The cross was an instrument of torture. It was as much a deterrent to others as a punishment for the convicted person. For that reason it was a public display of the might of Rome and its attitude toward criminals, dissidents, and the generally unwanted elements of ordered Roman society. It was a gruesome, torturous death that struck fear and loathing into the hearts of the people. In Palestine it generated as much resentment and bitterness as fear and respect.
Gabriel remembered Jesus’ first encounter with the cross as a boy. He had been with his father and mother when they first returned from Egypt and were on their way to the town of Nazareth to start a new life.
Nazareth was a place of no great importance, off the beaten track, in the backwater of Galilee. But the tetrarch Herod Antipas, an astute statesman who ruled that area for most of Jesus’ life, had his residence for much of that time only four miles from Nazareth in Sepphoris. Later he would build his own capital city, Tiberius, and when Jesus was still a very young man he would move his court there. In any event, Nazareth was not as isolated as many thought and the young Jesus and his family would hear all the current news.
When they first arrived in Galilee on their way back from Egypt, they knew something was terribly wrong. The somber looks and fearful glances the people gave every passing Roman soldier told the story. After King Herod had died a number of uneasy events had afflicted Galilee. There were many who wanted to take advantage of the unstable political situation and use it as a time to declare political independence from Rome. Remembering the story of the Maccabees, and harboring the hope of a Maschiach that many expected to come at any time, the people were ripe for action.
There was a man named Judas, a Galilean, who made his claim as a leader of the people and backed it up with action. Many considered him to be the Maschiach for his bold and courageous dealings with the Romans. He and his warrior-disciples raided the royal palace at Sepphoris and seized the weapons in the armory. The excitement had spread until he had over six thousand armed followers and they dominated the town of Sepphoris and the area around it until the Roman governor in Syria marched down with two legions of crack Roman soldiers to crush the revolt.
The Romans wanted to teach a lesson to the restless Galileans and so two thousand men were crucified, including Judas himself, their bodies hanging and rotting on the crosses for weeks as a deterrent to others with similar ideas. It was a gruesome time for the people, Gabriel remembered, a time filled with grief. But he also remembered the boy’s face as he had stopped to look.
Joseph had been leading the donkey on which his wife sat, together with the few goods they had accumulated in Egypt. She was large with her second child and was tired and dozing in the saddle. Jesus had been running and skipping along beside the road, running ahead one moment to see over the next rise or lagging behind to play with one of the shepherd dogs that he encountered from time to time. The boy wore nothing but a rough brown tunic and was as dark as the land itself. His legs were strong and his feet were dusty and bare, the soles of his feet hardened by years of contact with the earth.
Sepphoris was just over the next hill and it was coming on to evening. They would not make Nazareth that night and had planned to stay in Sepphoris and go on in the morning. They had heard the stories and they were sad for the people but the reality and the horror of it all somehow never impressed itself upon them.
Jesus was running ahead to get his first glimpse of the city. He thought all cities were like Yerushalayim, large and filled with strange delightful surprises and bustling with a hundred different cultures and dialects. But Sepphoris was not like that and Joseph could see the disappointment and sadness in Jesus’ eyes as he looked over the rise.
It was nothing more than a large town, Joseph smiled to himself. But his smile turned to sick astonishment as he also caught a glimpse of what lay over the rise in the road. His steps became slower and slower as he came up to where Jesus stood, his bare, young arms hanging sadly at his side.
Stretching out before them on both sides of the road were rows upon rows of crucified men – neighbors, friends, perhaps even relatives. Tears of anguish came into Joseph’s eyes and his heart cringed within him as he looked down at his son.
The innocence of life is a frail thing. He was only a boy of five but he had a look on his face of deep maturity. There were no tears but there was a seriousness in his face that threatened to break Joseph’s heart. Mary was weeping quietly on the donkey behind them and Joseph dropped his hand to his boy’s head and caressed him gently but Jesus said nothing. Together the three of them walked down the hill and passed between the rows of the crucified.
Hanging on those crosses were not only men, Joseph anguished, but the crucified hopes of the nation. When would it be enough? When would the suffering stop? When? He squeezed his eyes shut tightly for a moment. Conflicting emotions fought for dominance in his heart and he glanced at Jesus as if expecting him to have an answer for this great tragedy and injustice. But Jesus said nothing.
When they came to the first cross, Jesus had stopped and looked up at the man hanging there with his serious face and a single tear slipped from his eye and fell to the ground. All the way into Sepphoris, Jesus was quiet and did not turn his head from a single one of those that hung there. Each one, in his turn, was gazed upon and noted and then the next and the next as if he was engraving each person upon his soul.
Joseph wondered about his little man who was not his but belonged to all of Isra´el and he wondered how this display of Roman cruelty and injustice would be paid back when Jesus revealed himself as the true Maschiach of Isra´el.
Yes, Joseph thought harshly, one day there would be justice for all of this.
Yes, agreed Gabriel, there would be justice one day, but a justice rooted in the love of God for all men, a justice that would be found on another cross, beside another road, outside of another city.
Tundrac was ecstatic. He was still drooling over the wonderful scourging that Jesus had gotten at the hands of his soldiers. He thought of them as his soldiers, though he did not have total control over them. They had sweated it out with Pilate, working him and manipulating the situation in concert with the chief priests and the elders of the people. Pilate had been strangely unhelpful and even hindered their progress. After all, they were on a tight schedule. The Passover was in full swing and the Shabbat was at hand. They had to get it over with.
