The Meaning of Easter

The Passion of Christ, from the Latin patior meaning “suffer,” refers to those sufferings our Lord endured for our salvation from the agony in the garden of Gethsemane when he asks God to spare him from the coming misery and then resigns himself to the will of the Father through to His crucifixion on Calvary. The Four Gospels tell us the story of the Passion and provide the details of our Lord’s final days. The Passion is to some extent corroborated by contemporary Roman historians — Tacitus, Suetonius and Pliny the Younger.

After the Last Supper, Jesus went to the Garden of Gethsemane at the Mount of Olives. Our Lord prayed, “Father, if it is your will, take this cup from me; yet not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). Jesus knew the sacrifice He faced. He prayed so intensely that “his sweat became like drops of blood falling to the ground” (Luke 22:44). There is little doubt as to why the Father sent an angel to strengthen Him (Luke 22:43). It was in the garden that Judas Iscariot kissed Jesus to identify him to the arresting officers.

Jesus was then arrested and tried before the Sanhedrin presided over by the High Priest Caiphas. Responding to their questions, He proclaimed, “Soon you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Matthew 26:64). For this statement, He was condemned to death for blasphemy, and was then spat upon, slapped, and mocked. While the Sanhedrin could condemn our Lord to death, it lacked the authority to execute; only Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, could order an execution.

The Jewish leaders, therefore, took Jesus to Pilate. The Jewish leaders told Pilate not that Jesus had committed blasphemy in their eyes, but told Pilate, “We found this man subverting our nation, opposing the payment of taxes to Caesar, and calling Himself the Messiah, a king” (Luke 23:2). Why did they not mention the charge of blasphemy? Pilate did not care if Jesus wanted to be a messiah, a prophet, or a religious leader; however, if Jesus wanted to be a king, He threatened the authority of Caesar. An act of rebellion, treason or subversion against Rome had to be punished quickly and severely. So, Pilate asked, “Are you the king of the Jews?” (Luke 23:3).

Pilate could not find conclusive evidence to condemn Jesus. Pilate challenged the chief priests, the ruling class, and the people, “I have examined Him in your presence and have no charge against Him arising from your allegations” (Luke 23:14). When offering to release a prisoner, Pilate asked the crowd about Jesus: “What wrong is this man guilty of? I have not discovered anything about Him that calls for the death penalty?” (Luke 23:22). Even Pilate’s wife pleaded with him not to interfere in the case of “that holy man” (Matthew 27:19). Pilate then asked the crowd what he should do: Should he spare “Barabbas, or Jesus which is called Christ?” (Matthew 27:17). The crowd indicated that Jesus should be crucified. Pilate then washed his hands and declared himself innocent of the blood of Jesus.

Pilate then had Jesus scourged (John 19:1). The Romans used a short whip with several single or braided leather thongs. Iron balls or hooks made of bones or shells were placed at various intervals along the thongs and at their ends. The person was stripped of his clothing and whipped along the back, buttocks and legs. The scourging ripped the skin and tore into the underlying muscles, leaving the flesh in bloody ribbons. The victim verged on circulatory shock and the blood loss would help determine how long he would survive on the cross. To enhance the scourging of our Lord, the soldiers added other tortures: crowning Him with thorns, dressing Him in a purple cloak, placing a reed in His right hand, spitting upon Him, and mocking Him, “All hail, king of the Jews!” (Matthew 27:27-31).

The Romans had perfected crucifixion, which probably originated in Persia, to produce a slow death with the maximum amount of pain. Crucifixion was reserved for the worst of criminals; those who had committed crimes against the Roman Empire. Ordinary criminals would have been beheaded as Paul was in Rome by orders of Nero. Crucifixion was so awful that Cicero (d. 43 BC) introduced legislation in the Roman Senate exempting Roman citizens from crucifixion; therefore St. Paul was beheaded rather than crucified for being a Christian. Jesus, however, was not a Roman citizen and thus could be crucified.

Jesus carried his own cross to further weaken him. Since the entire cross weighed around 300 pounds, he usually carried only the horizontal beam weighing 75-125 pounds to the place of execution where the vertical beams were already in place. A military guard headed by a centurion led the procession. A soldier carried the titulus which displayed the victim’s name and his crime and was later attached to the cross (Matthew 27:37). For Jesus, the path from the praetorium to Golgotha was about 1/3 of a mile, and He was so weak Simon of Cyrene was forced to assist Him (Matthew 27:32).

Upon arriving at the place of execution, the law mandated the victim be given vinegar mixed with gall (Matthew 27:34). Gall was a poison and would have hastened death and the suffering on the cross. Jesus refused the drink probably because he did not want to die from poisoning or have his senses numbed while on the cross. He knew He had to shed his blood and suffer for Him to become the supreme sacrifice for the sins of all men. His hands were stretched over the horizontal beam and either tied, nailed or both. Archeological evidence reveals the nails were tapered iron spikes approximately seven inches in length with a square shaft about 3/8 of an inch. The nails were driven through the wrist between the radius and the ulna to support the weight of the person. The horizontal beam was affixed to the vertical beams, and the feet were then tied or nailed directly to it or to a small footrest.

