The Proclamation of the Cross
Executions are outside of our experience. There hasn’t been in an execution in this country for over 50 years. And for almost 100 years before that they had been done out of sight. So a public execution is something we can have no real knowledge of. But Jesus’ execution is public, very public. It is an execution that includes a long walk through crowded city streets and concludes in a public space where travellers are continually passing by. It is not hard to imagine that an execution like this would both chaotic and horrifying. Yet because the focus of the telling of this execution is Jesus, something else emerges. We’re not given any details of the press of the crowd. We are not made aware of the noise, of the stench, of the struggle to even put one foot in front of another. We’re not given any details of the violence which the soldiers employed. We are not invited to look at them as they assert themselves against the crowd and against their victim. We’re not given any details of the tortuous manner of Jesus execution. We are not shown just what it was that the empire did to those it perceived as a threat or as an opponent. And we are especially not given any details of the agony that crucifixion was intended to inflict on Jesus before he died.
Instead what we see is the quiet dignity of Jesus throughout He remains completely in control of himself. He goes willingly to do what he must do. The rage and violence of the world fade and we see his quiet confidence in the goodness of God’s will.
I was trying think how I would picture this.
I imagined a film scene portraying all this. The shot would start out with quite a wide focus, with the soldiers and the crowd visible and lots of noise. As the scene progressess the camera would focus closer and close in on just Jesus’ face, and with the sound leve gradually reducing. So that through most of the events we would be focused just on the stillness of Jesus’ face, in silence.
What emerges from all of this are the two layers of events which always exist. There is what you might call the mundane layer, the surface layer of events that happen. There is contingency of everything. There is the way one thing leads to another, the “just-the-way-it-is” of things that take place. But beyond that there is another layer. There always is but it is most dramatically so here, beyond that mundane there is what God is doing through these events. Behind the chaos and horror of the world there is God’s love and power to save.
Bearing his own cross
The victim carrying his own cross was part of the punishment of crucifixion. The one to be executed had to carry the means of their own death to the place where they would die. It is an aspect of the cruelty which is the Empire’s assertion of power over its victims. That Jesus carries his own cross merely reflects the Roman practice of execution. Except that here Jesus demonstrates, as he always does, that he in total command of the events of this hour. Throughout the events of Thursday night and Friday morning others have attempted to assert their control over what is happening and over Jesus’ fate. It begins among Jesus’ followers with Peter striking off the High Priest’s servants ear with the sword which Jesus tells him to put away. It continues with the Chief Priests in their trial of Jesus. They find him guilty but are unable and unwilling to kill him themselves. And on to Pilate who is unhappy about being manipulated by the Chief Priests and who wants to find some way out of killing Jesus. Throughout all of those things Jesus has remained resolute. He remains set on the course that he knows he must take. So now carrying the cross it continues. He is not dragged to his end. This is not some unfortunate accident. This is not an unfortunate and unforseen turn of events. He steps out in willing acceptance that this is the way it must be, for God’s will to be done.
Pilate also wrote an inscription
Another aspect of the punishment of crucifixion was the “titulus.” It was a board with the formal charge against the victim written on it. Often it was hung round the victims neck as they went to the place of execution. And afterwards it was fixed to the cross so that everyone could see what fault the Empire had found in this person. It was also a reminder of the Empire’s power over any who might oppose them. It declared, “See what happens if you try to do this against us!” Pilate wrote: “Jesus of Nazareth: King of the Jews.” On a legal level that is the charge against Jesus. In the Empire only the Emperor can make a king. That authority is his to give or to take away. Claiming to be a king against the authority of the Emperor is treason. And it is punishable by death, the by traitor’s death, crucifixion. But at the same time what Pilate writes is true. And it in a way he could not understand. Throughout his trial before Jesus the issue had been whether or not Jesus is a king. Jesus acknowledges that he is, but not the kind of king that Pilate knows. Jesus is the king who brings about a different sort of reign. So the sign on the cross becomes also the proclamation of the truth. Jesus is king. If you want to see what God’s reign looks like, you have to go to the cross and see.
Not unnaturally the Chief priests are dismayed at this turn of events. Everything they have done, all their manoeuvring, all their machinations, and all their conspiring and manipulation has been to prevent the further public exposure of Jesus and his claim to authority among the people of God. All the world had been going after him and the Chief Priests and their allies didn’t like it. And they have tried to put a stop to it. But their plans have completely backfired. Here is Jesus proclaimed as their king. But it is done in a way that humiliates them. They have sold themselves out. They have declared that they knew no king but Caesar, when in truth the only king they should have known is God. they have sold themselves out and gained nothing!
They plead with Pilate to put the more palatable “he claimed to be the king of the Jews” But they are rebuffed. Not because Pilate believed the truth of what he had written, even though ironically it is true. He acts this way because it is a further way to assert his power, and the power of Empire, over the Jewish leadership whom he loathes. The best efforts of the opponents of God, or even of religious people, to prevent the true and living God being made known always end in failure. Since God uses even this death to announce his reign
Many of the Jews read this inscription
The announcement of Jesus’ kingship is made in the must public way. Jesus hangs on a cross on a hill by a road just outside the city. Many of the passers by see him lifted up there. The sign which Pilate has written provides translations of the inscription in Aramaic, Latin and Greek. It is written the local vernacular, the language of imperial administration, and the common language of the whole of the Eastern Mediterranean. The proclamation of Jesus kingship is made universally comprehensible. Just as Jesus had predicted, in the dark, on the night Nicodemus had come to speak with him:
“When the Son of Man is lifted up he will draw all people to him.”
What seems like a defeat, what seems like the assertion of worldly power over Jesus, turns out to be his exultation. The crucifixion rather than being the assertion of the world’s power over Jesus turns out to be an ironic coronation and enthronement of Jesus against the world’s power. The cross become the sign to which all God’s people are drawn
As the end draws near Jesus speaks:
At that mundane level it is simply a reminder of the pain that accompanies his dying. His thirst is pathological. But in it there is also a reminder of something else that Jesus has said. In the garden, last evening, as Peter tried to prevent Jesus’ arrest, Jesus had said: “Am I not to drink the cup the Father has given me.”
At that other level Jesus’ thirst is his desire to do God’s will. His thirst symbolises his willingness to embrace his death as fulfilment of his obedience to and loyalty towards God. Jesus thirsts to God’s will and the world offers him sour wine. It is a final ironic display of the world’s complete misunderstanding. The one hanging on the cross is the one who made good wine at Cana, and more of it than anyone could drink. Yet the world attempts to satisfy the thirst of the One who is himself the source of living water. On the cross the words which Jesus’ spoke to the woman at the well forever ring true:
“If you knew who you were speaking to, you would ask me for a drink”
It is finished
At the very end Jesus remains in control. He says:
“It is finished”
Again at the mundane level this looks like a simple statement of fact. His life is at an end. But it is also a declaration of something much deeper and more important. Jesus’ death is not a moment of defeat or despair. All the way through Jesus has remained confident and resolute. Now he declares his confidence that God’s work is completed in him. God wills only good for those who trust him, despite all appearances to the contrary. It would be easy to dwell on the horror and suffering inflicted on Jesus. Indeed Christians often have. But the horror and the suffering to some extent are just the surface, the way things happen to have happened. More profoundly the crucifixion is the proclamation of Jesus as king
The death of Jesus is the demonstration of his complete confidence in the goodness of God’s will toward him. And in that way it has the power to save us.
Proclamation of the Cross by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0