When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left.
And all of a sudden it’s over. All the build up, all the drama, all the suspense is over in just one sentence: “When they came to the place that is called the Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left.”
There is a tendency in Christian art and piety to dramatize the brutal realities of crucifixion. From medieval renderings of the horrific scene to Mel Gibson’s gory The Passion of the Christ, many Christians have suggested that the point of the cross is to show that Jesus suffered more than anyone else.
I sympathize with that desire. After all, this is the Lord of glory, the Son of God, the Chosen One and Messiah of Israel, the Savior of the world. It is understandable, I think, to want to dwell on the shocking details of the way he was put to death to reinforce our own sense of gratitude and indebtedness. Particularly if you image the cross as the means by which Jesus takes on not just our sin (the biblical reference) but also our just punishment (a medieval addition), then the more brutal his death the greater the satisfaction, substitution, and payment he made.
Whatever our reasons for dramatizing the details of the crucifixion, however, the biblical accounts are strikingly absent such a focus. Luke, as with his three compatriots, reports Jesus’ death as if it were a news report – no unnecessary detail, no background, no three-dimensional description, just the bare fact of his death: “When they came to the place that is called the Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left.”
I think there’s something instructive about the brevity of the account. Perhaps the point isn’t that he died a worse death than anyone else after all. I mean, do we really want to compare Jesus’ crucifixion with a child in some poverty-stricken village starving to death or a woman in some war-torn countryside brutally savaged to death? Moreover, the evangelists agree that Jesus died within three hours, a remarkably brief death compared to the number of crucifixions that stretched across two or more days.
Don’t get me wrong. Of course it was awful, more awful, quite frankly, than I can imagine. But ultimately I don’t think that the point is that his death was worse than all others, but rather that his death was like all others. He dies. And we confess that in his death God dies. Or at least that God participates in death in some way that no Greek or Roman then – whose God’s were more like super heroes relatively unmoved by human suffering – or most of us today – who tend to think of God looking on serenely from a distance – could imagine. God in Jesus participates in and experiences fully all of the hardships and limitations of human life, even to the point of death.
More than that, he dies as a criminal, one whose actions of feeding the poor, healing the sick, and challenging the unjust powers that be were deemed a threat to the order. It’s not that he dies a worse death than all others. It’s that he comes that we might have life, but because the life he offers runs so contrary to what we have come to believe is life we declare him an outlaw and put him to death. And by focusing on the extreme nature of his death we run the risk of missing the reasons for his death. He came to indict the death-dealing culture of the world where it’s an eye-for-an-eye and offer the life-affirming and life-giving alternative of turn-the-other-cheek and he was put to death for suggesting such an alternative.
“When they came to the place that is called the Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left.” It’s all Luke tells and, quite frankly, it’s all we need to know.
Prayer: Dear God, remind us always that you came to take on our life and our lot, including even dying for us, in order that we might have life and have it in abundance. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Post image: Sadao Watanabe, “Crucifixion,” 1970.