As the victim hung on the cross, the crowds commonly tormented him with jeers (Matthew 27:39-44). The Romans oftentimes forced the family to watch to add psychological suffering. The soldiers divided the man’s garments as part of their reward (Matthew 27:35). The victim would hang on the cross anywhere from three hours to three days. The horrors of crucifixion caused it to be one of the most torturous forms of execution. Perhaps,therefore, Jesus spoke only tersely from the cross. He is said to have uttered only a few phrases which differ from gospel to gospel. In Matthew and Mark: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” In Luke: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” and “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” (This final sentence were His last words as recorded by Luke.) In John: “He said to His mother, “Woman, behold thy son!” He then turned to the disciple and said, “Behold thy mother!” And from that hour that disciple took her into his own home. After this, Jesus, knowing all things were now accomplished, that the scripture might be fulfilled,said, “I thirst” just before a wetted sponge, mentioned by all the Canonical Gospels, is offered. And finally, “It is finished.”

To hasten death, the soldiers would break the legs of the victim though when the soldiers came to break Jesus’ legs, they found him already dead. (John 19:32-33). When he appeared dead, the soldiers insured the fact by piercing the heart with a lance or sword; the soldiers did not pierce Jesus’ heart, but pierced his side instead which may have entered his heart, and from which flowed blood and water (John 19:34). Commonly, the corpse of the crucified was left on the cross until decomposed or eaten by birds or animals; however, Roman law allowed the family to take the body for burial with permission of the Roman governor. In Jesus’ case, Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for Christ’s body to which Pilate agreed. Jesus was then taken from the cross, and because it was late on a Friday, there was no time to prepare the body for burial, and He was placed in the tomb.

What we celebrate today is not the Passion, but what happened next, the Resurrection. The Resurrection of Jesus Christ is the cornerstone of our Christian faith. The Resurrection of Christ had been predicted in the Old Testament and by Christ Himself. Early on the Sunday morning after the death of Jesus on the cross, Mary Magdalene and several other women went to the tomb with the spices they had prepared. When they arrived, they found the tomb had been opened already. When they went in, they did not find Jesus’ body, and they wondered what had happened.

Suddenly, two angels in dazzling white clothes appeared. The women were terrified, but the angels said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; He has risen! Remember how He told you He would be turned over to sinful men, be crucified, and rise again on the third day?” While the Gospels disagree on what exactly happened next, it seems the women ran back to tell Jesus’ apostles what they had seen. Peter and one other apostle went to the tomb to see for themselves. They looked in and saw the linen cloths that Jesus’ body had been wrapped in but nothing else. Then they went home, amazed and confused.

Luke and John both describe at length Jesus’ post-Resurrection appearances to his followers. (Mark mentions these briefly as well.) Jesus’ appearance before “doubting Thomas” and the other disciples (in John and in Luke) are well known and contain a few details. For instance, Jesus appeared “when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders.” A minor sentence, but one that communicates the terror and bewilderment that must have plagued the disciples in the immediate aftermath of Jesus’ crucifixion.

Matthew and Mark both close with the “Great Commission,” Jesus’ instructions to his disciples to go out into the world and spread the good news of salvation:

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.” (Matthew 28:18-20)

This passage has long been the basis of the Christian emphasis on sharing the Gospel with the world through evangelism and missionary work.

The Bible Story of the Ascension of Jesus, found in the first chapter of Acts, describes the ascent of Christ from the Earth to the Heavenly realm. According to Acts, the Ascension of Jesus takes place 40 days after the Resurrection in the presence of his disciples. Christ is risen after advising them to stay in Jerusalem until the arrival of the Holy Spirit. As he rises, a cloud obscures him from their view, and two men in white arrive to tell them that he will return “in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.” In Christian doctrine, the Ascension is correlated with the Deification of Jesus, meaning that through his Ascension, Jesus took his seat at the right hand of God: “He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.”

The Resurrection of Jesus and His Crucifixion are the central historical events in the Christian faith. Without the Resurrection there would be no Christianity. “If Christ has not been raised,” wrote St. Paul, “then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:14). The foundation of all Christian doctrine hinges on the truth of the Resurrection. Jesus said, ” I am the Resurrection, and the Life: he that believe in Me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever live and believe in Me shall never die.” (John 11:25-26) Without the Resurrection, Jesus could have been thought of as simply a great teacher and a good man. But after he rose from the dead, his followers knew for certain that he was who he had claimed to be—the Resurrection and the Life, the Savior of the world.

The painting at the top of the post is titled “resurrection” by Oliver Pfaff.

About Joe

I began my life in the South and for five years lived as a closeted teacher, but am now making a new life for myself as an oral historian in New England. I think my life will work out the way it was always meant to be. That doesn't mean there won't be ups and downs; that's all part of life. It means I just have to be patient. I feel like October 7, 2015 is my new birthday. It's a beginning filled with great hope. It's a second chance to live my life…not anyone else's. My profile picture is "David and Me," 2001 painting by artist Steve Walker. It happens to be one of my favorite modern gay art pieces. View all posts by Joe

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