The crowds, reeking of sweat and filth, pressed and pulled as I elbowed my way toward the focus of the mob, fighting just to keep my feet lest I fall and be trampled. Dust swirled and hung thickly in a gritty white cloud as I finally neared the inner edge of the throng, loud voices now taking on meaning and the harsh racket intensified by what I now saw.
A handful of Roman soldiers lumbered about, wielding their fearsome whips threateningly to the rolling multitudes so as to keep an open path through the narrow Jerusalem streets. Then I spotted a person, a prisoner, through the dirty haze. He was bent over heavily, arms flung wide and bound roughly to a great wooden beam. He stumbled, his body twisting with the weight, and as one end of the beam slammed dully onto the road the prisoner gasped in agony.
My own breath stole from me, then, for what I thought were tattered strips of cloth from his torn robe were in reality massive shreds of flesh hanging from his shoulders and torso. The iron-tipped Roman lash had been put to fiendish use, and I soon observed that no portion of this poor soul’s body had been spared, the mauled legs and arms merely paled over by the curtains of chalky dust billowing round about.
The prisoner’s tunic hung loose and bunched from a cincture rope and was sodden with the blood coursing freely from his upper body, bright crimson spattering on the alabaster street with every step.
Though the face was hidden by matted locks of bloodied and sweat-drenched hair, there was a brutal determination evidenced by the swiftness and strength in the man’s recovery from the stumble. Soldiers who had begun to assist and mock him reeled back in astonishment and humor, though immediately set again to taunts and scourging with leather whips. The Romans’ pride was further wounded when the prisoner strode onward, almost confidently, toward the outer city gate and then beyond… toward the place of crucifixion.
At this show of defiance, or lunacy, the crowd roared with approval, further agitating the Roman military presence. Shouts of “Yeshua!” and “Jesu!” rang in my ears as I rode the tide of people into the tight street and out through the gate where I heard the sudden clopping and neighing of horses accompanied by an eruption of outcry from the masses. I again found myself at the edge of the spectacle and witnessed the prisoner on his knees and doubled over after another fall. A Roman officer on horseback hollered orders to the soldiers who had given to kicking and striking the burdened man with fist and scourge, while several more legionaries muscled their way into the growing mob and set order by brandishing their spears and clubbing more than a few with the spear shafts.
Being of unusually tall and burly build, I must have easily drawn the eye of the Roman officer, for he briskly motioned toward me and I immediately found myself pressed into service as I was forcibly pulled near the collapsed prisoner and made to wait as two soldiers unbound the cross beam from the mutilated man’s arms. Before I was fully aware of what was happening, a man in Roman armor upended and shoved the heavy timber at me, connecting solidly and painfully in my shoulder and along the side of my face.
Fully aware now of my duty, and my growing anger, I hoisted the plank easily onto my own shoulders and brutishly nodded off the attempt to bind my arms to the wood, as my grip was sure. I watched the battered prisoner being wrenched to his now faltering feet, and my head began to swim: Having only been in Jerusalem a few weeks for the Passover and to pay tribute to the Temple on behalf of my family in Cyrene, I abruptly find myself caught up in the region’s politics and barbarism! What had this reprobate done? Who was this Jesu? I am well aware of the Roman practice of crucifixion and its sobering cruelty designed to both quell opposition and satisfy bloodlust. Yet never did I imagine to see, or perhaps even experience, such savagery.
There is, however, something otherworldly about this affair that eludes me…
Both the prisoner and myself, after being prodded in the back hard by Roman spear shanks, took our next tentative steps toward the rocky hill where still more multitudes were gathered for the macabre display already begun with two other unfortunates. I marveled at how being free of his burden seemed to boost the wretch’s confidence, but to what end? And then He looked at me.
