Jesus is Nailed to the Cross – Full Text

A crucifix

The large crucifix in Nigeria

The 11th Station Jesus is nailed to the cross


In this series of articles I’m taking the Way of the Cross and pondering on what each station is saying to us. I must stress that these are personal thoughts and if they seem a bit strange then that’s about me rather than the Church. The eleventh station recalls that Jesus was nailed to the cross. We are all familiar with this.

I grew up in a house with a crucifix on the wall. My rosaries have a small crucifix on the end. Jesus nailed to a cross has been the wallpaper of my life. Every church I visit has at least one crucifix. Some are small and some are large they are all works of art. I expect to see a crucifix on a church, a classroom wall, in a home. It is just a familiar item.

A few years ago I read an article by a woman who had gone into a church and was shocked by the sight of a man nailed to a cross – a crucifix. What sort of people are these who have horrible things like that in their churches? I was shocked at her reaction. Had she never seen a crucifix? Where was she coming from?

In my Missio life I was on a visit to Nigeria and stayed for a few days in a parish in Lafia. I wandered into the church where the ladies were preparing for the harvest festival mass. The crucifix on the wall behind the altar (see the picture) was the biggest I have ever seen. It dwarfed everything and everyone. I literally fell on my knees. Now it was my turn to be shocked. I’m not sure why, perhaps it was the sheer size of the crucifix, but the thought in my head was, “What have I done?”

Now I’m sure you learned the same thing as I did at school; Jesus died on the cross for my sins. That is disturbing but this giant crucifix brought home to me the enormity of what happened. No other crucifix I have seen has had this effect on me. How do I deal with this? As usual I’ve pushed it to the back of my mind to pretend it is not there; but it is there and will not go away.

Peter Howson is an artist I have admired for some time. He paints picture that do not flatter but point the finger. He completed his “Saint John Ogilvie” for the refurbished cathedral on Clyde street and there was an exhibition of some of his preparatory sketches and paintings in the adjacent offices. I went along, eager to see how he had come to his final work.

The whole exhibition was very moving. One sketch in particular caught me. It was the face of Christ, crowned with thorns and terrified! This was not the quiet suffering face of Christ I had seen in many works of art. This was the face of a man about to go through an extremely brutal experience. He was about to be nailed to the cross. This image made me stop in my tracks. It was the first picture I have seen that conveyed the true horror of what Jesus underwent; and he did it for me.

Suffering is not something we are unaware of. If you are clumsy like me then you you suffer lots of minor accidents. Have you ever hit your finger with a hammer? I’m not trying to promote this as a hobby. It is very painful and produces all sorts of words your children should never hear. I have done this many times; take it from me, it is not to be recommended. It is even worse to puncture yourself. Getting a cut in the kitchen or even pricking yourself with a needle cause pain but it passes and soon heals.

Have you ever stapled your finger? That’s altogether different. It hurts on the way in and it is really painful on the way out. That’s because, unlike the needle or the kitchen knife, the edge of the staple is ragged. When they nailed Jesus to the cross they didn’t have the smooth, regular, machine made nails we are familiar with. In those days nails were made by hand by a blacksmith wielding a hammer. The nails were bashed out of bars of iron. There was nothing delicate about these rough-hewn pegs.

Jesus was held down and the nails were bashed through him into the wood. Most of the old paintings show the nails piercing his hands but more recent commentators have decided that it is more likely that the nails pierced his wrists. I don’t know if it makes a difference which one it was. In both cases the nails must have shattered bone and muscle. It is really too horrible to contemplate.

A few years ago, in 2004 to be exact, Mel Gibson directed a film called ‘The Passion of the Christ’. It re-enacted the last twelve hours of Jesus’ life. The Passion of the Christ is the highest grossing R-rated film in United States history, and the highest grossing non-English-language film of all time. It caused outrage. Some critics called it obscene. It was shown on television a few years ago and I decided to watch. I gave up watching at the scourging at the pillar. It was obscenr because it was depicting that was too horrible to watch.

Some complained that it was blaming the Jews for killing Jesus. Some complained that the extreme violence obscured the message. I don’t agree with either complaint. The film made me feel that I have caused this horror because Jesus died for my sins. The violence is part of the message. We find it difficult to deal with the violence because it reflects on us.

This year and especially during the month of November we have been looking back to the First World War. Our televisions have shown us the slaughter that both sides inflicted on each other. We have paid tribute to those who died for their country. We have solemn parades and use the poppy as a symbol of the blood let on Flanders fields. Yet we fail to look at the real horror. This was a war where new weapons were devised to kill more man more quickly.

Soldiers were killed by poison gas; flamethrowers were introduced to exterminate whole trenches of men. Machine guns provided mechanised killing. Aircraft were used to bomb civilians for the first time and battleships shelled towns on the east coast. Things only got worse from then on. Today we have weapons that can exterminate continents. We use advances in technology to bring the horrors of war to any place on the world, to any people and we can do it without leaving the office.

What is the significance of Jesus being nailed to the cross? Is Jesus showing us how we use cruelty and violence to get our own way? It was a warning to us. He showed us that it is in our human nature to be cruel. Despite the gifts of intelligence and science we have been given we can usually find a way to misuse them.

Why do I prefer the small crucifix on my rosaries to the large on that church wall in Nigeria? Well I suppose I find it hard to face up to the fact that it was my fault.


Joseph McGrath

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