It was his stroke of genius to plant the example of Herod’s treatment of Jesus into Pilate’s thinking. If you can’t beat him, join him, Tundrac giggled gleefully. He stopped, appalled at himself. Had he just giggled?! All of this drunken cruelty towards Jesus was making him act like a novice. He had to get a hold of himself. He looked quickly around the room from the corners of his eyes to see if anyone had noticed. They hadn’t and he relaxed a bit.
He forced himself to resume his train of thought. Pilate was working to get Jesus freed, so Tundrac had planted the idea that a good scourging and some ridicule would soften the stance of the religious leaders. Of course, it had been a lie. Pilate never understood the real motives behind this whole wonderful fiasco. It had only enraged the chief priests more seeing Jesus in a royal purple robe with a crown on his head no matter that it was made of thorns. The mockery could not hide the truth that he was, in fact, a king, and it scared and enraged the religious leaders so much that they called for his immediate crucifixion. It had all worked so well. Tundrac chuckled.
But the most delicious moment of all had been in the courtyard where Jesus had stood unprotected and alone with an entire cohort of Roman soldiers to play with, and they knew how to play rough. Some of them had remembered the night before and the strange healing power that Jesus had displayed but most of them had not witnessed it personally and were indifferent to who Jesus really was. He pretended to be the king of the Jews when there was no king but Caesar. That alone deserved death, and word had come from Pilate that they had been given permission to have fun with this one.
The demons had crowded around, hanging from the walls and turrets of the courtyard, biting and clawing for a better view of the proceedings. Gleaming eyes glared their hate toward this man, though many were also full of cautious fear. Their ravenous hunger for blood and revenge mounted with every passing moment into a great roar of bloodlust as the Roman soldiers stripped Jesus of his clothes and laid bare his naked vulnerability for the entire spiritual world to see. How they howled with glee as first one and then another of the soldiers slapped Jesus and spit on him in contempt. Not wanting to miss the opportunity, the demons joined in the game, their own spit flung at him from evil mouths.
Suddenly one of the soldiers got an idea, whispered into his mind by a small demon clinging to his back. It was mockery making his presence known. Tundrac standing in the front row of the demons, his hands on his hips, roared with laughter as a crown of thorns was made and thrust cruelly upon Jesus’ head. A small trickle of blood started to flow down his face but he did not lift his hand to wipe it away. Mockery danced and fluttered about like a deranged puppy happy to make his master, Tundrac, happy.
Tundrac roared his orders and the ranks quieted and leaned forward, their mouths open, great tongues flickering and drooling at the anticipated feast. Glaring, bloodshot eyes watched every move as the soldiers prepared for the bloodletting. Jesus was shoved toward a stake in the middle of the courtyard and his hands were tied roughly together with rope and fastened to an iron ring imbedded in the wood. His feet were kicked backwards and spread open until he was leaning against the stake and holding on to it in order not to fall over.
A huge soldier, with arms and shoulders bare, the sweat glistening off his muscular forearms, began uncoiling the scourging whip, flicking it occasionally as he tested it. Suddenly, without warning, it reached out to write a cruel streak of blood across the back of Jesus but, although his back cringed and arched in pain, he did not cry out.
It struck again, and this time a howl erupted from the hordes of demons watching. The sky above was black with their fluttering presence and, as they realized that the Son of the Living God was not going to retaliate, their response broke loose into a frightful howl of delight that rose in strength with each stroke of the whip. The sound was a spiritual nightmare of hellish pleasure as the blood feast went on and on.
At first the soldiers laughed and joked among themselves but they were largely indifferent to the fate of Jesus. Some were curious how this man would stand up under a good Roman scourging, but other than that it was only a distraction, a bit of entertainment for the battle-hardened troops.
As the bloodlust filled his head with a roaring scream for more, Tundrac could hardly hold himself still. He knew that he would not be given the ultimate pleasure of feasting on this soul but he still wanted a more intimate contact with this man’s pain. As the sound of the whip increased in tempo, he went forward and stood there behind the Roman soldier and mimicked every stroke, every coiling of the whip, every stretching of the body and reach of the arm, every powerful stroke downward. Hungrily he lusted to feel the pain, to enjoy the artistry of crisscrossing welts and the violation of tearing skin and sinew and erupting blood.
He had no authority to enter here as he and Slimfroth had done with Caiaphas. The religious were much easier in that respect than the merely secular. The heat of rage was an easier gateway than the cold, uninterested completion of duty. But, even so, his demons watched jealously as he vicariously partook in the scourging and they envied him his pleasure.
Finally it was done, and the howling of the demons broke off into the giddy laughter of those who have satisfied their lusts. It was not enough but more than any of them had expected. None of them really believed it would happen until it did. And now they were filled with scorn for this mockery of a king, this Jesus, this Son of God.
One Roman soldier brought a purple robe and roughly wrapped it around Jesus’ shoulders and another put a reed in his hands to act as a scepter and began to bow down to him and mock him saying, “Hail, king of the Jews!” Then someone ripped the reed out of his hands and hit him on the head with it, causing more blood to flow from beneath the crown of thorns.
