122- Until His Death on the Cross

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In spite of the warning of Pontius Pilate, the Governor, an a¬va¬lanche of people succeeded in passing through the gate of Ephraim behind the row of soldiers. There, between the road leading to Japhia and the wall of the city, was Golgotha, a round and barren hill like a skull. Here, in place of trees were planted wooden posts, a number of black poles where hundreds of men had agonized on the cross. The air reeked of decay. The continuous drizzle made us slide on the grass and on the bloodstained stones found in that macabre place….

Centurion: Move back, move back!… Everybody, out of the way!… Clear the way!… By orders of the Governor…. Move back, everybody!… This way for the condemned!… The rest, out of the way!

The soldiers pushed us and formed a cordon from their crossed lances to avoid anyone from getting near the prisoners…. The centurion on horseback signalled to the executioners….

Centurion: Hey, what’re you waiting for?… Strip them naked. You may keep their clothes when it’s all over. C’mon, shake a leg…

The crucifiers helped Jesus and the other two young zealots who were to be crucified with him. They took off their robes and their trousers…. The three were completely naked. On their necks hung the small board showing their crime, in full view of the multitude that was crowding the slope of Golgotha… Jesus’ body was crushed as a result of the lashings and tortures. He could hardly stand. He was shaking with fever…

Centurion: Silence!…. Silence, I said!!

The centurion looked at all of us with contempt….

Centurion: Residents of Jerusalem, neighbors from other provinces: these men before you have dared to challenge the power of Rome. But no one gets away from the claws of the imperial eagle. Take a look at them now: they are naked and shamed. Read their crimes: conspirator, agitator of the people, king of the Jews… Let this be a lesson to you: this is the end for those who rebel against Rome, because Caesar’s empire is immortal! Long live the Caesar of Rome!… Long live the Caesar of Rome!

But no one gave a reply. In fury, we could only clench our fists. Beneath the stubborn rain we were there, as always: the poor of Israel, the peasants of Galilee, all those who lived in the huts of Jerusalem, all those who had put their hope in Jesus…

A Man: Weep not, countryman. Let us not show them our tears. Don’t give the executioners the slightest pleasure, nor show our pain to the victims…

The cordon of soldiers opened to give way to a priest of the Temple who, as was customary, enjoined the condemned to repent for their sins before the final moment…

Priest: All you rebels, ask for God’s forgiveness!… How do you know, the Lord might take pity on your souls!… Hey you, who called yourself a prophet and the Messiah, acknowledge your sins before your death… C’mon, say: “Lord… forgive me my many sins…” C’mon, say it.

Jesus: Lord… forgive them… for they know not what they do.

Priest: He’s a charlatan to the end…!

The priest, raising his shoulders with indifference, stepped to one side.

Meanwhile, a guard offered the three condemned some wine mixed with myrrh for them to sustain the pain a little more. But Jesus did not want to drink it. Then the centurion showed them the three poles where the prisoners were supposed to be crucified and gave the order to start the execution…

Centurion: Crucify them!

There were four soldiers who attended to each criminal. Jesus was lain on the rough, wet pole. His back, full of raw flesh cringed. They held him tight, stretching his body. One soldier sat over Jesus’ right arm to keep it from falling as he thrust the first nail, big and rusty as it was…

Soldier: Easy, young man, bite your tongue and take it easy…!

He drove the first nail deep into his wristbones, raised the mallet and released the first blow, callous and barbarous… Jesus gave out a deep moan, a savage howl that seemed to have come from the bowels of the earth, rather than from the entrails of a man… Blood began to gush out, his fingers constricted, and all the muscles of his body contracted because of terrible pain… But the soldier continued to nail him until the bones became firmly stuck to the piece of wood.

Soldier: Go on…!

He passed the mallet to the other soldiers who were stretching Jesus’ left arm… The second nail was plunged into his flesh….

James: Come, Peter, let’s go closer…

Peter: I can’t, red head… I can’t bear the sight of him…

James: At least, he should see our faces when they raise him up… so that he’ll know that we’re here with him…

Peter: That’s precisely what I can’t do, James. I can’t even look at him… I’ve always been a coward…

James: All of us have been cowards, Peter… all of us. You and Judas and I… everybody.

