Good Friday Meditation on the Sufferings of Our Lord
"And he bearing his cross went forth into a place called the place of a skull .. where they crucified him."
This meditation is based on the Gospels, but it derives its details from others sources. When the Gospels were written, the people didn't need details on the death of Christ. They knew only too well the horrors of crucifxion. But this barbarous form of execution was mercifully discontinued in the 4th century by the Emperor Constantine. As a result, after centuries had dulled the Church's memory, Christians had little conception of the death our Lord died for us. In more recent times, the memory of the Church has been jogged by visions of the Passion recorded from Christian mystics. And today details, not found in the spare account of the Gospels, have been supplied from the researches of medical men and archaeologists.
[This meditation relies heavily on A Doctor at Calvary by Pierre Barbet.]
Our attention will be limited to the physical sufferings of Christ. We should remember that these made up only a part of His Passion, and the lesser part. The greater part He suffered in His Soul as the bearer of our sins. But this is beyond our understanding. It's enough for us to learn something of what He suffered physically, in order to realize how much He loved us. And through this meditation we should keep in mind, He suffered these things for each of us, and would have suffred the whole of His Passion if you or I were the only sinner in need of redemption. "He suffered under Pontius Pilate."
The Passion of Christ was to begin at Gethsemane. After the Last Supper, He led His disciples by night to a grove of olive trees, outside the city wall. His disciples followed Him with some anxiety, because of the unusual urgency of His words and actions this evening, especially in His directions for the new Rite, in which the Passover Lamb was replaced by the Sacrament of His Body and Blood. Now the anxiety of the disciples increases, as they see a startling change in their Master's bearing. In the past He was always
so serene, even under attacks from His enemies. But now He seems filled with an increasing turbulence. He is pale, and His hands tremble.
He leaves His disciples at the entrance to the garden, all but His most intimate friends, Peter, James, and John. They go with Him in among the trees. He instructs them to wait and pray, and then He separates Himself a little farther, about a stone's throw.
He knows His hour has come, the hour He's waited for all His life. He's longed for it, and He's dreaded it. This is why He came into the world, and yet, with His Passion upon Him, it seems too much to bear. His soul recoils with horror, and His knees give way. From His human lips is ripped the cry, "Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me!" Silence. And then, "Nevertheless, not my will, but thine be done."
The struggle within Him intensifies. His soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death. An Angel comes to strengthen Him, to strengthen his own Creator. But it's no/ use. No one can help Him. He must bear it alone.
"Being in an agony he prayed more earnestly: and his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground." Described medically, this rare condition is produced by a violent mental disturbance. The capillaries of the skin swell, and burst on contact with the sweat glands, so blood mingles with the sweat and flows down over the whole body. The skin is left sore and tender to the touch.
His agony of prayer continues. Twice He returns to His three friends, seeking some human comfort ... But they are asleep. Finally, His prayer ends, and He awakens them. They see their Master pale and haggard. But the former turbulence is gone, and He now has the look of grave peace about Him.
Judas is coming, with the Temple attendants, armed with swords and staves. Turmoil erupts, at the end of which Jesus is abandoned by His friends, bound by His enemies, and led away to the house of the high priest. It is the middle of the night.
Before Caiaphas, he refuses to answer the charges leveled against Him. One of the soldiers gives the Accused a hard blow in the face. It is the first of many He'll receive. Yet nothing is accomplished. His accusers must wait until morning, when the Sanhedrin gathers. He is dragged into an underground room, and the rabble of attendants seeks to amuse itself at the expense of this "false prophet." They slap and punch Him. They spit in His face. They tie a cloth over His head, and each takes his turn. A blow is delivered, and then the jeering words, "Prophesy, who is it that smote thee?"
His body is already full of pain, His head ringing like a bell. He has fits of dizziness. But He is silent. With one word, He could destroy them, but "he opened not his mouth." The rabble grows weary. And Jesus waits.
In the early morning, the Sanhedrin meets, and a string of false witnesses files past, saying much, but proving nothing. They finally appeal to Him for the evidence they need to condemn Him. The high priest adjures Him to tell them plainly, if He is the Christ, the Son of the Blessed. And He answers, "I am: and ye shall see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of God, and coming in the clouds of heaven."
