To the sophisticated Romans of the ancient world crucifixions were a hum-drum affair. They were as routine as writing a traffic ticket. For instance, in 71 B.C. seven thousand slaves led by Spartacus revolted. After they were captured, each one was crucified. Suetonius tells us that the line of the crucifixions extended for 240 miles, from Naples to the borders of Rome. So common were crucifixions that the hill of Calvary became a Roman nickname for the place’s Hebrew name, Golgotha. Usually the crucified were left hanging on their crosses for days, leaving their bodies to decay, with rotting flesh devoured by wild dogs, only skeletons remaining. The Latin term for skull is calvus. Since skulls on Golgotha were scattered about like shells on a seashore, why not call the hill Place of Skulls?
Though commonplace, crucifixions were not left to common soldiers. Refined skills were required for the grisly occupation. For this there was Roman legion’s elite death squad—the Quaternion. As the name suggests it comprised four soldiers. One to tie the crucified, a second to nail him, a third to hoist him upon the beam, and the fourth was the most important. He was called the Exactor Mortuis, a foreman of sorts, who not only certified death, but also closely inspected every phase of torture and execution. His was the crucial task of guaranteeing maximum agony with an eye to the careful postponement of death. Not surprisingly, the Gestapo modeled much of their business upon the Quaternion.
Amidst the whole ensemble of crucifixion, scourging summoned the most well-practiced artistry. Singular brutality was required of the executioner as he wielded the whip with the precision of an artist’s brush to his canvas. Each whip consisted of three four foot leather cords; to whose end was attached a mature goat’s sharpened tooth. The challenge was to land the whip deeply enough into the flesh, slightly twist, then rip out as much flesh as possible. Both front and back of the crucified was lacerated. With the Exactor Mortius keeping as close a watch as a surgeon does to his patient, soldiers were observed for either leniency or excessive sadism. Scourgings must be just right; a perverse nod to the Greek standard in media stat virtu. So gruesome was this feature of Roman efficiency that it called forth commentary by the fourth century Church historian, Eusebius:
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily
Bystanders were struck with amazement when they saw the crucified lacerated with scourges, even to the innermost veins and arteries, so that the inward parts of the body, both their bowels and their members, were exposed to view.
But on this Good Friday, the crucifixion was different. Christ was not dying for a sin committed, but for sinners. His shedding of blood was not an act of justice; it was an act of redemption. This was not a paroxysm of howling despair but a veritable feast of ravishing love. He was dying out of love for sinners, though so many of those would never love him—or never as much.
Here we are face to face with the Crucified Savior, but just as vividly, ourselves. Though we see what our sins have wrought, we are confronted with the inexplicable fact that we persist in sinning. We watch as Christ bears in his withered body every single wound of our defiance, and yet there is the incomprehensible: we persist in our defiance. We are riveted by the crown that sits securely upon his head, tethered by the rough thorns that act like fingers digging deeply into his skull. This ironic crown proclaims his majesty while simultaneously delivering to us a writ of guilt. Guilt for all our hesitation in coming to his defense when the world mocks him. Those innumerable times when his Church’s teachings are vilified, and we keep comfortable distance lest we be thought unacceptable by the cultured despisers. Yet even with this bitter sight of God “as a worm and not a man” before us, we persist in our hesitation.
More importantly than these stinging indictments, we are face to face with the Savior’s love for us. This Divine spectacle of love upends us even more than the price of our sins. Two of the three times that Christ weeps it is because of his broken heart. Just the day before the Last Supper, Our Lord is on a premonitory overlooking his beloved Jerusalem exclaiming, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, that killest the prophets, and stonest them that are sent to thee, how often would I have gathered thy children as the bird doth her brood under her wings, and wouldst not” (Lk 13:34). Jerusalem is you and me. We are the ones he desired “to gather.” We are the ones who “wouldst not.” Then Gethsemane, “In his anguish he prayed more earnestly and his sweat became like great drops of blood” (Lk 22:43). He longs to have us come to him, seeking the slightest gesture of love so that he can squander upon us the riches of heaven’s joys. The Good Thief merely asked that Our Lord remember him in his kingdom, and for that modest plea, the Savior pours upon him mercies beyond imagination. The same awaits us. Why do we tarry?
It is 3:00 pm. Our Savior has breathed his his last. Now, with a Thief following him like a loyal attendant, he descends into Hell. Not the dominion of Satan, but the Hell of the Fathers, the place where those who were faithful to Christ without knowing it wait. All from Adam to his foster father, St. Joseph, his Grandmother St. Ann and his precursor, St. John the Baptist. After he shatters the ancient rusted gates, he leads them all on a victory march. Like prisoners fleeing their gates, they must have been so delirious with joy that they stumble like drunkards. Indeed, one of the Fathers remarked that as Christ declared victory, “Adam danced.” And all of Hell trembled.
We leave this Good Friday afternoon marked by the Savior’s blood.
Unafraid to show the world our passion for the Faith, which alone, as St. Catherine of Sienna writes, claims “the keys of the blood.”
Unafraid to tell men we belong to Christ and his Holy Bride, the Church, even as some of her very own work conscientiously to dull her bright marks.
Unafraid to obey what only pleases him, even as our enveloping culture preaches the gospel of the Almighty Man.
Unafraid to be faithful to his shed blood, even when most men enshrine the comforts of the sated self.
Unafraid to be different, even though so many struggle to fit in.
Unafraid to recognize that the mark of that shed blood demands that we change, even as the world insist that Christ change.
Unafraid that that change will demand our blood as well.
Good Friday is the start of a new beginning. It’s about time the world knew that. And they will. All they should have to do is look at us.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is “The Crucifixion” painted by Philippe de Champaigne (1602-74).