In April, we tend to think of Easter, but before we get there we of course have to go through Holy Week and the Passion of Christ. For this column I want to explore some of the lesser known facts of Christ’s passion, as portrayed in the four Gospels. The portrayal of Christ’s suffering in the Gospels is so rich in detail that it would be easy to write several years’ worth of columns, so I will be very selective.
The number three is predominant in the Passion: Three apostles are set apart in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus returns to them three times. Peter denies Jesus three times. In the Gospels of Luke and John, Pilate declares Jesus innocent three times. In Luke and John, Jesus speaks three times from the cross. In Mark, the crucifixion scene involves the third, sixth, and ninth hours of the day. Jesus is mocked three times as he was on the cross. All of this is to prepare the reader for the three days in the tomb.
Another interesting number has to do with Judas. In the ancient Hebrew language, letters had numeric value. The name “Judas” has the value of 30, the same as the number of pieces of silver he got for betraying Jesus.
The Gospel of John in the Gethsemane scene focuses a lot of attention on the torches used by those arresting Jesus. The irony is that they need illumination, because they cannot see the light of the world!
Interestingly, the part of the Passion narrative that the four Gospels most agree on is the denial of Peter.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus is condemned at noon on the Day of Preparation. The Day of Preparation is on a Friday, so called because the Jewish people had to prepare everything to be ready on the Sabbath so that they did not have to work and violate the Sabbath rest. This Day of Preparation was the day before the Passover, meaning he was condemned at the exact time Paschal lambs started to be sacrificed in the Temple.
In all four Gospels there is question put to the crowds concerning which prisoner should be released, Jesus or Barabbas, but in the Gospel of Matthew the choice of prisoners gets a bit more dramatic, because in some of the most ancient manuscripts, Matthew names the other prisoner not just Barabbas, but Jesus Barabbas. The reason that is important is because of what the name “Barabbas” means. In Hebrew, “Barabbas” literally means “son of the father.” So the choice in Matthew is between Jesus Barabbas, the son of the father, or Jesus Christ, the true Son of the Father.
One would think that when it comes time to actually describing the crucifixion itself the Gospels would be pretty specific, since it is the heart of the whole Passion narrative, yet the opposite is true. All four Gospels give scant detail when it comes to this most important part of Christ’s suffering. In Mark, it simply says, “And they crucified him.” Matthew says: “But having crucified him ….” Luke reads: “There they crucified him.” And John simply says, “… where they crucified him.” That is how each of the four Gospels describes the crucifixion.
Some scholars say that there was no need to describe crucifixion, because it was so well known and common to the original audiences. Cicero, a near contemporary of Jesus, said crucifixions were the “most cruel and disgusting penalty … extreme and ultimate penalty of a slave.”
You may have noticed that on older crucifixes there is often a skull at the base of the feet of Jesus. This is because of an ancient tradition that says Jesus (the new man) was crucified over the tomb of Adam (the first man), and that according to the tradition, some of Jesus’ blood seeped into the ground and touched the skull of Adam, momentarily bringing him back to life. If you were to go to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem today, you would see the traditional tomb of Adam right under Calvary. In fact, the name Calvary itself might be due to this tradition, since the word means skull.
In John 19:29, it is told that a sponge was dipped into some common wine and put on a hyssop branch to be raised to Jesus’ mouth. The hyssop branch is not a meaningless detail, since that is the same type of branch used to smear the blood of the Passover lamb on the doorposts of the Hebrews in the book of Exodus to spare them from death.
In both Matthew and Mark, Jesus is quoted to have said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” At first glance this might seem to be a confusing thing for Jesus to have said, but the fact is that those are the opening words of Psalm 22, which is titled “Passion and Triumph of the Messiah.” This is a Psalm that speaks of the Messiah having to suffer before his triumph. I encourage you to sit down and read Psalm 22 sometime before Holy Week. It is amazing, as it seems as though the author wrote it at the foot of the cross, though very likely it was written 1,000 years before Christ. So the words are certainly not words of despair. Rather, they are words of prayer, reciting the Psalm.
Finally, one interesting detail comes from the “good thief” in Luke’s version of the Passion. In stunning intimacy, the good thief addresses Jesus simply by name. The only person in all four gospels to do so, he also becomes the last person to speak to Jesus before he dies.
These are simply a few highlighted details of the Passion of Jesus as portrayed by the Gospel writers. I would suggest as we enter into Holy Week that we all take time to read the Passion narrative of at least one of the Gospels, not to learn but to meditate on what Christ endured for love of us. It might enrich our Triduum experience.