When his arms were nailed to the wooden pole, the soldiers tied him with a rope and started to pull him, supporting him on the black and wobbly vertical pole. Under the rain, old blood from the early victims kept on dripping…

Centurion: C’mon, my men, keep on pulling…!

Soldiers: Eeeaa!

Centurion: One more time!

Soldiers: Eeeaa!

Slowly, the wooden pole on which Jesus’ body was nailed, was being lifted… until finally, it found its hook on one end of the other pole, forming the “t” of the cross…

They placed a wooden wedge between his legs to sustain his body. The executioner once again got his tools, bent his legs through his knees, crossed one foot over the other and with heavy blows from the mallet, drove a much longer nail through his anklebones…

Centurion: Now you’re on your throne, King of the Jews!

Laughing, the soldiers finally nailed the board indicating his crime, above the head of Jesus… Their job was over. Now, they could start dividing the clothes of the prisoners among themselves and play dice to determine who should get the robe… Dimas, the zealot, was nailed very close to Jesus. The other prisoner, the so-called Gestas, of the movement too, was on the other side…

Gestas: I don’t want to die… I don’t want to die!… Damn, damn!… And you, Nazarene… didn’t they say you’re the Messiah who was going to save us?… Damn you too!

Dimas: Shut up, Gestas, don’t curse him!… He also fought for the same thing, just like us… Hey, Jesus… what happened, buddy?… What happened to the Kingdom of God?… Didn’t you say it was coming soon…?

Jesus: Yes… today… right now…

Gestas: What did he say?… Today?… Ha?

Jesus: Have faith… We’re still alive… God cannot fail us… Today, the Kingdom will come… Today…

A Man: What did the prophet say?

A Woman: That the Kingdom of God is coming today…

Another Man: That the Kingdom of God is coming today…

Another Woman: That the Kingdom is coming today…

Another Man: That the Kingdom is coming today…

What Jesus had said spread from one mouth to another. Everyone, with whatever hope remaining, lifted their faces to heaven, hoping it would open at any moment, hoping against hope that the God of Israel would do something to stop the injustice. But the rain-drenched sky remained sealed above our heads like a huge tombstone….

Mary: John, please, tell those soldiers to let us pass… I want to be near him…

John: Come, Mary, let’s go….

While we tried to go near the soldiers’ cordon which was sealing the way to the crosses, the group of relatives and servants of the priests and the magistrates of the Sanhedrin, the very same group that shouted in the Antonia Fortress clamoring for Jesus’ death, arrived in Golgotha…

A Man: Look, he’s there!… So the Kingdom is coming today?… Isn’t he the king? Well, well, what a throne he has got for himself!

Another Man: Didn’t they say he cured so many people?… C’mon, doctor, cure yourself right now! Get down from there, c’mon!

They were making fun of Jesus and they were laughing at us. One of them took a piece of stone and hurled it on the cross.

A Man: Here, take it, you liar!

Another Man: Shabby prophet! Impostor!

Another man was a better marksman and hit Jesus’ face with a stone… The people, enraged, bent to get some stones too and soon they were seen flying everywhere….

Centurion: Damn it, out of here, all of you!… Soldiers, disperse the crowd!… Out of here, all of you, out!!!

The Roman centurion, fearing more disturbances, ordered the clearing of the slope of Golgotha, where friends and enemies of Jesus as well, were shoving one another…

Soldier: You heard him!… Everybody, out of here!

Mary: Please…

Soldier: You can’t go through, ma’am. It’s an order.

Mary: Please…

John: Have a little pity, soldier. She’s his mother.

Mary and Susana, as well as my mother Salome, and the Mag¬dalene too, Martha and Mary of Bethany, went close to where the soldiers were. I too was with them…

Soldier: Okay, okay, you may pass, but don’t make any trouble… Or else, I’ll kick you out of here…

Mary started to run until the foot of the cross. She was biting her lips to keep hereself from crying…. Above those two poles, Jesus was struggling to seek some form of relief, in vain… His body was cringing in total pain… But he could not escape from there….

Mary: My son… my son.

