It has been my habit each Easter for the past 20-something years, to pull out Jim Bishop’s classic, The Day Christ Died, from 1957, which was re-published in 1977. If you’ve never read it I highly recommend it, because it puts a very human face to the King of glory and Lord of all the earth.
Bishop was one of the first to describe the painful horrors of crucifixion, together with the reality of the scourging prior to the Cross. Some poor souls never even went beyond the scourging, it was so devastatingly brutal in its sentencing.
I give you here, the closing hours of Christ’s Passion from the book, with the powerful clip from Mel Gibson’s great movie…
The events which unfolded on Calvary’s Hill, otherwise known as Golgotha (the place of the skull) outside the walls of Jerusalem, circa 30 AD…
One Hour On The Cross
There had been one article of clothing left over after the garments of Jesus were divided. This was a tunic – an undergarment made like a long petticoat. It was stained with the Savior’s blood, but Abenadar was interested because it appeared to be a garment without a seam. He stood on the rock with his fingers inside the neck band, turning it around trying to find a seam. There wasn’t any.
The centurian was just. He wanted the garment. When it was washed, it would be worth more than the other items, but he decreed that he and his friends should have a little more wine and then roll the cubed bones for the tunic. The soldiers passed it around, feeling and looking for a seam, but found none.
When they began to gamble for the tunic, Jesus looked up to heaven and said loudly: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do!” It was so unexpected that the soldiers stopped the game briefly – for even in their half-drunken state the extraordinary words must have brought a moment of wonder; Mary, who had been weeping, stopped suddenly and broke away from young John to look up at her Son.
What Jesus had uttered was a prayer asking for forgiveness for the soldiers who callously crucified him and who divided his garments. But when he uttered the word “them,” it embraced more than the soldiers. The ejaculation asked pardon for the high priests, the Pharisees, Sadducees, the people, the world. It included the man with the disordered mind who had destroyed two people in one day – Judas Iscariot.
Love. This is what he meant by love.
Two Hours On The Cross
Jesus began his final hour on the cross. The traffic through the Gennath Gate was down to a trickle. The beggars whistled, and their kin came back and carried them off. The soldiers dozed on the dark rock. The cluster of people around Golgotha was composed of hardly more than the few who loved Jesus and the few who despised him. The sky remained under a dark veil, and some said that it must be an eclipse of the sun, although the more learned knew that this could not be, because the sun was now in the western side of the sky and the moon would rise in the east after sundown.
Even in gloom, the city inside the gates was in a holiday spirit; the crowding of religious people at the temple, far from being an irritation, was a source of brotherly joy to all. In the outer courts, thousands and thousands of men assembled, awaiting the call to the mid-afternoon sacrifice.
Few knew about the fate of Jesus. The exact whereabouts of the apostles other than Judas and John at this time is not known. In any case they were ashamed – and quiet in the agony of their shame. The priests said nothing, because they did not want the execution of Jesus to become known to his many followers. On the temple porch that afternoon, scores of men asked: “But where is this great Jesus, who teaches us in the name of the Lord? Where is the Galilean who raises from the dead and makes the blind to see. We have heard much of this Jesus. Where can he be found?” No one knew. No one would tell.
Three Hours On The Cross
Now, at the end, Jesus again pulled himself up to the top of his cross. Again he spoke. “Father,” he cried, “into your hands I commit my spirit!” One of the soldiers came around to the front of the cross to take another look. Then he went back and lay down on the rock.
From Jesus’ lungs came a final cry: “It is finished!” The body sagged on the cross. Jesus willed himself to die.
A sound went through the air as though a herd of animals had stampeded underground. A fresh breeze expelled its brief breath on the wildflowers.
The earth trembled and a small crack fissured the earth from the west toward the east and split the big rock of execution and went across the road and through the gate of Jerusalem and across the town and through the temple, and it split the big inner veil of the temple from the top to the bottom and went on east and rocked the big wall and split the tombs in the cemetery outside the walls and shook the Cedron and went on to the Dead Sea, leaving fissures in the earth, the rocks and across the mountains.
The centurion and some of the soldiers jumped to their feet in alarm. They came to the front of the cross and looked at him and at the darkened sky and the crack across the big rock. The centurion bowed his head. “Assuredly,” he said to the others, “this man was the Son of God.” He was troubled, and he turned to look at the friends of Jesus – perhaps to ask a question – but he saw that they had moved the Mother of the Messiah back towards the crossroads near the gate.
It had been a long day. A very long day. There was much to remember, and some would remember it this way and some would remember it that way. Much of it had been done in secret, in spite of the public execution, and it would be weeks before the news reached the small towns of Galilee and the settlements east of Jericho.
The grief among the followers of Jesus would be poignant, a volatile fuel which, in its own fierce flame, burns itself out quickly. They did not understand. (For a moment in time at least, they could not understand.) To their way of thinking, this was now a tragic defeat. It was not.
It was victory beyond their most exalted imaginings. He had come here to die. And he had died. He had come to preach a new covenant with his Father, and he had preached it. He had come to tell man that the way to everlasting life was love – each for the other, each for him, and his love for all – and he had proved this by laying down his life in a torrent of torment – for them.
He did not die particularly for the Jews, or for the Gentiles. He died for man. All mankind. He came to Earth to lay the foundations of his new covenant because he and his Father were dissatisfied with the old. The Father had never made a covenant with the Romans, or the Greeks or the Egyptians. He had made it, through Moses, with the Jews. And the leaders of Judea had, over the centuries, perverted that covenant until worship became a matter of externals in which all inner love was missing. If a new covenant was to replace the old, it would be negotiated with the same people.
That is why he had to die in Israel; that is why, of all the cities in Israel, he had to die in the Holy City – the city of his Father. The high priests rejected him and plotted against him and killed him. The people didn’t. The people were looking for the Messiah, waiting eagerly. And, although Jesus did not fit their conception of a resplendent Messiah clothed in clouds of glory, they were willing to listen. They did listen. And many of them gave up their worldly possessions to follow him. The people were of good heart.
Inside the sepulchre now, Jesus was not dead. If he was, then all men are dead; they creep irrevocably toward darkness. But this is not so. There were too many signs to the contrary. For two and a quarter years, Jesus pointed the way and, had he followed the dictates of his heart, he would have done nothing but cure and cure and cure. In a way, the miracles interfered with his mission, which was to preach the good news and die. His body was to be rended and its functions were to cease. In this immolation, his soul would be glorified and in this too he was pointing the way to man.
The two Marys sat with their backs to the stone. They loved him and, in their love, they missed the enormous triumph; the new promise; the good news.
They did not even notice that the sun was shining.
Sole` Deo Gloria!
Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you. Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you. Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and ordained you, that ye should go and bring forth fruit, and that your fruit should remain: that whatsoever ye shall ask of the Father in my name, he may give it you. These things I command you, that ye love one another. ~ John 15:13-17
THE DAY CHRIST DIED ~ Jim Bishop, 1957