During the fourteen days prior to Easter, I have been reflecting with you on the Stations of the Cross, to help us prepare for a deeper experience of the reality of Jesus’s death, and therefore a greater celebration of his resurrection. Today, on Easter Sunday, I want to add an Easter postscript to this series of devotions.
In most human societies appropriate burial of dead bodies is a sacred tradition. It matters profoundly that we ensure the proper resting place for those who have died. Yet, after burials happen, we don’t generally mention them specifically.
At first glance, Luke’s version of the centurion’s response to Jesus’s death seems like a glaring understatement. “Certainly this man was innocent,” rightly identifies Jesus’s lack of guilt. It makes clear once again the fact that he didn’t deserve to be crucified for sedition against Rome. He was no ordinary revolutionary, no guerrilla warrior, no terrorist. So, yes, “this man was innocent.” But couldn’t Luke have done better than this in his telling of the story?
Three men being crucified, suffering excruciating pain, literally. (The word “excruciating” comes from the Latin cruciare, “to crucify.”) One man begins taunting Jesus, sarcastically calling out for salvation he believes Jesus can’t deliver. The other, sensing something that he has never felt before, defends Jesus as an innocent victim. Then, in desperate hope, he cries out: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” In response Jesus says a most astounding thing, a most encouraging thing, a most curious thing: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
“They crucified Jesus.” “They,” in this case, refers to the Roman soldiers. Rome alone had the authority and the audacity to crucify people, one of the cruelest forms of execution ever devised. Crucifixion was so disgusting that Roman authors rarely referred to it. It was better left unmentioned.
Luke 23:27 notes that “a great number of people followed [Jesus]” as he walked to Golgotha. Luke gives no indication that they were crying out for Jesus’s death. In fact, by mentioning the women weeping for Jesus, Luke implies that at least many among the “great number of the people” were upset by what was happening to Jesus.
Christians from all over the world come to Jerusalem to walk along the Via Dolorosa, the way of suffering, the way of the cross. This path through the streets and alleys of Jerusalem is believed to be the path Jesus actually walked on the way to his crucifixion.
What cruel irony! Jesus finally received the words he deserved: “Hail, King of the Jews!” For once he wore a crown upon his head. Yet it was not the golden crown of sovereignty or the olive crown of victory, but the thorny crown of suffering.
There has been a tendency in the Christian telling of the Passion story to exonerate Pilate, or at least to make him an unwilling pawn of the Jewish leaders and crowds. Pilate, it is claimed, was a truth-seeking man who was caught between a rock and a hard place. Were it not for the pressure he received from the Sanhedrin and their supporters, he wouldn’t have crucified Jesus. This view of the noble Pilate seems at first to fit the facts of the New Testament Gospels. But, upon closer scrutiny, it falls short in a number of crucial ways.
Why did Peter deny Jesus? After all, he had been one of the first to follow Jesus, leaving so much behind to walk the uncertain road of discipleship. Peter had seen mighty wonders as his Master healed the sick, cast out demons, and even raised the dead. Peter had witnessed the miracle of the transfiguration. And he had even walked on water for a few brief moments. So why did Peter, of all people, deny Jesus?