We’ve sung about the old rugged cross for years, implanting the image that Jesus was crucified on a hill (far away). Maybe that’s where Hollywood got the idea that Jesus was crucified high on a hill, cast against the landscape as if his death had been recognized even then as the most important moment of world history.
Not surprisingly, Hollywood and the songwriters got it wrong.
Jesus was crucified in front of a hill.
At eye level with his adversaries.
No Roman soldier would want to lug condemned men, their crossbeams or their equipment up a rocky outpost.
No member of the Chamber of Commerce would want their lovely Jerusalem marred by permanent execution equipment on a hill overlooking the city.
And most importantly, no one victimized by a thug would want to miss the opportunity to drop by the scene of the execution just to tell the guy he was getting what he had coming.
Plus, we’ve got historical accounts of crucifixion to help us paint a more accurate picture of the way Jesus died.
If you’ve not done the homework on how painful crucifixion would have been, do it sometime. It’ll take your breath away, which is, ironically, what it did to men writhing on a cross. Their lungs demanded air, which caused them to push up with their legs. That pain was far too sharp — excruciating, as we say today — so they would drop back down until they had to push up for another lung-full of air.
But what I’ve come to envision as the most surprising aspect of crucifixion is the eye-level part of the process.
He was staked up on a relatively short pole. The crossbeam kept his arms outstretched. His arms and legs were flexed enough to provide for the agonizing movement. Sometimes the victims lasted for days. Sometimes the preliminary scourging was so severe they didn’t last long at all.
During the waiting, it would not have been uncommon for the victims of crime to drop by and see punishment being carried out. Perhaps there would be taunting. Maybe a conversation. Maybe curses would be traded.
It was a nasty scene. Gruesome. Terrifying. Shockingly grotesque.
Jesus was close enough to those around him that they heard his words, despite the noise around them all. He took care of his mother. He promised Paradise to a repentant criminal. He quoted scripture four times as he breathed his last.
And of all things, he first of all forgave the people who put him there.
They were inches away from him. They were braced for spittle, blood splatter and worse.
They could not have possibly been prepared for forgiveness.
Before the day was over, the ground was shaking, the sky was heavy with darkness and strange things were being reported from the Temple.
I can’t help but wonder if the eye-level words of forgiveness had set the stage for the final scene from the story.
“When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, ‘Surely he was the Son of God!'” (Matthew 27:54)
Forgiveness has that impact on people.
Especially when the one offering grace is dying … and looking you in the eye.