Today is the feast of Holy Cross, commemorating the “Invention” of the Cross by the Empress Helena in Jerusalem in AD 335 (the feast marks the anniversary of the dedication of the basilica built to house the true relic of the cross).
Usually preachers will, and I’ve done it myself, will concentrate on the meaning of the lections set for the day: the poisonous serpent of Numbers 21.4-9; the humbling and exalting of Christ in Philippians 2.6-11; the Stainer’s Crucifixion of John 3.13-17. All good and necessary things to set in front of the people of God on this day and every day of our pilgrimage.
But today I’m thinking of something slightly different. Perhaps because today is also the Opening Service for the branch of the Mothers’ Union which meets in St Stephen’s Church, the MU being “an international Christian charity that seeks to support families worldwide”, I wondered about the other event which took place on the cross:
Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home. [John 19:25-27]
Christ’s agony in Calvary, his exaltation on a cross, also marked the beginning of a new kind of family, a non-nuclear family, a family which cut across both the ancient near east’s ideas of kinship and tribe, and the modern world’s ideas of blood relations and romantic love. John and Mary were to become a new family, and a new model of what family could be. This new family was born in both grief and endurance: grief at the pain seen in Jesus’s death agonies, and endurance in being strong enough to remain standing at the foot of the cross.
There is an example for those of us who adhere to the ecclesial community, the “family of the church”. Perhaps we should date the foundation of the Church not to Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost, when the tribes of the world heard the promise of the resurrection, and the ministry was a great success, but rather to Good Friday afternoon, when the ministry and promise of Christ failed under the weight of military, political and religious oppression? Perhaps the Church came into being in grief and endurance? Perhaps we should think of ourselves as a new kind of family, one which overturns the expectations of the world, and one which can only be understood when looking at the world from the point of view of the crucified Messiah?
Apparently, it was a holiday. Although, to be honest, most days seemed to be a holiday here. And not the sort of decent, joyful, singing-in-the-street sort of holidays he was used to back home. Here the holidays seemed to go on for days at a time, and everyone stayed in doors, only emerging to look miserable and bad-tempered and ready for a fight. Too much religion and not enough wine. Something to do with their miserable mountain god, he supposed.
Anyway, he hated holidays in Judea. Holiday for the Jews, double overtime for the soldiers. You never knew when the empty streets would suddenly fill, for no apparent reason, with crowds looking to pick a fight with a legionary. There were forty crosses on a roadside in Galilee which he had filled after the last holiday: he told his superiors it had been an insurrection, which it probably was, but in his book, as soon as a sword or a club or a rock was lifted towards a Roman, he didn’t care what the motivation was. He had been a centurion for long enough to know that Pax Romana was not concerned with such fine distinctions.
But now he was here, in the capital, for the longest and worst holiday of the year. Appropriate he supposed, for this was the smallest and worst capital in the Empire. Stuck high up on a desert mountain, where water was short and the air was thin, and nights were freezing cold. The olives were wizened and the wine was worse. All in all, he could almost prefer to be in Britannia. And the crowds!
The whole of Judea was here, and crowds of people from all over the Empire, all pouring into the tiny city as if their lives depended on it. And for such a strange religion as well: a cruel and capricious and changeable god (only one!), who made demand after demand on his people, and never allowed them anything in exchange. And such an exclusive god as well. He was a well-brought up Roman citizen, perfectly prepared to offer libations at the altar of Mithras and Zoroaster and Toutatis and Lud. But when he arrived in Jerusalem he was told, in no uncertain terms, that he was NOT to go to the Temple, and he was NOT to attempt to pay respects to the Jewish god: “a jealous god” indeed.
And now he was on mopping up duties. Mopping up after another religious-political mess up. A man who claimed (or didn’t claim) to be a holy man; claimed (or didn’t claim) to be a prophet; claimed (or didn’t claim) to be a political leader; claimed (or didn’t claim) to be a rival King to Caesar. Honestly the story wasn’t straight, and he didn’t think it ever would get straight. The little respect he had for the Jewish religious leaders, and the little respect he had for the Roman political leaders had long gone. He could accept the naked pursuit of private agendas: how else did Pax Romana get to be Pax Romana without it being imposed so decisively? What he couldn’t accept was the incompetence shown by the priests and the Governor. This trouble-maker could’ve been arrested long before the holiday, or he could’ve been “disappeared” until after the crowds dispersed. But a public trial and a public execution on the day before the holiday when the city was at its most volatile? … well! If you want a problem solved, best call the Legion VI Ferrata!
The execution spot, just outside the city walls, was prepared. Golgotha the Jews called it (barbarous tongue): Calvary to the Romans. There had been executions three days ago, and the bodies had been taken down this morning. There were four crosses ready, although they’d only need three: one for the Galilean political, and two for ordinary criminals— robbers, he thought. The next problem to sort out was getting to the execution ground. The streets between the Governor’s palace, the Antonia, and the nearest gate to Calvary were narrow, and bound to be crowded. Short swords might be needed, but clubs would be better. He’d make sure that his men were issued with them. He’d pick up the execution party (party! Great name for it!) at the Antonia, and lead them through. He thought about, and dismissed, riding. He’d have more control on foot. Easier to get to miscreants at their level.
