The Passion of the Christ — Part 3 — The Carrying Of The Cross
The Journey to Calvary
The Carrying of the Cross
When Pilate left the tribunal a portion of the soldiers followed him, and were drawn up in files before the palace; a few accompanying the criminals. Eight-and-twenty armed Pharisees came to the forum on horseback, in order to accompany Jesus to the place of execution, and among these were the six enemies of Jesus, who had assisted in arresting him in the Garden of Olives. The archers led Jesus into the middle of the court, the slaves threw down the cross at his feet, and the two arms were forthwith tied on to the centre piece.
Jesus knelt down by its side, encircled it with his sacred arms, and kissed it three times, addressing, at the same time, a most touching prayer of thanksgiving to his HeavenlyFather for that work of redemption which he had begun.
It was the custom among pagans for the priest to embrace a new altar, and Jesus in like manner embraced his cross, that august altar on which the bloody and expiatory sacrifice was about to be offered. The archers soon made him rise, and then kneel down again, and almost without any assistance, place the heavy cross on his right shoulder, supporting its great weight with his right hand.
I saw angels come to his assistance, otherwise he would have been unable even to raise it from the ground. Whilst he was on his knees, and still praying, the executioners put the arms of the crosses, which were a little curbed and not as yet fastened to the centre pieces,on the backs of the two thieves, and tied their hands tightly to them.
The middle parts of the crosses were carried by slaves, as the transverse pieces were not to be fastened to them until just before the time of execution. The trumpet sounded to announce the departure of Pilate’s horsemen, and one of the Pharisees belonging to the escort came up to Jesus, who was still kneeling, and said, ‘Rise, we have had a sufficiency of thy fine speeches; rise and set off.’
They pulled him roughly up, for he was totally unable to rise without assistance, and he then felt upon his shoulders the weight of that cross which we must carry after him, according to his true and holy command to follow him.
Thus began that triumphant march of the King of Kings, a march so ignominious on earth, and so glorious in heaven.
By means of ropes, which the executioners had fastened to the foot of the cross, two archers supported it to prevent its getting entangled in anything, and four other soldiers took hold of the ropes, which they had fastened to Jesus underneath his clothes. The sight of our dear Lord trembling beneath his burden, reminded me forcibly of Isaac, when he carried the wood destined for his own sacrifice up the mountains.
The trumpet of Pilate was sounded as the signal for departure, for he himself intended to go to Calvary at the head of a detachment of soldiers, to prevent the possibility of an insurrection. He was on horseback, in armour, surrounded by officers and a body of cavalry, and followed by about three hundred of the infantry, who came from the frontiers of Italy and Switzerland. The procession was headed by a trumpeter, who sounded his trumpet at every corner and proclaimed the sentence.
A number of women and children walked behind the procession with ropes, nails, wedges, and baskets filled with different articles, in their hands; others, who were stronger, carried poles, ladders, and the centre pieces of the crosses of the two thieves, and some of the Pharisees followed on horseback. A boy who had charge of the inscription which Pilate had written for the cross, likewise carried the crown of thorns (which had been taken off the head of Jesus) at the end of a long stick, but he did not appear to be wicked and hard-hearted like the rest.
Next I beheld our Blessed Saviour andRedeemer — his bare feet swollen and bleeding — his back bent as though he were about to sink under the heavy weight of the cross, and his whole body covered with wounds and blood. He appeared to be half fainting from exhaustion (having had neither refreshment or sleep since the supper of the previous night), weak from loss of blood, and parched with thirst produced by fever and pain.
He supported the cross on his right shoulder with his right hand, the left hung almost powerless at his side, but he endeavoured now and then to hold up his long garment to prevent his bleeding feet from getting entangled in it. The four archers who held the cords which were fastened round his waist, walked at some distance from him, the two in front pulled him on, and the two behind dragged him back, so that he could not get on at all without the greatest difficulty.
His hands were cut by the cords with which they had been bound; his face bloody and disfigured; his hair and beard saturated with blood; the weight of the cross and of his chains combined to press and make the woollen dress cleave to his wounds, and reopen them: derisive and heartless words alone were addressed to him, but he continued to pray for his persecutors, and his countenance bore an expression of combined love and resignation.
