Jesus stands shoulders and wrists rope-bound beside a scroll-wielding Pilate, appearing expressionless, haloed. No filth dirties up the building, no sense of age in the architecture. No raw sewage strews a gutter. Everything then was new, a world so young even the distant mountains sit wrinkleless. Roman soldiers jeer in the background. Said background is lavish: columns, drapes, blue sky, solitary cloud.
Jesus bears his cross, upon which he will be crucified, to Calvary. The cross is rough-hewn and large. It looks very heavy. Jesus has already been flogged, and the crown of thorns forces blood streams down his forehead and back. In those rivers of blood are rivers of blood and in those rivers tiny fish swim upriver, to their spawning ground, inside the man, inside his heart, and there the fish give birth to guppies that drown in the blood river, their parents feeding microscopic grizzlies on the slightly larger mountain shores. Should there have been a historical crucifixion, Jesus did not likely carry an entire cross, but the gibbet that would affix to the permanent palus drilled into stony ground. Still, the gibbet could have easily weighed as much as the man carrying it.
When Jesus falls the first time, he drops to a knee, or lays prone, or supports himself on an elbow. The cross angles over his shoulder, defying physics. Among the last of miracles, the cross does not teeter or tip to one side, does not crush the man below. Soldiers leer, snapping whips, expressions full of spit. The soldiers wield staffs, clubs, or the blunt ends of spears with which they jab and prod the man like a cow. These men, already charged with an unhappy task, want this to end as soon as possible, and so get back to guarding the temple, the Roman state house, returning home to a loving wife, a daughter, meat steaming on the table, the games that weekend.
You meet your mother, who remains perpetually blue robed, cowl-sheathed, as she comforts you in this hour of your death. You appear resolute, motioning your mother away, to say, Nothing more can you do for me. You push away your mother for that is what all children must do with all mothers. Your shoulders hold up pure white robes, despite having been beaten, stripped, flogged, held as prisoner. Your shoulders and face sit white as alabaster, scratchless. Not a drip of dried blood or caked dirt mars you. In Matisse’s study, the figures of you and your mother remain faceless, crossless, a tender meeting of bodies.
In the fifth Station of the Cross: behold Simon of Cyrene forced to help Jesus with his burden. The Second Treatise of the Great Seth, a Gnostic text, says that Jesus—because he was never of flesh, only took on the appearance of the flesh—was not the man crucified, that it had to have been Simon of Cyrene who did the dying.
“Veronica” means “true image,” from the Latin vera for true, ica from Greek’s eikon, or our modern icon. Thus Saint Veronica is an historical flub in that, as the sixth Station of the Cross shows us a woman, a Veronica, wiping the face of Jesus, the word “veronica” itself refers to the image of Jesus’ face miraculously left on the woman’s cloth, and not the woman who showed charity. The Gospels make no mention of this woman wiping Jesus’ face during the Passion. This nameless woman’s legend gains momentum beginning in the twelfth century. Still, the Vatican possesses a “Veronica” which the Vatican displays Passion Sunday, in the fifth week of Lent. Of the Church’s many “Holy Faces,” most of them smack remarkably of medieval representations of the human face in artistic rendering. Myth making art making myth is legend is religion.
The Scriptural Way of the Cross provides no stations for devotion to any falling by Jesus in his sojourn. Most of the details of the fourteen Stations of the Cross that I grew up with—as set by Pope Clement XII in 1731—are not mentioned in any of the Gospels. Who came up with this story of Jesus falling three times? By his second fall, Jesus’ knees are scuffed open and bloody. The soldiers ready to whip him, to prod his body with the blunt spear-end, save one. A solitary soldier offers a hand and arm under an arm. Who is this compassionate Roman? Would he buy me a beer? Will you emulate him, this man who helps a man to die?
