The Passion of Christ
At His trial on the night of His arrest, his accusers spit in His face and punched Him. They broke His body but in so doing strengthened His resolve." The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward. I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard. I did not hide my face from insult and spitting. The Lord God helps me , therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame" (Is.50.5-7).
Following the trial "Pilate took Jesus and had Him flogged" (John 19.1). "Flogged" doesn't sound so bad. It sounds like they took him to the local pub and got him drunk. But what they did to Jesus was far worse that that. Credit Mel Gibson in his movie The Passion of Christ for bringing the cruel act of flogging before a world audience in all its gruesome obscenity. Isaiah foresaw it and described the messiah's suffering centuries before it happened. "So marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of mortals" (Is.52.14).
It seems to be a rule of fallen human nature that when a person is up, people all want to follow him; everyone wants to get on the bandwagon of a winner. That was Palm Sunday. Everyone wanted to be in the parade. But on Good Friday, when Jesus was down, suddenly there was no one to be found who would stand with Him. " Awake, O sword, against my shepherd, against the man who is my associate," says the Lord of hosts. "Strike the shepherd, that the sheep may be scattered" ( Zech.13.7). People run toward a winner, but from a victim, a loser, from a weakling they flee. The same crowd who cheered him on on Sunday turned away from him on Friday after he was "flogged" (Jn.16.32).
Pilate brought Him out and presented Him to the people. He gave them a choice. They could have one man set free. Barabbas , a murderer, or Jesus. They chose to free Barabbas. As for Jesus they yelled, "Crucify him!" (Mt.27.22). Thus the scripture was fulfilled, "He was despised and rejected by others....He was despised and we held him of no account" (Is.53.3).
It is interesting to contemplate the many similarities and differences between humans and lesser mammals. A convinced evolutionist may believe that human beings are nothing more than advanced primates and that the differences between our species may be accounted for by the addition in humans of a single gene or two. If there is a confession of blind faith alive in our world today and if the devil is actively seducing people's reason, this is it. For the differences between human beings and lesser mammals are too numinous and ineffable to be accounted for by biology alone. I was listening to the Brandenburg concertos the other day. There is nothing in the lesser species that, when compared to those concertos and the mind that conceived them, may be called "genius". We identify genius among us, whether its in Bach's music, Rembrandt's painting, Shakespeare's poetry, Einstein's physics, or thousands of other points of light across all cultures because humans alone have the capacity to think abstractly and to discern transcendent truths. We can see things that are invisible, things that touch this earth but are not confined here. We alone do math. We alone conjugate verbs. We alone, seeing beauty in rainbows, are moved to tears. We alone pray. We alone have an immortal soul that equips us to know God. Genius is revealing of the soul and sprit of humankind; the essential characteristic of our species that has no basis in biology.
We are manifestly superior to the animals. Nevertheless, there's one thing about us that sets us forever apart from but beneath the animals. Unlike us, they are never cruel. Humans alone are guilty of cruelty. Beasts are permitted to act beastly. Owls eat little rabbits and sharks eat seals. They are guilty of nothing. It's simply what they do. Without moral reason to harness their instincts, they have no choice in the matter. But human beings know better than to act like beasts. Human beings know that it's wrong to be cruel, that something more is expected of us: we are supposed to be kind. I witnessed a pride of lions devour an antelope one night in the Botswana jungle. I was bullied once and threatened with death by a gun-toting thug in Heritage Park who meant it. The lions were just being lions. But what was the man being? The problem is that when men sink to the level of animals they become subhuman, frightening in a way I suppose even to themselves. Christ came face to face with the subhuman cruelty of humans beings: men become beasts. It was required of Him that before he died for the sins of the world that He see the ugly face of beastly humanity up close: "Many bulls encircle me, strong bulls of Bashan surround me, they open wide their mouths at me, like a ravening and roaring lion," (Ps.22.12-13). And all the while, as they pressed the crown of thorns into His head laughing, the devil was whispering in His ears, "Are you sure you want to die for these beasts? Are they really worth it?"