Demons likewise flew into the courtyard and dropped to one knee to give mocking homage to the King of the Jews, imitating and mimicking the soldiers and enjoying it greatly.
When it was all over and it was time to return Jesus to Pilate, Tundrac grinned with satisfaction. Even if they could not torment his soul – that pleasure was reserved for the Evil One himself – this alone had been worth any price that they would have to pay. He roared his satisfaction, a strange sense of ultimate, heady power coming over him and he felt that he could do anything, be anything that he wanted. He had struck the Son of God and had gotten away with it. The sense of raw power was intoxicating.
A small sprite of a demon – it was mockery coming to claim his reward – brazenly swaggered into his path as if he had some right to address his master as an equal. With a roar Tundrac drew his sword and with flashing speed lopped off his head, mockery’s smirking lips slowly changing into shocked disbelief as his head landed on the ground at Tundrac’s feet. With his sword in his hand, the sensation of invincible power coursing through his veins, he raced into the sky, brandishing his sword and slashing the air and shouting blasphemies to heaven.
But of course, Heaven made no reply and finally he swooped down to take control of the situation while his army of demons watched in admiration of his power.
Yet Tundrac was thoughtful. It was all too easy. He was enjoying himself like he had never enjoyed himself before but still he could not shake the feeling that something was very, very wrong.
It was called “the skull” – Golgotha for the Jews, Calvary for the Romans. Its gruesome name came as much from the executions carried out there within sight of the city walls as it came from the look of the shadows in the caves of the nearby rock quarry, especially in the twilight hours.
It was a dump for the refuse of the city and yet bordered one of the most prestigious burial grounds around Yerushalayim. The rock quarry guaranteed a dry and safe tomb for the richest families although it was marred by being in such close proximity to the site of execution for common criminals.
It was to this place that the wailing, mocking procession was making its way a short time before noon on Friday, the 14th of Nisan, calculated by the Jewish calendar.
Two bandits, common thieves, would be crucified with him, one on each side. They had been found guilty, together with Bar Abbas, of thievery and insurrection but without his luck. The came behind, carrying their cross, their hands tied firmly to the wooden beam. They, too, had been scourged, a rough but necessary mercy for those who faced crucifixion.
One of them had fought and cursed and spat at his tormentors in the hopes of even rougher treatment and therefore, hopefully, a shorter time of suffering upon the cross. But the soldiers just laughed at him. They knew their job.
Jesus was already weak and stumbled repeatedly as he walked this Via Dolorosa. Gabriel was awash with grief to see his Master, his friend treated so. He wanted to rush to his side but was forbidden to interfere. He knew it was for the best but still his heart seemed to crush him from within as he watched from a safe distance. It was not his time. Not yet.
But Jesus was not strong. He was a carpenter, yes, but he was also a rabbi. He was not a hardened soldier or a zealous warrior or a stubborn criminal. Gabriel longed to be at his side and take that cross from him, put his arm around him and carry him away.
Not that the flesh was that important. The battle was spiritual, after all. But it was a spiritual battle waged in the context of blood and bones and sinew so that humans could witness it and understand it and benefit from it.
On the other hand, the flesh was all important. After all it was a human battle, a human problem, a human alliance with the Evil One that had to be broken.
It had been a Holy Genius that had moved Him to clothe himself with the flesh and spirit of humanity. It boggled the mind to contemplate what He had done but it was working.
Yet for Gabriel the Divine Strategy lacked its former excitement in the light of the reality of the cross. He anguished over his Master, human and weak and suffering on behalf of others, and he longed to comfort him.
Jesus stumbled once more and fell heavily to the ground. The soldiers, tired of the slow pace, grabbed a strong looking farmer from the crowds and forced him to carry Jesus’ crossbeam.
Gabriel smiled grimly to himself as he watched what the Spirit had done. In one moment, the Spirit had given aid and had taught a lesson. The man was Simon of Cyrene, who was just coming in from the country, a bit early in the day but wanting to prepare for the Shabbat. He was a godly man and Gabriel knew that he would never forget this day.
But the Spirit was saying more with this act of kindness. Was this a fulfillment of Jesus’ words to his disciples “If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
Yes, thought Gabriel, that’s it.
He watched as Simon heaved the crossbeam to his own shoulders and without understanding it all yet, he began to walk behind Jesus, following Jesus. It would be a prophecy of how Simon would live, for in time he, too, would become a follower of the Christ. Without realizing it Simon was giving a living testimony to the life of following the Master, a life of crucifying the flesh, a life of dying to oneself, dying to the kingship of self and living as followers of the King of Kings.
Gabriel was filled with a wild and joyous certainty that whatever was happening to his beloved Master, he was not beaten, not cowed, not overthrown by the enemy, no matter what it looked like.
Gabriel realized that in his love for Jesus he was missing the bigger picture. He began to realize that he had never seen such a royal procession as this, he had never beheld such a royal crown, as that crown of thorns, such a royal robe matted with blood and sweat, such a royal king stumbling and limping down the path to his coronation, burdened with the sin of the people he loved, willing to lay down his life. The cross would be his throne as well as his seat of judgment and he would be buried among the wealthy, as royalty should.
Gabriel realized that the Spirit had given him new eyes to see, and he was filled with wonder mixed with sadness at the revelation that was unfolding before him.