Caiaphas is filled with religious indignation. He proclaims it blasphemy and tears his robes. All they need now is to obtain the death sentence, which Rome has reserved to herself, in this occupied country.
Jesus, already worn out with fatigue, and bruised all over with blows, is dragged to the other end of Jerusalem, to the fortress Antonia, from which Rome keeps order in this excitable city.
The authority of Rome is represented by an unimpressive, unhappy man, who, as governor, is wedged between the imperious orders of Rome and the sly ways of Jerusalem -- whose leaders are often very well in with the Emperor. Pilate despises them, and he fears them. But the Prisoner is different. Jesus impresses him. There is a majesty about the Man. Pilate would like to rescue Him. Is He a Galilean? Let's pass Him on to that scoundrel Herod, who likes to play the king. And so it's back across Jerusalem to Herod's palace.
But the interview with Herod is futile. Jesus has no time for the old fox. He ignores his antics, and refuses to answer his questions. Now He is back, accompanied by this yelling crowd and these insufferable Pharisees. Pilate takes Him into the pretorium and questions Him.
The Governor is genuinely perplexed, and Jesus does not despise him. He pities him for his invincible ignorance. He answers him gently, and even tries to teach him.
But Pilate is distracted. These crafty politicians are suggesting that he is no friend of Caesar. And what is this talk about the Prisoner being King of the Jews? He is certainly no criminal. But what is Pilate to do? He decides to have Him scourged. Maybe that will satisfy these bloodthirsty fanatics.
The soldiers of the guard take Jesus into the hall of the pretorium, and all the men of the cohort are summoned to the scene. There are few amusements in this backwater country, and these are hardened brutes.
They strip the Prisoner, and bind Him to a column. His arms are held up, and His wrists are tied to a ring in the pillar. The scourging is done with numerous thongs, each having at the end two balls of lead. There are two executioners. They work together, one on each side of the Victim, alternating their strokes. They begin with zest. The first blows leave long livid marks. Blue bruises appear beneath the skin. His flesh was already sore, from the sweat of Blood in the garden, and with each stroke, His Body gives a painful shudder. The skin breaks. Soon the whole of His back is a red surface. His Blood is scattered by the whips like rain.
The Victim's strength begins to fail. His head whirls with dizziness and nausea. Shivers run down His spine. His legs give way, and He hangs from the rope that binds His wrists to the column. The scourging is stopped. The sentence of death has not yet been passed.
But there is opportunity for further merriment. The Man claims to be a king? Here are His robe and sceptre. An old legionary's cloak is thrown over His bleeding shoulders. A reed is put in His right hand. But where is His crown? In the corner is a bundle of sticks for kindling. The wood is flexible and covered with long thorns. They plait something like the bottom of a basket, and bind it on His head with a band of twisted rushes. The thorns dig deep into His scalp, and it bleeds.
Now each comes forward to bow the knee -- and then deliver Him a blow on the face. "Hail, King of the Jews!" His nose has been broken, and His face is ravaged. "His visage was so marred more than any man, and his form more than the sons of men." And there are more blows. One takes the sceptre and strikes Him on the head -- on the crown of thorns.
But here is Pilate. He is shocked by what he sees. The Man is hardly recognizable. This should satisfy those fanatics! He takes the Accused to the balcony of the pretorium, and shows Him to the crowd gathered beneath. "Behold the man!" But Pilate has underestimated their hatred. "Crucify him!" they shout. And then they put forward the argument that most frightens the Governor. "If thou let this man go, thou art not Caesar's friend." The coward wavers, then surrenders completely, and washes his hands of the
matter. He turns the Victim over to be crucified.
Soldiers surround the condemned Man, and tear the cloak off His shoulders. It has stuck to His wounds, and innumerable nerve endings, laid bare by the scourging, are torn away with the cloak. His shudders violently, and His Blood begins to flow again. His own clothes are put back on Him, and the instrument of His execution is placed on His wounded shoulders.
By what wonder of strength does He remain standing under its weight? It is not the whole Cross, but the great horizontal beam, weighing as much as 100 lbs. Laid across His shoulders, and tied to His arms, it must be carried by Him to the place of execution. There, on Golgotha the vertical stake, already fixed in the ground, awaits Him. And so He begins His journey, with bare feet on rough streets strewn
Jesus falls under the Cross. With His arms bound, He can't break His fall, and He will fall often. His knees and face are soon raw. He weaves from side to side under His burden. And each time He falls, it is more difficult for Him to get up. The soldiers are afraid He may die on the way, and they compel a passerby to take the beam, and carry it for Jesus. Half stumbling and half dragged, Jesus climbs the slope of Calvary. There He stands, while the beam is laid down at the foot of the upright stake. The crucifixion begins.
