This last couple of days the lectionary has urged (or even forced) me to think of crucifixion and all that entails. It does not make for pleasant musing. Crucifixion was one of the most brutal and painful ways of killing someone. It is the root for our word for extreme pain — excruciating. Crucifixion was thought to have originated with the Babylonians and Assyrians, was used commonly with the Persians from about 6 BCE, brought to Eastern Mediterranean countries by Alexander the Great and introduced to Rome in 3 BCE by the Phoenicians where it was used for 500 years before being banned by Constantine 1.
During crucifixion one was tied or nailed to a stake, tree or cross. Death could be slow and painful taking from between six hours to four days. Death resulted from a combination of pain, haemorrhage and dehydration which caused the body to go into shock and progressive asphyxiation due to the positioning of the arms. Crucifixion was mainly used for slaves, Christians, disgraced soldiers and foreigners. A Roman soldier was placed at the foot of each cross and had to remain there until the person died hence the death-hastening practices of fracturing legs, stab wounds to heart area, blows to the chest and a smoking fire at the foot of the cross (to further impede breathing). It is all rather horrible, and I have only given a sanitized version. If anyone wants more detail, please use google!
So why have I gone into this in a little more detail than usual — I’m not trying to depress anyone. But, if this is the lectionary topic to think about today and during this week, it is important to know what crucifixion entailed.
Today’s reading (Luke 23.33-43) has a number of points worth considering. The text documents Jesus being crucified between two thieves, mocked and scoffed at by the onlookers and having conversation both with God and the thieves. Would conversation be possible on the cross? My research would lead me to say speech was perhaps possible but very hard and nothing like fluent.
So, at this point, I’m going to harp back to our discussion at Theology school where we looked at how comparatively recently the idea of reading the Bible as “literal” started to happen. There would be no concept of that in the pre-modern world. It is hard to get our heads round as we were schooled in such a different culture.
I would say it was unlikely that an intricate conversation as documented could have happened to people who were dying primarily from asphyxiation. Yet, I would also say — of course, it is real, it has changed people and society for centuries. It contains ideas around which our lives have been built.
The conversation itself is very interesting. The first phrase “Father-Mother forgive them for they do not know what they are doing” has been, perhaps, one of the most discussed phrases. In my Bible version it is bracketed indicating it is not contained in the earliest manuscripts. Theories abound both for it being original and initially omitted or it being a later addition — for example, it was part of the oral tradition and later added by scribe, it interrupts the flow of the narrative so could not belong there, it was added to bring the number of sayings to the special number of seven, it was omitted for antisemitic reasons or it was added to fit the ignorance-forgiveness motif of Lukan writings. I’m merely noting these, I’m not going to discuss them in detail.
The second recorded dialogue is between Jesus and the two thieves. As I read this conversation I noted the promise of future paradise for one of the thieves, I can’t help but think of what a comfort this inclusion would have brought to early Christians. It would have been lifechanging to those facing persecution, to those who were holding on to their faith knowing that they may be next on the cross. A powerful reminder that death was not the end for them, it was merely a doorway to paradise.
Finally, I want to mention the ongoing influence this text has had over lives and faith for centuries. It cannot be underestimated. This passage has had a powerful impact on our relationship with God and humanity. The conversations contained therein are all about forgiveness. I could even say that in one sense, this short reading sums up the message of the gospels. Forgiveness from God for humanity and in turn forgiveness between humanity. There is something about knowing one is forgiven and forgiving those who have caused personal harmed that makes one feel a bit lighter.
So, today’s lectionary was something of a journey — readers are brought once again face-to-face with death, learnt about the power of forgiveness and now are ready to step into advent with lighter hearts to prepare to welcome the Christ child, the incarnation of love.