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  In the first three centuries after the crucifixion, the cross was an important symbol in private devotion, but Christians rarely used it openly.  In the 4th century, the Roman emperor Constantine used the cross on his coinage. His devotion to the cross was reported to have come from a vision of Christ’s cross emblazoned in the sky. With his help, the cross became the reigning symbol of the church.

  It was during Constantine’s reign, that the cross upon which Jesus was crucified was said to have been found, and numerous legends sprang up about the "True Cross."

  The Latin cross of the early Christians took many forms, they were embellished by craftsmen. Saints and martyrs were assigned their own symbolic crosses. The crucifix, with Christ’s body on it, probably developed around the 5th century, but was not used on church altars until the 13th century.

Other Examples and Forms of Crosses

Crime and punishment in ancient times

A gruesome death

  Crucifixion was a form of capital punishment, but it was much more. It was a means of slow torture and public display, intended to shame and degrade the criminal and to deter others. Because of these added elements, its use throughout the Roman Empire was limited to slaves and non-Roman lower classes.

  The basic procedures of a typical Roman crucifixion were certainly well known in ancient times, but there was considerable room for variation in practice. The condemned was scourged and usually forced to carry the cross-beam of his cross to the place where the upright part was fixed in the ground. He was stripped to his undergarments and nailed to the cross-beam with a four-or five-inch spike through the wrists. The cross-beam was hoisted up and attached to the top of the gibbet, usually forming a "T" shape. The weight of the body usually rested on a short crosspiece beneath the buttocks. This support helped prolong the torture, so that the condemned would not die quickly. The feet were nailed to the cross by a spike that was driven through both feet together. If the executioners wished to hasten death, the victim’s legs could be broken, so that the body would slump down and constrict breathing.

  The reality of this procedure has become particularly vivid through the recent discovery of a tomb near Jerusalem. Dating from the first century of our era, the tomb contained a partial skeleton of a man crucified perhaps during the census revolt of A.D. 6. The remains include the heel bones, still fastened together by a spike more than four inches long, and the lower leg bones, which showed that both legs had been broken.

  Without such a coup de grace to speed death, a victim might remain alive on a cross for several days until he died of starvation, exposure, or the effects of his wounds. Often the corpse would be left on public display until it became, as one ancient author wrote, "food for birds of prey and grim pickings for dogs." The grotesque realities of crucifixion were seldom spelled out in literature, but they provided a grisly show for the public in practically any city, and Jerusalem had seen its share.

  The Torah did not specify crucifixion as a means of capital punishment, but it did allow for the corpse of a criminal, executed by stoning perhaps, to be hanged publicly for one day. The body had to buried by nightfall, however, because its continued exposure would defile the land, "for a hanged man is accursed by God" (Deuteronomy 21:23). This divine curse applied fully to crucified criminals and made the cross a particularly hateful form of execution among the Jews.

The Crucifixion of Jesus

"Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit!"

  When Christian Proclamation first began, it quickly became clear that the fact of Jesus’ crucifixion was a major problem. "We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles," wrote Paul, a Jewish Christian and an apostle to the Gentiles. A paradox of the Christian message is that what was most offensive became most central, as Paul went on to say, "I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified" (1 Cor1:23; 2:2). Christian proclamation had to come to terms with the hard fact that Jesus was executed as a criminal by the Roman governor of Judea using the extremely harsh form of execution, crucifixion.

  There was certainly never any expectation that God’s Messiah would suffer such absolute degradation. There were traditions concerning the suffering of the righteous, but such suffering was what the Messiah would relieve, not what he would experience. Clearly the task of early Christians as they tried to make sense of a crucified Messiah was quite formidable. There was no need to emphasize the gruesome character of crucifixion, that was well known. But there was a need to illuminate the mystery of how such degradation could be the revelation of God.