Crucifixion was a hideous way to die. In ancient Isra´el someone sentenced to die might be stoned or strangled and then the dead body hung on a tree as a deterrent to others. But the law directed that it should be taken down at sunset and buried out of sight because it was an affront to God. A criminal is also made in the image of God but has committed a sin so severe that he had to be removed from among the living. If the public exposure of a corpse, even the corpse of a criminal was something God turned his face away from, how much more the crucifixion of a living person.
Crucifixion was designed to humiliate, to strip a person of every vestige of dignity. It was also a prolonged and unspeakably painful method of execution. Already weak with the pain of the scourging, the crucified man was stripped naked and left to dangle helplessly on the cross, open to the jeers and mockery of the passers-by. He endured a living death for hours or even days filled with the agony, the dehydration, the cramp, the flies, and the stench of his own bowels. He had difficulty breathing and the support under his feet only prolonged the desperate attempt to capture the breath of life. Nails were driven into the forearm just above the wrist and another through both heels together.
But even so, Gabriel watched with pride and a grief that would not go away as Jesus was crucified on a hill called Golgotha. In his weakest hour he was the most powerful person on earth, for he was obedient unto death. Upon a tree, cursed by God, the king of self, sin itself, was punished and executed in the person of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the King of Kings.
Lucifer was waiting. Every moment was filled with anguish and longing. A longing to participate in the great demonic feast of pain and suffering and revenge that he, too, desired to inflict upon this Son of the Living God. He felt the pounding of the nails in the spiritual realm as metal was forced through skin and bones. He savored each hammer stroke, each crushing, painful violation. He saw every spurt of blood, every wince and gasp of nerve-wracking pain. Like the true masochist that he was, his soul thrilled to the hellish anguish of his ancient enemy even as he wondered at his incredible stupidity to be caught like a fly in a trap, helplessly waiting to have his holy wings ripped from his body.
He grinned maliciously. He liked the analogy.
Tundrac was there at the cross with his hordes of fluttering, clawing, excited demons drooling over every detail and Lucifer felt an impatient annoyance with his lieutenant.
He was jealous, he realized, a bit surprised. He was unused to feeling the sensation himself, though he had stirred the coals of jealousy in many of his victims over the years. But he held himself back as a miser does who desires something but is reluctant to make the payment. He knew that there would be a reckoning but he was far beyond any second thoughts, any remote idea of going back, or stopping what was about to happen.
He would have a revolt on his hands if he tried to stop it now, he thought briefly.
No, that wasn’t it. He was more like a lover in a brothel, tempted beyond reason by the delightful sounds and sights but knowing that he must keep himself pure for the moment of greatest pleasure and delight. It was not the body only that he wished to inflict with terrible pain, but the spirit, the man himself, unclothed, vulnerable, open to his wrath. He would have him for three days, he would control him, he would dominate him in his own place, his own territory and he knew what he would do. The plans had been laid and everything was ready.
He growled a low guttural sound of contentment, like a great lion purring softly in anticipation of a feast.
Now that it had really begun, he was amazed at how cool and controlled he had become again. Perhaps his lust was uncontrollable only so long as he was unsure if he would be able to satisfy it. Now that it had begun, now that Jesus was on the cross, he knew that it was only a matter of time and so he could afford to be patient.
He smiled to himself as he pondered the secret cruelties he had in store for his enemy, waiting for the moment of death.
Yes, he would wait. He would watch, most certainly, but he would wait for his own time to come.
Lucifer hunched down in his throne, his dark wings wrapped tightly around him as he watched the crucifixion through slitted, bloodshot eyes from his perch in the fortress of Antonia.
“What do they want this time?” Pilate roared at the Tribune.
It wasn’t the Tribune’s fault really, Pilate was just tired of the entire ordeal.
“They want you to change the notice that you ordered placed above his head, sire.” They both knew who they were talking about.
“What’s the problem?” demanded Pilate, thinking of how petty these people really were. Now they were going to argue over the wording of the accusation. It was typical of these people who seemed to make such a big fuss out of ritual and words from their holy book. Well, words were important to the Romans too and he would not be pushed on this one.
“Tell them, what I have written, I have written,” Pilate ordered.
But he knew what the problem was. He had deliberately written the accusation as a claim to kingship. He should have written the words “sedition” or perhaps “insurrection” as the charge against Jesus but he had written instead the bold acclamation “King of the Jews.” He had written it in Hebrew, Latin and Greek so that all of the people in Yerushalayim for the festivities would understand what this was all about.
It was his last defiance of the Sanhedrin.
Here was an innocent man, he raged within himself, arguing with his own conscience. Here was a king in demeanor if not in fact, betrayed and put to death by his own people – with Roman permission, of course, he reminded himself. This was a king unworthy of such an obstinate and backward people.
Pilate was no longer thinking about Jesus, his fate was already in the hands of the gods. He wanted to exact a revenge upon those that manipulated and forced this disgrace upon him. He was already feeling guilty for what he had done and he wasn’t used to it. It made him furious.
Let it be known, the words echoed in his mind as he clenched his fist in anger, that a criminal crucified in disgrace between two common thieves is the self-proclaimed king of this backward Jewish people. It was a disgrace to the leadership of this nation that the hopes and dreams of the people would die upon the trash heap of the city. They would bear their shame in the open for all the world to see. What I have written, I have written.
