Altar Call – 0pelika-Auburn News

Walter Albritton  --- April 4, 2004


Millions of people are thinking about the crucifixion this week

          Since early February, millions of Americans have seen the movie, The Passion of the Christ. Some critics have accused producer Mel Gibson of going too far by turning the body of Jesus into a bloody mess. “There was too much blood,” some said.

          I do not agree with this criticism. Flagellation and crucifixion reduced the victim to exactly that – a bloody mess with torn flesh and blood splattered everywhere. Perhaps some of us need to examine what actually happened when a criminal was crucified.

          The gospel writers do not offer many details. John says simply that they led Jesus away and crucified him. Why did he not describe the graphic nature of crucifixion? There was no need. The people understood; they had seen many people crucified by the Romans. It was not an unusual event, and it was always public, in the hope no doubt that it would serve as a deterrent to crime. Even small children knew what it meant to be crucified.

          Roman citizens were spared this dehumanizing form of execution. The authorities reserved crucifixion for slaves, non-Roman citizens, and those who were convicted of committing heinous crimes. It was a very brutal way to die, and that is how Jesus died. The strange thing is that endured the cross willingly, convinced that it was God’s will for him to die that way.

          The Romans did not invent crucifixion as a method of execution. They learned it from the Greeks. However, the Romans “perfected” it in one sense. They fine-tuned the method. By that I mean that they devised ways to make it more painful and for the victim not to die quickly but to suffer many hours, sometimes days, before dying. Metal spikes, eight to 10 inches long, were driven into the victim’s wrists at the precise place where the main nerve to the hand would be severed. It is this nerve that causes such intense pain when we hit our “funny bone” on the elbow. Rupturing this nerve made it extremely painful for the victim to use his arms or hands to push his body upward in a desperate effort to breathe.

          Another “improvement” the Romans made involved the victim’s feet. They were raised up slightly, with the knees bent a little, before being nailed to the cross. The feet rested on a small block of wood attached to the cross for this purpose.  This enabled the criminal to breathe for a longer period of time by pushing himself upward on the cross, allowing the lungs to expand a little. The effort to breathe, of course, was rewarded by dreadful pain. Had the legs and feet been allowed to hand down unrestrained, death would have come more swiftly as breathing became impossible.

          The pain of crucifixion was so terrible that a new word was coined to explain it – the word excruciating. The Latin meaning involves the cross, so it has come to mean pain like that “from the cross.” This suggests that we should reserve our use of the word for only the worst kind of pain, the kind Mel Gibson has Jesus enduring during his scourging and the crucifixion. His pain surely was nothing less than agonizing and unbearable.

          Gibson’s portrayal of Jesus as “a bloody mess” is supported by the Bible. The prophet Isaiah prophesied that the Suffering Servant would have an appearance “disfigured beyond that of any man and his form marred beyond human likeness.” Isaiah also said the Messiah would be “like one from whom men hide their faces,” one who would be despised and “esteemed not.”

          It may be that Jesus was more cruelly beaten than even Gibson imagined. The ugly whip used by the Romans was designed to rip the flesh open until finally the muscles and bones were exposed. The more the flesh was ripped, the more Jesus would have bled.

          The church may mislead people by its use of lovely brass crosses on the altar. The cross was not pretty. It was vile, rough, and vicious, made so that a man’s bleeding back rubbing against it would cause terrible pain.

          That Jesus suffered unbearable pain on the cross is a fact of human history. It is no myth. This week millions of Christians across the world will reflect on this fact, perhaps the most awful fact in history. Christians can hardly believe what happened on that day just outside the city of Jerusalem 2,000 years ago. They do not really understand it, but still they believe that the Son of God, who assisted his Father in creating all things, came down from heaven and died on that cross purely out of love for the human race. Somehow, Christians believe, Jesus had to die so that people could be reconciled to God, or “saved from their sins.” Christians also are convinced that Jesus died for all people, not just some, and that it is God’s will for everyone to have the privilege of trusting Jesus Christ for salvation.

          I am one of those Christians. This week I will remember that the cross upon which Jesus died was a brutal instrument of death, and that crucifixion was a bloody way to die. I will get on my knees and try to thank Jesus for dying there for me. Only after doing that will I be ready to celebrate Easter. + + + +