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The Crucifixion

The Crucifixion


In his early thirties, Jesus of Nazareth was crucified under Roman Law by edict of Pontius Pilate (reluctantly it is believed) who had been placed in an impossible political position by the Pharisees and Sadducees.  According to Roman Law, the crimes for which a prisoner was crucified were nailed on a board above their head.  Because Jerusalem was a polyglot society, criminals had their crimes written in the three main languages of that society.  Thus, Pilate had ordered that in Greek, Latin and Hebrew was written 'Jesus of Nazareth.  King of the Jews'.  Jerusalem was politically legally culturally and ethnographically cosmopolitan.  It was this richness of population that deemed that we know Christ by His Greek Name (Jesus) and not by His Hebrew Name (Joshua Bar Joseph).  His crucifixion took place on a Friday, and concern was raised that He wouldn't be dead by dusk on Friday, as that was the beginning of the Shabbes. 


Jewish Law stipulated that there should be no one still alive on a cross by the time the Shabbes began. Jewish law forbids crucifixion, indeed, Jews revolted more than once when the Romans, within Judea, crucified people.  Jewish law stipulates that, if a man is hung, his body is brought down by nightfall.  Jewish law also stipulates that the dead are buried within 24 hours of death, and that no one is left unburied over Shabbos. 


Crucifixion was a slow painful and lingering death, occasionally made easier by those compassionate enough in the crowd (often family members or friends)  passing up a hypnotic drug contained in vinegar suspended in a sponge. Despite being offered a sponge, Jesus refused this aid.  Death in this way placed enormous strain on the cardiac and pulmonary systems.  As the arms are stretched by the weight of the body, the rib cage is impaired from movement leading to slow suffocation.  To spread the torture and punishment out a little longer, prisoners had their ankles bound or nailed to a ledge upon which they could push themselves to help their breathing.  This in turn added to their pain as they were pushing against the nails in their ankles.  Eventually weakened by all this they died, sometimes days later.  To avoid being left till after the Sabbath, Roman soldiers were instructed to break the bones to hasten death by preventing them from breathing longer.  Unusually, Jesus had died by this time and the soldiers instead thrust a spear into his abdomen, from which fluid drained. This fluid is quite possibly a product of Congestive Heart Failure and Pulmonary Oedema caused by the crucifixion, where the heart being unable to pump effectively, backed up blood and fluid decreasing the volume of blood the heart could pump round, leading to fluid building up in the lungs.


The crucified were stripped naked to compound their humiliation, though Christian art applies modesty to the depiction.  Everything possible was done to make the torture of crucifixion as cruel as possible.  The condemned were made to carry the instrument of their death through the streets,  witnessed by the crowds,  outside the city walls to the place of execution.  On the day in question, we know of two others who were crucified with Jesus. As the condemned were being prepared for death, it was a perk of the job for the soldiers on duty to divide the possessions the condemned among them.  


In particular Jesus was stripped of his expensive seamless robe which was woven top to bottom and was identical to that worn by Priests serving in the Temple. It is unclear if it was the techelet, which was 12 ply sky blue dyed wool,  or, possibly more likely, made of six ply woven white flax, the sort of robe the High Priest would have worn on the Day of Atonement.  The High Priest would have two sets, one for use in the morning and one in the evening, and he only wore these once. The robe was a closed garment and slipped on over the head. The opening at the neck was round, with a hem that was doubled over and closed by weaving-not by a needle. The garment hung down in front and in back, and its length extended all the way down to the priest's feet. There is a difference of opinion as to whether there were sleeves, but if so these would also have been seamless and attached separately.


(Incidentally, this robe is akin to the same as the robe worn by patriarch Joseph but, due to an oft repeated mistranslation, was called a "coat of many colours", and was in fact white).

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St Suzanna the Myrrh Bearer

St Susanna the Myrrh Bearer


This Susanna refers to the Susanna mentioned in Luke's gospel chapter 8. This is the only time she is mentioned by name in the gospels, but it is assumed by the church that when 'The women' (Luke 23) came to anoint the body of Jesus, Susanna was one of them. 

The crucifixion took place on a Friday, just before the beginning of the Jewish Shabbes (sabbath), and in accord with the strict traditions of the time there was no time to fulfill all the burial customs of Jewish Law. As such, Jesus was laid in a borrowed tomb to await the time after the Shabbes had ended for the burial customs to be completed. Thus it was that, at dawn on Sunday, a group of women arrived at the tomb laden with the necessary articles to complete the burial rites according to Jewish law and custom.  Among the items necessary for this purpose was Myrrh.