He turned away from the window and the sight of the cross beyond the city walls and the king that hung upon it and went back to work.
But even Pilate did not know the truth of what he had written and because he did not know the truth, the truth could not set him free.
It was done.
The noonday sun beat hard upon the earth and sweat poured from beneath their helmets as they grunted and cursed in the completion of their duty. It was all in a day’s work. Not one of them was new to this gruesome duty and they were immune to both the pain they inflicted and the desperate pleas of the condemned and their families alike. The crossbeam was affixed to the pole and the inscription nailed above his head. They had laughed at that, recognizing Pilate’s derision of these stubborn Jewish nationalists.
But one of the soldiers, a centurion, was thoughtful as he went about his duty. There was something different about this man. He had spoken with the Tribune at length about the healing he had witnessed in the garden and although they had come to no firm conclusions, they had both taken a personal interest in the proceedings.
With a heave the four of them lifted the heavy cross, together with its human cargo, into the air, the base already poised to drop into the hole. With a thud and a wretched cry of anguish from the condemned man the cross fell into place. Quickly and with the efficiency of long practice, the other two criminals were also displayed one on each side of Jesus.
Resting for a moment, the centurion watched as a few women and at least one man approached the cross.
Probably one of his disciples, he thought, watching the man closely and appreciating his courage. He glanced again at the women, their faces filled with fearful sorrow and love.
Yes, love, noted the centurion. That was unusual. Most of the ones he crucified were criminals who deserved no better. But this man was loved, at least by some of the people. He was a rabbi after all, a carpenter by trade not a criminal like the other two. But he noticed the scowls and stares of some of the others who passed by and knew that this man had enemies as well.
He stood beside the cross and looked up at the man hanging there, touching the rough wood beside the bleeding feet for a moment to steady himself and saw that Jesus was looking at him. His fellow soldiers were already crouching in a circle behind the cross dividing up the clothing that Jesus and the other two had worn. He would get his share, he knew.
Then he heard Jesus speak and at first he thought he was mistaken but the look in his eyes as Jesus gazed at him from the cross could never be misunderstood. Every other criminal cursed and spat at the soldiers for what they did but Jesus had been calm and quiet and now he had spoken the kindest words the centurion had ever heard.
The centurion stepped back, turning his head to look more closely at this man, Jesus, whom he had crucified – under orders, certainly, but still by his own hand. Was there something more going on here than meets the eye? What is it that he and his fellow soldiers did not understand? The chief priests and the elders had told Pilate that Jesus claimed to be the Son of God and that had concerned Pilate to some degree. What was this all about anyway?
After a few moments, he turned away from the cross deep in thought and watched absently as the other three were about to rip apart the undergarment of Jesus, which was seamless, woven in one piece from neck to hem. For some reason that the centurion could not even guess at, he wanted that robe and he intervened quickly.
“Instead of tearing it, let’s throw dice to decide who is to have it.”
He knew that it was barbaric to dispose of such personal belongings within earshot of the condemned men, but they certainly would not need them again. Of course, that was why it was barbaric. It was a reminder to them that their cause was truly hopeless, there was no way back, no return from the cross, no need for their clothes ever again.
He turned his attention to the dice and, with the confidence that came from knowing he held destiny in his hands, he threw the die upon the dirt and knew that the robe would be his.
Mockery was an art form dear to the corrupt hearts of the demons. But this mockery, this symphony of ridicule, this orchestra of derision brought howls of gleeful laughter and cackling gaiety to his band of demons as never before.
Tundrac was amused but also concerned. They were no longer an army but rather a motley rabble without discipline, focused on the cross and the man hanging there.
What would happen if they were attacked by the heavenly armies even now? What if it was all a trap?
But then he dismissed the concern from his mind. They had gone too far to turn back now and, after all, the Evil One was here and he knew what he was doing. Hopefully!
Never had there been a time of festivity and gaiety like there was in those few moments when they mocked the Son of the Living God trapped upon the cross. They started with their own mockery, a mockery rooted in rage and fear and relief that he was finally beaten and nailed to the cross. When the demonic forces had spent themselves diving and swooping around the cross laughing out their uncertain derision with growing boldness, Tundrac roared out his orders for silence and a disorderly calm descended upon them in anticipation of his next move. Within moments, Tundrac knew that he had done his preparations well and that the spiritual climate was right. When the other demons realized that Tundrac was trying to hear what the crowd of humans were saying, they became even quieter until suddenly, they burst out with loud guffaws and grins at what they heard.
The passers-by jeered at Jesus as he hung on the cross. They shook their heads and said, “So you would destroy the Temple and rebuild it in three days! Then save yourself! If you are God’s son, come down from the cross!”
The demons laughed at the irony of it. These stupid, self-righteous humans were mocking the Son of the Living God and didn’t even know it. He was God’s son but they didn’t believe it for a minute. If they even suspected the truth, it would certainly put the fear of God into them.
Tundrac enjoyed the irony of this double mockery. While these blind humans mocked Jesus as a pretender, his demons mocked them for mocking their own Creator, the Son of God in the flesh. It was great sport.
But Gabriel knew that there was a deeper irony still in the mockery that Jesus endured. Not only was he truly the Son of God, as the demons knew, but he could, in fact, come down from the cross whenever he chose to. That fact was the greatest irony of all. He was not beaten and humiliated in his weakness as the passers-by thought. No, he was exerting the most powerful force in the universe by staying on the cross, the power of obedient love.