My breath stole from me for a second time that day, and my heart leaped into my throat. All faded into a dimness unexplained but for the knowledge that I was looking into the face of God’s own Son. All at once I saw Him as He was and as He truly is. A pain-soaked man whose ruined face was streaked with blood and dirt, whose high brow was pierced and pinched with fierce desert briars and thorns, and whose nearly swollen-shut eyes burned with anguish and purposeful volition. A longing God whose face radiated limitless joy, His clear eyes deep with wisdom, bright with accomplishment, and overflowing with love. His revelation unsettled me.
A moment, an eternity, and we were moving again, urged on by barking soldiers and the crowd’s clamor. The trek to the hillside was dismal, a few crosses were already being thrust upright bearing their doomed ornaments. I pondered why such suffering must befall this Man if He truly is the Creator and Savior of all.
I am the Christ…
I heard the words distinctly and glanced at my Lord, certain He had spoken, but His face was turned skyward and His eyes were wide and fixed upon something I could not discern. All at once my rumination turned to terror as we reached the top of the dreaded slope and the Romans set to work.
After forcefully taking the crossbeam from my shoulders and rudely pushing me aside, I watched, almost in reverie, as the huge soldier casually walked a short distance and tossed the stout beam to the ground. A few legionaries approached and stripped this curious prisoner to His loincloth, large pieces of flesh ripping and falling off in the process. Then they affixed the crossbeam to an appropriate wooden base post, set the fastening pegs, and hurriedly pushed my Lord onto the cross causing Him to wince in unimaginable pain as His raw bloodied back and shoulders scraped and rubbed against the coarse splinter-ridden wood.
I then beheld the cold practiced efficiency of a Roman crucifixion. One soldier held the condemned man’s body centered on the base post while another stretched out the right arm until it taxed the shoulder joint. Yet another, with smithy hammer and a leather pouch full of iron spikes, stepped up, knelt on the upturned arm to steady it against the crossbeam, and then deftly placed a spike just above the man’s wrist and between the two bones of His forearm.
A sharp crack! resonated down the hillock and across the nearby valley before I had even realized the soldier’s hammer had been raised. The head of my Lord jolted violently forward as the spike tore flesh and severed the tendons and veins of His wrist.
He did not cry out though His visage carried a grimace of torment one could veritably feel. Two more hammer blows in rapid succession had the spike driven deep into the dense wood, the ravenous mob bellowing for more.
Vivid red blood flowed abundantly and evenly from the Christ’s nail-riven hand. I noticed the reopened lacerations covering His body and I glimpsed naked bone in places, the dusty white pall from the streets now replaced by rusty black clumps of drying blood, pinkish ribbons of loose flesh, and the scarlet glisten of open wounds.
The sickly sweet odor of exposed viscera assaulted my nostrils. My stomach turned and I looked away. I saw a woman nearby collapsed on the ground, clutching her heart. Her agonizing regard of this man carried a mother’s torment. Another glance revealed a pair of panicked faces, loved ones in some degree, uncertain as to remain or flee their Lord’s affliction.
By My stripes you are healed…
My gaze was drawn back to the Christ’s trauma to see that His left arm and ankles had likewise been nailed to His cross, yet never did I hear my Lord bawl or protest amidst the torture. Ropes secured His arms at the elbows to prevent the body from tearing or breaking free from the spikes in the event of a weak skeleton or hysterical struggle once the cross is planted. Larger ropes were then passed through a metal ring set in each end of the main crossbeam, the end of each cord was then pulled taut by four stout Romans. Together, and seeming to make sport of it, the eight sturdy soldiers dragged the entire contraption, cross and victim, over the unforgiving terrain as swiftly as they could manage.
A fury rose within me and was vexed all the more when the cruel Romans reached the aperture, laughing heartily and clapping each other’s backs. I could have easily approached them and crushed one’s head with only my hands…
Vengeance is Mine, I will repay…
Unaware I had taken steps toward the soldiers solely a stone’s throw away, my Lord’s words stopped me fast. I marveled at how He could be speaking directly to me in such a condition, and that I would even be in His thoughts when…
The Romans finished their work by lifting the Lord’s cross halfway, positioning the base post at the mouth of the prepared aperture in the craggy ground, then hand- walking the cross upward until its own weight pulled it into the securing cavity with a muted thud. The violent jarring of the Christ’s body caused His mouth to open wide in a silent horrific scream. A brief rain of sweat and blood, shaken loose from the jolt, sprayed over those nearby. Even I felt a few breeze-blown drops alight on my cheek.