His executioners know their business, and they work quickly. First, He is stripped. Again His clothes have stuck to His wounds. In the throes of this shock, He is thrown down on His back, His shoulders on the horizontal beam. An assistant stretches out one of the Victim's arms, with the palm turned upward. The executioner takes a large spike, perhaps 6 inches long, and places the point on the wrist, just above the palm. With a sharp blow of the hammer, he fixes the wrist to the wood, and a few more vigorous taps nail it firmly.
Jesus has not cried out, but His face has contorted in a way terrible to see. The wound has been inflicted not only on His flesh, but on a median nerve -- one of the main nerves of the body. An inexpressible pain darts like lightning through His fingers and then, like a trail of fire, up His shoulder, and explodes in His brain. The most unbearable pain that a man can experience is caused by the wounding of the great nervous centers. And this nerve is not severed, but stretched over the rough nail like a string over the bridge of a violin. It will rub against the nail with each movement of His Body, through the hours that follow. The other arm is pulled straight by the assistant, and the same action is repeated.
Now they must get Him on His feet. The executioner and his assistant take hold of the ends of the beam, and lift it, dragging the condemned Man to His feet. They force Him backwards to the stake. It is not so high, but that, with their arms extended, they are able to fix the beam to the top of the stake. His Body, held only by the nails through His wrists, drags downward. His feet seek the ground to find some relief from the strain. They too must be fixed. The executioners bend His knees, and place the soles of His feet flat on the stake. One foot is placed over the other, by the assistant, and the executioner drives a nail through both together, into the wood of the Cross. It is late morning, approaching the hour of noon.
They deal with the two thieves condemned to die with Jesus, and the three gibbets are arranged to face the city that kills its God.
It may seem that now Jesus had reached the depths of His sufferings. But no. As the time passes, a new torture manifests itself. His thirst is becoming acute. From His sweat in Gethsemane, all His fatigues, and His loss of Blood, His Body has become dehydrated. His features are pale and drawn. His mouth hangs
open. His throat is dry and on fire, and He can no longer swallow. He thirsts, and His thirst will get worse.
And now the muscles in His arms are stiffening, contracting, in a way that becomes more and more accentuated. The muscles of His shoulders and biceps become strained and stand out. His fingers are drawn sharply inwards. His muscles are cramping! On His thighs and calves there are rigid bulges, and His toes are bent. His stomach muscles tighten, the muscles of His neck, and the respiratory muscles of His chest. His breathing has become harsh and shallow, The air goes in, but it scarcely comes out. He can't exhale. A flush spreads over His face, which deepens and turns blue. He is suffocating. He is going to die ...
But no. Slowly, with painful effort, He is using the nail through His feet to force Himself upwards, straightening His knees, to relieve the strain on His arms. The cramps are eased, the respiratory muscles relaxed, and His breathing becomes deeper. A more natural color returns to His face.
But the pain in His feet cannot be endured for long. And He is so tired. He sinks back down on the Cross, amid lightning stabs from the nerves in His wrists.
Soon the cramps will begin again. And in order to breathe, He will again have to force Himself upwards, using the nail through His feet for support. He will have to do this for the breath to speak each of His Seven Words from the Cross. The same excruciating movement, straining up and sinking down, will be repeated over and over, until He is too exhausted to prolong the struggle.
A thick darkness has descended on the earth, as if to veil His sufferings from the eyes of His mockers. In the darkness, His afflicted Mother, the beloved disciple, and others of His followers, listen for the rasp of His breathing, praying for the end of His sufferings -- until finally, He has drained the cup of His Passion to the dregs.
Knowing the Father's will has been accomplished, and the redemption of mankind complete, Jesus gathers the last of His strength. Forcing His Body upwards, He stands straight against the Cross, and utters His triumphal cry, "It is finished!" Then sinking down, He breathes His final words, "Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit." His head drops slowly forward. Over His bruised and disfigured face there spreads a divine calm. Jesus is dead.