Many soldiers under arms walked by the side of the procession, and after Jesus came the two thieves, who were likewise led, the arms of their crosses, separate from the middle, being placed upon their backs, and their hands tied tightly to the two ends. They were clothed in large aprons, with a sort of sleeveless scapular which covered the upper part of their bodies, and they had straw caps upon their heads. The good thief was calm, but the other was, on the contrary furious, and never ceased cursing and swearing.
The rear of the procession was brought up by the remainder of the Pharisees on horseback, who rode to and fro to keep order. Pilate and his courtiers were at a certain distance behind; he was in the midst of his officers clad in armour, preceded by a squadron of cavalry, and fllowed by three hundred foot soldiers; he crossed the forum, and then entered one of the principal streets, for he was marching through the town in order to prevent any insurrection among the people.
Jesus was conducted by a narrow back street, that the procession might not inconvenience the persons who were going to the Temple, and likewise in order that Pilate and his band might have the whole principal street entirely to themselves. The crowd had dispersed and started in different directions almost immediately after the reading of the sentence, and the greatest part of the Jews either returned to their own houses, or to the Temple, to hasten their preparations for sacrificing the Paschal lamb; but a certain number were still hurrying on in disorder to see the melancholy procession pass; the Roman soldiers prevented all persons from joining the procession, therefore the most curious were obliged to go round by back streets, or to quicken their steps so as to reach Calvary before Jesus.
The street through which they led Jesus was both narrow and dirty; he suffered much in passing through it, because the archers were close and harassed him. Persons stood on the roofs of the houses, and at the windows, and insulted him with opprobrious language; the slaves who were working in the streets threw filth and mud at him; even the children,incited by his enemies, had filled their pinafores with sharp stones, which they throw down before their doors as he passed, that he might be obliged to walk over them.
The First Fall of Jesus.
The street of which we have just spoken, after turning a little to the left, became rather steep, as also wider, a subterranean aqueduct proceeding from Mount Sion passed under it, and in its vicinity was a hollow which was often filled with water and mud after rain, and a large stone was placed in its centre to enable persons to pass over more easily. When Jesus reached this spot, his strength was perfectly exhausted; he was quite unable to move; and as the archers dragged and pushed him without showing the slightest compassion, he fell quite down against this stone, and the cross fell by his side.
The cruel executioners were obliged to stop, they abused and struck him unmercifully, but the whole procession came to a standstill, which caused a degree of confusion. Vainly did he hold out his hand for someone to assist him to rise: ‘Ah!’ he exclaimed, ‘all will soon be over;’ and he prayed for his enemies. Lift him up,’ said the Pharisees, ‘otherwise he will die in our hands.’
There were many women and children following the procession; the former wept, and the latter were frightened. Jesus, however, received support from above, and raised his head; but these cruel men, far from endeavouring to alleviate his sufferings, put the crown of thorns againon his head before they pulled him out of the mud, and no sooner was he once more on his feet than they replaced the cross on his back. The crown of thorns which encircled his head increased his pain inexpressibly, and obliged him to bend on one side to give room for the cross, which lay heavily on his shoulders (which were open to the white of the bone — Editor).
The Second Fall of Jesus.
The afflicted Mother of Jesus had left the forum, accompanied by John and some other women, immediately after the unjust sentence was pronounced. She had employed herself in walking to many of the spots sanctified by our Lord and watering them with her tears; but when the sound of the trumpet, the rush of people, and the clang of the horsemen announced that the procession was about to start for Calvary, she could not resist her longing desire to behold her beloved Son once more, and she begged John to take her to some place through which he must pass. John conducted her to a palace, which had an entrance in that street which Jesus traversed after his first fall; it was, I believe, the residence of the high priest Caiphas, whose tribunal was in the division called Sion. John asked and obtained leave from a kind-hearted servant to stand at the entrance mentioned above, with Mary and her companions.
The Mother of God was pale, her eyes were red with weeping, and she was closely wrapped in a cloak of a bluish-grey colour. The clamour and insulting speeches of the enraged multitude might be plainly heard; and a herald at that moment proclaimed in a loud voice, that three criminals were about to be crucified. The servant opened the door; the dreadful sounds became more distinct every moment; and Mary threw herself on her knees. After praying fervently, she turned to John and said, ‘Shall I remain?Ought I to go away? Shall I have strength to support such a sight?’ John made answer, ‘If you do not remain to see him pass, you will grieve afterwards.’
