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.
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.