He was not some extremist or dreamer that made impossible claims about building a Temple in three days. He was in fact the most practical leader imaginable and in his own body, by staying on the cross, he was both destroying the true Temple and rebuilding it in three days by rising from the dead. But, of course, neither the demons nor the humans understood that truth yet.
Gabriel, too, appreciated the irony of the situation but it was a tragic irony and not something to laugh about.
The chief priests and elders of the city and the scribes stood on the city walls, watching from a distance to make sure that he was really dead. They would not even think of defiling themselves by going down to that trash heap among the dead and making themselves unclean for the rest of the Passover much less the Shabbat the next day. Their aloof manner and preening self-righteousness was without remorse for what they had done, and as the leaders of the people, their mockery was low-born and disgusting.
“He saved others,” they said, “he cannot save himself.”
Gabriel could not believe their stubborn blindness to the obvious. Yes, he healed others, he saved others, he even raised others, like Lazarus, from the dead! Doesn’t that tell them something?
Gabriel was not accustomed to such spiritual blindness. Both the angelic as well as the demonic world saw the truth with either glorious or painful clarity. But not humans.
As if all the other signs of his kingship were not enough, now they wanted him to do a selfish un-kingly act of raw power and brazen showmanship and come down from the cross so that they could believe in him. Gabriel shook his head in wonder. And what then? They would believe in him finally but it would do them no good. Redemption would not have been accomplished and they would be no better off than the demons who believe in God and tremble.
“He puts his trust in God,” they laughed at his simplistic faith, “now let God rescue him if he wants him. For he did say, ‘I am the son of God.’”
So it has come to this – a mockery of God Himself, Gabriel thought. The scriptures are clear that anyone who puts his trust in God will not be put to shame. Would God not fulfill his own promises? Furthermore, Gabriel knew that God, the Father, would rescue him from death and the grave but not from the cross. So this mockery of God was, in fact, a prophecy of what was to come. Not only for Jesus but for them. For they have become those who mock the Lord’s anointed One. The chief priests and elders and the scribes themselves would be put to shame, for God did not want their kind.
Gabriel raised his arms toward Heaven and blessed the Majesty on the throne for the ability to see with Heaven’s eyes and be spared the terror of the blinding darkness of sin.
Even the soldiers mocked him, although it was a mockery rooted in ignorance. Still, their mockery came in concert with all the others, a mockery of the entire world against her Savior. And for the soldiers, it was a mockery in the face of a forgiveness freely given them for their part in this most terrible holy drama, which made their guilt even deeper.
Finally, the spirit of mockery arrived even upon the cross as one of the bandits began to deride Jesus in his pain and desperation.
“Are you not the Christ?” he said, the anguish and frustration evident in his voice. “Save yourself and us as well.” The final words came out in a hoarse, choking scream. What kind of king are you? What good are you to us, if you can’t save us from this Roman torture? Are you any use to anyone at all?
Gabriel could feel the questions and rage this man had toward an unjust world. But Gabriel knew that he was no ordinary patriot caught up in the indifferent mechanism of Roman justice. He was a criminal, a common thief who took advantage of the political unrest to pursue personal gain. Both of the bandits were part of the same gang and had, indirectly, contributed to the murder that Barrabbas had gotten away with.
The bandit who raged at Jesus between gasping breaths was no different from the others who raged from the ground as they passed by. They wanted a Maschiach who would lead them to victory over the Romans, who would promote their great cause for independence. They knew nothing of rebellion towards God or spiritual blindness or redemption from sin. Their hearts were closed to the real work of salvation that Jesus was completing on the cross, though all the world mocked him for it.
But suddenly Gabriel was smiling. He saw a flickering light among the demons, darting in and out among the dark mass of demons so quickly that few of them noticed. If Tundrac had been less concerned with the center cross, he would have picked out the enemy presence and dealt with it immediately. But the few who noticed and tried to cry out a warning were drowned out by the howls and cries and the flurry of activity that surrounded the hill called Golgatha.
Then Gabriel realized what was happening and his soul rejoiced at the subtle ingenuity of his Lord and Master. Yes, the world would mock him as he died upon the cross but not everyone in the world. As always, God had a remnant, a few left- over forgotten people that he reserved for himself. There would be a new brother in paradise this day.
Gabriel watched closely as a living testimony of true salvation was enacted on the cross itself, blending the act with the result, the beginning with the end. A story of grace that had obviously begun long before this moment.
Daniel had heard of this rabbi, his name was Jesus. He was the miracle worker from Galilee. Oh, how he wished for a miracle this day! But no, he knew in his heart that it was not to be. Here on this cross he would live out his last moments, a fitting end to a life of misery and strife.
He had no illusions about himself, he was a thief and he had been caught. So be it. His cousin, Rueben, had warned him that the Romans would crack down on any overt activity just before the festivities. He should have listened!
But it was more than that. He didn’t just regret getting caught, he was tired – bone weary and fed up with the thievery and running and hiding. It had started out with great patriotic hopes for bringing independence to the Jewish people but had dwindled into nothing more than surviving by stealing from his own people.
Truth be told, he was disgusted with himself and with Zacka, his partner in crime. Why didn’t he just shut up.
