Is the cross just a fashion statement?

I see crosses on people of all beliefs or non-belief. People wear crosses as necklaces, earrings, rings, and tattoos. Sometimes they are used as props for movies or as body art on scantily clad models in magazine ads. Even Christians will stick a cross lapel-pin into their tie or wear jewelry with coolly decorated crosses dangling from them. But as a Christian, when we wear the cross it should be obvious that it is a representation of what Jesus Christ died on so many years ago. We should be diligent that, even for our own selves, the true, original meaning of the cross does not get lost.

With this conviction in mind, I decided to look at the historical writings, medical facts, and scripture to gain an understanding of just what crucifixion was. When I was through with my studies I began to understand John 15:13 through the eyes of the man who literally lived this scripture out to fulfillment. No greater love!

It is reasonable to assume that Jesus was in good physical condition before his walk to Gethsemane. However, during Jesus’ time in Gethsemane he suffered great emotional stress (as evidenced by sweating blood) and abandonment by his closest friends (the disciples). In addition, the next days brought more stress in the form of a physical beating (after the first Jewish trial), a traumatic and sleepless night, and being forced to walk more than 2.5 miles to and from the sites of the various trials. These physical and emotional factors may have rendered Jesus particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of the scourging that was to follow.

At the Praetorian, it is most likely that Jesus was severely whipped as was Roman custom. Although the severity of the scourging is not discussed in the four gospel accounts, it is implied in one of the epistles [1 Peter 2:24 – “. . . by His wounds . . .]. The severe scourging, with its intense pain and appreciable blood loss, most probably left Jesus in a pre-shock state. Medical texts indicate that a person who has the condition that causes them to sweat blood would have particularly tender skin. The scourging prior to crucifixion served to weaken the condemned man and, if blood loss was considerable, to produce hypotension and even shock. The physical and mental abuse meted out by the Jews and the Romans, as well as the lack of food, water, and sleep, also contributed to Jesus’ generally weakened state. Even before the actual crucifixion, Jesus’ physical condition was at least serious and possibly critical.

The Roman soldiers, amused that this weakened man had claimed to be a king, began to mock him by placing a robe on his shoulders, a crown of thorns on his head, and a wooden staff as a scepter in his hand. Next, they spat on Jesus and struck him on the head with the wooden staff.

After the scourging and the mocking the Roman soldiers put Jesus’ clothes back on him and then led him and two thieves to be crucified. Crucifixion was one of the most disgraceful and cruel methods of execution. It was customary for the condemned man to carry his own cross from the flogging post to the site of crucifixion outside the city walls. Only the crossbar was carried and it weighed 75 to 125 lb. This was placed across the nape of the victim’s neck and balanced along both shoulders. Usually, the outstretched arms were tied to the crossbar. Jesus apparently was so weakened by the severe flogging that he could not carry the crossbar from the Praetorian to the site of crucifixion one third of a mile away. Simon of Cyrene was summoned to carry Christ’s cross, and the processional then made its way to Golgotha (or Calvary), an established crucifixion site.

The processional to the site of crucifixion was led by a complete Roman military guard, headed by a centurion. One of the soldiers carried a sign (titulus) on which the condemned man’s name and crime were displayed. Later, the titulus would be attached to the top of the cross.

Jesus’ clothes, except for a linen loincloth, again were removed, which probably reopened the scourging wounds. At the site of execution, by law, the victim was given a bitter drink of wine mixed with myrrh as a mild analgesic. After tasting it, Jesus refused the drink. Jesus was then thrown to the ground on his back, with his arms outstretched along the crossbar. When the victim was thrown to the ground on his back, in preparation for transfixion of the hands, his scourging wounds most likely would become torn open again and contaminated with dirt. The hands could be nailed or tied to the crossbar, but nailing apparently was preferred by the Romans. Although a nail in either location in the wrist might pass between the bony elements and thereby produce no fractures, the likelihood of painful injury was great. The driven nail would crush or sever nerves. The stimulated nerve would produce excruciating bolts of fiery pain in both arms.

