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Death on the cross, devised by the Persians and later taken up by the Romans, was a cruel, tortuous means of teaching rebels a lesson. The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1985) describes crucifixion in this way:

“The condemned person carries the cross-beam to the place of execution, is fastened to it with ropes and nails, and is then hoisted on the stake, which is already erected. About the middle of the post a wooden block supports the suspended body. The height of the cross varies. A tablet hung around the victim states the causes of execution, and this is then affixed to the cross. Scourging often precedes crucifixion and the victim is exposed to mockery. Crucifixion takes place publicly and the body may be left to rot on the cross. The death is extremely slow and agonising. Constantine ends this form of punishment.”

Horrible thought, isn’t it? Jesus would have known what he was getting in for. But, just as Jesus turned an horrific death into resurrection, he also turned the horrible symbol of the cross into a glorious symbol – one which we proudly cling to and even wear in various ways. The cross has become our Christian banner. But, may it not simply be a decoration. We Christians, if we truly follow our Lord, must have an idea of what such devotion might mean for us if we carry a cross.

The fact that Emperor Constantine ended crucifixion presents a fascinating twist. Constantine’s mother was St Helena (we have an island named after her just down the river). It was rumoured that Helena was more into Christianity than Constantine but no-one (not even an emperor) likes to disappoint his mother so he went along with it too. It was St Helena who went to the Holy Land and spent a great deal of time discovering where the holy sites were. Local knowledge was still pretty accurate 400 years on from Christ.

According to local knowledge, even today, Golgotha, at the time of Christ was an abandoned quarry outside the city walls which later became a dump. Hence, it became an ideal place for crucifixions. Legend has it that St Helena went to Golgotha and found three crosses lying in the waste. Believing them to be the three crosses of Calvary, she had a sick person lie on each one. When the sick person lay on the third one, there was immediate healing. Helena knew that she had found the remains of the cross of Christ and the place of crucifixion. The cross has certainly had a long history in humanity but, it is still the place where Christians discover their true identity, even their healing.

Fr Bob Harwood


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