It was bad enough to hear the mockery of the passers-by and the soldiers but now Zacka was starting to mock this rabbi as well. And Daniel forced his concentration up through the haze of pain and lifted himself higher so that he could gulp more air, hardly recognizing his own hoarse cry as he rebuked him.
“Have you no fear of God at all?” he said.
He fell back. The pain was intense and he was not sure he could go on but he heaved himself upwards again to draw breath and threw out his confession in the presence of Heaven.
“You got the same sentence as he did, but in our case we deserved it.”
He drew more breath with the strangling sound of a drowning man, but determined despair drove him to his moment of truth.
“We are paying for what we did. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Exhausted he slumped into the limp, choking position of defeat wondering in his pain filled daze what had gotten into him. The truth, he supposed. What’s the point of lying to himself or to God! God knew who he was and what he was.
In his pain-filled delirium all the stories about this man, Jesus, came flooding back into his mind and he remembered that this rabbi had claimed to be the Son of God. The Son of God – hanging on a cross! It couldn’t be.
But Daniel was beyond thinking logically about anything. The pain was a harsh taskmaster and his guilt and remorse harsher still. For some inexplicable reason, he knew that it was so. This was the Son of God! He could not do the miracles he had done if he wasn’t who he said he was. He understood nothing except that he believed.
Tears filled his eyes as he crooked his head towards Jesus and once more summoned up the courage to face the pain, and heaved upward to draw the vital air that he needed to speak.
“Jesus,” he said.
At the sound of his voice, Jesus turned to look at him, his eyes tender with understanding.
With tears streaming down his face, Daniel blurted out the desire of his heart. “Remember me” he started and then choked on his own spittle and hacked and coughed while a great wave of pain swept over him. But then he finished with a whisper “when you come . . . into your kingdom.”
There it was, rejoiced Gabriel.
First the confession of sin and rebellion and then the gift of faith in Jesus Christ, the Son of God and in his willingness and ability to save. It doesn’t have to be difficult. It doesn’t even have to be understood. It is not theological but relational. It’s about Jesus and knowing that he is the Savior, somehow, some way. He is the King no matter what it looks like. It has to do with him and with what he did.
“When you come into your kingdom,” he had said. What faith! And what logic, too. For if he is the Son of God, then there is a reason for the cross, there is a kingdom, there is salvation. This was faith in the resurrection without knowing anything about it. It was faith not just in a fact of history not yet completed, but faith in a person, faith in the Son of God still in his weakness upon the cross. There is no other name under Heaven by which mankind will be saved. And here it was, a living testimony of the difference Jesus Christ would make in the lives of millions of people throughout the centuries.
Lucifer has no idea what he’s gotten himself into, smiled Gabriel to himself.
Suddenly, the flickering light that had been darting through the demonic ranks blazed into a shape of brilliant, angelic light and stood at regal attention at the foot of the cross on which the thief hung. Gabriel recognized him immediately. It was Sundor and he had a fierce, exultant smile on his shining face. This was his charge and he was about to win a battle that had looked impossible only moments before.
It was a moment worth waiting for, a moment like no other for it would shock the demon warriors and disturb them profoundly. Even for the angels it would be a step of faith. The battle had changed, the strategy was new and although they had been briefed, it still took some time to get used to this new authority that Jesus was creating upon the cross.
In an instant Tundrac was there, furious with the intrusion, but before he could react Sundor raised his sword and spoke firmly, “I have authority here.”
The demons that surrounded him paused and looked at Tundrac for confirmation but Tundrac was not having any of that. “You have no authority here. He is ours.” He roared out his fury and frustration, thinking that this angelic warrior was here for Jesus.
What would he say to his Evil master, if Jesus was rescued before he died? He knew that Lucifer was waiting in agony for the moment he could claim his prize. He wanted to feast upon that soul more than anything he had ever desired before.
“We will not give him up!” Tundrac took a menacing step toward him but Sundor did not move but only smiled more fiercely with the knowledge that these demonic vermin had no idea of what was really going on.
None of them knew that Lucifer was already half-standing from his throne, wondering what was happening even though he heard every word. He had planned to wait until the final moment before nearing the cross but now he wondered if he should get closer immediately and take control. What were the angels up to? Did they not know the contract that he had with Heaven? They had no right to interfere.
Lucifer was concerned but, yet he hesitated. He had planned every move he would make. When he would approach the cross, where he would stand and what he would say, every step a ritual of worship to his power over his ancient enemy. He wanted nothing to go wrong now.
He decided to let Tundrac handle it alone for now and settled back into his throne, irritated and unsure of himself.
Gabriel knew that Sundor had acted a moment too soon. In reality he had no authority yet but he obviously enjoyed pushing the fine edge of danger and had unveiled himself in anticipation of what Jesus would say. Of course, there was no doubt as to what would happen, but you were supposed to wait.
Gabriel smiled at the audacity of his brother. Here was an angelic warrior the heavens could boast about.
Into that moment of hesitation, Jesus spoke through his pain and smiled weakly at Daniel. “Indeed, I promise you,” he replied to Daniel’s declaration of faith, “today you will be with me in paradise.”
“Hallelujah!” The triumphant cry came from the lips of Sundor. “Praise be to the Lion of Judah, the Lamb of God,” he cried, brandishing his sword to the skies.
