Sisters and Brothers,
Public executions have been common for most of human history. Part of their purpose is to remove a threat to others. Jesus was a threat status quo and the limited authority of Pharisees, Scribes, Chief Priests, and even the business of the moneychangers in the temple. If removing the threat was the main point, then the execution could have been private.
Another purpose of public execution was to stir the emotions of the witnesses. As in the crucifixion of Jesus, it was to inspire fear of authority figures to maintain public order, but it was also seen as something like entertainment, where the crowds identified with the executioners and joined in mocking and humiliating the people being executed.
A third purpose of execution was to inflict fear and pain upon the prisoner. The Romans had the ability to execute people with a minimum of pain using poison and sudden beheading, but most of their executions were designed to inflict pain. For men and women, the most common means of execution were being flogged or beaten to death or to be put in closed spaces with dangerous (and half starved) animals like lions, bulls, and bears. Crucifixion seems to have been reserved for men.
Crucifixion was cruel because it could take many hours and allowed or no room for modesty. Men were suspended by their arms and leaned forward so they could not breathe unless they lifted themselves up by their arms and legs with an effort of strength. At first, most of the crucified prisoners could lift themselves up easily, but as the day wore on, there arms and legs would become increasingly fatigued. Eventually, the muscles could no longer lift them and they would suffocate to death.
A certain man from Cyrene, Simon, the father of Alexander and Rufus, was passing by on his way in from the country, and they forced him to carry the cross. They brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means “the place of the skull”). Then they offered him wine mixed with myrrh, but he did not take it. And they crucified him. Dividing up his clothes, they cast lots to see what each would get.
It was nine in the morning when they crucified him. The written notice of the charge against him read: the king of the Jews.
We do not know if people carried a whole cross or just the crossbeam to their execution site. Simon of Cyrene was enlisted to carry the cross of Jesus because he was too weak from his beatings. Simon is identified as the father of Rufus and Alexander, who were probably mentioned because they were known to the Christian community when the Gospel was later written.
Myrrh was a gum resin obtained from trees that was used in perfumes and incense. When mixed with wine it was a narcotic that was used by Roman for pain relief, but in large doses it was lethal. This odd offering of this mixture to Jesus may have been someone’s merciful gesture to reduce his pain and quicken his death, but Jesus refused it.
Mark has no mention of Jesus being nailed to the cross. Neither do Matthew, Luke, or John, but John tells of imprint left from nails when the risen Jesus meets Thomas in John 21. Nailing a person to a cross (rather than tying him with ropes) would lead to a quicker death and therefore defeat some of the intended cruelty of crucifixion. Jesus may have been nailed to the cross, but we only get that information from one of the four Gospels.
They didn’t have clocks, but Jesus was put on the cross at the midway point between sunrise and noon, which is listed in many translations as 9 am.
They crucified two rebels with him, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, “So! You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, come down from the cross and save yourself!” In the same way the chief priests and the teachers of the law mocked him among themselves. “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! Let this Messiah, this king of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe.” Those crucified with him also heaped insults on him.
At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).
The words that Jesus spoke were in his native language, but they were a heartfelt quotation for Psalm 22, which foretold this day.
Psalam22 (written by David a thousand years before) included these words:
1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish?
2 My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, but I find no rest.
6 But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by everyone, despised by the people.
7 All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads.
8 “He trusts in the Lord,” they say, “let the Lord rescue him. Let him deliver him, since he delights in him.”
16 Dogs surround me, a pack of villains encircles me; they pierce my hands and my feet.
17 All my bones are on display; people stare and gloat over me.
18 They divide my clothes among them and cast lots for my garment.
But rather than thinking of the Psalm, the people misheard him and thought that he was crying to the prophet Elijah.
When some of those standing near heard this, they said, “Listen, he’s calling Elijah.”
Someone ran, filled a sponge with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink. “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to take him down,” he said.
With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last.
The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!”
So, Jesus died at midafternoon, hallway between noon and sunset, meaning that he died after six hours of suffering on the cross. He died quicker than would have been normal. This may be due to the many beatings he had already received (and quickened by blood loss if he had been nailed to the cross).
The tearing of the curtain has two meanings. In Hebrew culture, the tearing of clothing was a sign of mourning and sadness; so, this is the equivalent to the tearing of God’s own clothing. But the Temple curtain also kept the worshippers separated from the inner sanctuary that once held the ark of the covenant; so, it also symbolizes the destruction of the last barrier between the Eternal Father and his people.
The centurion, a Roman officer in charge of the execution detail, is the first person to openly declare that Jesus is the Son of God.
Some women were watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joseph, and Salome. In Galilee these women had followed him and cared for his needs. Many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem were also there.
It is strange, but this is the first time that Mark mentions Mary Magdalene. It is also an odd coincidence that the second Mary mentioned has children with the same names as two of Jesus’s brothers and one of his sisters. It is possible that the second Mary here is the mother of Jesus, but we are never told by Mark. Jesus’ mother is only briefly mentioned by Mark when she comes to take him home for being “out of his mind” in chapter 3 and again when he visits Nazareth in chapter 6. The other women are un-named.
Still, it is very clear that these women are heroic disciples (especially in comparison to the twelve that were still in hiding).
It was Preparation Day (that is, the day before the Sabbath). So as evening approached, Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent member of the Council, who was himself waiting for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body. Pilate was surprised to hear that he was already dead. Summoning the centurion, he asked him if Jesus had already died. When he learned from the centurion that it was so, he gave the body to Joseph. So Joseph bought some linen cloth, took down the body, wrapped it in the linen, and placed it in a tomb cut out of rock. Then he rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joseph saw where he was laid.
So, a Jewish leader who apparently dissented with his colleagues claimed the body of Jesus and placed the body in a nearby tomb. This is the only mention of this man in the Gospel of Mark, but he is a Jewish leader who respected Jesus and wanted to treat his body with respect. We are told the Mary Magdalene and the other Mary witnessed this.
Mark gives no mention of any of the twelve disciples coming out of hiding to be near Jesus at the time of his death, so Jesus dies abandoned by many and feeling abandoned by the Father. He wasn’t just quoting a Psalm, he died in agony shortly after asking why the Father had abandoned him.
Some people have suggested that Jesus endured more pain on the cross than anyone else ever had (or ever since). The Gospels don’t suggest this. Jesus died about twenty hours after he sat with his friends to share the Passover meal. He had been beaten repeatedly in the early hours of the morning and then crucified. He died and was entombed before the Friday sunset began the Sabbath. His pain was intense and cruel, but it was the sort of death that many others had died before. He was neither superhuman nor detached from reality when he died. Jesus died as an abandoned man who was struggling with a very human sense of futility. Not only was Jesus born like us, but he died like us.
This is how much God loves us. He didn’t abandon us or curse us when we killed his Son. Jesus could have cursed us as easily as he did the fig tree, but he did not. God would have been justified to wipe out humanity for what humanity did to Jesus. If you see Jesus as the incarnation of God, this proves that God loves us even when we try to erase him from our lives. If God can forgive this, God can forgive anything. Jesus died with love for the Romans who killed him and the Jews who condemned him. Jesus died for the men who betrayed him and the women who stood by him.
Questions to Ponder: Have you ever fought an urge to be cruel? Do you think the Roman soldiers thought of themselves as being evil for carrying out an order of execution?