CHAPTER XXXVIII. THE CRUCIFIXION
|The Crucifixion - Giotto|
THE greatest criminals in the world are not condemned unheard. They have a defendant. Their case is prepared. Witnesses are examined for or against, and the merits of both sides strictly scrutinized.
For Jesus there were no laws. All were forgotten, all were set aside. The judge who condemned Him declared Him innocent, but notwithstanding His innocence, He was delivered to His executioners.
His executioners! A lawless mob of ferocious animals, incited to the cruellest deeds by the devils unloosed from the pits of hell. These were the ones who surrounded Him—a God who wished to die for them—a God whose blood would fall upon them.
They dragged Him through the streets of the city, weighted down by His heavy cross. Clothed again in His own garments, led by the Roman centurion Longinus, and with four soldiers as a guard, followed by the two thieves, also guarded, who were to die with Him, He advanced along the Dolorous Way. The laughter and mockery of the crowd were His funeral dirge. The wood of the cross pressed into His wounded and bleeding shoulder.
He staggered and fell, exhausted.
Was He to perish under the very gaze of His executioners? His eyes closed. Every human help had failed. The angels had fled. The Father in heaven turned away His face from the sight of that lonely Man laden with the frightful sins of the world.
O sublime Mother, draw near! At this moment of overpowering anguish, thy loving hand alone dare touch this torn and bruised body. . . . With the majesty of grief she pushed aside those who would keep her from her Son. Her face unveiled bears the mark of such anguish that all fall back before it.
She approached her Beloved and knelt near Him, wiping the sweat and blood from His countenance. She felt indeed as if death was creeping through her every vein. But she came to afford assistance, not to seek it, and she tried to support her Son in her weak arms. Moved to pity by this sight, one of the soldiers lifted the cross, to allow the poor Victim a moment's repose.
Mary spoke a few low words. Jesus turned His eyes upon her. No human speech can interpret what passed between those two. But just then, Longinus caught sight of a stranger, who, from the fashion of his garments, seemingly hailed from the country. He had stopped to gaze at the unwonted spectacle before him, and the centurion seized his opportunity.
"Come, thou, and help here. We would not have the Man die ere we reach the place of execution," he exclaimed, roughly.
Simon of Cyrene approached as bidden. Jesus tottered to His feet once more, and the holy women who had followed came nearer, weeping bitterly and lamenting.
"Daughters of Jerusalem," He said, faintly, "weep not over Me, but weep for yourselves and for your children." ( St. Luke xxiii, 28.)
The Saviour resumed His mournful journey—followed by His Mother and her friends. Love caused her such anguish that she well-nigh died at every step. But Love again gave her such strength that the very fear of abandoning Him before the end helped her to surmount her weakness.
"My Son, my Son!" whispered the heartbroken Mother. "Every step of Thine doth save a world."
At this moment the Mother of Christ was worthy of the God who had chosen her. She too so loved the world as to give her only-begotten Son. And yet Mary was weak and a woman; those who looked upon her could scarcely recognize her countenance.
She would follow her Son to the end. She had been His pure and ardent worshiper at the first moment of His existence. She would be His pure and ardent worshiper at the last breath of His life.
The cortege had passed the city, and going out by the Gate of the Judges ascended the rough and difficult way to Golgotha. When they approached the Mount of Crucifixion the beloved disciple placed his hand on Mary's arm.
"Go no further!" he said, hoarsely. "The horror „ which is to follow is not to be witnessed by thee, His Mother. Thou canst not behold it and live."
He would have led her aside. She did not move, but looked at him with eyes which held within their depths the sorrows of the world.
"John," she said, "near or far, His sufferings can not escape me."
John knew it. He drew her away, nevertheless, striving to conceal from her view, if possible, the terrible ending to this most terrible of journeys. While the cross was placed on the ground, our dear Saviour was stripped of His garments, and, with only a linen cloth about His loins, was lifted to the little projection midway upon the upright post. His arms were tied with ropes amid the boisterous cries of the multitude, which resembled the roaring of the ocean on a tempestuous day. Then, quite suddenly, silence # intervened, punctuated by dull, regular, heavy sounds. The Virgin fell upon her knees. Her bosom heaved. John and the holy women followed her example, covering their faces, while low moans fell from their lips. With indescribable horror they heard the blows of the hammers in the hands of those who were crucifying their Lord. The crucifixion of the two thieves followed, and their screams of agony seemed doubly horrible after the silence of Christ.
One thing remained to complete this dreadful deed —the nailing above His sacred head of that title which Pilate had written in Latin, Greek and Aramaic:
THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS.
And even though the Jewish leaders—in the eyes of the Jews one dying on the cross was accursed of God—protested against the designation, it was in vain.
Gathering her strength, the Mother rose to her feet and advanced firmly to where her Son was enduring such cruel agony. She reached the very foot of the cross, followed by those who loved her. She touched it with her trembling hand, and then stood by the cross, the Mother of sorrows.
"Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do," said Christ, the Son of God.
The people nearby gazed upon this scene, unfeelingly. The rulers derided Him.
"He saved others. Let Him save Himself, if He be Christ, the elect of God."
"True, true!" exclaimed those who overheard. "There is truth in v that!"
"If Thou be the King of the Jews, save Thyself!" yelled one of the soldiers, and again the words were taken up by the crowd and received with jeers and mockery.
"If Thou be Christ, save Thyself and us," said one of the dying thieves, in tones that were bitter with hatred and dislike. But:
"Lord," pleaded the other thief, "remember me when Thou shalt come into Thy kingdom!"
This confession of faith stirred Mary to the heart.
"Amen," she heard the voice of Jesus, "I say to thee this day thou shalt be with Me in paradise."
