By Fr Jason Smith
During Holy Week, I will be posting a daily reflection on the 7 Last Words of Christ. Today’s reflection is a prelude to the passion. The scene is Jerusalem. Jesus is being led to his crucifixion.
We frantically wend our way through the crowded streets and leave the walls of Jerusalem behind. Word has reached us of what happened the night before: His agony, his betrayal, his false trial; now we hear how this morning he has been scourged, beaten, mocked, and condemned to die by crucifixion.
Fortunately we know Golgotha is not far outside the city walls—only 650 yards, or about six football fields—and so we are not far away and will be with him soon, in order to accompany our Lord, our Savior, and our Friend in his last agonizing moments of suffering.
We push our way to the front of the frenzied crowd, which the soldiers are just now beginning to control. With a cool head, and a little luck, we slip unnoticed past the guards. The path to Calvary is open before us. Not to far ahead we can see Jesus as he staggers up the hill, his bare feet slipping on the rough road strewn with stones. Soldiers pull cords that bind him, as if they were leading a slave or an animal. Never have we seen Jesus like this before. He has always wielded the upmost control, dignity, and authority in every situation: He cast the money changers out of the temple, he expelled rabid demons, he passed through the midst of angry crowds, he remained calm as scribes pressed him with question—but now he is barely recognizable, he has become less than a slave.
Upon his shoulders is a horizontal beam weighing 125 pounds. He struggles to carry it. His bare feet slip on the sharp rocks again and again and he falls often; soon his knees are raw. Nothing will deter him. After each fall he begins anew. He painfully puts one foot in front of the other. The soldiers mercilessly pull on the cords that bind him. The heavy beam bites into his shoulders. On his white seamless coat a large patch of blood expands ever larger till it reaches down his back. By what miracle of strength can he continue on in such condition, under such a burden?
Once again his feet go out from under him; he falls face forward on the rock, and this time the beam begins to roll away, back down the hill. He stays down. The soldiers are concerned he might not make it. If only we were closer we could help! The soldiers grab a man and make him carry the beam back up the hill. How we wish we could be in his place, how wonderfully we could do it! How small, how light, how sweet, seems our own cross in comparison to his.
There is only a short, vertical slope ahead. We see the stake already planted there. Slowly, painfully, Jesus arrives. He sinks to the ground and the crucifixion begins.
The executioners have done this many times before, and he is like a docile lamb in their hands. They make quick work of it. First he is stripped. The coat has firmly stuck to his wounds—his whole body that is—and stripping is horrible business. Each thread has stuck to the raw surface, and when it is removed it tears away the innumerable nerve ends laid bare by the wounds. Always in control, Jesus does not faint—any other man would have collapsed under the shocking pain coursing through his nervous system.
At last we arrive to the short vertical slope. There we hesitate alongside a small group of woman and Mary, Jesus’ mother. The soldiers will not let us go further for the moment.
They lay Jesus down on his bare back—the wounds on his back, thighs, and legs become caked with dirt and gravel. The executioners take their measurements, prepare the holes for the nails, and the crucifixion begins. They take the nail—1/3 of an inch thick—give him a prick on the wrist, and with one single blow and a few minor taps of a great hammer Jesus’ arm is fixed firmly to the cross.
He does not cry out. The time for him to speak his last words has not yet arrived. Yes, he does not cry out, but his face contracts in a terrible way. His median nerve has been touched. The most unbearable pain that a man can experience is that caused by wounding the great nervous centers. It nearly always causes one to faint, but Jesus does not. He has willed that he will not loose consciousness. But knowing that the median nerve has been touched is immensely important for our reflection on Jesus’ last words. It has been stretched over the nail like the string of a violin; each time that our Lord pulls himself up to speak the nerve will vibrate against the nail, like the string of a violin vibrates by the touch of the bow, reviving the horrible pain.
The other arm is stretched out by the soldiers and the same actions repeat themselves, the same pains. Now they get him to his feet, pull him back, place his back against the stake, and quickly, with skillful work, hoist the crossbeam into its place, fixing it there. On the top, with a nail, they fix the title over his head, written in three languages. Christ our King has been lifted up on his throne.
Jesus shudders. His body, dragging on his two outstretched arms, sags. His head is leaning forward, for the thickness of his crown of thorns prevents him from leaning back against the wood, and each time he straitens it, he feels the pricks. The soldiers cross the left foot in front of the right; with one blow of the hammer the nail is driven into the middle of them, and with a few more, the nail is well embedded in the wood. This whole work has taken two minutes.
The soldiers now turn their attention on the two thieves. They are not as meek as our Lord and will not be crucified without a struggle. As the soldier’s attention is diverted, we quickly make our way around them, and are now standing under the cross. Gathered here, looking up at our suffering friend, we are in the best possible location to listen to his last words, since he will not be able to speak out loudly.
- Friday: Father! forgive them!
- Monday: You will be with me in paradise!
- Tuesday: Behold your mother, behold your son
- Wednesday: Why have you forsaken me?
- Thursday: I thirst!
- Friday: It is finished!
- Saturday: Into your hands I commend my spirit!