Bulls we can understand. God made them to be bulls. But bullies? Who made them? They serve not the King of kings but the prince and ruler of this world. The mockery of Christ was the devil's hour to revel. If we wish to know what vulgar humiliation Christ endured for us sinners, we have only to contemplate Jesus being stripped naked by His executioners and remember that this very same man evaded many angry mobs in his lifetime. He could easily have evaded this one (Lk.4.30). That is why, for me, the most riveting and revealing scene in the story of Christ's passion is the scene in which the Roman guards, preparing Jesus for crucifixion, pause to mock him. It wasn't enough that they were going to execute the man whom many regarded as the greatest genius of their age or of any age; they had to have some fun (sic) doing it. So they humiliated Him by striping Him naked, putting a purple robe on Him and a crown of thorns on His head and bowing at His feet hailing Him as their king ( Mt.27.27-31). What animal would do something like that? Animals kill to eat or to defend themselves. Only humans find joy, laughter, and pleasure in cruelty. What separates us from the animals? I would say it is two things; a soul that loves and sin that hates. There is something in us that biology cannot account for, something that makes us so beautiful that Christ would chose to endure this humiliation for us and something, the other side of the coin, that turns us into monsters, good for nothing but like rotten wood, to be" gathered, thrown into the fire and burned" ( Jn.15.6).
As an added indignity, the Romans made the man sentenced to death carry his own cross. Thus Jesus, who had earlier said to the disciples, "Take up your cross and follow me," (Mt.16.24) now led by example. It was for Christ the moment of utter defeat. They had broken him. He fell under the weight of the cross. Unable to continue the climb up the hill to Golgotha, the guards grabbed an innocent bystander out of the crowd and compelled him to carry the cross for Christ. We know who he was: "Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus" (Mk.15.21). Isn't that curious that we know his name? There were no reporters on the scene. No journalists were there conducting interviews. So how is it that we know this man's name? Why didn't he, after reaching the top of the hill, lay down the cross and just disappear from history? He was not a disciple of Christ. He was a tourist from a North African city with a large Jewish community. He was there, like thousands of other Jews were there that day, on a religious pilgrimage. His encounter with Christ was totally random. And yet, we know his name because his sons, Alexander and Rufus, later became friends of St. Mark. They attended the same church together in Rome, where St. Peter himself was the bishop.
Were Alexander and Rufus with their father in Jerusalem that day for the Passover? Maybe; we don't' know. We do know that Peter was not there to help carry the cross when Christ fell. He had denied even knowing Jesus and went into hiding (Mk.14.66-72). Mark also ran away the night of Jesus's arrest (Mk.14.51-52). And yet, these same four men, years later, came to be members of the Church in Rome. And they remembered Simon of Cyrene, the man who literally carried Christ's cross for Him.
We don't know what Jesus said to him, if anything. Is it possible that Jesus in His weakness whispered to him, "Thank you"? One thing is for certain. Simon looked into the eyes of Our Lord as He was saving the world and that was all it took. The eyes are the window of the soul, and Simon saw in those eyes that the man whose cross he bore was no criminal. Far from it. He looked into those sacred eyes, and later that day into the tearful eyes of his mother as she wept at the foot of the cross for her son, and he saw in the eyes of them both the pure light of Eternity (1Tim.6.16). I don't know, but I do not think one who looks Eternity in the eye ever again can see the world in quite the same way. I imagine that rather than lay down the cross and walk away from the crucifixion he stayed to contemplate the meaning of the event into which the hand of God had thrust him. I can imagine him walking over to St. John , who was with Mary, and asking the beloved disciple, "Who is he?" And I can hear John sadly reply, "He is the bread of life. He is the light of the world." And I can imagine Simon suddenly feeling an overwhelming hunger and a thirst to know more about the man called Jesus. A hunger that only intensified the more he learned; a thirst that changed not only his understanding of what love is about but altered the course of his life and that of his two sons forever.