27 Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor’s headquarters, and they gathered the whole battalion before him. 28And they stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, 29and twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on his head and put a reed in his right hand. And kneeling before him, they mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” 30And they spit on him and took the reed and struck him on the head. 31And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him and led him away to crucify him.32 As they went out, they found a man of Cyrene, Simon by name. They compelled this man to carry his cross. 33And when they came to a place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull), 34they offered him wine to drink, mixed with gall, but when he tasted it, he would not drink it. 35And when they had crucified him, they divided his garments among them by casting lots. 36Then they sat down and kept watch over him there. 37And over his head they put the charge against him, which read, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.” 38Then two robbers were crucified with him, one on the right and one on the left. 39And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads 40and saying, “You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” 41So also the chief priests, with the scribes and elders, mocked him, saying, 42“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. 43He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him. For he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’” 44And the robbers who were crucified with him also reviled him in the same way. Matthew 27:27-44
The Gospel stories recounting the final hours of Jesus’ life are as familiar to me as the Gospel stories of his birth. I have read them, I have heard them, I have listened to sermons about them and even have watched them in the Mel Gibson movie, The Passion of the Christ. But the thing about all of those experiences is that they are brief and therefore they do not require much of me. They do not tax my emotions or my heart more than I think I can bear.
Even as intense and visually visceral as The Passion of the Christ scenes were, even as much as they placed me into those moments with Jesus, I was still able to distance myself through the shared experience of a full theater and cathartic conversations after the film.
However, this journey with Jesus to Jerusalem removes those barriers. It is me and Jesus and I am immersed in the moments with him, not merely touched by them; I do not simply brush up against them, I experience them in all of their pain and horror and disgrace. Just as there is no escape for Jesus, because he willingly drinks this cup, I choose not to escape but to be a willing witness to these events so that I may be changed. Truly changed.
So, I crouch in the shadows with my fists clenched as tightly as my jaw and fight the urge to flee, to fight and to weep simultaneously. His flesh is bleeding and mutilated from the scourging, his face is grossly swollen from countless blows, and his pain is palpable even from this distance. But that is not the end of his suffering, of this bitter cup from which he so willingly drinks tonight.
Heaping more shame and humiliation upon his already hurting and vulnerable human heart, the soldiers call in the whole battalion, a number that likely equals almost 500 men, as they strip him of his clothes and his dignity and his deity. They mock him and spit on him and strike him. They twist a crown from thorns and press it onto his head, the nail-sized, razor-like thorns cutting into his tender flesh.
This man is not just an ordinary man. This man is not just another criminal. This is Jesus. This is God. He is the Savior who will sacrifice himself for each of these men as much as for the disciples he loves. But these men don’t know that. Maybe they never will. And none of that matters to Jesus, because his sacrifice is once for all.
This is the what Jesus came to do, what he came to endure. He came to endure all of the anger, hatred and rejection from man and to bear all of the wrath of God. He came to be despised, he came to suffer and he came to be slain. The sacrificial lamb for the atonement of sin.
That is why, after they have beaten him, bloodied him, mocked him, humiliated him, and brought him as low as they can, when the guards offer him the wine mixed with gall, he tastes it and refuses it. He recognizes the narcotic mixture intended to dull the pain of the spikes that will be driven into his hands and into his feet.
He came to endure all of the pain, to bear the whole burden, to drink to the dregs this bitter cup of crucifixion.
And as he is raised up on the cross like the serpent on the pole, he faces the last and worst moment of his mission: the agonizing separation from the Father, his Father. Those elders, scribes and chief priests who have gathered at Golgatha continue to hurl insults at him. Random passersby deride him. Even the criminals who hang on either side of him mock and revile him. All to little consequence or effect at this point.
Because nothing will match the anguish he will experience when God the Father abandons him to death, forsaking his only Son for the sake of mankind. For the sake of me, and for the sake of you, and for the sake of those who came before us and those who will come after us. Once for all.
The shadow of the cross looms large before me as I huddle with Peter, James and John and others who have gathered here to watch and to weep and to wait. For the end is upon us but the minutes tick by slowly, each one bringing excruciation, fear, tears.
I lift my eyes to the cross and I cannot help but wonder, how is it, Jesus, that you would take my place?
How is it that you would die for me?