A love story. That was how Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle described “Golgotha” at the October book launching by publisher Jesuit Communications.
Based on historical research and the scientific study of the Holy Shroud of Turin, venerated as the burial cloth of Jesus, “Golgotha” (P300 at religious bookstores, donated to the Archdiocese of Manila) harrowingly recounts Christ’s redeeming Passion and Death.
Love recounted indeed: The 284-page book with foldout grids at the end comparing Gospel narratives, offers a most pitiful account of the hell God went through for beloved humanity to reach heaven.
One reader kept putting down the book to get over her anguish. “I could not bear reading about His pain,” she remarked. “How much more unbearable it was for Jesus Who endured it all.”
The Crucifixion we never knew
The book by lawyer Ramon Pedrosa, known for his opposition to the Marcos dictatorship, also gives a host of little-known facts, which greatly revises one’s beliefs about Christ’s sacrifice.
Take Pontius Pilate. When the Roman governor of Judea had Jesus scourged on the first Good Friday nearly two millennia ago, he was trying to save His life by showing the crowd so much cruel gore, they would not want more.
Imperial law, moreover, allowed scourging and crucifixion as modes of execution, but only one may be imposed in full intensity. So, having Jesus whipped to near-death, Pilate surmised, would save him from the cross. But the crowd and the high priests still demanded crucifixion.
With such research, what emerges is a scientifically and historically vetted account of Jesus’s sacrificial demise, debunking many mistaken notions and icons accepted and venerated for centuries.
Consider the almost universal depiction of Christ nailed through His palms and feet, with a small triangular block of wood jutting out of the cross to stand on. For starters, no wood supported the feet, which were impaled directly onto the vertical beam.
Nails through the palms would have ripped through the hands once the condemned’s full weight bore down. Rather, the 8-inch iron spikes went through the wrists or arms, so the thick bones and muscles of the limbs bore the body.
That was utterly excruciating, since the median nerve running through each arm would be torn and repeatedly pressed, causing electrifying pain every time.
Plus: Christ was crucified totally naked. “It is absolutely false to depict Jesus crucified with a graceful swatch of cloth covering his private parts,” said Pedrosa.
Another wrong image is that of Jesus carrying the cross on His shoulder. The whole gibet was too heavy for anyone to bear. Those who carried the wood of execution lifted only the horizontal cross-beam. The vertical was fixed on Calvary.
Why did artists show Jesus bearing the cross and nailed by the hands? “They didn’t know any better,” Pedrosa explained. In 313, the converted Christian Emperor Constantine ended crucifixion; so, Europe centuries later knew nil about it. And in 309, a synod of bishops forbade images of Christ’s sacrifice — a ban lifted only four centuries later in 692. No artist knew what true crucifixion looked like.
Then there’s Veronica’s veil supposedly imprinted with Jesus’s bloodied visage? Pedrosa cited a church on Mount Sion where the Shroud was venerated as the “true image” of Christ, or “vero ikonos” in ancient Greek. That phrase was shortened over time to Veronica.
A Lenten retreat in one volume
Rather than debunking old misimpressions, however, the profound spiritual value of “Golgotha” lies in reliving vividly the truly excruciating and diabolical suffering Christ endured as His human agony rose to a divine level.
Reading the book constitutes a Holy Week retreat contemplating how God suffered the goriest agony ever told.
On the scourging, Jesus was traditionally said to have received 39 lashes. For the Jews, 40 utterly demeaned a man, while the Romans thought that was enough to kill, and Pilate wanted Jesus to live.
Examining the Shroud indicated 121 lashes, however, based on distinct lines of wounds thought to be inflicted by each blow of the leather whip with metal spikes, the likely instrument of scourging.
Why didn’t Jesus die with triple the fatal lashes? The seasoned torturers, who would have been crucified if He died, still had to rip Him apart almost to death. Well, the Shroud showed no scourging on the chest, where blows would have fatally bashed the heart. But the back, arms and legs were mercilessly lacerated.
Crowning with thorns was another extreme of cruelty unique to Jesus. Nowhere in history was anyone else so tortured. The Shroud, Pedrosa wrote, showed “copious blood stains on the forehead and especially on the top of the head. The wounds have the appearance of puncture wounds, as if caused by large needles…”
The leftward blood flow from eight deep punctures led researchers to surmise that after the thorns were jammed into His head, Jesus was struck on His right cheek. His head bent left, and so flowed His Blood.
In His climb to Calvary, the crossbeam was lashed to Jesus’s arms. One end was tied to His ankle or the lower end of another condemned man’s beam, so the wood pointed diagonally upward. Awkwardly bent and tightly bound, Jesus fell many times, often on His face.
In crucifixion, Pedosa narrates, “the nail [hammered]into the wrist initiates an abrupt scream that does not end but continues long and hard, to explode into another tormented cry again each time the iron point is driven in…”
Tradition had it, however, that from beating and scourging to nailing and crucifixion, Jesus was meek as a lamb, probably making torturers more vicious to get screams. But only before death did He cry out, which scholars attribute to the bursting of His heart from chest pressure. As another Shroud expert put it, Jesus died of a broken heart.
As we ponder this week His bloody gift of salvation, relive His loving sacrifice in the pages of “Golgotha.” You won’t find a more heart-rending declaration of God’s love for you.
(“Golgotha: Notes on Agony and Death by Crucifixion”(₱300, paperback) is available at Pauline’s, Ateneo Loyola, Tanging Yaman, Claretian, Don Bosco Makati, and Word and Life. All proceeds go to the Archdiocese of Manila Commission on the Holy Shroud.)