Crucifixion – invented by ‘barbarians’ on the edge of the then known world, and continued by both Greeks and Romans – is probably the cruellest method of execution ever practised. It deliberately delayed death until every part of the human body was in optimum pain – the victim often suffering for days before taking their final gasp. When the Romans adopted it, crucifixion was reserved for those on the margins of society: foreigners, slaves, robbers and murderers – those they regarded as ‘non-persons’.
Because of what the cross symbolised to the Roman elite, Roman citizens were exempt from crucifixion – except in extreme cases of treason. In this regard, the Jews were not that different from the Romans; the way of the cross (or even the way of the tree) was generally reserved for those ‘non-persons’ in possession of a criminal record.
The early enemies of Christianity took every opportunity to ridicule the notion that God’s anointed (and humanity’s Saviour) ended His life on the cross. Despite the massive efforts of the Romans to rid the world of a Man who claimed to be the Messiah, by nailing Him to a cross, the cross has become the Christian symbol. Despite persecution, Christians refused to discard it, so it has become one of the most ubiquitous symbols in the world. Today, the world is aware of what the cross represents, and two thousand years after the death of Christ, Christianity is still alive.
This brings us nicely to Lent, which has a range of meanings, including the response of God to human suffering. Some of the early Greek Fathers of the Church believed that God was incapable of feeling the pain of others, seeing Him rather as a distant God, devoid of emotion and detached from the pain of those who suffer. That is not our God. The story of the crucifixion reminds us that the pain of widows, orphans, single mothers and refugees totally matters to God. The cross smashes the caricature of a God resting in some ‘celestial deckchair’ while the hungry millions starve to death. If God’s full and final self-revelation was given in Jesus, then His feelings and suffering are an authentic reflection of God’s responses to suffering. Mindful that Jesus ‘wept’ with grief and ‘snorted with indignation’ and wept again for Jerusalem points to a God who weeps with the weeping and laments with those who lament.
Christ more than embraces the internal suffering of His children. He inhabits the world of our fears and longings, living in complete solidarity with us. The God who is capable of suffering is the same God who is capable of love, and opens Himself up to the suffering that is involved in love. This is surely the reason why Bonhoeffer wrote, some nine months before his execution: ‘Only the suffering God can help.’
I guess it’s easy for me to write about the solidarity of God from the comfort of my home. What about the millions and millions of people who lack the most basic necessities of life? Theirs is a world that is seriously poor. The capricious nature of their existence renders poverty as their one constant, their one certainty, combined with the obvious curtailing of their lives. All this adds up to a horrible tally of human need. It really should not be surprising that such environments form the hotbeds of bitterness, resentment and, in more and more cases, violence in the form of terrorism.
It is no wonder that increased numbers of theologians, such as Professor Anthony Reddie and Professor Robert Beckford, continue to develop helpful protests against a European theology that maintains a traditional, mournful mystique of the cross, which is passive and individualistic. Instead, in seeking to relate the cross to the contemporary world and its social injustice, they have contemplated whether God Himself was untouched by the historical cross because He is untouchable. Both Professors resolutely conclude this not to be the case.
With the film Roots still showing, and the memories of the Holocaust still fresh in the minds of many, it would be somewhat cowardly of me not to include the enslavement of Africans and the sufferings of God’s chosen people into this narrative, asking the question: ‘Where was God in their pain and suffering?’ Obviously, for me to even hint at God’s absence in these heinous circumstances would be a contradiction in terms. The fact is that the nature of suffering is complex. The ‘why’ of suffering appears to be totally ambiguous and the ‘when’ of suffering random and indiscriminate. Where it concerns the redemptive purposes of suffering, they too can often be incomprehensible for the sufferer.
So, what comfort do we take from the cross of Christ this Easter? Surely it is the fundamental Christian assertion that God is love. As difficult as this might be for the likes of a homeless, unemployed or bereaved person to grasp, the cross of Christ tells us that the love of God is a constant, originating from the heart of the Divine. It is a love never to be fully understood by the human, but often felt by Christ’s servants, even when engulfed by pain and suffering. The fact remains that God is ever present in our moments of joy and our moments of hell.
 The Jews made no distinction between a tree and a cross, and so between a hanging and a crucifixion.
 John 11:33: A more literal translation of the Greek ‘embrimaomai’ than the usual ‘deeply moved in spirit and troubled’