Altar Call – Opelika-Auburn News

Walter Albritton

April 14, 2019


Getting ready to celebrate Easter


            How do you get ready for Easter? New dress? New suit? New shoes? Yes, when we were children, that was part of the plan. Fix Easter eggs and plan a “hunt’? Yep, we did that too. Include a Bunny Rabbit in table decorations? Of course. Share a family feast at Grandma’s place on Easter Sunday? Sure. Arise before dawn and attend a sunrise service in a stadium for a cemetery? Yes sir, no matter how cold it may have been.

            Not sure when it happened but the plan changed over the years. I’ve stored the old ways in my precious memories file and found a better way to prepare for Easter.  The new strategy is much simpler: find a place to get on my knees and reflect on what it was like to be crucified on a cross. I am not ready for Easter until I have done that.

            Fifteen years ago Hollywood actor Mel Gibson was chastised for the “bloody mess” he made of Jesus’ body in his popular movie, The Passion of the Christ.  I will admit that while watching the movie I thought the cruel beating of Jesus would never end. Gibson’s critics said, “There was too much blood.”

            But wait a minute. That is exactly what flagellation and crucifixion did – it reduced the victim’s body to a bloody mess, torn flesh, bones broken and protruding, blood splattered everywhere. The way a criminal was crucified was ghastly, appalling and sickening. 

One might ask why the Bible offers so few details of Jesus’ crucifixion. For example, the gospel writer John says simply that they led Jesus away and crucified him. Why did he not describe the graphic nature of crucifixion? The answer seems obvious: there was no need. The people knew what happened on the cross; they had seen many people crucified by the Romans.

Crucifixion was always public, in the hope no doubt that it would serve as a deterrent to crime. Even small children knew the gory details of crucifixion.

          During the earthly days of Jesus, Roman citizens were spared this dehumanizing form of execution. The authorities reserved crucifixion for slaves, non-Roman citizens, and those who were convicted of heinous crimes. It was a very brutal way to die, and that is how Jesus died.

          The Romans did not invent crucifixion as a method of execution. They learned it from the Greeks. However, in one sense the Romans “perfected” it. They fine-tuned the method, devising ways to make it more painful over a longer period of time. Victims usually did not die quickly but suffered 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 the “funny bone” on the elbow is hit. 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 hang down unrestrained, death would have come more swiftly as breathing became impossible. 

          The pain of crucifixion was so horrible that a new word was coined to explain it – the word “excruciating.” The Latin meaning involves the cross, meaning pain like that “from the cross.” This suggests that we should use the word for only the worst kind of pain, the kind Jesus endured during his scourging and crucifixion. Pain that was agonizing, pain that was excruciating.

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

          This raises the possibility that Jesus may have been more cruelly beaten than depicted by the movie producers. The ugly whip used by the Romans would rip the flesh open until muscles and bones were exposed. The more the flesh was ruptured, the more Jesus would have bled. 

          That Jesus suffered insufferable pain on the cross is no myth. It is a fact. This week Christians will reflect on this fact, perhaps the most awful fact in history. Christians can hardly believe it happened, on a Friday, just outside the city of Jerusalem 2,000 years ago.

How could men be so cruel? The only conceivable answer may be in the words of Jesus from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Surely the men who bludgeoned Jesus unmercifully did not know they were killing the Son of God, who assisted his Father in creating all things, who came down from heaven and died on that cross out of love for the human race. They were ignorant of what Christians came to believe – that Jesus had to die so that people, all people, could be reconciled to God or “saved from their sins.”

So how do you get ready for Easter? Well, you must get beyond the “window dressing” of Easter – painted eggs, bunny rabbits, new shoes and clothes. Take a second look at the lovely brass cross on the altar in your church. The cross upon which Jesus died was not pretty. It was vile, rough and vicious, constructed so that a man’s bleeding back rubbing against it would cause terrible pain.

Get alone somewhere, in a quiet place. If you can, get on your knees. Close your eyes and see Jesus, cruelly beaten and bleeding to death, suffering on that cruel cross. Listen to his agonizing breathing. Hear the soldiers laughing. Finally, say aloud to Jesus, “You did that for me. You willingly died on that cross for my sins. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.”

Then you will be ready to celebrate Easter. + + +