From time to time during prayer, I try to meditate and reflect on Christ's Passion. Sometimes this is as simple as staring at a crucifix for several minutes. Other times I try to focus and reflect on specific events during His Passion, like the scourging at the pillar or the nailing to the cross (Praying the sorrowful mysteries of the Rosary lets you meditate on them all!). No matter how I do it though, the point is to remind me what immense suffering Jesus willingly endured for my salvation. In the hustle and bustle of everyday life with its constant demands and distractions, it's so easy to forget what Christ has done for us. Engaging in this reflection, even if just for a few seconds, also acts as a great remedy for self-pity. It's hard to feel sorry for oneself while looking at a crucifix.
THE CROWNING WITH THORNS - MORE THAN MERE MOCKERY
Recently, I found myself reflecting on the crowning with thorns--the Roman soldiers mockery of Jesus by placing a crown of thorns on his head prior to leading him off to be crucified. Three of the four Gospels record this event (all but Luke), and all three are almost identical in the details. Here is St. Matthew's account:
"Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus inside the praetorium and gathered the whole cohort around him. They stripped off his clothes and threw a scarlet military cloak about him. Weaving a crown of thorns, they placed it on his head, and a reed in his right hand. And kneeling before him, they mocked him, saying 'Hail King of the Jews!' They spat upon him and took the reed and kept striking him on the head. And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the cloak, dressed him in his own clothes, and led him off to crucify him." (Matthew 27:27-30)
It is interesting to note that although the soldiers removed the military cloak and dressed him back in his own clothes, St. Matthew never tells us that the soldiers removed the crown of thorns from Jesus's head. St. Mark and St. Matthew are equally silent as to the crown of thorns being removed. In fact, St. John tells us specifically that Jesus still was "wearing the crown of thorns" when he was brought back out before Pilate and the crowd. (John 19:5) Given these accounts, its reasonable to believe that the crown of thorns remained on Jesus's head from that point forward until his death on the cross. Indeed, most Christian art (paintings, sculptures, etc.) over the centuries depicts Christ wearing the crown of thorns as he hung on the cross.
I highlight this because--for me at least--it often is easy to overlook Jesus's physical suffering associated with the crown of thorns, especially when compared with the brutality of the scourging and the crucifixion itself. Further, in my experience, it seems that many writers and bible commentators tend to focus on the Roman soldiers' intent to mock Jesus and his purported kingship with the crown of thorns as opposed to inflicting additional torture upon him. To be sure, mockery and humiliation was the ultimate goal. But the mocking nature of the crowning with thorns doesn't mean we can or should forget the precious blood that flowed from the wounds the crown of thorns opened up on Christ's head, nor the pain and suffering caused as a result. Indeed, as discussed below, this recognition can help us grow in love and devotion to our Lord.
My epiphany (for lack of a better term) regarding Jesus's suffering from the crown of thorns came after a reading a book titled The Crucifixion of Jesus: A Forensic Inquiry by Frederick T. Zugibe, M.D. ("The Crucifixion") (http://www.amazon.com/Crucifixion-Jesus-Completely-Revised-Expanded/dp/1590770706). Dr. Zugibe was the chief medical examiner for Rockland County, New York for over 30 years (1969 - 2002), and one of the country's leading forensics pathologists (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frederick_Zugibe). In The Crucifixion, Dr. Zugibe set out to conduct a virtual autopsy on Christ from "across the centuries." Relying on the Gospel accounts, the Shroud of Turin, and fifty-three (53) years worth of exhaustive research (including numerous experiments he conducted regarding the medical and scientific aspects of crucifixion on the body), Dr. Zugibe examines Christ's Passion step by step, explaining, in great detail, the physical and mental suffering our Lord experienced. I highly recommend the book (especially for Lenten reading) if you are interested in gaining a deeper knowledge of what Jesus endured for us.
