As the Secretary of the Legion of Mary in my parish 51 years ago it was my lot to give a commentary on the Holy Week liturgy. That got me thinking on what was so unique about Jesus’ rather “limited” suffering on the cross.
Take the number three. Three temptations in the desert, three years of public ministry at the age of 30, in a 30-mile radius. Then three hours on the cross and the Resurrection three days later. Mission accomplished. Jesus has gone back to heaven and we are saved. Simple isn’t it?
Over-simplistic answers can be dangerous. Since we have entered into Holy Week, I will limit this reflection to Jesus’ last week or days. 51 years ago, I had asked myself what was so special about Jesus’ limited redemptive suffering? Surely people in Hitler’s concentration camps or battling cancer for years would have had much more physical suffering.
The problem really is that we tend to see Jesus’ suffering as merely physical. Even the Stations of the Cross, a pious devotion in the Catholic Church, focusses almost entirely on the physical aspects. Filmmakers go to town trying to portray it as gory as possible, eliciting tears of sorrow from pious viewers. Don’t we shed such tears when we see other melodramatic movies? I do. However, Jesus had forewarned against such weeping (cf Lk 23:28).
Unfortunately, filmmakers have little or no understanding of Jesus’ suffering. Even their choice of a blue eyed, blonde, bearded guy with an aquiline nose is easily passed off as Jesus. In India people think that Hrithik Roshan would suit the part admirably; forgetting that Jesus was from a Semitic race with brown eyes and black hair. In a previous article I wrote about the movie, “Jesus Christ Superstar”. Now I am reminded of the 1988 movie, “The Last Temptation of Christ”, based on the 1955 novel by Nikos Kazantzakis. Even the Malayalam version caused quite a stir in Kerala.
As with the physical appearance and physical suffering of Jesus, the Last Temptation is even more weird. Filmmakers and even Dan Brown of “The Da Vinci Code” seem obsessed with Jesus’ relationship with Mary Magdalene. Here Jesus’ last temptation is portrayed as a desire to be with her. Anybody who has interiorised even a little of the life of Jesus will tell you how absurd that assumption is. If at all Jesus had any earthly care while on the cross it was for the other Mary, his mother, whom he commended to the care of his disciple John (cf Jn 19:26). Very few writers have actually dwelt on the last temptation. I shall do so further down the road.
For brevity’s sake, I shall begin this reflection from the Garden of Gethsemane. I shall draw extensively from the clinical and forensic research of Dr Pierre Barbet M.D. (1884-1961), former head of the department of surgery, St. Joseph’s Hospital, Paris. His findings are recorded in his book, “The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ”, published 70 years ago.
Luke, himself a physician, made the observation that “his sweat fell to the ground like great drops of blood” (cf Lk 22:44). Luke was writing in the Greek language, and the word he used was thrombos. Its English equivalent is clot, not drop. Barbet tells us that this phenomenon is known as haematidrosis, caused by intense vasodilation of the subcutaneous capillaries. These distended capillaries burst when they come into contact with the millions of sweat glands on the skin. The blood and sweat then mingle and coagulate to form clots. This is just one small example from Barbet’s scientific study.
Barbet further observes that this haemorrhaging would result in “an enormous fall in vital resistance…this would make the skin very tender, and therefore hypersensitive to the subsequent torture”. Barbet did many experiments with cadavers hung on a cross and did a forensic examination of the Shroud of Turin that bears accurate testimony to Jesus’ physical pain. The forensic evidence suggests that at the time of scourging, Jesus had his hands tied above him and he was completely naked. There were two scourgers. Each whip had two lead balls attached with a thong. There is evidence of 100-120 strikes from the contused (excoriation) wounds, excluding the superficial bruises. The device used was a flagrum, from which comes the word flagellation.
