JESUS says very little during his trial; yet the words he does speak cut to the heart of things. As St Thomas Aquinas explains, when Jesus says that his Kingdom is “not from this world”, he means that his reign “does not have its source from this world”. It is precisely because Jesus’s reign has a very different source — revealed by his enthronement on the Cross — that he can overcome this world’s principalities and powers (cf. John 16.33), reclaiming the created order for its rightful King.
Although facing outward humiliation, he is utterly confident when he teaches Pilate about the ultimate source of his power. St Augustine comments that “when Christ was silent, it was like a lamb; when he spoke, he taught as a shepherd.”
Every stage of the process of crucifixion was designed to dehumanise and degrade the victim, while ensuring that he remained alive. As Fleming Rutledge reminds us, “the Evangelists and other New Testament writers were able to assume a familiarity with the method that is unthinkable for us today” (The Crucifixion: Understanding the death of Jesus Christ). The scourging would have been conducted while Jesus was stripped naked, with small pieces of metal or bone fastened to the whip to tear into his skin.
Even the carrying of the cross by Simon of Cyrene (recounted in the other Gospels) was not an act of mercy. As Denis MacBride explains, “This arrangement is not a sign of unexpected compassion from the authorities: they want to avoid the victim dying on the way to crucifixion” (Praying the Rosary: A journey through scripture and art). The purpose of crucifixion was to reduce the victim to precisely the state described by Isaiah: “Marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of mortals.”
The crowd, as Rutledge explains, had a specific part to play in this process: “To exacerbate the dehumanisation and degradation of the person who had been thus designated to be a spectacle. Crucifixion was cleverly designed — we might say diabolically designed — to be an almost theatrical enactment of the sadistic and inhumane impulses that lie within human beings.”
Even if the brutality of crucifixion is unimaginable to us, the motives of the different human beings involved in this drama are much easier to comprehend. The religious and political leaders are each more interested in preserving their own status — and the delicate compromises that keep the nation relatively peaceful — than acting in ways that are just and true. Earlier, the High Priest, Caiaphas, declared the death of an innocent man a necessary evil to save the nation (John 11.50). Pilate likewise prioritises the maintenance of order over justice and truth.
The practice of dehumanising and degrading other human beings, and of glorying in their humiliation, continues in our own age: in the genocides of Srebrenica and Myanmar, the internment of Muslims in China, and the torture meted out in Abu Ghraib. As in the Passion narrative, the web of indifference, complicity, and silence goes far beyond the immediate torturers and killers to the centre of every human heart.
Our first response to Jesus’s Passion must, therefore, be a recognition of our own need of redemption. He dies to free us, not simply from the guilt that comes from individual sins, but from the dominion of sin. This is reflected in the liturgy for baptism, when (after signing candidates with the cross) the minister says: “May almighty God deliver you from the powers of darkness, and lead you in the light and obedience of Christ.”
John’s account speaks of both the pardon and the deliverance that flow from Calvary. Jesus dies at the very hour when the sacrificial Passover lambs were killed. In this moment, he becomes the final atoning sacrifice.
As blood and water flow from his side, Jesus’s life is poured out sacramentally upon the Church. As St John Chrysostom explains, “Not without purpose or by chance did those fountains spring forth. Rather, it is because the Church consists of these two together. And those who have been initiated know this, being regenerated indeed by water and nourished by the blood and the flesh. In this way, when you approach that awesome cup, you may so approach as though you were drinking from his very side.”
In these sacraments, we are made one with him — delivered from the power of death into his Kingdom of life and love.