The Man Who Died On A Tree, Part 2




The following is the second in a series of posts about the dawn of the Christian faith. If you’d like to read the first part, go here. As a fair warning, please note that this post does discuss the death of Jesus. It’s not pretty.

Dear Blue,


According to Jewish tradition, the day of Passover commemorates the Israelite exodus out of Egypt. Moses had come into town and told Pharaoh to let all his Hebrew slaves go, but this wasn’t very convincing. To prove he was serious, Moses told Pharaoh he was a messenger from God, and then he turned the Nile River into blood. He rained frogs from the sky. He brought in tornadoes of locusts. Pharaoh wasn’t convinced to give up the Hebrews. So then God got grim, and sent in his Angel of Death to kill every first born who wasn’t protected with a swath of lamb’s blood over their door. When the Angel saw that, he passed over their house and moved on somewhere else.


I say all this because the weekend Jesus was sentenced to execution was Passover weekend. Does that sound like coincidence? Hmmm…an innocent man set to die on a day celebrating the day the Angel of Death effectively abolished Hebrew slavery.


No, this is not coincidence.


We left with Jesus on his way to changing the course of human history as he’s dragged away in chains. He goes before the Caiaphas and the high priesthood. They ask him if he’s the Son of God. Committed to his cause, Jesus says, “I am.” Imagine that for a second. Jesus is standing before the man who is orchestrating his murder, a man who hates him more than anything, and Jesus doesn’t do anything but agree with him.


So they take him before the Romans. Pontius Pilate is in charge of Jerusalem, which is considered a backwater territory of Rome. Nothing much of importance happens here. To put it in nerd vernacular, Jerusalem is the Tattooine of the Roman Empire. The priests demand that Jesus be crucified. Again, the question is asked of Jesus. Are you the Son of God?


All he has to do is twitch his thumb, surround himself in flame, and call down the legions of angels waiting for his command. Then they will know that he is who they say he is. Instead, he says nothing.


For his part, Pilate knows two things. One, Jesus is innocent. He has done nothing worthy of execution according to Roman law. Two, the priests are out for blood, and they’ve whipped the people into a frenzy. If he doesn’t handle this delicately, the Roman higher ups won’t look kindly on a riot in Jerusalem. According to custom, he can release one prisoner a year. There is Jesus, and another prisoner named Barrabas. The crowd chooses Barabbas, and Pilate is left with no choice but to execute Jesus.


This is where all talk of delicateness ends, for a Roman execution is anything but delicate. It is brutal by design, intended to instill the maximum amount of pain and suffering on the receiver in order to instill the maximum amount of fear and respect for the law from those not being sentenced.


Before being crucified, Jesus is sent to be scourged. The nasty sound of that word does not accurately convey the violence of a Roman scourging. They drag Jesus to a small column, smothered in layer upon layer of dried blood. They tie Jesus to the column, with his back and shoulders exposed. Then they take a whip with strands of leather knotted with pieces of bone and bronze and flogged him 39 times. 39 being the limit according to Jewish custom, because 40 would kill you. After they’re done, the Roman centurions take him to a plaza, wrap him in a robe and mash a ring of thorns down on his head. They proclaim him “the King of the Jews.”


Then they hoist a beam across his shoulders, and lead him to the place where he is to die. If a scourging is brutal, then there are very few words left to accurately describe a crucifixion. They start by driving nails through his hands and feet. The purpose is simple. When a victim tries to lift up to breathe, the pain and exhaustion eventually overwhelm them. They can’t do it anymore after a time, usually days, and then they suffocate. Already near death from the flogging, Jesus doesn’t have days until he dies. Only hours.


Beside him are two thieves. One of them mocks Jesus. The other rebukes his friend. Jesus tells that thief that he will be going to heaven with him once he dies, and this right here…this right here is why the high priests wanted him dead. They don’t want this grace, this path to God that doesn’t include a stop at the stands of merchants hawking their wares outside the temple.


