“And when all the crowds who had gathered there for this spectacle saw what had taken place, they returned home, beating their breasts” (Lk. 23:48).
Our Gospel describes Jesus’ execution as a “spectacle”: an event held for public display, intended to awe and to impress. In our day, executions are held in a corner, out of public view as much as possible; but in the past, this was not so. There was a carnival atmosphere around capital punishment, a curious compensating human reaction to mortality and judgment. By turning execution into a spectacle, the crisis of death was sublimated and the question of larger, more troubling issues of guilt and innocence, eclipsed.
Jesus’ execution was a spectacle that probably had an additional dimension: intimidation. Palestine was occupied territory, taken by the Romans in order to control the land bridge between Asia and Africa. Costly wars had been fought for Roman possession, and there were periodic revolts against the occupation. These conflicts loomed large in people’s minds: Jesus himself in one of his stories referred to a massacre perpetuated by Pilate the Roman governor (Lk. 13:1).
In other words, under this theory, the Romans put Jesus to death in an attempt to suppress unrest; to so terrorize the local populace that they would be cowed into submission. The spectacle of his death was meant to overawe subjects who might be restive; to let everyone know who was in control. Never mind that Jesus was not out to overthrow the Romans or their local henchmen. Terror doesn’t need to rely on logic; in some ways the arbitrary nature of the choice of one victim over another simply underscores the powerlessness of the victims.
I wish I could say that examples of this were found only in the distant past. But of course, that’s not the case, as the revelation last weekend of executions in occupied Ukraine, at the hands of occupation forces. The tactics of terror are all too familiar, to those who read the Gospels. There is much that is unknown about the number of victims, and the identity of their executioners, but the principle is the same: intimidation and suppression, to show who is in control. This is the saddest of all sad spectacles, and the longest running.
No matter how monstrous and tragic events are, the death of Jesus Christ on the cross redeems it all. His sacrifice of himself not only shows his love for the human race, but shows the way forward. As Jesus says in the Gospel of John, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (Jo. 12:24). Beyond death there is new life, in communion with God and with each other.
In the cross, Jesus identifies with every sufferer, no matter what that person has suffered. Jesus is present, no matter how dark the cell or deep the trench. We see his face in every human face, especially in those distorted by human cruelty. As the poet and priest Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote:
I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.
“Christ plays in ten thousand places… through the features of men’s faces.” There is a profound identity between the believer and Christ, as the poet suggests. We “act in God’s eye” what we in fact are. As St. Paul says, “It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 3:20). This identity with Christ turns the disfigurement of our lives, in him, into the glory of his resurrection.
The Romans intended the spectacle of Jesus’ crucifixion to terrorize and intimidate, but St. Luke’s Gospel tells us there was another result. “And when all the crowds who had gathered there for this spectacle saw what had taken place, they returned home, beating their breasts” (Lk. 23:48). Those who saw the spectacle were chastened; made mindful of their sins and of the mercy of God. In the cross, Jesus showed who was really in charge. In the cross, God’s love is revealed, and the world is judged.
On this Palm Sunday, we know that God is at work in the world, no matter what we see around us or what we ourselves experience. We are not terrorized or intimidated. God is at work in the world, redeeming our brokenness and binding up our wounds, through the presence in us of Jesus Christ our Lord.