After both arms were fixed to the crossbar, the bar and the victim, together, were lifted onto the main upright beam. This was done either by four Roman soldiers or by the use of either wooden forks or ladders.

Next, the feet were fixed to the cross, either by nails or ropes. When the nailing was complete, the titulus was attached to the cross just above the victim’s head. With each respiration, the painful scourging wounds would be scraped against the rough wood of the main pole. As a result, blood loss from the back probably would continue throughout the crucifixion ordeal.

The major effect of crucifixion, beyond the excruciating pain, was a marked interference with normal respiration, particularly exhalation. The weight of the body, pulling down on the outstretched arms and shoulders, would tend to fix the muscles in an inhalation state and thereby hinder passive exhalation. Breathing would become shallow. It is likely that this form of respiration would not suffice and the onset of muscle cramps or painful tendon contractions, due to fatigue and lack of oxygen would soon begin and would hinder respiration even further. Adequate exhalation required lifting the body by pushing up on the feet and by flexing the elbows and adducting the shoulders. However, this maneuver would place the entire weight of the body on the nailed feet and would produce searing pain. Flexing of the elbows would cause rotation of the wrists about the iron nails and cause fiery pain along the arms. Lifting of the body would also painfully scrape the scourged back against the rough wooden cross. Muscle cramps of the outstretched and uplifted arms would add to the discomfort. As a result, each respiratory effort would become agonizing and tiring and lead eventually to asphyxia. Christ spoke seven times from the cross. Since speech occurs during exhalation, these short, terse utterances would have been particularly difficult and painful.

It was not uncommon for insects to light upon or burrow into the open wounds or the eyes, ears, and nose of the dying and helpless victim. Birds of prey would tear at these wounds.

The soldiers and the civilian crowd taunted Jesus throughout the crucifixion ordeal, and the soldiers’ cast lots for his clothing. Soldiers customarily divided up his clothes among themselves. The length of survival generally ranged from three or four hours to three or four days. Often death would be hastened by breaking the condemned man’s legs below the knees. Since the Jews did not want the bodies to remain on the crosses after sunset, the beginning of the Sabbath, they asked Pontius Pilate to order that the legs of the condemned be broken to hasten the deaths of the three crucified men. The soldiers broke the legs of the two thieves, but when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Rather, one of the soldiers pierced his side, probably with an infantry spear, and produced a sudden flow of blood and water. The Roman guard would not leave the victim until they were sure of his death. Since no one was intended to survive crucifixions the body was not released to the family until the Roman soldiers were sure that the victim was dead. It was custom for one of the Roman guards to pierce the body with a sword or lance, wounding the heart through the right side of the chest. If the victim was not dead before this wound, it most certainly would prove fatal.

Jesus’ death after only three to six hours on the cross surprised even Pontius Pilate. The fact that Jesus cried out in a loud voice and then bowed his head and died suggests the possibility of a catastrophic terminal event. Jesus’ death may have been hastened simply by his state of exhaustion and by the severity of the scourging, with its resultant blood loss and preshock state. The fact that he could not carry his crossbar supports this theory. The actual cause of Jesus’ death, like that of other crucified victims, may have been caused by multiple factors and related primarily to shock, exhaustion asphyxia, and perhaps acute heart failure.

Death by crucifixion was, in every sense of the word, excruciating (Latin, excruciatus, or “out of the cross”).

I deserved this, and yet Christ suffered in my place. The gift of forgiveness brought through the cross is for me – angels can’t experience it; demons can’t repent and gain access back to heaven; no other living creation but man has forgiveness through the cross.

So if I wear a cross, I do so as a reminder of what should have been my punishment. Lately I find that it is harder for me to wear a cross without realizing the responsibility wearing such a symbol means. For me, I pray that I never make the cross just a fashion statement!

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