It’s getting there now. Above the bare hill where the crosses lie, the sky darkens. Jesus is breathing heavier and heavier. He sees his mother in the crowd and tells her goodbye. Then he turns to the sky and asks God, “Why, why have you forsaken me?”


Something to consider here, Blue. For all the misery and pain we feel in this world, there is always a ray of sunshine somewhere around us. We call that ray God, and this is his world. We are sometimes blind to his presence, but we are always connected somehow, some way. When Jesus cries out, he is not connected any more. He is experiencing a pain, loneliness, which none of us truly feels while we have a breath. Jesus is apart from God.


With a final cry, Jesus gives his last breath and dies. No one truly knows how it happened. He might have suffocated, or his heart gave out under shock. Any way it happens, and as it does, some extraordinary developments occur. An earthquake drops everyone to the ground, and as the ground shakes, the veil to the temple is torn in half. This isn’t just any temple, Blue. And it isn’t just any veil. This is the temple of Jerusalem, and the veil is close to 4 inches thick. It blocks off the Holy of Holies, the place where the Ark, and now it’s split. Used to be only the high priest could enter that place. Anyone else went past those curtains, and their face melted off. Now, Jesus has died and the curtain has split.

You have to understand, Blue. I can’t explain how this works. No one can. People have their theories about how the death of Jesus allows us to be with God. When we talk about how God works, though, it’s so complex it’s makes quantum physics look like algebra. Makes the ultraviolet spectrum look like a box of crayons. In other words, it’s far beyond us, past the boundaries of the known universe.


That’s not a copout. Jesus died with a capital D so that we don’t have to, but what’s at question is the mechanism. So here’s my explanation:


Imagine you’re walking along some train tracks. It doesn’t matter why you’re walking along train tracks. You just are. And then you see a sign that says “Don’t walk on the tracks! You’ll get smashed by a train!” So you think about it for a minute and then keep going along the tracks. You can get out of the way of a train. Maybe you even manage to dodge a few. But eventually, you get your pants caught in the track, and wouldn’t you know it? A train is barreling down the tracks, the steam rising angrily out of the locomotive.


Along comes a man. He says, “I can get you out of this predicament.”


You say okay, and then he unhooks your pants from the train. Then he boosts you up to the top of the wall, and against every logical inclination, the man sits down on the track and ties himself down.


“What are you doing? You already saved me dude!? You don’t have to get hit by the train!”


But then the man gestures over the wall you’re perched on, and you look out in horror across an endless expanse of tracks. There is nowhere to go that the train cannot follow, and suddenly you realize what the man is doing. He isn’t taking you off the tracks. That won’t save you. No, he’s taking the train off the tracks. That’s the only way.


Okay. So it’s not the best analogy but I like it better than the one I heard growing up about how Jesus is a bridge. It’s kind of hard to equate a man dying for me with a feat of engineering, no?


The bottom line is that the death of Jesus saves us from Death with a capital D. He was the Passover lamb that saved us all, the first born of God dying for everyone else ever born. But now there’s a question that needs answering. If we were rescued from Death, then where are we supposed to go to? The answer is obvious, but just because we know to walk towards the light, it doesn’t mean we know how. That’s where the greatest miracle of all, Jesus’s final act on Earth, comes into play.


More on that next time, Blue.





The Man Who Died On A Tree, Part I


Dear Blue,

I’ve been writing this particular letter for almost five months now, trying to find some way to tell you one of the best stories ever told. It isn’t my story, and usually that means that I shouldn’t be the one to tell it. This is an exception, however. This story…it’s in its nature to be told by anyone who’s heard it.

As practicing Christians, your mother and I believe that Jesus was the Son of God, our Emmanuel, and that he came to this Earth to redeem us. We are far from the only ones that believe this. In fact, more people believe this than anything else, and even if they don’t believe in the meaning of his actions, they’ve probably at least heard of the man.