They remained therefore near the door, with their eyes fixed on the procession, which was still distant, but advancing by slow degrees. When those who were carrying the instruments for the execution approached, and the Mother of Jesus saw their insolent and triumphant looks, she could not control her feelings, but joined her hands as if to implore the help of heaven; upon which one among them said to his companions: ‘What woman is that who is uttering such lamentations?’ Another answered: ‘She is the Mother of the Galilean.’ When the cruel men heard this, far from being moved to compassion, they began to make game of the grief of this most afflicted Mother: they pointed at her, and one of them took the nails which were to be used for fastening Jesus to the cross, and presented them to her in an insulting manner; but she turned away, fixed her eyes upon Jesus, who was drawing near, and leant against the pillar for support, lest she should again faint from grief, for her cheeks were as pale as death, and her lips almost blue. The Pharisees on horseback passed by first, followed by the boy who carried the inscription.
Then came her beloved Son. He was almost sinking under the heavy weight of his cross, and his head, still crowned with thorns, was drooping in agony on his shoulder. He cast a look of compassion and sorrow upon his Mother,.staggered, and fell for the second time upon his hands and knees. Mary was perfectly agonised at this sight; she forgot all else; she saw neither soldiers nor executioners; she saw nothing but her dearly-loved Son; and, springing from the doorway into the midst of the group who were insulting and abusing him, she threw herself on her knees by his side and embraced him. The only words I heard were, ‘Beloved Son!’ and ‘Mother!’ but I do not know whether these words were really uttered, or whether they were only in my own mind.
A momentary confusion ensued. John and the holy women endeavoured to raise Mary from the ground, and the archers reproached her, one of them saying, ‘What hast thou to do her, woman? He would not have been in our hands if he had been better brought up.’ A few of the soldiers looked touched; and, although they obliged the Blessed Virgin to retire to the doorway, not one laid hands upon her. John and the women surrounded her as she fell half fainting against a stone, which was near the doorway, and upon which the impression of her hands remained. This stone was very hard, and was afterwards removed to the first Catholic church built in Jerusalem, near the Pool of Bethsaida, during the time that St. James the Less was Bishop of that city.
The two disciples who were with the Mother of Jesus carried her into the house, and the door was shut. In the mean time the archers hadraised Jesus, and obliged him to carry the cross in a different manner. Its arm being unfastened from the centre, and entangled in the ropes with which he was bound, he supported them on his arm, and by this means the weight of the body of the cross was a little taken off, as it dragged more on the ground. I saw numbers of persons standing about in groups, the greatest part amusing themselves by insulting our Lord in different ways, but a few veiled females were weeping.
Simon of Cyrene. Third Fall of Jesus.
The procession had reached an arch formed in an old wall belonging to the town, opposite to a square, in which three streets terminated, when Jesus stumbled against a large stone which was placed in the middle of the archway, the cross slipped from his shoulder, he fell upon the stone, and was totally unable to rise. Many respectable-looking persons who were on their way to the Temple stopped, and exclaimed compassionately: ‘Look at that poor man, he is certainly dying!’ but his enemies showed no compassion. This fall caused a fresh delay, as our Lord could not stand up again, and the Pharisees said to the soldiers: ‘We shall never get him to the place of execution alive, if you do not find someone to carry his cross.’
At this moment Simon of Cyrene, a pagan, happened to pass by, accompanied by his three children. He was a gardener, just returning home after working in a garden near the eastern wall of the city, and carrying a bundle of lopped branches. The soldiers perceiving by his dress that he was a pagan, seized him, and ordered him to assist Jesus in carrying his cross. He refused at first, but was soon compelled to obey, although his children, being frightened, cried and made a great noise, upon which some women quieted and took charge of them. Simon was much annoyed, and expressed the greatest vexation at being obliged to walk with a man in so deplorable a condition of dirt and misery; but Jesus wept, and cast such a mild and heavenly look upon him that he was touched, and instead of continuing to show reluctance, helped him to rise, while the executioners fastened one arm of the cross on his shoulders, and he walked behind our Lord, thus relieving him in a great measure from its weight; and when all was arranged, the procession moved forward.
Simon was a stout-looking man, apparently about forty years of age. His children were dressed in tunics made of a variegated material; the two eldest, named Rufus and Alexander, afterwards joined the disciples; the third was much younger, but a few years later went to live with St. Stephen.
