They were made of iron, with a square head and a tapering shaft. They were somewhere between 7 and 9 inches long; lay one along your open hand, and it would stretch from the tip of your thumb to the end of your little finger. Now feel along the back of your wrist, until you come to the space between the ulna and the radius. That’s where soldiers would have driven them into your flesh, impaling you to a wooden cross.
These iron spikes symbolize the state. Forget its disguise of bright banners, marble monuments, and deceptively soaring rhetoric. In the end, government comes down to three nails, one in either arm and the third pounded through the crossed feet. Leviathan has assumed many shapes through the ages, some blatantly brutal (military dictatorship, communist regime) and some less obviously so (democracy, republic). But beneath the trappings lies the essence: force. Force and, perforce, cruelty. Both are Hell’s hallmarks.
Those nakedly confront us each Holy Week when we remember that while our sins and the infinite love of Almighty God put Jesus Christ on that cross, Leviathan actually hammered home the nails. And in that ultimate, unspeakable crime, the beast exposed its Satanic nature for all time.
We get our first glimpse of the enormous, eternal battle between God and government when soldiers invade the Garden of Gethsamane to arrest Christ. St. John tells us that “Judas, having received a detachment of troops, and officers from the chief priests and Pharisees, came there with lanterns, torches, and weapons. Jesus…went forward and said to them, ‘Whom are you seeking?’
“They answered Him, ‘Jesus of Nazareth.’
“Jesus said to them, ‘I am He.’…Now when He said to them, ‘I am He’ they drew back and fell to the ground."
Behold! The infinite majesty and righteousness of omnipotent God fells the State’s servants though they come armed and numerous against one unarmed Man.
Eventually, the soldiers recover enough to bind Jesus and hustle Him off, first to Annas and then to his son-in-law Caiaphas. Both men are priests, which means they are also government officials in ancient Israel. They can use force against their Victim (Annas has Him struck when Christ boldly answers his questions rather than cringing; Caiaphas watches as the soldiers punch Him and spit in His face while they ridicule Him), but it cannot be fatal: their overlord, Rome, reserves that prerogative to itself.
Throughout history, exceedingly few of Leviathan’s lackeys have bothered with the quaint concept of justice. Nor do Annas and Caiaphas. They want to murder Christ, and they seek an “expedient” way to do so, as Caiaphas plainly admits. They interrogate Him, trying without success to intimidate Him. Then they send Him to the Roman procurator. Unlike the priests, Pontius Pilate can sentence those caught by his kangaroo court to crucifixion.
Pilate interrogates his Prisoner, too. He famously arrives at the conclusion that Jesus is innocent, and he announces that to the priests and their manufactured mob: "I find no fault in Him at all.” Nevertheless, Pilate promises His accusers, “I will therefore chastise Him and release Him.”
The “chastisement” which Pilate inflicts on an innocent Man is flogging. This savagery used a flagellum of several rawhide strands, each with pieces of metal or bone tied to it. Even a few lashes from such a whip shredded not only the skin of the shoulders, back, and legs but the muscles as well. There were far more than a few lashes, however: Roman whippings could reach a hundred or more. Two lictors alternated in flailing the flagellum. When one tired, perhaps rendering his strokes a tad less vicious, the other stepped in.
Because of the deep wounds, shock, and severe loss of blood and tissue, people frequently died from floggings. In fact, slaves were often executed this way. So-called criminals were sometimes flogged before being crucified; in this case, the centurion supervising the torture would stop the lictors short of killing their victim. Often no longer even recognizable as human, the condemned was then hauled away to die more publicly under even more gruesome torture on a cross.
We tend to think of Christ’s crucifixion in a vacuum, as though the denizens of Hell worked overtime inventing this horror solely for the Son of God. Instead, crucifixion was the favored method of execution for many ancient governments.
Consider what this says of Leviathan. It is not enough for the beast to kill, to thrust a human being "noble in reason!…infinite in faculty!" out of time and into eternity: the object is to strip him of all sensibility and grace, to turn him from a creature little lower than the angels into a shrieking scrap of butchered meat, to inflict as much agony as possible over as many hours — even days — as possible. Crucifixion was probably invented by the Persian government; after Alexander the Great Murderer and Brigand conquered the Phoenician city of Tyre, he crucified 2000 of its defenders for refusing to surrender to him; the Roman government crucified enemies taken in battle, slaves who revolted, rebellious provincials, and murderers and thieves. The last two categories are an exception to the overall use of crucifixion: men so tortured were usually a danger to the State, not to their fellows.
Crucifixion was so common that the upright beam of the cross, the stipes, was left fixed in the ground. The condemned would be forced to carry the horizontal bar, the patibulum, to the waiting stipes. Patibuli weighed in excess of 100 pounds; between their weight and their rough cut, they would have been difficult for a fully clothed and healthy man to carry. Forcing one with flayed flesh to hoist such a burden was demonically cruel. Between the loss of blood from the flogging and the resulting shock, the victim probably often fainted or fell under the beam. Simon the Cyrene, compelled to carry Christ’s cross, was no doubt typical of the bystanders dragooned into abetting Leviathan’s evil.
Upon reaching the place of execution, the patibulum was laid in the dirt and the condemned hurled onto it regardless of his mauled back. A soldier pounded a spike through one forearm and into the wood, then repeated the agony on the other side. The patibulum with its writhing load was now hoisted aloft into place on the stipes. The movement’s sudden strain on the arms and shoulders likely dislocated those joints: when the patibulum jolted into place, the victim’s arms were probably 6 inches longer than before. Next, the feet were crossed and a third spike beaten through them into the stipes.
Had the four limbs been stretched tightly before their impalement, the chest would be too constricted to allow breathing: the condemned would soon suffocate. Therefore, Leviathan diabolically left both arms and legs with room to flex. This prolongs the agony.
It also pits the body against itself: every breath is purchased with unimaginable suffering. The victim’s weight pulls him forward, disabling the diaphragm. Because it can no longer push the lungs to expel breath, the dying man inhales but can’t exhale. The wounded legs reflexively struggle to lift him and take the load off his arms and chest for exhalation, but this strains the feet against the spike while the macerated back scrapes along the cross’s wood.
Death usually occurred from a combination of blood loss, shock, cardiac arrest, and slow suffocation. It could be hurried, should Leviathan tire of its sport, by smashing the legs. That left the victim unable to push himself up for exhalation. The thieves crucified with the Messiah suffer that final torment.
Christ’s outpouring on the cross is first and foremost our reconciliation with God. But it also teaches us precisely what Leviathan is u2014 lessons that reveal to everyone, Christian or not, the identity of the beast’s master.
But the Almighty has the last laugh at the Satanic state. In Psalm 2, He reveals that all Leviathan’s rage, all its cruelty and infernal fury, merely bruised His heel: "The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the LORD and against his Anointed One…The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them. Then He rebukes them in His anger and terrifies them in His wrath…"
Amen! Hallelujah! He is risen, indeed!