8. THE CRUCIFIXION
The divine services of our Church are both instructive and soul-touching. Their hymns and their benedictions lift us up to the heavens, they enrich us with feelings of reverence, and they help us in our concentration and devoutness.
Amongst these services, the most prominent ones are those of Easter Week, whose apical day is Good Friday. Good Friday's hymns take us through the stages of the Lord's immeasurably painful journey, His terrible Suffering, at every step of the way. The icon of the Crucifixion receives the adoration of multitudes that swarm to the holy temples. The voice of the Church, reminds us of the drama:
" On the most holy and Great Friday, we re-enact the divine and redemptive and horrible Sufferings of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ; the expectorations, the beatings, the slapping, the vituperations, the laughter, the red mantle, the rod, the sponge, the spoiled wine, the nails, the spear; and above all, the crucifix and death, all of which He voluntarily submitted Himself to, for our sake. We also commemorate the grateful Robber's salvatory confession, while crucified beside the Lord ."
The issue of the Lord's sacrifice on the cross was at the core of every apostolic sermon, of the holy Fathers' homilies and of the Church's teaching. As the Apostle Paul said: " to the Jews, the crucified Christ was a scandal; to the Greeks it was folly, but to the faithful, it was God's power and God's wisdom ." ( 1 st Epistle Corinthians, 1, 23-24 ).
In the Lord's Cross, our holy Church sees the love of God towards sinful mankind; also, the humiliation, the submission and the sacrifice of the Son of God. As the Apostle Paul says, Christ our Lord " vacated Himself, taking on a servile form, becoming like any other human, and, since He had acquired the form of man, He humiliated Himself, becoming obedient to the death; indeed, to a death on the cross." (Philippians, 2, 7-8).
Christ had to partake of death, and especially a death on the cross, " so that through it, He would be re-enacting the transgression of the tree (of Eden ), so that all accusations found against mankind would thenceforth be abolished; He would also take away the tyranny of death" (Cyril of Alexandria, PG 72, 676 A). In other words, with His crucifixional death, our Lord bought us back from the curse of the law; He tore up and erased the manuscript containing our sins; He abolished the authority of death, He opened the sealed doors of Paradise and bestowed life and resurrection to the new people of God: the members of His Church.
That is why it has been correctly observed that: " the Cross specifically expresses the Christian message: of victory over defeat, of glory over humiliation, of life over death. It is the symbol of an almighty God, who voluntarily became a human and died like a slave, in order to save His creature ". (Vladimir Losky)
Our Church's hymns - especially those of Good Friday - are full of such contrasts. The hymn that follows is the most characteristic one of all; it is heard in every church on the evening of Great Thursday, in a funereal silence:
" Today, the One who suspended the earth amidst the waters is being suspended on a piece of wood. A crown of thorns is placed upon the head of the king of angels. A false mantle is draped over the One who draped the sky with clouds. The One who redeemed Adam from within the Jordan now condescends to being beaten. The Bridegroom of the Church is been fastened down with nails. The Son of the Virgin is being pierced by a spear. We venerate Your passions, o Christ. Now also show us your glorious resurrection."
From the Bible excerpts that are read during the Hours of the Lord's Passion, after the preceding hymn has been sung, we shall mention a selection of passages that best describe the depiction of the holy icon of the Crucifixion:
"And they took Him ( Jesus ) up to the place called Golgotha , which -interpreted-means 'Skull site'. And they gave Him spoiled wine to drink; but He did not accept it. After crucifying Him, they shared His garments among themselves, casting lots to see who would take which part of them. ......."
"And the reason for His punishment was inscribed on a sign: THE KING OF THE JEWS. And with Him, were crucified two robbers; one on His right and the other on His left..........."
"And those walking alongside Him on the road, were shouting curses at Him..........."
"Likewise, the high priests were joking amongst themselves and the scribes, saying: 'He may have saved others, but He will not be able to save Himself'..........."
"Next to Jesus' cross stood His mother and His mother's sister, Maria of Klopas and Maria the Magdalene. Now, when Jesus saw His mother and his beloved disciple standing there, He said to His mother: 'woman, behold your son'. Then He said to His disciple: 'behold your mother'............"
"It was almost the sixth hour ( after sunrise ), and darkness fell on all the land, up to the ninth hour; and the sun was darkened, and the partition of the inner sanctum of the Temple was rent asunder. Then, in a loud voice, Jesus cried out: 'Father, in Your hands I place my soul'. Having said this, He expired. When the centurion saw all that had taken place, he gave praise to God, saying: 'this man was indeed a righteous one'.........."
As we can see from the above verses of the divine Evangelists, the Lord is voluntarily hoisted up onto the cross atop Golgotha hill; the two robbers that were crucified alongside Him are also hanging on their crosses; below the Cross stand His mother and some other women; the Pharisees and the Scribes are also moving within the same area, as are the soldiers and some other people from the Jewish crowd.