I lay down My life that I may take it again…
How can this be, Lord? I do not understand this evil that has befallen You! I spoke these words aloud though none could hear for the jeering and raucous maledictions from the undulating rabble. Stones were occasionally flung at those hanging from their death-perches, a few finding their mark and met with a mild cheer by the culprit. The legionaries soon grew bored and settled randomly into small triads, eating or striking up petty gambling games to pass the time while awaiting death for the crucified.
Then… a hush fell over the multitude. Many persons nearest the condemned Christ began to disappear into the crowd just as a group of Jewish elders arrived. They walked right up to the foot of the Christ’s cross and glowered up at Him for a long stretch. He did not respond, if that is what they were expecting. His head lolled back unevenly onto a shoulder, His breathing severely labored as His body’s weight and twisted frame slowly choked off any air.
My Lord did not even look human. The devastation of His flesh hurt me terribly to look upon, a vision of unspeakable atrocity and disgust. I cannot bear to recount further as the pain is too deep.
To whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?
As I pondered this inquiry the smug Jewish priests began to mock and fulminate, accusing my Lord of blasphemy and challenging Him to save Himself. But the Christ opened not His mouth, infuriating the elders beyond composure as they spat and tore their tinkling trinketed vestments. Bile rose in my throat and anger burned anew at their abhorrence and blindness. The desire to kill returned to me. I could take no more.
I stalked away stiffly, drunk with rage and bafflement. I shoved through the masses until I was back inside the city gate, where I glanced back toward the cross-laden hill. The over-pious vagrants had melted from view and I spied a soldier offering something to my Lord at the end of a lifted spear, though He did not respond. I continued into the city, wandering the streets as an oaf in a stupor. This was to my detriment when I ambled nearly into the path of two galloping chargers bearing a centurion and a governing official respectively. One carried a crude signboard with many letters; only a few of which were familiar to my sight though in the blur I discerned Yeshua and King.
When I came to my wits, desperately fatigued after what must have been hours, I noted an odd pallor to the sky and a stifling stillness in the air hanging like a damp cloak. Compelled to leave, I made for a city gate that would lead away from the disaster I had witnessed. An unnatural darkness crept eerily across the sky and my gait hastened as a shroud of dread gripped me, my mouth desert dry, my face suddenly throbbing where the wood plank had struck.
Then a peal of thunder like I have never heard crashed and shook the very ground as an earthquake. Then the earth did quake, wildly. I toppled but was up again quickly, running now. Another ferocious clap of thunder exploded so loudly I feared the heavens would break! But it was my heart that broke.
I knew in that instant that the Son of God had died. Yeshua. Why? Why the passionate suffering? Taking up my Lord’s cross had indeed changed me, but I did not understand how. And I did not know what to do. Until the tears came and would not stop. I crumpled to the street, sobbing awkwardly, a wreck of a man.
And yet, I heard then, in my brokenness, my Lord’s voice through Isaiah’s words, unleashing their mystery for the first time:
The chastisement for our peace was upon Him, and the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all… Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise Him; When You make His soul an offering for sin, He shall see His seed, He shall prolong His days…
The Christ will live again!
And by His knowledge My righteous Servant shall justify many, for He shall bear their iniquities…
The Christ will pardon, He will forgive. Forgive me, my God! Your suffering proved Your love, so that my suffering might have an end!
And who will declare My generations?
Send me, Lord! I will wait for you to rise and instruct me. And then, my country shall hear of such love…
By Jon Scott Birch of jonbirch.com
Excerpt from Signet Ring Magazine Suffering Issue.