During this season of Lent we spend much time meditating on the Cross. From Ash Wednesday to Good Friday we will have our eyes fixed on Calvary’s distant mount, as each day brings us closer to the central event of the Christian faith. But for all its prevalence, for all of the retelling its easy to misunderstand what exactly we see at Golgotha.
In most of our churches there is a single cross fixed in a place of great prominence. It might be a golden table piece or a wooden construct suspended from the ceiling. Sometimes in front of our churches or on a hillside we might see three crosses, the cross of Christ joined by those of the two “bandits.”
But this is misleading. We talk about the crucifixion like it was a surprise, like it was a deviation from the norm. We imagine that Jesus (or if we are being fastidious, we include the two bandits) was the only person in history to be crucified. Like Rome conspired to create some novel singular event which could take on religious significance.
Nothing could be farther from the truth. The depth and power of the Cross of Jesus is not that crucifixion was rare but in that it wasn’t. Crucifixion was horrifyingly monstrously common. Jesus did not hang on a cross by himself or as part of a trio but instead he joined a field of dozens or hundreds or even thousands of crosses. One of as many as a hundred thousand Jews to be executed by Rome during its reign.
Rome was a vast empire with a powerful, well trained, well equipped army. But that army was woefully insufficient to control the huge empire they had amassed. Instead Rome ruled the world through breath taking, gut wrenching fear. The Roman army was a vanguard that conquered distant lands. But then they moved on to the next war zone, leaving the maintenance of the Roman police state in the hands of small garrisons or local militias.
Because of this Rome lived in constant fear of uprisings and rebellions. An organized, widespread uprising could rip the Empire apart. So they created the Pax Romana. Rome would enforce a bloody, fearful peace on the world. As long as taxes were paid and all respect and honor was paid to Rome, its Caesars and its gods, their conquered neighbors could live in some cruel parody of peace.
But the moment payment faltered or the smallest slight or insult was offered Rome would retaliate with awful overwhelming force. Long before Iraq, Rome was unveiling shock and awe on the world. And rather than smart bombs or bunker busters the primary instrument of Rome’s shock and awe, the weapon that enforced the Pax Romana, was the cross.
When the high priest Caiaphas speaks to his peers about Jesus John takes it as prophecy
But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, ‘You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.’ (John 11)
But Caiaphas is being horrifically literal. If Jesus stirs too much discontent Rome might send in an army to “maintain peace.” The Jewish people were intimately familiar with that kind of “pacification.” Magdala, the homeland and namesake of Mary Magdalene, was subject to two such horrific invasions by the Roman army, once in 52 BCE and again in 4. These mass crucifixions and enslavements would have been recent history to Jesus and his contemporaries (they were devastated again in 67 AD).
Most of these punishments came in response to “banditry,” which was a Roman catch all not only for thieves but also (depending on your worldview) either Jewish freedom fighters or anti-Roman terrorists. But Rome didn’t particularly care about punishing the specific individuals involved. They would crucify all the surrounding villagers just to make a point.
This brings us back to Jesus and his Cross. Jesus didn’t come down to do something uniquely messianic. Instead in Jesus God came down and joined the world where it was, in this case hanging on a Cross. Jesus took his place on Calvary to hang in fellowship with the bleeding, fearful crucified world.
The message of the Cross is not only that God died for our sins but that when we are at the lowest, bloodiest, most beaten and broken down God is still with us. Immanuel is not just in the manger but on the Cross. The heart of God, open to all the pain and fear and suffering of a people broken down beneath sin and death and the corrupt powers of the world, didn’t stand by but came alongside us. And when death and sin and the powers had spent themselves in violence and shame and all the tools they use to silence and destroy humankind, God’s resurrection spoke the final words over the world’s power. Enough. No More. In the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus God blunted the swords of death and violence. The new last word is life. Unbreakable, unbeatable abundant life.
The crucifixions didn’t stop. Rome didn’t fall. But their power was unmasked. God has sided with the crucified and stands with them still. The cross itself transformed from a symbol of death to a symbol of victory and life.
This Lent we turn our eyes to the crucified world. We look for those who are persecuted, suffering and beaten down because Jesus is still among them. We speak truth to evil and to power, denouncing the crucifying powers in our world today. And we repent for those times we are found amongst those powers, when we profit or take pleasure in the suffering of others. And together we look forward to the last Sunday, when God’s inbreaking kingdom at last abolishes death and violence alike.