The demons were stunned not just by his triumphant cry but by the overwhelming shock wave of spiritual joy in the heavens as every angelic voice in all of creation, including Gabriel’s, repeated the cry, “Praise be to the Lion of Judah, the Lamb of God.”
The demons trembled to hear it and for a moment they all stepped back away from the cross in uncertain terror at this unknown thing that was happening.
Tundrac was about to challenge this new authority that Sundor claimed over this human soul. At least now he knew that it had nothing to do with Jesus. But before he could react, Sundor rose into the air and said firmly, “I will be back at the appointed time to claim that which belongs to Heaven.”
Strange words indeed, fumed Tundrac. Do not all the dead belong to them? Did not Lucifer himself create death and hell? Did he not have the keys in his own possession? What was this impertinence about?
Before Tundrac could say or do anything, Sundor flew off in a blazing comet of light. Tundrac looked around confused and then turned to look towards Lucifer watching from the fortress of Antonia. But Lucifer did not come.
Tundrac shook his head slowly from side to side as he thought, and then looked sharply at the cross and realized that nothing had really changed.
They might have lost a thief but they still had Jesus. It didn’t matter in the least. He would let Lucifer decide what it all meant. He would carry on as if nothing had happened. And with a wave of his hand he ordered the mockery to continue as before.
Gabriel was thoughtful. It had been a bold stroke to include in the Passion Drama this foretaste of authority and triumph.
But was there any danger of being found out? What could Lucifer do now, at this point in time, even if he did finally figured out what was really happening? No, it was too late for him. The cross would win the day.
How incredible to think that one of his Master’s last acts before he died on Calvary was to snatch a soul from eternal death and land him safely in heaven. To a dying criminal, the gospel came with clear and pure sounds. From Roman soldiers to common thieves, even in Hell, Christ was setting the captives free.
Gabriel felt the love in his heart as it burst forth in a gushing stream of rejoicing for his Master, his Lord. And Gabriel began to sing his praise fiercely but quietly within himself and he felt the Presence within respond.
Even so, the Passion was not over and the sun in the sky began to hide its face in response to the wrath of the Father being poured out upon that center cross. And once again, Gabriel was filled with dread as the full force of Hell was loosed against the fragile Lamb of God.
Mary knew this moment would come though she had no idea that it would come like this. Simeon had predicted long ago at the birth of her son that a sword would pierce her soul one day. She, of all people, had witnessed this most incredible event from the very first day. She was his mother, but he was more than just her son. He was her God, too. The mystery and the agony of her motherhood threatened to overwhelm her with grief. She simply did not understand why he had allowed this terrible thing. The cross.
There was little Jesus could say to relieve the pain cutting into her heart, but he could think of her future, and he did.
Yochanan, the beloved disciple, scorning the Jewish leaders, would not leave his Lord’s side, even at the cross. It was dangerous, he knew, but he didn’t care anymore. His heart was heavy with the knowledge that he had run away that night in the garden. He had run when his heart had been crying out for him to stay. He had not listened. His fear was too insistent and he had deserted his Master. He was the one who lay close to the breast of Jesus at that final supper. He had spent three years at Jesus’ side as part of the inner circle. He truly loved his cousin, Jesus, though he never thought of him as a relative. But he had deserted him, nonetheless.
The words came unbidden into his mind and he looked sharply up at Jesus but it was not his Lord who had spoken. The thought stayed with him and he could not shake it. He hadn’t seen Peter since the night before and had half expected him to be here somewhere close to Jesus. Yochanan had no doubt about Peter’s love for his Lord. Peter was blunt and impatient and tended to run in where angels feared to walk, but that was Peter. And Yochanan knew also that Jesus loved Peter as much in return and more.
Find Peter. And Yochanan knew that he would. They all needed to be together now, to draw strength from each other. He would send out word for all the disciples to come together, although he saw a few of them already, mixing with the crowds and staying at a safe distance. He didn’t blame them. It was dangerous to be marked by the Romans or the chief priests at this point.
But here he was at the cross, himself, comforting Mary the best he could. A few of the other women were there as well, weeping and distraught in their grief. They would be left alone, for they were women and no threat to the authorities. Perhaps he had already been marked. He didn’t care. He looked fiercely at the Roman soldiers and the few scribes that were standing nearby as if to challenge them to do something about him.
Then, reluctantly, he turned towards Jesus. He had been dreading this moment when he had to finally look at his Lord in his agony and pain and know that he was helpless to help him. His tears coursed down his rough face to loose themselves in the wiry knots of his beard.
Mary took his hand in hers and they looked briefly at each other with tear-stained faces and then turned back to the cross.
Then Jesus spoke and the words were words of healing and strength for both of them.
Seeing his mother and the disciple he loved standing near her, Jesus said to his mother, “Woman, this is your son.”
Then to the disciple he said, “This is your mother.”
Yochanan and Mary – two of the most ardent followers of Jesus, given to each other as mother and son for both their sakes. The tie that bound them together was their mutual love for Him. Yochanan bowed his head in grateful acceptance that there was one last thing he could do for his Lord.
After a little while the four of them moved off a little distance to stand vigil for the last hours before his death. The women were determined to protect Yochanan with their presence and kept him away from the cross where, sooner or later, he would be recognized and arrested.
The Temptations of the Cross by Bert Amsing
Copyright 2012 by vanKregten Publishers. All rights reserved.