Gina Christian

After watching “The Passion of the Christ” with friends a few years back, I’d mentioned that in recent years I’d taken to reading a medical analysis of crucifixion during Holy Week.

One of the women in our group, shaken by the film’s graphic description of Jesus’ sufferings, looked at me in horror. “Why would you feel the need to do that?” she asked.

The question was a good one. Was it morbid curiosity that had prompted my research, an unholy reveling in shock and gore? Or was I looking to understand something that so many representations of the cross — particularly those in modern times — have failed to capture?

The Calvary of the current era is increasingly sanitized, even hidden. Many Christians now favor stylized crosses, devoid of Christ’s body, in their logos and houses of worship. Some faith communities have eliminated the cross altogether, deeming it too “off-putting” and “negative.”

Even Catholics, who typically favor actual crucifixes in the churches, can recoil at the sight of imagery that smacks too close of the real thing. A former pastor at my parish was rebuked by one young mother for the vivid statuary at one of our shrines. Carved by a talented local artist decades earlier, the work depicted Christ in the throes of agony, mouth open and widened eyes raised in a wrenching plea to the Father. 

“It scares my son,” the woman snapped.

“I’m not taking it down,” the pastor replied, gently but firmly.

How ironic it is that in an age of vérité and unparalleled audiovisual technology, we have turned aside from the most authentic moment ever passed on this planet: that which we celebrate this Triduum, when the Son of God willingly submitted himself to death to ransom his fallen sisters and brothers.

And at what price?

From the physical perspective alone, the cost was unimaginable. In a 2003 journal article, two South African scholars noted that Christ’s death from crucifixion resulted from “multifactorial pathology,” a host of assaults on his entire body: flesh, bone, organ and tissue. 

Crucifixion — most likely invented by the Assyrians and Babylonians, systematized by the Persians and perfected by the Romans — was a comprehensive form of execution, designed to devastate the body while demoralizing the soul. Described by the statesman Cicero as “the most miserable and most painful punishment,” so heinous a death was reserved by Rome largely for slaves.

The Roman prerequisite of scourging, capped by Jewish law at 40 blows, weakened the victim, sometimes killing him (or, on occasion, her) outright due to “reflex vasovagal cardiac arrest” — a heart attack from the sheer trauma of the assault. Bleeding, compounded by the deprivation of food and water prisoners experienced prior to their sentencing, led to hypovolemic shock — the loss of more than 20% of the body’s blood and fluids.

Having been mocked and crowned with thorns after his scourging, Christ was forced to shoulder the patibulum, a horizontal beam about five feet long and weighing approximately 125 pounds. Scripture indicates that he needed help; the soldiers leading him to Golgotha “took hold of a certain Simon, a Cyrenian, who was coming in from the country; and after laying the cross on him, they made him carry it behind Jesus” (Lk 23:26; see also Mt 27:32, Mk 15:21).

Refusing to drink the analgesic “wine drugged with myrrh” (Mk 15:23), Jesus arrived at the “place called the Skull” (Lk 23:33) and was stripped, his wounds renewed in the process. Soldiers drove iron nails through his wrists (not the hands, which would not have been able to sustain his body weight) and into the patibulum, which was then lifted and affixed to the stipes, the upright beam of the cross.

His feet were nailed directly to the stipes, either individually to the sides or atop each other, with a single nail hammered through the metatarsal bones or the heelbones. Their task completed for the moment, the soldiers waited until their victim died, a process that could take anywhere from three hours to three or more days.

And all that time, the crucified’s breath was slowly, cruelly expelled, his muscles too weakened and contracted to draw his body up for air. What blood remained was increasingly drained of oxygen, and the organs began to fail. 

A modern experiment, in which healthy medical students volunteered to be hung by their bound wrists under continuous monitoring, found that tidal respiratory volume — the amount of air in a normal breath — decreased by 70% after only six minutes in a crucifixion posture. The participants’ blood pressure dropped by half, and none of the students could maintain the stance for more than 30 minutes due to the pain.

Soldiers could speed their victims’ demise with the crucifragium, a blow that splintered the tibia and possibly the fibia, the bones of the lower leg. With Jesus, there was no need: “When they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs” (Jn 19:33). He had already declared his work “finished,” and having “(bowed) his head, he handed over his spirit” (Jn 19:30).

His final breath had been crushed out of his body by asphyxiation; his heart had ceased beating through “secondary cardiovascular collapse.” He had abandoned himself fully to the very biological processes he had authored with the Father and the Spirit, only to ultimately and gloriously transform the creation subject “to bondage and decay” through man’s original sin (Rom 8:21; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 400).

Calvary is the realism desperately needed in a world that prefers delusion to sound and salvific doctrine. As Ven. Fulton Sheen reminds us, “one look at Christ on the Cross, and the scab is torn from the ulcerous depths of sin as it stands revealed in all of its ugliness. Just one flash of that Light of the World shatters all the blindness which sins have begotten and burns into the soul the truth of our relationship to God.”

That truth needs no adornment, no computer-generated enhancement, no virtual reality headset — only “a contrite, humbled heart” (Ps 51:19), one grateful for the unfathomable love of its Lord.  

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Gina Christian is a senior content producer at CatholicPhilly.com, host of the Inside CatholicPhilly.com podcast and author of the forthcoming book “Stations of the Cross for Sexual Abuse Survivors.” Follow her on Twitter at @GinaJesseReina.