Simon had not carried the cross after Jesus any length of time before he felt his heart deeply touched by grace.
The Veil of Veronica.
While the procession was passing through a long street, an incident took place which made a strong impression upon Simon. Numbers of respectable persons were hurrying towards the Temple, of whom many got out of the way when they saw Jesus, from a Pharisaical fear of defilement, while others, on the contrary, stopped and expressed pity for his sufferings. But when the procession had advanced about two hundred steps from the spot where Simon began to assist our Lord in carrying his cross, the door of a beautiful house on the left opened, and a woman of majestic appearance, holding a young girl by the hand, came out, and walked up to the very head of the procession.
Seraphia was the name of the brave woman who thus dared to confront the enraged multitude; she was the wife of Sirach, one of the councillors belonging to the Temple, and was afterwards known by the name of Veronica, which name was given from the words vera icon (true portrait), to commemorate her brave conduct on this day.
Seraphia had prepared some excellent aromatic wine, which she piously intended to present to our Lord to refresh him on his dolorous way to Calvary. She had been standing in the street for some time, and at last went back into the house to wait. She was, when I first saw her, enveloped in a long veil, and holding a little girl of nine years of age, whom she had adopted, by the hand; a large veil was likewise hanging on her arm, and the little girl endeavoured to hide the jar of wine when the procession approached.
Those who were marching at the head of the procession tried to push her back; but she made her way through the mob, the soldiers, and the archers, reached Jesus, fell on her knees before him, and presented the veil, saying at the same time, ‘Permit me to wipe the face of my Lord.’
Jesus took the veil in his left hand, wiped his bleeding face, and returned it with thanks. Seraphia kissed it, and put it under her cloak. The girl then timidly offered the wine, but the brutal soldiers would not allow Jesus to drink it. The suddenness of this courageous act of Seraphia had surprised the guards, and caused a momentary although unintentional halt, of which she had taken advantage to present the veil to her Divine Master.
Both the Pharisees and the guards were greatly exasperated, not only by the sudden halt, but much more by the public testimony of veneration which was thus paid to Jesus, and they revenged themselves by striking and abusing him, while Seraphia returned in haste to her house.No sooner did she reach her room than she placed the woollen veil on a table, and fell almost senseless on her knees.
A friend who entered the room a short time after, found her thus kneeling, with the child weeping by her side, and saw, to his astonishment, the bloody countenance of our Lord imprinted upon the veil, a perfect likeness, although heartrending and painful to look upon. He roused Seraphia, and pointed to the veil. She again knelt down before it, and exclaimed through her tears, ‘Now I shall indeed leave all with a happy heart, for my Lord has given me a remembrance of himself.’
The texture of this veil was a species of very fine wool; it was three times the length of its width, and was generally worn on the shoulders. It was customary to present these veil to persons who were in affliction, or overfatigued, or ill, that they might wipe their faces with them, and it was done in order to express sympathy or compassion. Veronica kept this veil until her death, and hung it at the head of her bed; it was then given to the Blessed Virgin, who left it to the Apostles and they afterwards passed it on to the Church.
Seraphis and John the Baptist were cousins, her father and Zacharias being brothers.When Joachim and Anna brought the Blessed Virgin, who was then only four years old, up to Jerusalem, to place her among the virgins in the Temple, they lodged in the house of Zacharias, which was situated near the fish-market. Seraphia was at least five years older than the Blessed Virgin, was present at her marriage with St. Joseph, and was likewise related to the aged Simeon, who prophesied when the Child Jesus was put into his arms.
She was brought up with his sons, both of whom, as well as Seraphia, he imbued with his ardent desire of seeing our Lord. When Jesus was twelve years old, and remained teaching in the Temple, Seraphia, who was not then married, sent food for him every day to a little inn, a quarter of a mile from Jerusalem, where he dwelt when he was not in the Temple. Mary went there for two days, when on her way from Bethlehem to Jerusalem to offer her Child in the Temple. The two old men who kept this inn were Essenians, and well acquainted with the Holy Family; it contained a kind of foundation for the poor, and Jesus and his disciples often went there for a night’s lodging.
The Fourth and Fifth Falls of Jesus.
The Daughters of Jerusalem.
