“Then he took it down, wrapped it in linen cloth and placed it in a tomb cut in the rock, one in which no one had yet been laid. Luke 23:53
In schooldays, there was a Robert Lowry hymn that we sang regularly which included the lines:
Low in the grave He lay, Jesus my Saviour,
Waiting the coming day, Jesus my Lord!
Up from the grave He arose,
With a mighty triumph o’er His foes,
He arose a Victor from the dark domain,
And He lives forever, with His saints to reign.
There is not one of Lowry’s words that I would doubt, but if we start the story at the tomb, it can make it easy for us, it can cause us to fail to realize the horror of what Jesus endured, the pain he went through before dying and being taken down from the Cross.
Crucifixion was a death which came through slow suffocation – hanging with your two arms stretched out so that you are unable to breathe and you die from gradual asphyxiation. Crucifixion was hideously cruel. The victims hands would have been lashed to the cross beam with ropes around his wrists; simply using nails would have not worked, the flesh would have torn and the victim would have fallen from the cross. The nails were just an additional torture, a way of further weakening the victim and hastening death. If a person took a long time to die it would have been the practice to break their legs, this would have caused extra weight to be borne by their arms, making it harder for them to breathe and causing them to suffocate more quickly. Sometimes, as in Jesus’ case, a spear would have been used to ensure the person was quite dead.
It is ghastly to think about such things. This is not a pleasant picture of Jesus; this is not like the storybook pictures we grew up with. But Christianity is not a pleasant faith. Christianity is based on the scandalous idea that God should come to die for us, Christianity is based on what Saint Paul calls foolishness to the Greeks and a stumbling block to the Jews.
Did you ever think about those who carried out the hideous deed of crucifixion, those responsible for the actual killing of Jesus? It was a routine task, but on this day there must have been a sense that this was something different.
We know nothing whatsoever about the executioners. We know nothing about those who held the weak and bleeding Jesus against the cross, stretching out his arms, prising open his fingers before hammering nails through his hands.
They had nothing against Jesus, maybe they had never heard of him. But they would have avoided looking into his eyes. They would have concentrated on their work, on his hands and his feet. They had to forget the person, they had to avoid speaking to him, if there was any thought about what they were doing, they would never have got their job done.
Jesus’ eyes certainly had to be avoided – eyes that could look deep into your soul – eyes that could look at you and be able to see everything you had ever done. To have crucified Jesus would have taken a great effort of will. Romans were intensely superstitious people, and there would have been a sense that something very dark was happening.
Victims of crucifixion would usually shouted and screamed and struggled, several men would have been needed to hold them down. Jesus was different. The nameless men who executed Jesus would have sensed something different, instead of fear and hatred there is a profound and terrible sorrow in him.
In those moments on that Friday morning, there would have been a strange feeling, a feeling that time had stopped, that they were outside of time. It would have felt as though they were hammering in those nails not just at that moment, a Friday the fourteenth day of the Jewish month Nisan, but at every moment through the ages. There would have been a shiver up the spine. It was a hot and dry spring day, but there would have been a sense of a physical coldness, a sense that there were powers at work beyond their comprehension. Something was taken place that was far beyond the understanding and it would have been frightening.
As they carry out their grisly duties, the executioners are not assailed by curses and insults, but instead Jesus says, ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing’.
The men would have grabbed the cross and heaved it into place, and again there would have been a strange feeling. A tightening of breath; a pain in the heart; a voice on the wind; a half-remembered thought from some dim and distant past; somewhere at the edge of conscious thought, a feeling of a chill uneasiness.
The executioners would have been afraid, hard men suddenly nervous and jumpy. There would have been no chat amongst them, no laughter as they went back to their barracks – just a gnawing, nagging feeling that this had been a bad day’s work.
The crucifixion of Jesus doesn’t come from nowhere, it is the culmination of human weakness and failing. God sends his Son to show his love for the world and the world responds with the crucifixion of Jesus.
We have our part in the events of Calvary, just as much as the executioners, the nameless men who drove in the nails. Jesus’ death isn’t just at for that moment, it’s for all time, for here and now as well as for that Friday in Jerusalem.
Yet in that hellish moment, God forgives. No matter how evil we are, God can forgive us, we cannot kill his love for us. No weapon has any effect against forgiveness.
The crucifixion is the greatest moment that the forces of evil, death and hell will ever enjoy, yet in this weakest moment, God wins the greatest victory.
‘Low in the grave, he lay’.
Indeed he did, lying there for us.
The tomb is the last moment of the old order of things, almost a moment of relief after the horror of what has gone before. Let us never forget how that moment was reached.
The tomb should ask a question of each of us: if God loves me enough to send his Son to die for me, then how do I respond?
‘Waiting the coming day’, wrote Robert Lowry. As we await the coming day, may we think on what the tomb means for us.