The robbers had not been pleased to see him: one swore, one cried. The “political” said nothing, and just stood there. At first he thought the prisoner was too dazed to know what was going on: his face and back were streaked with blood and bruising. But then, when the order came to shoulder the cross-bars, he could see the prisoner look around him, gazing intently, but without hostility, at the guards who would accompany him to Calvary. He knows what’s going on, the centurion thought. More than that: he thinks he’s in control. He’ll learn soon enough.
The streets were tumultuous, but the resistance he had feared didn’t show. In fact, the crowds were out to jeer at the prisoners. This was unusual. The Jews didn’t normally take against the subjects of Roman justice like this. A man could be a rapist and a murderer, but if he was being killed by Roman law, then he would be acclaimed as a hero by the crowds. And yet the streets rang out to mockery, and the air was filled with curses and spit. He kept a close eye on the political. No reaction. He staggered under the weight of the cross bar, banging its outstretched ends into walls and corners and people. But he didn’t answer back. His eyes were focussed on the man ahead of him. Occasionally he would look to the crowd, but he was looking for someone in particular. He never found them, and looked away disappointed. Still not a word passed his lips.
There was space to breathe outside the city walls, and the air was fresher. Fresh enough for a rain storm? He wished he’d brought his long winter cloak. He would get soaked through on this exposed hill waiting for the prisoners to die. He resolved to get a brazier and break their legs after four hours if they weren’t dead by then. No point in prolonging his inconvenience.
The prisoners were stripped naked, and thrown to the ground, lying upon their cross bars before the uprights fixed already into the ground. Their arms were stretched out, and three legionaries hammered the nails through their wrists into the stained and splintered wood. Two of the three cried out. He was relieved to see the political grimace in pain: he was still alive then, and not drugged out his suffering by some friendly supporter. Ropes were threaded through the hooks on the back of the cross bars and over more hooks on the tops of the stake. The prisoners were dragged upright, pulled up to the tops of the stakes, their bodies dangling in the air. He had made sure their arms were tied to the cross bar as well. If prisoners were just secured by nails they could die of suffocation in the few short minutes before their feet were nailed to the upright. All three prisoners made it to the cross alive. That was practice and professionalism, the centurion admiringly thought. The final nails went into the feet of the prisoners, pushing their legs up into a crouch. That would give them just enough purchase to lift their bodies up when they felt their lungs being crushed. Longer to die, and longer to bring the message home about Roman justice.
One last job for the political. The centurion ordered a ladder to be placed against the political’s cross, and climbed up himself with a wooden board under his arm: the titulus. A last nail to fix it above the political’s head. “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”. So that was his name. Some Jewish VIPs shouted at him as he climbed down the ladder: “You can’t put that up there!” “Speak to Pilate.” “But, he’s not our king!” “Speak to Pilate.” “Put ‘He said he was king of the Jews’”. “Speak to Pilate. And don’t speak to me again.” This last with his hand on his sword. They shut up.
Not for long though. They turned their attention to the political. Abuse and curses and religious language, most of which passed him by. They must really hate him, the centurion thought. The political said nothing for a long while. The screaming continued, until one of the robbers joined in as well. Even on a cross you can find someone worse off than yourself, the centurion thought grimly. Eventually the political opened his mouth. Finally! “Father, forgive” was all that he whispered. That stopped the abuse for the moment. Everyone looked slightly bemused, as if surprised to find themselves where they were, in a boneyard, screaming at dying men.
The sky had clouded over. The storm was coming. He was glad he had ordered the brazier, and he could see three of the soldiers playing dice in its warmth. The crowds had thinned now, sensibly enough. The political wasn’t going anywhere. Two people remained, standing as close to the cordon of soldiers as they dared. The political was speaking to them, a man and an older woman. Something about looking after each other. You should’ve thought about your will before you got into trouble, sonny.
One of the robbers was already dead. The other was close to it. A hour inside his timetable. Good job too, because it was now as dark as pitch, and the rain was lashing down. Only the political was still going, pushing himself up on his nailed feet, stretching towards the heavens. “I have finished…” (true enough, the centurion thought). “Father, into your hands, I commit my spirit.” At this the political shuddered, and died.
The centurion paused, curiously moved, and, despite himself, wondering if he had missed something in all the events of the day. “Perhaps, all in all, this man really was righteous,” he whispered to himself. Even so, righteous or not, he was dead.
Thank the gods that was over. Mopping up successfully accomplished. Time to get the body down before sunset. Let the relatives have him, and then we can forget all about him. I wonder if the water is hot in the barrack bath house?
Today is “Good” Friday, and the sheer name of the day alone shows that we can’t trust God to have the same values as normal, decent, human beings, can we?
For those of us who might be preparing Good Friday sermons or Holy Week school assemblies, I have prepared this (with uncertain copyright, but I’m asserting fair use!)
A scandal and a stumbling block is the crucifixion, a “strange way” of getting things done. As we enter Holy Week, Christians need to recover a sense of the utter strangeness of what God has achieved in Christ. A Welsh poet and a French troublemaker can help us with that.