The procession was still at some distance from the south-west gate, which was large, and attached to the fortifications, and the street was rough and steep; it had first to pass under a vaulted arch, then over a bridge, and finally under a second arch. The wall on the left side of the gate runs first in southerly direction, then deviates a little to the west, and finally runs to the south behind Mount Sion. When the procession was near this gate, the brutal archers shoved Jesus into a stagnant pool, which was close to it; Simon of Cyrene, in his endeavours to avoid the pool, gave the cross a twist, which caused Jesus to fall down for the fourth time in the midst of the dirty mud, and Simon had the greatest difficulty in lifting up the cross again.
Jesus then exclaimed in a tone which, although clear, was moving and sad: ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often would I have gathered together thy children as the hen doth gather her chickens under her wings, and thou wouldst not!’ When the Pharisees heard these words, they became still more angry, and recommencing their insults and blows endeavoured to force him to get up out of the mud. Their cruelty to Jesus so exasperated Simon of Cyrene that he at last exclaimed,
‘If you continue this brutal conduct, I will throw down the cross and carry it no farther. I will do so if you kill me for it.’
A narrow and stony path was visible as soon as the gate was passed, and this path ran in a northerly direction, and led to Calvary. The high road from which it deviates divided shortly after into three branches, one to the south-west, which led to Bethlehem, through the vale of Gihon; a second to the south towards Emmaus and Joppa; a third, likewise to the south-west, wound round Calvary, and terminated at the gate which led to Bethsur. A person standing at the gate through which Jesus was led might easily see the gate of Bethlehem.
The officers had fastened an inscription upon a post which stood at the commencement of the road to Calvary, to inform those who passed by that Jesus and the two thieves were condemned to death. A group of women had gathered together near thisspot, and were weeping and lamenting; many carried young children in their arms; the greatest part were young maidens and women from Jerusalem, who had preceded the procession, but a few came from Bethlehem, from Hebron, and from other neighbouring places, in order to celebrate the Pasch.
Jesus was on the point of again falling, but Simon, who was behind, perceiving that he could not stand, hastened to support him; he leant upon Simon, and was thus saved from falling to the ground. When the women and children of whom we have spoken above, saw the deplorable condition to which our Lord was reduced, they uttered loud cries, wept, and, according to the Jewish custom, presented him cloths to wipe his face.
Jesus turned towards them and said: ‘Daughters of Jerusalem, weep not over me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For behold the days shall come wherein they will say: Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that have not borne, and the papas that have not given suck. Then shall they begin to say to the mountains: Fall upon us, and to the hills: Cover us. For if in the green wood they do these things, what shall be done in the dry?’ He then addressed a few words of consolation to hem, which I do not exactly remember.
The procession made a momentary halt. The executioners, who set of first, had reached Calvary with the instruments for the execution, and were followed by a hundred of the Roman soldiers who had started with Pilate; he only accompanied the procession as far as the gateway, and returned to the town.
Jesus on Mount Golgotha.
Sixth and Seventh Falls of Jesus.
The procession again moved on; the road was very steep and rough between the walls of the town and Calvary, and Jesus had the greatest difficulty in walking with his heavy burden on his shoulders; but his cruel enemies, far from feeling the slightest compassion, or giving the least assistance, continued to urge him on by the infliction of hard blows, and the utterance of dreadful curses. At last they reached a spot where the pathway turned suddenly to the south; here he stumbled and fell for the sixth time. The fall was a dreadful one, but the guards only struck him the harder to force him to get up, and no sooner did he reach Calvary that he sank down again for the seventh time.
Simon of Cyrene was filled with indignation and pity; notwithstanding his fatigue, he wished to remain that he might assist Jesus, but the archers first reviled, and then drove him away, and he soon after joined the body of disciples. The executioners then ordered the workmen and the boys who had carried the instruments of the execution to depart, and the Pharisees soon arrived, for they were on horseback, and had taken the smooth and easy road which ran to the east of Calvary.
There was a fine view of the whole town of Jerusalem from the top of Calvary. This top was circular, and about the size of an ordinary riding school, surrounded by a low wall, and with five separate entrances. This appeared to be the usual number in those parts, for there were five roads at the baths, at the place where they baptised, at the pool of Bethsaida, and there were likewise many towns with five gates.
As expected, here ends the carrying of the cross. We all know what happens next. May the knowledge of the suffering of our Beloved Saviour help us reflect on the words of St Dominic Savio — “Better death than sin”.
Until next time.