Imagine for a moment that the events that Friday had somehow been recorded.
The contemplation of the Cross of Christ, calls for us to listen to the sounds of the world’s most infamous scene of execution.
The sounds of the approaching parade of pain were still distant, locked within the city walls, the sounds at the Place of the Skull were those typically heard there:
- Two criminals writhing against the pain of nails freshly driven into their hands and feet,
- Cursing soldiers waiting another job of killing,
- Wind sweeping over the hill called Calvary, as it had done for ages, slowing smoothing the rock face and floor of the summit, scattering trash and dust,
- The distant cries of circling scavenger birds, high in the clear sky, riding thermals and biding their time,
- Heavy breathing from the two criminals drooping on the crosses, their weight pulling at rusty nails, their lungs collapsing a little with each effort to inhale, and
- Moans from these guilty men still clinging to life while hoping for death.
All in all, not a noisy scene, the atmosphere was heavy with hopelessness, the weight of the seeming inevitable triumph of evil.
Gradually the distant noise of the crowd following Jesus became clear.
Such hostility impressed the cynical soldiers waiting for the next victim. Whoever he was, he must have been an enemy of the people, a deceiver, a cruel man reaping what he had sowed, a self-centered charlatan whose many misdeeds had caught up with him at last. The weeping of the few who loved him was lost in the din of those who reviled him. This was going to be easy work, untroubled by claims of innocence and cries of injustice. This evil man deserved the nails.
The soldiers saw something different in this procession, a man from the crowd was carrying the condemned man’s cross. As the spectacle drew nearer, the reason was clear. The criminal was already near death; he had collapsed beneath the cross. His body was shredded, bleeding, and his pale skin gave a sickly glow as fresh blood flowed in little rivers of red from so many, many wounds. The Roman soldiers at the top of the hill shifted their hammers from one hand to the other, knowing the signs—the wrath of Rome—the whip filled with sharp objects and hooks designed to tear flesh and inflect pain beyond imagining. This evil man had not only offended the people, he had offended Rome itself. Between the Roman whip and the Roman cross, this will be short work, hopefully the last one of the day.
All was routine as the noise of the crowd broke the serene savagery of the mountain of death. Like spectators in the arena, every blow of the hammer brought cheers from the crown and wails from the mourners, mostly women, the soldiers noted. Their practiced hands made quick work of this execution. Through the wall of noise they heard the voice of the criminal and they tried not to think that this was no voice of evil. There was no anger, no cursing, and no cries of injustice. His words were like arrows through the night. The soldiers heard words of compassion and concern for others, words of comfort for one of the criminals beside him and even words of forgiveness for all them. They did not notice that the clear sky had grown dark. The light breeze had become the blast of a storm. Just crazy weather, they thought.
The earthquake, however could not be ignored.
The three crosses shook with the trembling earth, but they did not fall. The sun seemed to have fled, leaving the incessant lightning to provide the only illumination.
More prayers from the man on the center cross and suddenly he slumped in death. The soldiers knew that it was more than the loss of blood or than the depth of the wounds. They knew that even as he died, it was more his decision than their work. This was a life, not taken, but given.
- Perhaps instead of a liar, this was a man of truth?
- What if he was a revealer and not a deceiver?
- Could it be that he was a healer instead of man of cruelty?
- Is it possible that it was not for his own misdeeds, but those of others who were truly guilty that he went to the cross?
- Could this be a monstrous injustice rather than an act of legal justice?
- Could this be the triumph of good over evil
A Soldier’s Witness
At least one of the soldiers had questions like these swirling through his pagan mind. Surely the gods were offended at this execution. The whole world was reeling in protest. One voice sounded in the midst of the storm and darkness, a soldier’s voice, “Surely, he was the son of God!”
It was the third hour when they crucified him.
When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, “Surely he was the Son of God!”
Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand. They encircled the throne and the living creatures and the elders. In a loud voice they sang: “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!” Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, singing: “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!” The four living creatures said, “Amen,” and the elders fell down and worshiped.
Lord Jesus, in my spirit today I wish to survey Your wondrous cross. Help me feel the tragic wind on that barren hill. Help me hear the angry shouts of the mob, the curses of the soldiers, and the weeping of those who loved You. Above all let me hear Your voice: “Father, forgive them.” “I thirst.” “It is finished.” “Father, into Your hands I commit my spirit.” I want to sense the silence that followed your death and then the terrible storm. I want to feel the darkness in the middle of the day. Let me share the quiet tears of the women who love You. Why do I desire these things? So that I may never forget. Amen.
When I Survey the Wondrous Cross
Words: Isaac Watts; Music: Lowell Mason
1 When I survey the wondrous cross
on which the Prince of glory died,
my richest gain I count but loss,
and pour contempt on all my pride.
2 Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast
save in the death of Christ, my God!
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them through his blood.
3 See, from his head, his hands, his feet,
sorrow and love flow mingled down.
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
or thorns compose so rich a crown?
4 Were the whole realm of nature mine,
that were a present far too small.
Love so amazing, so divine,
demands my soul, my life, my all.
© 2017 Stephen R. Phifer All Rights Reserved