Mary could not contain herself. She embraced the black pole that was dripping blood and placed her forehead on Jesus’ feet, crushed by an iron nail… Jesus recognized that voice and, with enormous effort, inclined his face toward her…

Mary: Son… my son… my son…

Jesus looked at his mother. He wanted to smile at her, which ended up in a grimace.

Jesus: Mmo…mo…mother…. Mama…

Then I felt his glazed look, almost vanished in agony…. He was looking at me…

Jesus: John… look after my mother…. take care of her…

John: Yes, Moreno, of course…

I didn’t have the courage to speak more… The women beside me started to pray in a low voice, asking God for a speedy death to spare Jesus of more sufferings….

Women: Help him, Lord, let him rest from all his weariness… God of the humble, God of the poor, give him rest…

Jesus: God, oh God, why have you forsaken me?… Why did you fail me?… Why did everything fail… why?!…

There was a deathly silence. Jesus’ face was black and blue, the veins on his neck were about to burst and he began to breathe heavily…. He was asphyxiated….

Jesus: Water… water… I thirst…

A soldier took a rag, dipped it in the wine mixed with myrrh, took it with the tip of his lance and drew it to his lips… Jesus could hardly taste it…

Jesus: It’s finished… everything is finished…

The final hour was near. The women, sensing it, began to scratch their faces, pull their hair and beat their foreheads against the ground that was drenched with blood and water. Only Mary clutched to the black wooden cross, her face clinging to the bloodied feet of her son… Jesus raised his head. He was catching his breath… His eyes were fixed on the still, gray sky. There was no sign whatsoever…. He felt wild pain running through his entire body… In a final, spasmodic effort, he stirred, clenching his teeth… He could not bear it anymore…. Hanging between heaven and earth, he mustered all the strength that was left in him….

Jesus: Father… into your hands I commend my fate…. Father! Father!!!

It was a heart rending cry… Then, he inclined his head. His whole body collapsed heavily on the pole… That was about three o’clock in the afternoon of Friday, the 14th of Nissan.

*Comments*
Golgotha (an Aramaic word meaning “the skull”) or Calvary (a place of the skull), was a small hill situated outside the walls of Jerusalem. The custom was to conduct all acts of crucifixion in this place. Surrounding it was the cemetery. There were various individual tombs. In one of them Jesus was buried, and the others were common pits for the bodies of the crucified. The gate of Ephraim, which was open in the northeastern part of the walls, was facing Golgotha. Since the place was a little elevated, one could see from the city the crosses and the persons crucified on them. The executions were made public so they would serve as a warning to the people. In the case of Jesus, the authorities tried at all cost to avoid a people’s uprising.

In the present-day Jerusalem, the most important place for the Christians is the Basilica of the Holy Tomb, a huge building standing on the place where Golgotha was, with Jesus’ sepulcher right beside it. Today, the basilica’s interior has several altars, images, and chapels where one can see a portion of the authentic rock of Golgotha. Before the altar of the crucifixion, one can even touch this rock which was drenched with the blood of Jesus. This place is full of historical authenticity.

Death on the cross was practiced by the Persians, the Carthagenians, and to a lesser extent, the Greeks. This was most of all used by the Romans, who considered it as the most cruel and degrading form of torture ever. They reserved it for foreigners and only on rare occasions were the Romans crucified. This was a death penalty applied to the slaves. Free men could be crucified for crimes of homicide, theft, treason, and above all, for political subversion.

It was the practice to strip the crucified naked, to add to their humiliation. Lying on the ground, their arms were nailed on the transverse pole, which the victims themselves carried up to the place of martyrdom. The nails were sunk into the wrists, in between the two bones of the forearm. Having been nailed on the palms of the hands, the body would get crushed from the scaffold for lack of support. When the arms were nailed, the criminals were raised by means of a rope in order to position them on the horizontal pole over the vertical, which was already planted in the ground. Then the feet were nailed, introducing the nail through the anklebones. The pain was indescribable. Finally, the piece of wood indicating the crime committed was placed on the topmost part of the cross to be read by all.

