The Cross before the time of Christ
At the time of Jesus’ death, crucifixion was the most painful and degrading form of capital punishment in the Roman Empire. It was considered so horrible that it was used by the Romans only for slaves, those from the provinces under their jurisdiction, and for the worst types of criminals. It was not to be used for a Roman citizen. This is in accord with the Biblical account of Christ’s death, as He was sold for a slave’s price and counted among the criminals. This is also in accord with the church’s history that states that St. Peter was crucified, but St. Paul, a Roman citizen, was beheaded.
Crucifixion as a mean of execution probably grew out of the practice of displaying the heads of captured enemies or criminals on a wood post, like those used to build a wall or erect fortifications. Later, entire bodies were impaled. By Jesus’ time, crucifixion was a common sight.
The suffering of the Cross
Although methods of crucifixion seem to have varied throughout the Roman Empire, through Biblical and historical accounts the basic patter is known. The condemned person was first scourged with a flagellum, a whip of leather thongs with bits of metal or bone attached. This whipping greatly weakened him, who then had to carry the cross to the place of execution. A sign specifying the crime was often placed around the criminal’s neck or on the cross. The person was stripped naked, and according to the old custom, it was allowed for those who fulfilled the process of crucifixion to divide the garments of the crucified person among themselves. Then he was laid on the ground with the crossbeam under his shoulder, and tied or nailed to the cross, the same for the feet. The cross was lifted and secured to a post so that the person’s feet were hanging just off the ground. The height of the cross was about seven feet. This means that the wild animals and the birds of prey were able to snatch peaces from the crucified body.
Although the pain was excruciating and the wounds were bleeding, some victims survived on the cross for days. As in the case of the two criminals crucified with Jesus, the legs of a crucified person were sometimes broken to make him die quickly. This caused massive shock, followed by loss of circulation and heart failure, and asphyxia in case of breaking their legs.
Although completely innocent of all sin, Jesus suffered the most horrible punishment known. But His agonizing death was not an ordinary death, for it was not the final chapter. Jesus turned this apparent defeat into the most glorious victory the world has ever known. Through His suffering and death, He crushed the devil, abolished death, removed sin, and defeated the world, offering salvation to those who believe in Him (John 3:16). Then after His resurrection from the dead three days later, Jesus empowered His disciples with a new message, the Good News to the world, that He had finally defeated the power of sin and death.
Stumbling block and foolishness
The punishment of the Cross since those times has been the greatest barrier for people to believe in the crucified Christ. To the Jews, the cross was disgraceful and a punishment fit only for the wicked. They were expecting the Messiah to come to save them, through His power and authority, from slavery to the Romans. So they refused to believe in Him as the Messiah the Savior. The Greeks criticized it as foolishness for its demeaning humiliation that puts to question the divinity of Christ, because they glorify the power. St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “For Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness” (I Cor. 1:22-24).
Even Jesus’ disciples, themselves, who saw His miracles and accompanied Him for three years in His ministry, despaired during His crucifixion. But our Lord Jesus, who knows everything, through His love, appeared many times to them, to comfort them and to give them peace, explaining to them the mystery of the Cross and resurrection, and proving to them the prophecies, signs and symbols of the Old Testament (Luke 24:13-27) although they were Jews. The belief that suffering was evil in nature prevailed in their mind. Thus they automatically assumed that the blindness of the Man Born Blind resulted from his past sins, until Jesus’ response, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but that the works of God should be revealed in him.” (John 9:3) This response revealed the works of God through suffering and pain at the scene of the Cross.