The thrombosis and haemorrhaging, in particular, point to the interior suffering of Jesus, while the flagellation is indicative of the exterior wounds. The latter is recounted extensively in the Stations of the Cross and the sorrowful mysteries of the Rosary. We tend to gloss over Gethsemane while focussing on the scourging, crowning with thorns and carrying of the cross.This last was done mostly by Simon of Cyrene as Jesus was too weak by then (cf Mat 27:32).
How many of us have reflected on Pilot’s reaction when he was told that Jesus had died within three hours of his crucifixion (cf Mk 15:44)? This is because the condemned usually died a slow death over three days. Since they were defenceless their eyes would be plucked out by birds of prey, while their genitals were torn off by wild animals. In their desperation to live, they would use their feet to push themselves up to reduce the pressure on their arms and thereby bring some air into their lungs.
Jesus was too weak to do that. Besides he had ascended the cross to die for us, not to live; so there was no incentive for him to prolong his own agony. It is for this reason that Barbet concludes that Jesus died of cramps and asphyxiation within three hours.
This leads us to the next question – the difference between Jesus dying on the cross, and the death of his two co-convicts; or rather the umpteen slaves or foreigners that were condemned to death by the crucifixion? Other than some of the physical aspects that I have already described, I see three factors in Jesus’ suffering that distinguish them from the others.
Firstly, Jesus was innocent. The others were being punished, rightly or wrongly, for their crimes. Jesus had done no wrong (cf Lk 23:16). He was instead taking upon himself the iniquities of us all (cf Is 53:5). The second aspect is that it was voluntary. He laid down his life of his own free will which is why it was pleasing to the Father (cf Jn 10:17-18). If one is deprived of food and water because there is none, it would be circumstantial. However, if it is placed within one’s reach and one willingly abstains or refrains from partaking of it then it becomes a virtue, a redemptive act. That is what Jesus was doing.
The third dimension of his suffering is what I call critical. Everything depends on it. Since we are a cricket crazy nation, I will draw an analogy from the game. When a batsman is practising in the nets, he swings his bat with nonchalance. However, if he is playing in a World Cup final before millions of fans, the pressure to perform is humongous. If he has to hit a six from the last ball, the stakes are very high. He has to stand and deliver. When he does, the millions erupt in joy. Jesus was not batting for a World Cup. He was battling for the Universal Cup of Salvation. He had to deliver. The odds were insurmountable. He stood alone. The stakes were infinite. He had no choice. He had to take that final plunge, which he did.
This brings me back to Jesus’ last temptation. In his first recorded temptation, the evil one tried to kill him before he embarked on his mission (cf Lk 4:1-12). The last temptation was diametrically opposite. He was now trying to stop Jesus from dying. “If you are the Son of God come down from the cross. Save yourself and save others” (cf Mat 27:40). See how cunningly the temptations change according to the circumstances. This is because the enemy knew only too well that if Jesus were to now die, he would rise again. That would signal the end of sin and death. “O death, where is your victory, O death where is your sting” (1Cor 15:55)?
Filmmakers are obviously not as smart as the evil one, hence sensationalised their narrative by putting a seductive looking Mary Magdalene into it. Remember that Jesus had to counter these temptations, just as in the desert. Here too the challenge is very attractive. Come down, heal more people, perform more miracles, overthrow the oppressive Roman empire. You will be a hero, the Superstar!
The Father now comes to the rescue of the Son. He allows him to experience abandonment, separation, being forsaken, as would be a sinner without grace. This is why Jesus cries as a Son of Man, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (cf Mat 27:46). The Holy Spirit then strengthens him to cry out, “It is accomplished” (cf Jn 19:30). “Into your hands I commend my spirit” (cf Lk 23:46). Mission accomplished. “Truly this man was the Son of God” (cf Mk 15:39).
Writing about Jesus’ passion and death is always an exhausting experience. But this is no exhaustive piece, for his passion is an unfathomable ocean. Hopefully, it will help us to understand a little bit about what is Good, this Friday.
*The writer has developed these thoughts more extensively in his book “Beyond 2000-The Other Side”.