Tenderly, very tenderly, the Mother leaned forward and pressed her lips to the feet of her Beloved. Magdalen, in a transport of passionate grief, had thrown herself upon the ground at the foot of the cross, wiping away the blood that trickled along its bark with her beautiful hair. And Jesus, casting His glance downward, saw the ones He loved—His Mother and His cherished disciple.
"Woman, behold thy son!" He said. John looked tip at Him with adoration in his eyes. "Behold thy Mother!" added our blessed Redeemer, gently uniting for the rest of their mortal lives the two who were the dearest to Him on earth.
The sun, which had withdrawn behind the clouds, was still veiled from view. A darkness seemed to be settling over the earth—a darkness which would have terrified the onlookers had they not been too engrossed in the scene before them.
"My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?"
Oh, the agony of those words!
"I thirst!" He whispered—and one of the soldiers, running, took a sponge, filled it with vinegar, and putting it on a reed, held it to His mouth.
Darker and darker grew the lowering clouds. Off to the west sounded a low rumble of thunder.
"It is consummated," said Jesus,
A strange breeze sprang up; the atmosphere grew so black that even those lost in the sorry spectacle noted it with alarm. One by one the crowd began to melt away. Silence fell again. Then, with the swiftness of a lightning flash, the earth quaked beneath their feet, the rocks were rent in twain.
"Father," said Christ, the Son of God, "into Thy hands I commend My spirit."
Thus Jesus died.
But what fearful portents followed on that word! The graves opened. The bodies of the saints came forth from their tombs. The veil of the Temple, the one which separated the holy from the Most Holy Place was rent in twain. All creation trembled at this last sigh of the Man-God. The centurion and the soldiers who guarded Jesus cried out in terror: "Indeed this was the Son of God!"
The multitude, horror-stricken and afraid, fled through the darkness.
* * * * *
While Jesus, the Lamb of God and the High Priest of the New Law, was consummating His sacrifice on Mount Calvary, the Jewish priests had been offering their usual sacrificial lamb on Mount Moria. As soon as their sacrifice was over they went to Pilate, requesting him to hasten the death of those who had been crucified, that their bodies might be taken down before sunset.
Joseph of Arimathea, until then a timid and secret disciple of Our Lord, came forward boldly and asked for His body. The Roman Procurator had no objection to grant a private burial for One whom he had so often declared innocent.
Tenderly and carefully the pale form of the Saviour was taken down, wrapped in fine linen and costly spices, and laid away in the new tomb in the garden which was Joseph of Arimathea's property. And then, rolling a great stone to the entrance, they departed.
And Mary, the Mother of Jesus, accompanied by her friends, went back to the little house wherein she lived with Magdalen. She was the Queen of Martyrs, the Mother of Sorrows. . . . But her spirit beheld a vision, which alone kept life within her frame.
She saw the angels of every kingdom, of every age, of every sphere, rise from each point of space, and salute Christ on the cross.
Every century, past and future, every region, every element had its representative, and each of these in turn obtained regeneration for that which was under his charge. The suns, the stars and space; water, fire, air, and earth; science, art and genius; everything that lives and breathes on the surface of the earth or in its bosom, obtained regeneration. Myriads of angels and archangels, cherubim and seraphim, moved by in solemn procession, weeping as they contemplated that frightful, though redeeming agony.
Adam came, with his timid companion, and the angels saluted him with their palms of triumph—for man was now purchased for eternity. And they cried:
"Behold the Cross on which is fastened the salvation of mankind. Let us adore it. O holy God! O holy God! O holy, omnipotent, and immortal God, have pity on us!"
Their white wings raised as if they were so many shields, with golden trumpets the angels summoned Abraham, Elias, and David, who answered. Voices arose in the grand chorus:
"The iniquity of the earth is blotted out! The Lord has redeemed His people forever and the Saviour of the world shall reign!"
And an innumerable multitude rose from every point of the earth and space and filled the void between heaven and hell, whose gates quivered as Lucifer sped down toward them, followed by his evil companions.
O Mary, how thou hast loved the world !
The Tree of Life has been planted once more for humanity. It was sprinkled with most precious blood. It was made victorious over death by the unfathomable mystery of the Redemption.
* * * * *
Long centuries before, when the Israelites came into possession of the Promised Land, after their long journey through the desert, they found a tree half-buried in the earth near Golgotha. This tree was a giant of the forest. Its shape and its bark resembled none of the other trees of Judea.
Attempts were often made to convert it to some use; first, by those who built the city; and again by the architects commissioned by Solomon to build the Temple. Under Esdras they sought to use it for the new Temple of which so many wonders had been predicted.
But the tools could make no impression upon its massive sides. Any idea of utilizing it was totally abandoned, and for a long time it was called the Inviolable Timber. .
Now this tree was the Tree of Life.
It bloomed in Eden before the disobedience of man, but when Sin entered the world and upset all creation, a tempest blew from the four winds of heaven on this garden of delight which Adam had profaned.
Everything was destroyed—and the Tree of Life, blasted by the thunder, tumbled into the abyss which the cataracts of heaven had opened. During the thousands of years that intervened, it was the sport of the torrents that rolled incessantly down to bottomless gulfs. Then came the Deluge, which carried it to the vicinity of Golgotha.
That blackened trunk, that Inviolable Timber, had become historic. And yet, on the day of the Crucifixion, a young and ignorant servant, a stranger in the country, took his saw and cut it as if it were a reed.
This is the old tradition which people tell of the Tree of Life and the Cross of Jesus. A pious legend which none is asked to believe—but a sweet thought, also. That from Life Life should spring again for us!