejection of the crucified person as a man. It demeaned and degraded and paraded him as worthless. He was to be tortured and humiliated and hung up for all to see every last detail of his pain and suffering.
In a way it was a kind of mini Roman Amphitheatre experience. A human being stripped of everything humanizing, and tortured slowly to death. An exposing of the most private and sensitive part of a man as he died in great pain for all the world to gawp at.
Even to watch a crucifixion was to be brutalized. It must have stirred revulsion in many watchers. No doubt many stayed away. But maybe it also produced a horrified fascination in some people. Why else would they wait there until the victim died?
The act of crucifixion stripped the man bare of everything except how he faced his own death. Some of those hung up there on a Cross swore and shouted and reviled the authorities who had put them there. There could be no worse fate awaiting them than what had already happened to them, so some of them heaped abuse on the Roman Emperor or the Chief Priest or whoever was in their sights at the time. Some retreated within themselves and became silent – perhaps trying to cope with the pain. But all of them had to deal with the process of dying in a most terrible way.
Maybe that, too, was part of the fascination for those watching – to see someone facing and trying to deal with an inevitable death. Maybe some watchers just felt glad their turn to die had not yet come.
There was the practice of thrusting a sponge soggy with some liquid against their mouth as they hung there in agony. The liquid was a mixture of myrrh and wine and would act to assuage the intense pain. If the victim took the liquid, that meant he would last longer before he died – that he could hang onto life – however hopelessly – for some little time longer. It put off the end for a few hours at most. It was not an act of mercy – merely a refinement of the torture devised by the Roman State, because it extended the agony.
The build, age and fitness of the victim was also crucial. If they were strong and healthy they might last considerably longer. If they were fat, that would affect the length of time they hung there. If they had been badly beaten beforehand they might give up on the natural struggle to live somewhat sooner rather than later. In a sense, the worse the previous beating, the easier and the earlier they died. It was a way to achieve a quicker exit and, therefore, was basically a benefit, not a cruelty. Whatever the motivation for the beating, the effect was that it lessened time of agony.
Of course the fascination for the onlookers was the reality of the struggle by the victim to keep hold of life. The human spirit does not give up easily and, against all hope, the man would cling to life until that moment when he finally accepted death. His body would demand that he held on till the last moment. Only when all his strength and reserves were exhausted did he finally die. The crowd perhaps watched for this moment – the turning point when all the fight finally left the man and, as we say today, he ‘gave up the ghost’.
Thereafter death soon followed. The crucifixion detail of the Roman Guard was experienced in how men die on the Cross, and how long it takes. When the man was clearly dead the centurion in charge thrust a lance or spear to confirm it, if he thought it necessary. The crowd disperses. The show was over. Time to go home to tea. He had lasted longer than they thought he would.
All that horror is gone nowadays. The brutality of a naked man dying slowly in great pain is lost on us. We see a man in a peaceful pose, clad in a discrete loincloth, looking out at the world with calm eyes. It is like this because we cannot bear to contemplate the anguish, the terror, the brutality. The crucifixion has become to many a little silver token dangling around the neck. For most of us the crucifixion is indeed ‘far away’ not only in time and place but also in concept and understanding.
People are oblivious to the reality. They know nothing of the terrible decision that Christ made that led to his fate. It was a death embraced, not a chance happening. There is no blood on their crucifix – it is made of silver to look pretty.
The reality wasn’t pretty. It was, the Christian says, voluntarily undertaken by a good man who believed himself – rightly as it turned out – to be ordained of God to die so that others may be released into new life. It was for us he hung and suffered there. And millions of Christians have testified down the centuries to the reality of new life in Christ. It was the inevitable cost of a good life lived out to the full for the salvation of others. He faced the ignominy of that death, even though to die in such a fashion was an abomination to his fellow countrymen. For them it was the accepted fate of thieves and robbers and terrorists. For them it was a death deemed fit for the dregs of humanity.
He voluntarily chose to go into and through that experience because he believed it would lead to new life for others. ‘I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men to me.’
A naked man, held on a Cross by nails through flesh – dying in the afternoon sun. The Saviour of the World.