The cross was not thin, as ordinarily shown in paintings. It was rather short. The victim’s feet remained a very close distance from the ground. In between the legs was a piece of wood, protruding a little to support the body, which remained in a half sitting position. This was intended to avoid the victim’s collapse downwards, not out of pity, but to prolong his agony as much as possible. Many of those crucified remained agonizing for days on the cross, in the presence of the curious on-lookers, and exposed to the birds of prey. If Jesus died so soon, it was because he was already beaten down from the tortures received before he reached his place of martyrdom. Generally, the death of the crucified was due to asphyxia. The tense and unbearable position of the entire body resulted in the difficulty of breathing and the irregular circulation of blood, immobilizing the dying victim.

From the testimonies of the four evangelists, we have the “seven words” of Jesus on the cross, his last words on this earth. The first of them – “Father, forgive them…” – refers to a religious custom of Israel. By understanding that death in any form had an expiatory value (of pardon, of redemption), even the delinquents were exhorted to declare the so-called “expiatory vow” before death in the following manner: “Let my death serve as an atonement for all my sins!” (My God forgive me). Jesus wouldn’t say this. Up to the last minute, he vindicated his innocence, and not out of pride nor obstinacy. That is why he subverted the formula: may God forgive the murderers, they are those who are in sin and they know not what they do.

In this episode, the second word reflects the hope sustained by Jesus up to the last moment of his life, that God would intervene in a manner unknown to him, but in a manner so efficacious that it would save him from death. Jesus waited in Golgotha for the liberating hand of the Kingdom of God, for which he had fought during all his life. He was not cowed by disappointment; he did not accept that God could fail him and he hoped against hope. The time frame “today” he was explaining to his campanion of torture, showed the immediacy of the change he was waiting for. Up to his final hour, Jesus was a man who loved life, who believed in life. Such was the life he was claiming and expecting from his Father in the midst of agony.

The third word is addressed to Mary his mother and his friend John. It must be pointed out that in the last moment, the women were more faithful to Jesus than the men. They, the “weaker” ones and the more “cowardly” ones, according to the male cliche, stayed put before their agonizing friend, showing their fidelity to Jesus and exposing themselves to the mockery of the authorities who ridiculed Jesus up to his final moment.

The fourth word has been preserved by the evangelists in Greek, while they translate it to create greater impact to the reader, that he may stop to ponder on this phrase. Jesus feels abandoned by God. He no longer expects anything; he feels all his life to be a failure. “Eli, Eli, lema sabaktani” is the phrase in Greek. (Mark initiates the Aramaic form, “Eloi, Eloi”). Jesus does not call God the way he ordinarily does: “Father” (Abba). He calls him God. He feels him so distant, so silent. Psalm 22 starts with these same words. The evangelists are showing us that on the cross, Jesus prayed with this touching cry of anguish and abandon in this psalm. Reading it, we can discover the feelings he felt in his heart before succumbing to that brutal torture. Like any other person, Jesus experienced an evolution in his conscience, a growth. His faith likewise underwent some kind of development and he learned more about the meaning of doubts, the vicissitudes of life and fears. This fourth word on the cross is one of the most significant moments through which to appreciate the profound humanity of Jesus, the way of his faith and hopes, which is a difficult and painful way.

The fifth word is an indication of the horrifying thirst experienced by the crucified victims. It was one of the major tortures on the cross. The continuous bleeding as a result of the nailing dehydrated the criminal. At that moment, Jesus was given a kind of drug to alleviate his pain. The sixth word – “All is finished” – shows his awareness of his end. Jesus did not lose his consciousness. Although he was extremely exhausted on account of his tortures, he clearly saw his death coming. His last “word” in this world was a loud cry (Mk 15:37), an expression of a supreme pain as well as his ultimate surrender into the hands of God in whom he had put his trust and whom he called his Father. In order to manifest this fidelity up to the end, Luke gave that inarticulate and heartrending cry with which Jesus’ life came to an end, a form of prayer full of trust (Lk 23:46; Ps 32:6).

Jesus died. He really did. His life on earth came to an end. When he expired, he did not know, nor did he imagine that God would resurrect him. He could not imagine it because in his frame of ideas about his faith, this belief in an “individual and immediate” resurrection never entered into the picture. Had Jesus died knowing he would resurrect within a few days, then his death would not have been real or human or painful. When he commended his fate in the hands of God, he believed a

122- Until His Death on the Cross

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