The origins of this can be found as far back as Exodus (30:22-25, 32-33). Myrrh is a reddish resin that oozes and is dried from species of the genus Commiphora, which are native to northeast Africa and the adjacent areas of the Arabian Peninsula. Commiphora myrrha, a tree commonly used in the production of myrrh, can be found in the shallow, rocky soils of Ethiopia, Kenya, Oman, Saudi Arabia and Somalia. Thus, we know it was expensive as it had to arrive in Israel from across such lengthy trade routes. To make into oil this dried sap has to be distilled.


Arriving at the tomb, the 'myrhh-bearing women' (as they are usually called in Orthodox texts) found that the tomb was empty. It was thus not Jesus's male followers, but the women who had cared for him, who were the first witnesses of the resurrection, and in Orthodoxy this group of women have a far higher profile than in any strand of Western Christianity.

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Descent from the Cross

The Descent from the Cross


To avoid transgressing the rules of the Shabbes (they would have hurried home for the Sabbath meal because one does not mourn on the Sabbath) Jesus was taken down from the cross, wrapped in a linen shroud and taken to a tomb owned by a man named Joseph. In Orthodoxy we remember this at every liturgy, and at Pascha we mark the event by the sung words of "Noble Joseph,having taken down the body of Jesus from the cross, wrapped it in linen and spices and laid it in the tomb".  At Pascha on Good Friday the church becomes the tomb and the altar the site of crucifixion, when during that service the shroud bearing the image of Christ is brought from the altar to the place laid out in honour and decorated with flowers as though Joseph himself, with the followers of Jesus, were bringing it themselves.


The congregation then honour this shroud and themselves lay flowers at His body.  
In Israel, the needs of the Sabbath were such that Joseph and those with him had to hasten home to observe the Shabbes meal, the same meal that is celebrated every Friday in Jewish homes everywhere,  before they could do more for Jesus to fulfill the Jewish rituals of care for the dead.  These rituals, involving oils and prayers, would have to wait till the Sabbath was over, one hour after sunset Saturday night. It was unlikely that they would have wanted to attend the body of jesus in the dark, and also it is possible the city gates were closed from sunset Saturday until sunrise Sunday, preventing them doing this.

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The Descent into Hell

Descent into Hell (the Resurrection)


Both the Apostles' and the Athansaian Creed state that following His death, Jesus descended into the place of the dead, Hades.  The Orthodox services at Pascha (Easter) strongly stress the way in which "trampling down death by death" Christ bestowed life on those in the tombs, and the ikon shows some of the most important of those in the tombs - including Adam and Eve - being freed from death. This indicates that the whole of humanity - those who lived before Christ as well as those who lived after Him - are the beneficiaries of his life, death and resurrection.

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St Thomas inspects Christ's wounds

St Thomas


St Thomas, or Didymus, is recorded as doubting sceptically the Resurrection.  Jesus appeared to the Apostles and invited Thomas to touch the wounds to provide evidence enough for Thomas to believe. Thomas is reported to have been so convinced, that in AD 52 he travelled as far as Kerala in India to bring news of the Messiah to the Jewish community there who were part of the Diaspora.  By all accounts he was a charismatic figure and throughout that part of the world grew communities which followed Christianity.  He is believed to have died AD 72 on 21st December.

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The Ascension

The Ascension 


Christian Theology asserts that forty days after the resurrection Christ ascended into Heaven.  It is central to Christian belief and is included in all the Creeds.  Forty days echo the forty days in the wilderness.  It must be remembered however, that in Jewish literature the term forty days is often used to denote 'a long period of time' and not necessarily intended to depict an exact period of chronology. 




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St Mark

St Mark


Traditionally believed to have been born in Cyrene in what is now Libya, the year of his birth is unknown.  Commentators record he was John Mark, John being the Jewish component of his name and Mark being the name to which he answered after joining Christ as a disciple. It is believed his mother was an eager follower of Christ, and opened her house for use after the resurrection.  Some believe that it was her house in which the Last Supper was held. He travelled widely to places including Egypt, Libya and Pentapolis. He became the first bishop of Alexandria in Egypt, and it was in Alexandria that pagans tied a rope round his neck and dragged him to his death. Mark is one of the leading saints in the Coptic Orthodox tradition.


He is traditionally believed to be the author of the gospel that bears his name, having based his knowledge on what he had heard from the Apostle Peter. Mark served as an assistant to Barnabus and Paul on their travels.  The term denoting assistant hupereten is rather vague and we don't know in what capacity he helped. Later he is seen as a companion to Paul and later still with Peter. A lot of what we have recorded about Mark is either vague or contradictory by comparison to what we know of other prominent figures. Early sources link him to being a Jewish Priest as he came from the line of Levi.  Eusebius and Adamantius remark that Mark wasn't actually a member of the disciples at all, yet later tradition allocate Mark to being one of the 72 disciples. Hyppolytus and others refer to Mark being "stump fingered", the belief being that Mark mutilated is fingers to make him unfit to continue to perform Priestly duties. The exact year of his death is also vague, but the best guess is around AD 68.

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