His time on Earth was short, but it’s easily the most talked about, most researched, most controversial time that any human spent on this planet. The two pieces of wood on which he died have become a symbol known all over the world and with all that cultural weight surrounding his final days, the story has taken on many elements of myth and legend, far removed from our own experience of the world. Therefore, as an act of God, it’s very easy to view Jesus’s actions with a reverence and awe.

But what about empathy? What did it feel like to go through what he went through? What were those moments like? Not as God, but as a human being?

We’ll start with dinner. Not just any dinner. The Last Supper. Of course, no one except Jesus knew that it deserved its own name until long after that night, but that’s what it was. The last supper Jesus and his crew would share together. They had been in town for a few days. Jesus was causing quite the stir among the priests and the disciples must have known big things were in motion. It was Passover. Revolution was there, just on the tip of their tongues and right around the corner.

So they gather for a meal, let the warmth fill their bellies, enjoy some laughs, and just as about the evening is to conclude, Jesus quiets them down for an announcement.

“Hey guys, sorry to ruin the mood,” he says somberly. “I’m going to be murdered, and one of you is going to betray me.”

Crickets. Then uproar and disbelief. It won’t end like that. It can’t.  But then Judas leaves to do exactly what Jesus just said he would do, and nobody else says a word. At this point, it must feel like just after the iceberg hit the Titanic. Complete disaster is on its way, but right now, they don’t feel it. They’re with a man who has walked on water and risen a man from the dead. What do they have to fear?

They head to a garden for the night. There, Jesus prays while everyone else falls asleep. He prays so hard his sweat drips down like blood off his face. We don’t everything that he prays, but we do know that he is afraid when he asks God to get him out of this situation if He is willing. But Jesus knows that isn’t possible. As the Son of God, he knows this. As a human being, he wishes he didn’t.

What else did he pray that fateful night? What was going through his head? Probably lots of things. Maybe everything. The past, present and future. All of human history played out before him like a map, and there, on one tiny dot two thousand years and change into the future, he saw you, Blue. He saw you as a baby entering this world. As a boy learning it. As a man getting through it. He saw all your triumphs and all your failures. All your joy and all your sadness. He saw your whole life, and He knew it wouldn’t mean anything if he didn’t give up his first. So he made the choice to die, Blue. For you. Me. Your mom. Everybody.

They come to arrest him in the middle of the night, away from the awe-struck crowds who would roundly protest their actions. One of the disciples, still waking up from his ill-timed nap, flings out a sword and slices off someone’s ear. This is the moment, right here. The Revolution is to begin right here. The high priests have made their move and this is where Jesus and his disciples assert control. They tried to assassinate Jesus, the Messiah! Ha! Not likely!

This is the moment, Blue. Everything, and I mean everything, depends on this. He has the power to blink his eyes and incinerate every single attacker in flames. Or perhaps snap his fingers and wink them out of existence. Maybe turn his body to stone so that they can’t move him. Maybe turn them into stone. He can disappear. He can fly away.

He can do anything. Anything at all. He is the Son of God with an army of angels at his command and every story about deities teaches us one lesson: deities, when pushed, push back HARD.

All eyes are fixed on him in this moment. There isn’t a sound except the gentle rippling of flames off the torches. Jesus quietly walks over to the severed ear, calmly picks it up, and places it on the man’s ear. With one swipe of his hand, it’s restored.

“Do what you must,” he tells his enemies.

Do what you must. Jesus has made his choice. Instead of fighting back, the most powerful being in existence surrenders and walks out of the garden in chains. His disciples, afraid and confused, scatter in every direction. How can this be? How can it end like this?  These are the thoughts that must rifle through their heads. All that talk of a new kingdom, a new way, and here was their leader, being dragged away unceremoniously to face his accusers. They must know it’s over now. They must see how it will end. At least, how they think it will end. No one has any idea, but in those twilight hours, the course of human history has just been altered. We are on our way to salvation as Jesus walks towards his destruction.

More to come, Blue. This story is far from over.