Not all these figures are portrayed in a Crucifixion icon. With the exception of the crucified Lord, His Mother, John the disciple, one or two women that accompany His Mother and the centurion, the others are considered redundant, as if they somehow " contribute towards a diminishing of the holy Crucifixion icon's original, austere simplicity, which is the characteristic of Orthodox hagiography's supremacy ". (Fotis Kontoglou) Thus, " it can be said that the Byzantium created a Crucifixion portrayal style that may be considered classical, with its own sense of proportion. In seeking a sedateness of synthesis, this style of portrayal gradually cast out the other presences around the Cross, and confined itself to the basics: the Mother of God and Saint John; occasionally, they may be accompanied by a saintly woman and the centurion". (Vladimir Losky)
Description of the icon.
a) The Crucified Lord. " Christ's body is bare, wrapped only in a white loincloth around His waist; He is portrayed dead, with eyes closed, His head tilted to the right, with martyrdom evident in his countenance. His immaculate body is bony, indicative of the tortures that He suffered; His arms are outstretched, with palms open, as if in prayer. I would like to remind the faithful of the hymn that says: 'You spread Your palms, and united all that was formerly apart'; in other words, with His Passion, He reconciled God and humanity, and with His outstretched arms, He appeared to be embracing the entire world. His limbs, joined together with knees slightly bent, are standing on a piece of wood resembling a footrest. Blood can be seen dripping from His immaculate hands and feet, and blood and water are trickling from His side. Above His head, an inscription has been nailed onto the cross, bearing the initials that signify THE KING OF GLORY, and not the initials I.N.R.I. that were originally inscribed by the Lord's irreverent crucifiers, when making fun of Him " (Fotis Kontoglou)
With regard to the portrayal of the Lord on the Cross, we must point out that Western icons depict the crucified Lord alive, with His eyes open while suspended on the cross and His hands turned upwards. As opposed to this, the Byzantine icon portrays Him in the state of death, eyes closed, body bent slightly over towards the right, thus confirming His lifelessness and His divine evacuation. The orthodox hagiographer is in fact inspired by hymnal descriptions; they describe the Lord as being 'asleep'. This is the reason the icon gives His face such an expression. Death and Hades left the Lord's body untouched, incorruptible and impassionate, because these two were both exterminated by the Lord's life-bearing death. Our Church says: " You, the King and Lord, went to sleep in the flesh as a human; You arose on the third day, lifting Adam out of corruption, abolishing death itself. O, Easter of imperishability, salvation of the world ". (Closing hymn of Easter Sunday)
Just below the rocky crest of Golgotha hill where the Lord's cross is situated, the gaping mouth of a cave is depicted. Inside the cave we see a skull, on which the blood dripping from Christ's feet has seeped through. This represents Adam's skull; According to tradition, when Adam died he was buried at Golgotha hill, where divine providence had arranged that: " at the place where Adam fell unto death, there the new Adam's ( Christ's ) trophy would rise up against death; I say this of the Cross " (Efthymios Zigavinos). The same is said by several other Fathers of the Church - saint Epifanios, Vasileios the Great, etc.
The other persons in the icon. To the right of the Cross stands the Holy Mother, either alone or -as in our icon- in the company of other saintly women. She stands looking upwards towards her Son. Her one hand is gripping her cheek, to show restraint in her sorrow (her other hand is stretched upwards, as a sign of supplication). Her grief is restrained; she believes in the divinity of her Son, who reassures her (according to the hymn-writer) with the words: " Do not mourn for me, Mother...... I shall be resurrected and glorified " (Holy Saturday Vespers, ode 9). John's pose on the other hand, as opposed to the Holy Mother's, expresses agony and fear. With his body crouching and his face furrowed with pain, he too participates in the divine drama. His one hand is placed across his chest, and the other is clutching his garment. Behind John, we can see Loginus the centurion in his military attire. He is looking at Christ and proclaiming His innocence, while simultaneously raising his right hand towards his forehead, either in a gesture of speech, or as if beginning to cross himself. " The centurion with his unusual pose, the gesture of his hand, and his air, which are in extreme contrast to the relaxed pose and the restrained expression of human compassion of the other characters, appears out of place; especially as he is situated next to the almost inert John. However, his presence and his depiction are fully justified; He is a non-participant of the event; he is simply an eyewitness unrelated to Christ's circle (hence a credible eyewitness ), who is shaken by the proof of Christ's divinity " (Agape Karakatsani)
The scene closes, with the depiction of the walls of Jerusalem in the icon. Jesus " suffered outside the gates of the city " (Hebrews, 13, 12).
John the Chrysostom interprets this:
" Outside the city and the walls, so that you may know that His sacrifice was universal; that His offering was for all the world; so that you may know it was a common cleansing " (PG 49, 400)