The Circumstances of the Passion

Even in the midst of Ordinary Time, all of the spiritual masters of the Church recommend that we create a spiritual rhythm to our prayer.  Obviously this pattern centers on the weekly feast of the Resurrection that we celebrate each Sunday.  In order to live the Sabbath to the fullest though, it is necessary to journey through Our Lord’s experience on Good Friday as well.  This is why Fridays have always been marked by contemplation of Our Lord’s Passion.  In one of her many encounters with Our Lord, St. Faustina records that Jesus was pleased “best by meditating on His sorrowful Passion and by such meditation much light falls upon my soul. He who wants to learn true humility should reflect upon the Passion of Jesus. I get a clear under-standing of many things that I could not comprehend before” (Diary, 267).  The clarity of understanding comes about by striving to fill in the concrete details of His sufferings.  As we do this, we are filled with a new awareness of the incredible depths of God’s love.  It takes merely an intellectual assent to say that Christ died on the Cross for each one of us.  But when we are forced to sit with the circumstances of just how that death came about, our hearts are engaged in a whole new way and filled with a desire to be nearer to Our Lord.

Before examining some of the specifics of Christ’s Passion, it is fitting to repeat a point that St. Thomas makes in his treaty on the Passion of Christ in the Summa Theologica (ST III, q.46, art 6).  One of the questions that he seeks to answer is whether the pain of Christ’s Passion was greater than all other pains.  He does this in order to help us to avoid the trap of seeing the Passion of Christ as somehow just an act of divine willpower.  What this leads to is the habit of somehow seeing Christ as somehow stoic in the face of His sufferings.  Instead it is meant to remind us that the Divine Son took to Himself a human nature so that He Who was by nature incapable of suffering, could suffer.

But this human nature was not one that was marred by the stain of Original Sin and thus capable of feeling pain and suffering in a way that the rest of us can hardly imagine.  Because His body suffered from no defects, He felt the wounding all the more.  His sense of touch and the constitution of His nervous system were also perfect and thus each wound would have been felt with a force we could only speculate upon.  The physical wounding would have been accompanied by an incredible sadness at being wounded through the hatred of those He loved.  Because His will was fixed on undergoing the Passion, He did nothing to mitigate the suffering.  He did not distract Himself or allow anything that would have numbed the pain.  Instead “He permitted each one of His powers to exercise its proper function,” as Damascene says.

Also, being keenly aware of how justice needed to be fulfilled, He would have embraced “the amount of pain proportionate to the magnitude of the fruit which resulted therefrom,” namely, that He might most perfectly accomplish His mission as the redeemer of men.

Given this, when we look at some of the individual circumstances surrounding the acts of the Passion then we should know that the pains we imagine are multiplied in Our Lord.  It bears mentioning as well that some of these will seem to contradict traditional iconography, but each of them does accord with experimental truth.  Interestingly enough the evidence found on the Shroud of Turin (a doctor in the 1950s named Pierre Barbet investigated this) also agrees with what we know both historically and experimentally making a forgery very unlikely.

Shroud of Turin

Crucifixion is perhaps history’s most brutal form of execution.  In the “fullness of time” Christ came to a Roman ruled Israel where Rome had perfected this practice they borrowed from Carthage.  It was not only the particular sufferings of being crucified, but the duration of the sufferings.  Crucifixion led to a very slow death.  Relatively speaking though, Christ’s death was rather quick.  So quick in fact that when Joseph of Arimathea goes to Pilate, the latter is surprised that Jesus that the man he condemned to death just three hours before is already dead (Mk 15:44).  This is not however because of Jesus somehow checking out early, but because of the depth of His sufferings prior to the Crucifixion.

Of the four evangelists, only Luke mentions the “agony” that Christ suffers in the Garden.  Being a doctor himself, he is very precise in how the agony manifested itself namely that “His sweat became like drops of blood falling on the ground” (Lk 22:44).  Luke uses very specific medical terms, Jesus sweat (idros) become clots of blood (thromboi).  What St. Luke is describing has since come to be known as hematidrosis which is a medical condition by which the capillaries in the sweat glands rupture.  Given the surface area of the skin, this could have led to a great loss of blood, but even if it was localized it causes the skin to become very sensitive to pain.

Dr. Barbet also found that the wounds on the Shroud are consistent with someone who had been scourged.  The Shroud shows the markings of a man with more than one hundred wounds from scourging.  We should keep in mind that this would include only those that broke the skin so that actual bruises would not show up.  This means that he was scourged probably 200-300 times.  It also showed a man who was naked because the ones in the groin area are just as deep as anywhere else and had his hands bound overhead as there are none on the forearms.  Regardless of whether this is the actual burial shroud of Christ, this gives us an idea of what a typical scourging would have been like.

The further weakening of Christ occurred in the carrying of the Cross.  Historically speaking, a cross was made in two distinct pieces in order to make the process more streamlined.  The vertical piece (“stipes crucis”) was affixed to the ground and the horizontal was movable (“patibulum”). Most of the crosses were rather low for ease of attaching the two pieces and to allow for the wild beasts to attack the crucified.  Only in rare cases was the crucified lifted higher to be on display.  The condemned man then would not carry the entire cross but just the patibulum.  It was placed on the man’s shoulders and both arms outstretched and then bound by cords to the chest, arms and hands.

When Our Lord arrived at the crucifixion site, His arms would have been nailed to the Cross.  As Dr. Barbet pointed out, crucifixion in the palms is an impossibility.  They could not have held the weight and the hands would have torn.  Instead it was done with a nail in the bend of the wrist.  This would have been extremely painful because it would have injured the median nerve each arm.  Once the “patibulum was raised up and connected to the stipes, they would have nailed His feet as well, one foot over the other (if the Shroud is to be believed it would have been left over right rather than vice versa as most artists depict it).

Finally we come to the actual cause of death.  Asphyxia was always the cause of death in Crucifixion.  With the arms affixed spread out, cramping would begin to set in and the contracted muscles would make it impossible to exhale. The only relief would be to relieve the dragging on the arms by “standing” on the stipes.  This would bring about cramping and fatiguing in the legs and lead to a dragging on the arms again.  This back and forth would continue until He was too weak to stand.

While Our Lord would have been able to speak while He was standing, that would have been extremely difficult.  This ought to give us pause as to the profundity of the Seven Words spoken by Him, especially the last where He stands to say “it is finished “ and returns to the hanging position (bowing His head) and turns His spirit over to mankind (John 19:30).

In the third week of his Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius invites the retreatant to meditate on the Passion of Our Lord.  Given the Ignatian reliance on the imagination, we can gain much fruit by allowing history and medical science to inform our reading of the Gospel accounts of the Passion.  St. Ignatius, pray for us!

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