A Good Friday Meditation
Easter is almost here. I can’t wait for the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection, for good friends and good food. I can’t wait to hear “hallelujah” echo in the church.
But today isn’t Sunday. And as much as I would love to skip ahead to the chocolate bunnies and Don Francisco reprises, we have to get through today first. Good Friday is part of Christianity because evil is part of our world. The Christian story requires both a cross and a tomb. It’s important that we experience both. So this Good Friday, I think it would be appropriate to stop and consider the messages this day embodies: that Jesus died, and that Christianity isn’t afraid of the dark.
Roman crucifixion may be the most barbaric form of state torture ever conceived. It worked like this: the victim was nailed to a post. Three spikes were used. The one placed through the feet was important: soldiers placed one foot in front of the other and drove a spike through both of them into a post behind them. Besides the excruciating pain of the spike, this created an awkward platform that would later support all of the victim’s weight. The other two spikes were driven through the wrists into a post affixed perpendicularly to the first. Many popular retellings of Jesus’ crucifixion have him receiving wounds in his hands. Indeed, some English translations of the gospels put his wounds there. But many scholars believe that the spikes were actually driven through the wrists, just inside the notch created by the junction of the radius and ulna bones. This is important because of what happens next.
After the victim is spiked to the cross, it is hoisted into a vertical position. Sometimes it was anchored there by fixing it to other existing cross pieces; sometimes by way of an anchored flange; sometimes by dropping it into a post hole whereupon the drop would jar the victim’s body and rip at the wounds.
From that moment on, the victim slowly suffocated. Here’s why: when completely relaxed and hanging from the wrists, the victim’s body couldn’t admit air. The victim had to push up on the awkwardly-spiked feet and pull up against the spikes in his wrist in order to open his lungs to breath. Each breath required this effort. Thus, each breath became self-inflicted torture. This, then, reveals the importance of the placement of spikes. The spike through the feet had to bear most of the victim’s weight. It had to be driven solidly into the post. And spikes driven through the hands might have been ripped right out through the meat and tissue between fingers. The wrist provided more secure purchase, allowing the victim to pull up again and again, until fatigue and blood loss overcame the very desire for life, and he suffocated.
Jesus wasn’t fresh when he endured this torture. Every ancient historical account tells that he was whipped, punched, beaten with rods, spat upon, and stabbed with a mock crown made of thorns. The whip used against his back was an obscene contraption with several leather straps of varying lengths embedded with iron balls, shards of bone, and other debris. The soldier performing the flogging would not snap the whip against the victim like a teenager with a rolled-up towel. He would slap at the victims back and buttocks and then pull away the whip, tearing hide with it. One historian described the process this way:
"As the Roman soldiers repeatedly struck the victim's back with full force, the iron balls would cause deep contusions, and the leather thongs and sheep bones would cut into the skin and subcutaneous tissues. Then, as the flogging continued, the lacerations would tear into the underlying skeletal muscles and produce quivering ribbons of bleeding flesh.”
And that gashed-open back was where the torturers placed a splintered wooden cross and demanded that he carry it.
Imagine seeing a news story today about this kind of torture. Terrorist beheadings are bad enough but they don’t compare to crucifixion. Imagine that the cross hasn’t become familiar and hijacked by religious culture. Imagine your reaction if you were to click on a video in your news feed today about a government engaging in this level of barbaric, systematic torture somewhere in the developing world. There would be an outcry; a barrage of clicktivism and UN sanctions and talking heads decrying crimes against humanity. Regardless of our religious background, we instinctively understand that this kind of torture is simply not the way humans should be treated. It’s wrong. It’s barbaric. Especially against an innocent man.
Remember, Jesus broke no law except for the religious customs of his tribe. He brought no death, dealt no violence against persons, stole no property, fomented no riot. He was guilty of no offense deserving a Roman fine, let alone a Roman cross. He made no defense against those who accused him of blasphemy and called for his head. He submitted to the false charges and the wrongful death. That is the Christian story. Among all major religions, Christianity is the one that casts its hero as a loser — the innocent victim of a bloodthirsty mob, a violent political regime, a kangaroo court, and a savage killing. At the crux of this story — at the moment the protagonist fulfills his purpose — he is not a king or a preacher, not a president, prime minister, soldier, or professor. He is a martyr. A sacrifice.
The cross of Jesus is not just the scene where Jesus died; it is the pivotal moment in the Christian story. It’s the moment when everything seems to go wrong; when the haloed cooing baby of Bethlehem is bludgeoned beyond recognition; when the meek and mild teacher is stripped naked and spiked, screaming, to a post; when the King of Heaven suffers a disgraceful criminal’s death; when all the naked monstrosities of hell bare their teeth in heinous, blood-stained gloating.
The Christian story not only includes such a troubling scene, it turns on it, demands it. The most vile event in history is essential to Christianity. The most beautiful Easter morning had to rise from the ugliest loss. We have more to celebrate on Sunday because we know the evil that Jesus overcame on Friday.
This Good Friday, I hope the raw, hideous truth of Jesus’ death troubles you, burdens you, and saddens you. But then, on Easter morning, I hope you see death more clearly in its defeat. I hope you shout with utter joy on Sunday because you know the utter darkness of Friday. I hope that sorrow slips off your shoulders like grave clothes and you join the church in celebrating the greatest story ever told.