Millions believe that all of human history hinges on a killing that occurred outside the walls of Jerusalem, nearly two thousand years ago. Jesus of Nazareth entered the city on a donkey one day and left carrying a cross. This was an apparent victory for the Pharisees, an incomprehensible tragedy for his disciples, and a brutal spectacle for the multitudes. It was also a great disappointment to Jews clinging to conventional expectations of the Messiah. Their prophets had foretold a Son of David who would liberate the nation of Israel, restoring her to earthly supremacy. Yet there was Jesus—the supposed “King of the Jews”—hanging powerless on a blood-drenched tree.
According to the Evangelists, the wandering rabbi saw it coming. Three chapters of John’s Gospel are devoted to Jesus’ reflection upon his impending demise. It was all part of a master plan—one antithetical to mundane sensibilities. As he told Pilate: “My kingdom is not of this world.” (Jn 18:36)
Death by crucifixion was commonplace in ancient societies—from Babylon to the British Isles—but that made the sight of dying criminals hanging on trees no less horrifying. Contemporary observers record numerous variations upon this sadistic art. The ancient Romans considered it to be the absolute worst form of execution—above both decapitation and being burned alive. It was therefore a sentence reserved for the lowest classes, the so-called servile supplicium—the “slaves’ punishment.” Stripped, shamed, beaten, and hung out to dry—only an extreme masochist would call this a winner’s fate.
Yet Jesus’ crucifixion came to be hailed as the most magnificent moment of the greatest story ever told. The scene is reenacted every year in church Passion Plays, enshrined in stained glass the world over, rendered in high-res Hollywood effects, echoed in history’s glorified martyrs. Of course, there are various accounts of what actually transpired that day.
The confusion begins with the Gospels. According to Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus died at 3pm on the day after Passover—thus placing the Last Supper in its Paschal context. Mark even specifies the time of crucifixion as being 9am. According to John, however, Jesus was crucified after noon, on the day before Passover—thus linking him to the sacrificial lambs being killed in the Temple. (Mk 15:25, 34; Jn 19:14)
Gospel accounts of Jesus’ final words are also contradictory. Matthew and Mark portray a sorrowful Jesus, moaning: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” In Luke, Jesus calls out faithfully: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” And in John—who consistently refers to Jesus’ immanent death as his “glorification”—Christ proclaims victoriously: “It is accomplished!” before giving up the ghost. (Mt 27:46; Lk 23:46, Jn 19:30)
From there the theologies multiply like gold crucifixes in a Vatican sweatshop. Jesus becomes the ultimate Passover lamb—an unblemished offering slaughtered for carnivorous rites. He is the final human sacrifice for the sins of the world—a ransom to the Devil for all the souls in Hell. For the oppressed, Jesus’ death represents the suffering of innocent men and women throughout humanity’s continuous miscarriage of Justice. Some scholars interpret his death as a fulfillment of the Prophets—others call him a failed Messiah. To skeptics, the Passion seems like a reckless suicide, or a divine infanticide, or just another fanciful myth of a dying and rising god. The more mystical types see a symbol for the individual self surrendering to Absolute Divinity—“Not as I will, but as you will.” (Mt 26:39) And of course, for some the crucifixion is simply a morbid joke. The Word may be one, but its faces are many.
Even more baffling—and more often than not, ignored—is Jesus’ demand that one must take up his or her own cross to become his disciple. (Mt 10:38; Lk 14:27) A review of the long history of martyrdom reveals many who did. In a figurative sense, this willing self-sacrifice is shared by the monastics and stringent ascetics who have died to the world in order to find God.
Though Paul of Tarsus is quite confident in his interpretation that Jesus died to atone for the sins of humankind, the Evangelists—recording what Jesus actually said—are not so conclusive. Jesus’ words are often cryptic and paradoxical, generally raising questions rather than granting certainty. Whether the magic of the Nazarene’s sacrifice lies in the moment of his death, the power of its image, or in clever postmortem promotion, one message does appear repeatedly in the Gospels: by denying material preoccupations and the cravings of the body—perhaps even destroying the body outright—one comes closer to God.
In this light, Jesus’ Passion represents a total inversion of typical worldly values. It is common sense that the good things in life are hearty food, a prime sexual partner, fertile land, sufficient fortifications, and nice possessions. As the new Spring dawns, we are reminded of what a bitter sacrifice Jesus truly made by dying at the height of his manhood. Therefore it comes as no surprise that most Christians are content to share his burden vicariously—through ritual drama and elaborate artifice. And who could blame them?
Yet for the attentive student, unsettling doubts remain. What did Jesus mean when he said: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”? (Lk 14:26) Pressed day-by-day to “be somebody,” what are we to make of his cryptic prophesy: “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Lk 14:11)
Those who have chosen martyrdom or the monastic path must already know. As for the rest of us, we are left in the comfort of our fleeting securities to quietly wonder.
[see Pt 2 below]