It is notable that, though subsequent Christian piety, meditation, and art would rightly dwell upon the extremities of Jesus’ sufferings in the Passion, the New Testament narrative is typically spare. All the gospels are hesitant to speak much beyond the bare facts about the sheer physical horror of the Passion. Instead, they tersely say that Jesus was scourged, crowned with thorns, crucified. The reason for this is not far to seek. Crucifixion was a common occurrence in the world of the New Testament writers. They did not need to tell their readers about horrors they could see for themselves simply by taking a walk down the road from their house.
Crucifixion was not only a form of punishment reserved for slaves and similar dregs of society, it was a form of state terror designed to induce Stockholm Syndrome in subject populations. Stockholm Syndrome is the peculiar response certain hostages have shown in which they come to identify with and even love their captors. The Roman occupying power used crucifixion against rebels and rivals to Rome’s power not only to kill them, but to make all who might be tempted to imitate them instead turn against them in disgust and identify with their killers. And it worked quite well. So in the gospels, we see Christ hanging on the cross at Golgotha, crucified and guarded by Roman troops. And the response of the Jewish crowd? Not fury at the Roman crucifiers, but at the victims:
And those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads, and saying, “Aha! You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!” So also the chief priests mocked him to one another with the scribes, saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe.” Those who were crucified with him also reviled him. (Mark 15:29-32)
This powerful psychological pressure to renounce and despise discredited victims by the most skilled dominators of subject populations in the ancient world had a sort of force multiplier in ancient Israel. For the manner of Jesus’ death was not only shameful to Gentiles; it had taken on a profane dimension in Jewish piety as well. Deuteronomy 21:22-23 declared:
And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is accursed by God; you shall not defile your land which the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance.
A plain prima facie reading of this text therefore meant to nearly every Jewish onlooker that any crucified victim stood condemned, not only by Rome, but by God Almighty. Literally every authority in the world of the apostles—Jewish, and Roman—said that the crucifixion of Jesus was the proof that he was accursed by Rome, and their own people—and God. And it was extremely clear to crowd mocking him just why God had condemned him:
“He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him; for he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’” (Matthew 27:42-43)
And yet, almost instantly after this death that should have been the definitive proof that their hopes were indeed misplaced, we find the disciples, not shamefacedly trying to explain away the cross, but loudly boasting of it. Rather than pounding down the dirt on the grave of their dead Master as a fake messiah, the disciples are astonished to discover that it is the key to understanding everything about Jesus’ entire mission. Like men and women in possession of a secret that is hidden in plain view before the very eyes of their enemies they announce, with laughter that “we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Corinthians 1:23-25).
What the apostles had come to understand, with the help of the Holy Spirit, was Jesus’ teaching that he had not come to abolish, but to fulfil, the law and the prophets (Matthew 5:17). And once they saw that, they saw Jesus hidden everywhere in the Old Testament.
So, for instance, Jesus’ choice of Passover as the feast upon which he would hand himself over to us for crucifixion is the poignant reminder that this feast—and above all the Passover lamb that is slaughtered and his blood splashed on the lintels and doorposts of Jewish homes to deliver them from the Angel of Death in the Exodus (cf. Exodus 12:21-27)—is the great sign that his crucifixion is in continuity with this history of his people and not a break with it.
John, the last prophet sent to Israel as the herald of Messiah, declared at the dawn of Jesus’ ministry: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). At the close of that ministry, Jesus is condemned on the day of the Preparation of the Passover, at noon: the same day and hour the Passover lambs were slaughtered in the Temple (cf. John 19:14). Jesus fulfils the prophecy of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant:
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he opened not his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he opened not his mouth. (Isaiah 53:7)
Jesus Made a Choice to Die for Us
Another profound mystery of the Cross lies in the fact that Jesus is neither a helpless pawn of the Father, nor simply swept along by a torrent of human hatred. Jesus tells his disciples, “No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (John 10:18). Accordingly, he makes a real decision to offer himself in love to the Father for our sake. The scene in the Garden of Gethsemane was not play-acting: it was the hardest choice he ever made and was the culmination of a life of “Yes” to his Father. This brings us back to the mystery of the complete union of his full humanity with his deity. Jesus, being fully human, fears the agonies he must undergo as any normal person would. Some people have the notion that the Passion “must have been easy since he was God”. But the plea to be spared the Cross, like the bloody sweat, is perfectly genuine—as is his iron will to obey when the plea is refused. His work here, as at every other moment, is to unite his human will with the will of the Father.