When analyzing the crowning with thorns in The Crucifixion, Dr. Zugibe discusses a neurological condition known as trigeminal neuralgia caused by stimulation or irritation of the two major nerve branches located on the top and sides of the head. If these nerves are irritated--by, for example, punctures from sharp objects--individuals experience facial pain described by patients as "knifelike stabs," "electric shocks," or "jabs with a red-hot poker." Once this irritation has occurred, even "[l]ight touches, facial movements, chewing, talking, or drafts of air across the face can precipitate an attack." Quoting the leading researcher regarding trigeminal neuralgia and its treatment, Dr. Zugibe explains that the condition "is said to be the worst pain that man is heir to. It is devastating pain that is just unbearable in its several forms."
Turning back to the Gospel account of the crowning, Dr. Zugibe explains the physical effect it would have had on Jesus. No summary I could give would be adequate, so here is the entire explanation:
"It is important to note that the crown was made by interweaving (plaiting) the thorn twigs into the shape of a cap. This placed a large number of thorns in contact with the entire top of the head, including the front, back, and sides. The blows from the reed across Jesus's face or against the thorns would have directly irritated the nerves or activated trigger zones along the lip, side of the nose, or face, bringing on severe pains resembling a hot poker or electric shock. The pain would have lancinated across the sides of His face or deep into His ears. Bleeding would have resulted from penetrating small blood vessels. The pain may have stopped almost abruptly, only to recur [at] the slightest movement of the jaws or even from a wisp of wind. The traumatic shock from the brutal scourging would have been further enhanced by the paroxysmal pains across the face. Exacerbations and remissions of throbbing bolts of pain would have occurred all the way to Calvary and during the crucifixion, activated by the movement of walking, falling, and twisting; from the pressure of the thorns against the cross; and from the many shoves and blows by the soldiers."
CHOOSING CHRIST'S CROWN INSTEAD OF MY OWN
As he did with the whole of his Passion, Jesus willingly accepted his crown of thorns (and the excruciating pain that came as a result) on our behalf. But why? Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen explains that "[a]s the scourging was the reparation for the sins of the flesh, so the crowning with thorns was the atonement for the sins of the mind – for the atheists who wish there were no God, for the doubters whose evil lives becloud their thinking, for the egotists, centered on themselves." (The Fifteen Mysteries) Jesus wore the crown of thorns because of our pride, plain and simple.
According to St. Thomas Aquinas, pride is "the greatest sin in man," "the beginning of all sin," and "Man's first sin." (Summa Theologiae II-II 161, 6-7; 163, 1) He further tells us that "[t]he root of pride is found to consist in man not being in some way subject to God and His Rule." (II-II, 162, 5) Simplifying St. Thomas's words, Peter Kreeft boils it down to this: "'Thy' will be done is the essential prayer of the saint; 'my will be done' is the essential prayer of the sinner." (Practical Theology)
Looking at my life, far too often has my pride caused me to put on my own crown and ignore Christ's crown of thorns. This pride has taken many forms over the years, both big and small. So many times when I've been in the valley of darkness, God's will was the farthest thing from my mind. Even when I could muster up the strength to say the Lord's prayer (the "Our Father"), "thy will be done" was nothing more than words. Deep down, I thought my will was better than God's. Yet the reality is that the crown of my pride is heavy, weighing me down into an abyss of misery. It prevents me from loving Jesus Christ and doing his will through keeping his commandments. (John 14:21)
But thanks to God's grace and mercy, I can remove my crown of selfish pride, put on Christ's crown of glory, and become a royal heir thanks to His precious blood that flowed from the crown of thorns. Sacred Scripture assures us of this:
- "Blessed is the man who perseveres in temptation, for when he has been proved he will receive the crown of life that he promised to those who love him." (James 1:12)
- I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith. From now on the crown of righteousness awaits me, which the Lord, the just judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me, but to all who have longed for his appearance." (2 Timothy 4:7-8)
- "Run so as to win. Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one.
- "[The Lord] redeems your life from the pit, and crowns you with mercy and compassion." (Psalms 103:4)
So now, whenever I feel my pride creeping in, I remember Jesus's crown of thorns and what he endured to overcome that pride. Simply recognizing when our will crosses with God's will is a great victory. It is in fighting these small battles, day by day, that allows us to take baby steps toward holiness. For true "[f]reedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought." (St. Pope John Paul II).