Holy Cross Day

The actor Mel Gibson has made a film about the Crucifixion of Jesus. I am told that he sees most stories in terms of war and likes to emphasize the bloody side of things. If you went to see the film Braveheart you will know what I mean.

Because of the incredibly high cost of making a film with thousands of extras it is not possible to have retakes. You have to get it right first time.

It is interesting that in Braveheart only one take was done again and that was of horses being impaled on stakes in a charge. Don’t worry they were not real horses, but we might worry that the accent was on the killing, and we might question whether or not this bloody realism advanced the point of the story.

The early church has made a big thing out of the death of Jesus by crucifixion, a form of execution so cruel that even the Romans abandoned it in the end. People executed by crucifixion were nailed to a single stake or a stake with a cross bar. The nails were driven in through or between the bones in order to keep the body attached to the wood, otherwise victims would have to be bound as well.

If the person had been scourged beforehand they would be nearly dead when they were crucified. Scourging consisted of beating the person across the back, buttocks and legs with a lash of a dozen or so leather strands into which were fitted sharp stones or animal bones so that they cut into the flesh.

The victim often died through loss of blood. If they did not die with the beating of the scourge, they suffocated on the cross because they had not the energy to hold themselves up and so keep their lungs open.

From this simple description of what happened in physical terms, it is plain to see that a filmmaker can easily concentrate on the agony of the death, and its physical effects and we can become either numbed by what is going on or we lose sight of what this death was all about, because we have had it reduced to a blood bath of cruelty and excruciating pain.

Thousands upon thousands died in this way at the hand of the Romans. We should not be misled into thinking that Jesus was the only one or that his agony was worse than anyone else’s. If we concentrate on the crucifixion we may miss the real point of the gospel story and that is the resurrection.

Mel Gibson is a Roman Catholic and a fundamentalist. He has built his own church and likes to have the Mass said in Latin. He believes in the gospel story as undisputed fact and he dismisses the contradictions found in the gospels as being of no consequence. He has a little difficulty over the anti-Semitic views of the New Testament, though his father, apparently, does not, and has been quoted as saying that the holocaust of the Second World war has been exaggerated.

When I was at College in the sixties, it used to be said that the gospels were stories of the execution of Jesus with an introduction. Like many others at the time, and before, I thought that was probably true, but forty years of study has led many including me to a different conclusion. We also thought that, by and large, the stories told in the gospels were reasonably accurate in general, if not in absolute detail.

Elizabeth the First, who established the Anglican Church, wanted to rule over a people who believed in Jesus Christ using the same prayer book and bible, although she realized that some people had different interpretations and there were those who sought to offer allegiance to other authorities.

To justify her actions she said, the central premise is to have faith in Jesus Christ, and everything else is detail. I think I understand what she means, in the same way as I get the gist of the author of Hebrews when he says, Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen (11:1). The trouble is that we do what we do because of what we believe and it is in the detail of our belief that we find the most powerful motives.

Mel Gibson believes in Jesus, and so do I, but what he says and does, and what I say and do, is as far apart as chalk and cheese. It is too simplistic to say we are all Christian and the rest doesn’t matter, because it is mere detail. Go to the art gallery and the mere detail distinguishes the great from the mediocre.

Some time I’m sure you will get the opportunity to go and see Mel Gibson’s film and you can judge it all for yourself.

Will I go? No I am not interested in his film because of the detail of my belief. I no longer think that the gospel is the story about Christ’s death, and though I am intensely interested in what the writers of the gospels had to say, the fact of them saying it doesn’t make it a fact of history.

I actually think that what we used to believe was mere introduction to the crucifixion narrative has a statement to make for itself, and that the astonishing account of the resurrection has been overwhelmed by a bloody cross, and the search to blame someone for what happened that lets us off the hook. I mean, if we can shift the blame of what happened to a race of people to which we don’t belong, then how can our personal sin have brought about the death of Jesus?

Today is Holy Cross Day.  Helena, the Roman Emperor Constantine’s mother believed that she had discovered the true cross sometime in the fourth century … a pretty unlikely tale.

Imagine if that relic were available today, would you go and see it, and if you did, what would it do for your faith?

How does the dependence of objects square with the passage in Hebrews?

It seems to me that the easily understood description of the crucifixion became the relic to which everyone could relate. We could feel outraged by it, empathize with the pain and the cruelty shown to the one we want to adore, have an opportunity to blame others for it … whereas we can do no such thing with the resurrection that seems totally foreign. Who has heard of someone coming to life again and talking to their friends? We have little chance to identify with this.

Scene one: a party is in progress in your road, the noise is terrible, sleep is denied and you resent the people enjoying themselves at what seems to be your expense. You complain.

Scene two: you are sitting quietly when there is a terrible noise in the road outside, you rush to look and see five vehicles in a crash. You hurry to the scene with all your concerns working overtime.

Interpretation of the two scenes both involve others and noise, in one there is enjoyment and the other is hurt and maybe death but it is to the latter that you are drawn.

When we are offered a picture of crucifixion or resurrection it is to the crucifixion we are drawn but this may not be the real picture of Jesus we should be studying if we wish to understand the workings of God.

Scroll up