7: Jesus bears the cross

The seventh Station of the Cross is Jesus carrying his cross to the place where he will be executed.  The NRSV reads:

When the chief priests and the police saw him, they shouted, ‘Crucify him! Crucify him!’ Pilate said to them, ‘Take him yourselves and crucify him; I find no case against him.’ They cried out, ‘Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!’ Pilate asked them, ‘Shall I crucify your King?’ The chief priests answered, ‘We have no king but the emperor.’ Then he handed him over to them to be crucified.

So they took Jesus; and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha.

And The Message says:

When the high priests and police saw him, they shouted in a frenzy, “Crucify! Crucify!”

Pilate told them, “You take him. You crucify him. I find nothing wrong with him.”

They shouted back, “Kill him! Kill him! Crucify him!”

Pilate said, “I am to crucify your king?”

The high priests answered, “We have no king except Caesar.”

Pilate caved in to their demand. He turned him over to be crucified.They took Jesus away. Carrying his cross, Jesus went out to the place called Skull Hill (the name in Hebrew is Golgotha).

It is sad that despite Pilate’s desire to have nothing to do with the trial and execution of Jesus, his is the name everyone remembers.  It is Pilate whose name appears in both the Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed, which are recited each week in worship by many Christians.  It is not Annas or Caiaphas, the chief priests, nor Judas, who betrayed Jesus to the authorities.  No, it is poor Pontius Pilate, who had the misfortune of being Rome’s governor in Jerusalem, whose wife tried to keep him away from this trial after being warned in her dreams, who literally washed his hands of the whole business.

In John’s gospel, this scene happens directly after Jesus has been scourged.  Pilate presents Jesus to the crowd: his back bleeding from his neck to his heels; broken bones and bruises forming; a purple cloak now turned to tatters by the scourges; a crown of thorns atop his head, probably pushed down cruelly by the soldiers to make him bleed.  It’s clear that Pilate expects the crowd to be mollified at the sight of Jesus, battered and broken.  Pilate tried to turn Jesus back over to the Jewish spiritual authorities, but they pushed back, demanding that Jesus be put to death.  The crowd has been whipped up into a bloodthirsty frenzy; it is no longer a crowd of individuals, but a vicious mob that speaks with one voice: Crucify him! Pilate has little choice.  If he wants to circumvent a riot, with all the Jews visiting the city for the Feast of the Passover — which certainly would not bode well for his career! — Pilate has to act.  And he does; he turns Jesus over to the executioners.

We do not know for sure the path that Jesus took, but in Jerusalem today, the via dolorosa represents this path and is the destination for many pilgrims.  This path is about 500 meters long, about 545 yards, about 1/3 of a mile.  Of course, nobody can know how heavy the cross was; nor can we know for sure whether Jesus carried the entire cross or merely the crossbeam.  Estimates for the entire cross are about 150 pounds or about 68 kilograms; for the crossbeam, around 50 pounds or about 23 kilograms.

Now, imagine carrying 50 pounds for 500 meters.  That would be, say, two large bags of pet food, or a large bucket of cat litter.  It would be 6 or 7 gallons of milk, or more than a 5-gallon water bottle.  This is hard work just to carry into the house from the car, probably 10 or 20 meters.  So imagine carrying that weight for 50 times that long.  It doesn’t sound very pleasant, does it?  That’s hard work!  Of course, now imagine carrying that weight for that distance, but on sand and dirt, without shoes, without clothes, in the morning sun.  You are surrounded by a jeering, mocking mob, who is calling for your death.  None of this helps, does it?  It doesn’t make the burden any easier.

Now remember that just before this, Jesus has been scourged and kicked and beaten.  He bears open, bleeding wounds from his shoulders to his heels, not to mention the bruises and broken bones.  He probably has had nothing to eat or drink since the meal he shared with his closest friends the night before.  His friends have all disappeared.  He is alone.  Broken and bleeding, skin cut into shreds.  Naked and exposed.  AND he is carrying that 50-pound crossbeam — or possibly the 150-pound cross! — for 500 meters or so… knowing that when he reaches his destination, he will be nailed to that cross and hoisted up above the mob until his body can take no more.

It’s pretty amazing that Jesus survived this.  It was not unknown for some prisoners to die simply from the scourging at the hands of the Roman soldiers, or from the blood loss and broken bones.  To combine that brutal punishment with bearing this burden over a long walk… well, when I consider it at this level of detail, I really am amazed that his body lasted so long.  (I’ll admit to being somewhat glad of that, though I know the suffering was horrific.  After all, if Jesus had died from the scourging, would we Christians now wear little silver and gold necklaces with whips on them, instead of crosses?)

There is a story in the gospel where Jesus tells his disciples that each of them must take up their cross and follow me.  These particular words may have been placed in Jesus’ mouth after his death, but they definitely mean that we each have a burden to bear.  And when we realize what it actually, physically meant for Jesus to take up his cross, we know that this isn’t a trifling burden, and it doesn’t necessarily come when we are at our strongest.  No, when we take up our cross, it is after we have been arrested, imprisoned, and tried.  It is after we have been brutally whipped and beaten.  It is after we have been deserted by our friends, when we hear the mob around us screaming for our death.  Then we are handed this cross to bear.  We truly follow Jesus when we are most beaten down, most discouraged, most alone and afraid… or perhaps when we minister to those who are.  Perhaps, when Jesus tells us that we are blessed when we are persecuted, this is what he means.

As we move into Holy Week tomorrow, walking closer to the crucifixion on Good Friday, it is not a bad thing for us to dwell for a little bit on these in-between places.  In this Station of the Cross, Jesus is between judgment and execution, between torture and death.  In these places of boundary, of between-ness, we never know what will happen.  The eighth Station of the Cross, which I’ll write about tomorrow, will actually be an act of mercy.  Who would expect an act of mercy in this between time?