The Corner


Being the Good Thief

Worshippers carry a wooden cross during a Good Friday procession along the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem’s Old City, April 19, 2019. (Ammar Awad/Reuters)

In the most famous perp walk ever, Jesus lumbers from Pilate’s court to Golgotha, carrying the cross on which he’s to be nailed and left to die hanging. A dark, sadistic twist to the capital punishment he has just been sentenced to is that he’s made to transport the instrument of his execution. Along the roads of Jerusalem, he drags the crushing weight of a large piece of timber. He suffers it literally, bearing it (that’s the “fer” part of the word) from under it (“sub”). It’s the equivalent of being told we’ve decided to kill you and here’s a spade — go dig your grave, while we watch and laugh.

Christians in this age of science are inclined to meditate on the physical pain Jesus must have felt. The art of crucifixion was developed to maximize it. Nails were hammered in at spots where certain nerves would be struck for maximum effect. It was, as we say, excruciating. The modern medical literature on the ancient practice of crucifixion is fairly extensive.

The gospel writers don’t go into so much detail about that. They do in their own way, however, share with the science-minded a commitment to empiricism — to the importance of reporting what can be observed through the senses and leaving it to us, for the most part, to imagine the corresponding subjective experience that Jesus must have had. The facts they lay out are more social than medical, although in their telling the two categories bleed into each other.

In the Garden of Gethsemane the night of his arrest, Jesus sweats blood. We learn this from the Gospel of Luke, who was a medical doctor, according to tradition. The sweating of blood is a rare condition, hematridosis, that some physicians think can be induced by stress. Luke attributes the blood-sweat to Jesus’s “agony”: The phenomenon here, in other words, is psychosomatic, a physiological response to a psychological event, Jesus’s foreknowledge of his impending arrest, trials, torture, sentencing, and execution, to say nothing of his abandonment by most of his friends in this world and by his Father, God, who until then had been the wellspring of his strength and confidence.

Read the gospel accounts of Jesus’s passion and death slowly. Notice how many words are spent on descriptions of the social abuse, the mockery and public humiliation, and how the physical torments — the scourging, the crown of thorns, the carrying of the cross, the crucifixion itself — are also (I would say primarily) expressions of the ferocious hatred and spitting contempt that the political and religious establishments as well as the mob have decided to focus on one man for the day. Never underestimate the human capacity for sadism and gloating. It predates Twitter and Lord of the Flies.

Spoiler alert: The abrupt collapse of Jesus’s reputation and of his spectacular brief career — his “public ministry,” in the conventional phrase — will have been reversed and then some before the weekend is over. “In this sign you will conquer,” the Emperor Constantine is said to have been advised in dreams and visions in the fourth century, the “sign” being the cross. So he did.

The temptation to pass over Good Friday is great now that Christ is risen and his mission has been accomplished, but it’s been accomplished only in the sense that, if we have faith, we know how human history ends. We continue to advance toward our collective Easter Sunday, the general resurrection, the gift of victory over death and of life everlasting in a glorified body. We’re not there yet.

On Easter Sunday, as on every day throughout the year, the central symbol in most churches where Christians worship is still the cross, our reminder that, in our various sorrows — in our ongoing personal Good Fridays — we’re neither alone nor without hope. When you’re misunderstood or unjustly accused, meditate on the injustices and indignities inflicted on Jesus in that concentrated period of less than 24 hours between his agony in Gethsemane on Thursday evening and his “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” on Friday afternoon.

Jesus was blameless and we’re not, so he’s a difficult model for us to emulate. We may, like him, find ourselves punished for a wrong we didn’t commit, or we may find ourselves punished disproportionately, but if we’re honest we’ll admit all that we’ve gotten away with too. Tax evasion wasn’t the worst crime that Al Capone should have gone to jail for, but it was the crime the authorities could nail him on.

Original sin means never being able to say we’re innocent. “We receive the due rewards of our deeds,” the Good Thief tells the Impenitent Thief before turning to Jesus, who at this point is in his death throes on his cross between theirs. “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Languishing on our own crosses, we can probably say and ask for that much honestly.

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