‘Varus then sent part of his army through the country to search for those who were responsible for the revolt, and when they were discovered he punished those who were most guilty but some he released. The number of those who were crucified on this charge was two thousand.’Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, 17.10 (LCL)
Smeared ashes are an odd adornment for human skin. The cruciform imprint is even more bizarre. Many don’t celebrate Ash Wednesday and Lent, but if you see smudged foreheads today, you will have identified someone who is choosing to pull their lives into the shadow of Jesus’ cross.
That shadow is also a shade, a place of refuge. But it shelters only after the mockery and grim irony have had their say.
Crucifixion as Mockery and Irony
Ancient Rome had a way of fulfilling the aspirations of its revolutionaries. Uprisings were met with an alternative rising up. Those who wished to be elevated against Rome were swiftly accommodated.
The scene described above by Josephus, a Jewish writer in the first century, is typical. Crosses were for those who staged revolts. Insurrectionists were elevated on a cross, strapped or nailed naked to its beams, and positioned in the public field of vision. The punishment’s creativity is as ingenious as it is sinister. The irony is savagely exquisite. The mockery is comprehensive, total.
So, you want to rise up against the Emperor…? Wish granted.
Crucifixion thus served not only as punishment but as propaganda. When the state powers sentenced ‘death by cross’, this was not a quiet disposal in a dark alley, not a stealthy silencing of an awkward voice. This form of capital punishment was not carried out in a private viewing area or in the dungeon of some imperial palace.
The cross was a public spectacle.
Crucifixion both punished and published. The message: Imperial might is unassailable. No individual or well-organised cabal can overturn the powers that forever be. The Empire is certain, sure, fixed… as fixed as two great beams by thick iron nails.
The Cross of Christ
‘It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified him. The inscription against him read, “The King of the Jews.”’Mark 15.25–26
The Roman governor had placed two men of varied reputations before the crowds. One was a known insurrectionist, his record indicating he was willing to kill for the cause. This Barabbas was a typical candidate for a Roman cross.
The other man was harder to categorise. Jesus presented a case that fell outside the standard legal systems. The authorities who called for execution lacked the power to execute, and those who had that power lacked a clear case.
Barabbas was easy to account for. Jesus was not.
But any claim to kingship is a threat to the reigning king. So the Roman gavel slammed hard in Pilate’s Praetorium and the ‘King of the Jews’ was sentenced to a ‘raising up’. Golgotha would suffice – there was a hill. The people could see – because the cross is a spectacle.
The mockery becomes even more biting. And the irony becomes sharper. But the irony’s direction is reversed – it is not that an insurrectionist has been raised to die along with his grandiose dreams of rising up. It is that the High King who had no ambition for worldly power has been sentenced and mangled by those who do.
‘Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last.’Mark 15.37
The Roman representative on the scene, however, is suspicious about this particular crucifixion. We hear of a centurion who watched Jesus die. The event did not culminate in what should feel like a standard Roman victory. And fabric is heard ripping apart in the Temple. Suspicions abound that protocols of Roman power have not quite unfolded as expected.
But even if the folks on the scene and in the city were spooked, the man was dead. And if dead, then the system worked.
Odd weather, though. And never did I see a man die like that: ‘Truly this man was the Son of God.’ (Mark 15.39)
The Afterlife of the Cross
As Easter approaches, Christians will take fresh delight in the deepening layers of crucifixion’s irony. Good Friday’s suspicions will be vindicated. Though the journey to the cross and the journey from the tomb are often broken up as seasons in the church calendar, the New Testament writers call us to hold them together. Cross and Empty Tomb are chained together in the life of following Christ Crucified and Christ Risen. But on the journey towards Easter, we concentrate on the cross.
And one of the ironies is that Jesus’ cross has an afterlife. The death-instrument lives on… in a way. Josephus wrote about several crucifixions. The one described above was a mass execution involving two thousand crosses.
But Jesus’ cross was different. Only the Lord of Life could endure nails and beams, take the full brunt of their force, then transform their materiality into a shape smudged on foreheads and bearing power for today.
Paul writes of the cross as a point in time to which his own life is somehow nailed (‘I am crucified with Christ’ – Galatians 2.19). But he also speaks of the cross as having an ongoing power in the life of the believer. It is still a death-instrument. Its efficacy is still for killing. For Paul, the cross is neither a relic nor a talisman nor an adornment but a symbol for the way God’s Spirit allows us to participate in that deathly work by which the insurrection within our own hearts is squelched by the Empire of God. The cross of Christ takes our sin, our disfigured passions, even our ugly record of wrongs, and deals with them the way a cross does its business. From Paul again: ‘those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.’ (Galatians 5.24)
The Cross still deals out death. It is still reserved for insurrection. But it operates under a different legal system of a different Empire overseen by a different Lord. The cross has been appropriated by heaven. And now it kills sin and death.
Ashes symbolise the fragility of human life which will return to dust. Smudged over Christian faces, they recall one particular cross that did its work of death but has now been redeployed to bring life by removing deathly things.
Ashes daubed on human flesh are ugly. But if you see them today, remember the great irony that, in the form of the cross, they are also beautiful.