  Each of the four Gospels wrestled with this mystery, interpreting it in two ways. First, they gave emphasis to those details of the story that seem to fulfill patterns or prophecies of Scripture. Especially important here was Psalm 22, a psalm of lament to which all four Gospels refer. Second, they cited the words of Jesus from the cross.

  The crucifixion narratives of Mark and Matthew are especially dark. Step by step, they show Jesus isolated and ridiculed. After he was condemned, the Roman soldiers scourged Jesus and mocked him as "King of the Jews." The scourging evidently so weakened him that he could not carry the beam of his cross; the soldiers forced Simon of Cyrene to pick it up.

  Jesus, along with two other condemned men, was taken outside Jerusalem to the execution ground called Golgotha, meaning skull. Matthew and Mark say nothing about the crucifixion procedure of nailing Jesus to the cross, nor about the physical suffering, but mention seemingly lesser details: giving Jesus wine mixed with gall (hemlock) or myrrh; the executioners’ casting lots for his clothes. Such details are signposts alluding to Scriptures and thus suggest that the crucifixion is the fulfillment of biblical prophecy. For example, Psalm 22:7 says, "All who see me mock at me, they make mouths at me, they wag their heads"; so also, Matthew notes that "those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads." Moreover, when the chief priests mocked Him by saying, "He trusts in God; let God deliver him now," they echo, Psalm 22:8. Even the bandits crucified with him reviled him. His disciples abandoned him; Jesus was alone.

  All this, however, is but preparation for the most somber mystery of the story. Matthew and Mark tell how at midday darkness covered the land for three hours. Then in the darkness Jesus cried aloud in the only words from the cross that Matthew and Mark record, " ‘Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’" (Mark 15:34). Abandoned by disciples, enemies, and onlookers, and now, in his word, "forsaken" by God, Jesus descended into the darkest experience that a human being can know.

  Jesus’ anguished cry also echoes the first words of Psalm 22, again showing the role that this psalm plays in the narrative. The Gospel writers did not try to tone down the anguish or explain the meaning of Jesus’ cry. Instead they chose to show the consequences. First there was confusion as those around the cross completely misunderstood Jesus’ words. The second was the declaration by the centurion who was executing Jesus. This unknown person became, especially in Mark, a focus of the whole Gospel. It was he who saw how Jesus died and was the first to exclaim, "Truly this man was the Son of God."

  The focus of Luke’s narrative was not on Jesus’ anguish, but rather, his serenity and confidence. Luke knows that Jesus understood dearly the divine mystery that was occurring. Just after he was placed on the cross, Jesus prayed: "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34). The executioners acted in ignorance; only Jesus grasped what was happening. A little later, when one of the criminals defended Jesus against the reviling, Jesus promised him, "Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise" (Luke 23:42). Luke was showing that even on the cross, Jesus had full competence to forgive sin and grant eternal blessedness.

  Death held no threat at all to him. As in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, the final words of Jesus are a quotation of Scripture, this time Psalm 31:5; "Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit!" (Luke 23:46). Here Luke lets us see the serenity that comes from understanding God’s will and living it to the last moment.

  The Gospel of John notes how quickly Jesus died. Like the Passover lamb, his bones were not broken, but his side was pierced after death, and blood and water came forth. John also records three distinctive sayings of Jesus from the cross, each of which emphasizes his control of events. In extremis, his love and concern for his mother moved him to care for her future by appointing the "disciple whom he loved" to act as her son (John 19:26). The last two sayings come in quick succession. John shows Jesus’ desire to fulfill the Scriptures, and thus he says "I thirst." The reference is probably in Psalm 69:21, "For my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink." Though all the power of Rome is striving to kill him, Jesus is largely unaffected. It is only when that last deed is completed that the moment arrives to utter the words toward which his whole life has been moving; "It is finished." Then Jesus "bowed his head and gave up his spirit" (John 19:30).

  Each gospel has its own voice and contribution. Together they reveal how for the early Christians a grotesque and brutal act of torture and execution became the mystery of God’s love revealed in the world. 




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