Calvary, the mountain of the New Covenant

By following the four Gospels we can reconstruct, quite closely, the hours of the passion and death of Jesus Christ. Each of the steps is read, in a full way, in the light of the texts of the Old Covenant.

Gustavo Milano-October 17, 2023-Reading time: 5 minutes

Photo: Jesus and Barabbas by Giovanni Gasparro

The chalice will not pass until Jesus drinks it all. Once the capital sentence pronounced by Pilate has been heard, some Roman soldiers take a stick and some ropes to tie it in the arms of this condemned Jew who would expire as soon as possible on the nearby mound of Calvary.

Both Jews and Romans used to carry out their executions outside the city walls, but the next day would be Saturday and the soldiers knew that nothing worked in Judea on Saturdays. They had to hurry. Even if the death of a man who performed real public miracles was carried out, no one would touch the Sabbath.

Moreover, according to John's Gospel, that year the feast of the Passover coincided with the Sabbath, so that it further enhanced the solemnity and holiness of the following day.

Towards the wedding

Jesus leaves the praetorium and the city, carrying a horizontal pole on his back. As was the custom then, the vertical pole of the cross would have been found beforehand nailed to the ground at the site of the torture, even though the four Gospels speak of a "cross" (in the original Greek, stauros) carried by the Lord on his way of the cross.

The data diverge with respect to what happened along the short road that separates the praetorium from the summit of Calvary. We have basically five sources: the four evangelists and the tradition of the Church. Matthew and Mark are in substantial agreement that the only thing that happened was that, on leaving the praetorium, the soldiers forced a Cyrenian named Simon to carry Jesus' cross to a place called "Golgotha". They even give the impression that Jesus did not carry his cross on the road at all, for lack of suitable physical conditions or for whatever reason.

Instead, Luke speaks of a relatively long encounter and dialogue of the Lord with the daughters of Jerusalem, in which they weep for him and, rather than consoling, they are consoled by Jesus. Also according to Luke, the two thieves who would be crucified with Christ accompany him on this same journey. John, on the other hand, with only one verse, explains that Jesus carried his own cross throughout the Way of the Cross, without making any mention of Simon of Cyrene or of weeping women. The Gospel account of this significant episode in the life of Christ is that brief.

Tradition adds a few more episodes: a very intense look between Jesus and his mother, the gesture of Veronica, who wipes the Lord's face with a veil, and three falls of Jesus as he carries the cross.

This complementarity between what is related in Sacred Scripture and what is provided by Sacred Tradition made the Pope St. John Paul II, in 1991, proposed an alternative version of the traditional Stations of the Cross.called "Biblical Way of the Cross" because its fourteen stations are directly inspired by passages from the Bible. This clarifies the contributions of both contributions.

The wedding party

Curiously enough, no evangelist says how Jesus was crucified. The artistic works that we know of disagree not only on the position of the feet (whether they were side by side or overlapping), but also on what Jesus was wearing at the time, who was at the foot of the cross, or what exactly happened while He hung on the tree.

It seems that the narration of the bloody action of the crucifixion is avoided, perhaps to spare the Christian reader the displeasure of the crudeness of the details.

In fact, only in John 20:25 The holes left by the nails in the hands of the risen Christ, in the face of the obstinate unbelief of the apostle Thomas, are spoken of. Only the sacramental context of the Holy Eucharist will offer the disciples a more delicate and supernatural way to deal with this trauma.

About the feet of the crucified Christ nothing is really said in the sources. Regarding his clothing, it is only said that he was stripped of his clothes, without any garment remaining on him; something that the Christian iconography will arrange without great compromise.

As for his companies, in addition to the two evildoers already mentioned, Luke, as we have seen, speaks of "a great multitude of the people and of women" (Lk 23:27) who followed him, later called "acquaintances of Jesus" and "women who had followed him from Galilee" (Lk 23:49). There were also the Roman soldiers with their centurion and the Jewish leaders.

Instead, Matthew and Mark tell us of several soldiers with the centurion, two thieves, some passers-by who reviled the Lord, the chief priests, scribes and above all many women, among whom were Mary Magdalene, Mary (the mother of James and Joseph) and Salome (the mother of the sons of Zebedee).

Finally, John tells us that there were many Jews, chief priests, soldiers and above all Mary of Nazareth (the mother of Jesus), the sister of Mary of Nazareth called Mary of Clopas, Mary Magdalene and himself, John, the disciple whom Jesus loved. In fact, if the Cyrenian stayed at Calvary to contemplate the spectacle, we have no news; apparently he brought the cross and then left.

As can be seen, the concordances are the majority, and the recourse to different testimonies has allowed the evangelists to gather new data for each version of these events. In fact, the inscription placed on the cross has a different content according to each of the four evangelical voices.

According to Matthew it said: "This is Jesus, the King of the Jews". On the other hand, Mark reduces the phrase: "The King of the Jews". Luke reports something similar: "This is the King of the Jews". However, John reports something a little longer: "Jesus the Nazarene, the King of the Jews", and notes that it was written in Hebrew, Latin and Greek, the three languages used in Judea at that time.

In the context of the preparation for the death of the Messiah, the fourth evangelist is the only one who devotes special attention to the clothing of Christ. However much has been said about the supposed richness of the Lord's seamless robe, the most serious historical research indicates that it was not necessarily an expensive garment just because it was seamless. Such a garment was common in Palestine at the time.

The hagiographer emphasizes this to highlight the exact fulfillment of Ps. 22:19 ("they divide my garments and cast lots for my tunic"), where the tunic is not divided, but cast lots, and to symbolize the indivisibility of the Church, since the tunic was the garment worn directly on the skin, in very close contact with the Body of Christ, which is the Church.

Everything is prepared. That was the environment. But why did all this happen? And above all, why have these events surprised so many people and continue to surprise us today? It is almost unbelievable that a man who healed, preached love to enemies and lived soberly would come to such a violent end.

The well-known Lutheran theologian Rudolf Bultmann is of the opinion that the execution of Christ was due to a misinterpretation of his work as political agitation; that is, he attributes the condemnation more to the Romans than to the Jews. Perhaps Bultmann has focused too much on the account of the passion, and too little on the rest of the Gospel, on all those events that led Jesus' situation to that extreme.

In any case, another possible explanation, which avoids the dichotomies Jew-Roman, religious-political, blasphemy-crime, is the one that sees the condemnation as a positive will of God the Father for his Son after the fall of Adam.

In this sense, the Old Testament offers us more interpretative clues than the New Testament. With the theologian Marius Reiser we can ask ourselves: "In fact, no one expected that the Messiah would end up on a cross. Or is it possible that the respective allusions in Sacred Scripture had been ignored until that time?

The authorGustavo Milano

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