When Jesus spoke to the daughters of Jerusalem, he preached for them not to weep for him, but to cry for themselves and their kids, for there will come a time when people will proclaim, “Blessed are the barren.” How is it that this man who had been arrested, spat upon, yelled at and lied to, punched, flogged with spiked whips, degraded with a crown of thorns and pummeled with a reed scepter, who had already struggled to carry the implement of his death this far, who had already fallen twice and had another, one Simon of Cyrene, forced to help him carry the cross, had the strength to stop, preach to these women loudly enough for someone else to hear and record what he said, without any of the Roman soldiers who thus far have impatiently flogged him to keep him moving toward execution, and why did he say what he said, and what the hell does it mean? Most remain inconclusive on any interpretation of the eighth Station of the Cross, though Catholics teach their children that sometimes all we think about is ourselves, and look at this example: Jesus stopped in the midst of his agony to preach to ailing women. This doesn’t make much sense when reading the scripture, which claims the women wept for him, and Jesus tells them to weep for themselves. Yet another interpretation is that the Daughters of Jerusalem were a group of Jewish widows who followed the condemned to their executions and made a show of weeping for them. So, it’s possible that they didn’t know who Jesus was at all.
By now it’s amazing that this man has made it so far—to the base of Calvary—and still a third fall falls. Bones and rotting bodies and garbage strew about the hilltop path, prior executional refuse. Jesus can hardly make it, but Simon of Cyrene encourages him, hefting his cross, this original man of the Blues. Simon sings: Lord give me His cross to bear, oh Lord, oh Lord /Lord give me His cross to bear, oh Lord, Oh Lord /I’ll make the top if I die on the way / Lord’s gonna take my soul to Heaven so he say. Crowds leer round the two. If at first you don’t succeed, try again again again. And again, Jesus forces his body up. He stumbles up the hill, as the tradition since the 6th century is that Calvary was a hill, though no one really knows.
At Golgotha the soldiers stripped Jesus. The gospel, according to Mark and Matthew: Jesus refuses wine mixed with gall—digestive bile—likely from a lamb. The lamb itself watched Jesus refuse its bile, then sauntered away, downhill, dejected, shitting on the road. The wine tasted awful. Jesus thought the lamb would poison him. Why poison this guy to be crucified within minutes? Who brought this drink? Certainly not the lamb, for lambs hold no thumbs or palms. Could Jesus’ own followers have dared to spare him the pain and humiliation of crucifixion? I’d have drunk that shit, should it have been the most bitter brew. Maybe the alcohol would ease pain, even for a few seconds. The soldiers gambled for a robe and economic prosperity.
Death by crucifixion: ex-cruc-iating: “out of the cross.” The remains of a man theorized to have been crucified in Jerusalem in the first century has a spike driven through a heel bone. Some pales extended a spike that sat at the level of the base of the human trunk, where gravity forced weight down and pushed the extension into the perineum, anus, or vagina, serving to both humiliate the crucified and speed death. The dying shit and pissed themselves, their waste attracting insects. Most paintings and sculptures show Jesus clad in a loincloth. Though the crucified were always naked, artists would not undress the man. The eleventh Station and the Crucifix above the altar held a Jesus stabbed and thorn-crowned, blood dripping, his knees scabbed from three falls.
Victims of crucifixion suffer from exhaustion asphyxia, their hands and arms spread, their chest and lungs flattening so that they must heave their bulk to allow for each inhalation. Then strength fails. Blood loss from prior flagellation with iron barb-tipped scourges and the crucifixion nails, along with dehydration and the ever-present pain contribute to hypovolemic shock. Thus the shortness of breath and exhaustion all reasons for such short last utterances: Eli Eli lama sabaqtani. Then death, the day darkening, a raindrop before the storm, the temple curtain torn in twain, the earth rumbling, zombies resurrected to visit upon families, eclipse of sun and moon, the heavens bearing Jupiter, Venus, Mars, the Pleiades, Orion.
My wife takes depositions from plaintiffs in cases where brake pads have rubbed to a sifted powder that cancered their lungs. She provides this information to the corporations who own the manufacturers who produced said brake pads so that they can get out of paying the dying their millions of dollars. She works to put down these arguments because, as she maintains, everyone deserves good representation, no matter how big or little that someone. Did Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus feel this way while deposing Jesus from the cross? This thirteenth Station: unlucky number for an unlucky guy. In Michaelangelo’s Florentine Pietà—said by some to contain Michaelangelo’s self-portrait in the male figure holding Jesus’ body (Joseph or Nicodemus)—Jesus grows from the marble, rock from rock. Michaelangelo abandoned this project, and his pupil, Tiberio Calcagni, a lesser, and today an unknown artist, finished it. Michaelangelo’s/Nicodemus’s/Joseph’s face, though carved of solid marble, looks old and soft as old man’s skin.
In the fourteenth Station of the Cross your body is laid to rest in a tomb, then sealed in darkness.