Just before Christmas it was announced in the media that a heel bone had been discovered at a Roman archaeological dig in Cambridgeshire, England. The heel bone was unique as it is the only one outside of one found in Israel in 1968 that has a nail going through it. The evidence suggests that both these bodies had been crucified. Tests suggested that the one in Cambridgeshire was executed in the 3rd or 4th century AD which coincides with a persecution of Christians across the Roman empire.
The Church Times reported in the 17/24 December 20221 edition on page 9 that “crucifixion was relatively rare as a method of execution in Roman times” and numbers increased “in times of crisis or perceived political defiance”.
The hymn ‘Jerusalem’ can be criticised as there is no evidence whatsoever that Jesus literally “walked upon England’s mountains green”. But the finding of this evidence of crucifixion in this country should prompt us to remember that although Jesus’ crucifixion happened in Israel, its impact goes across the globe, even to this “green and pleasant land”. The cross is a symbol of terror and a symbol of hope for everyone. Everywhere.
One of the reasons Jesus was crucified was for “political defiance”. By challenging the Jewish religious leaders with his teaching and divinity and by challenging the Romans with his kingship and kingdom. Jesus was not a politician but was political. Why was this person in Cambridgeshire crucified? Was he a rebellious slave? A Christian martyr? If crucifixion was a consequence of proclaiming the gospel in public or challenging authority about injustice, would we have enough evidence against us to be at risk of it?
If crucifixion was “relatively rare”, how much more amazing does it make the Old Testament prophecies about how Jesus would die on a cross. For example, Psalm 22 says “Dogs surround me, a pack of villains encircles me; they pierce my hands and my feet. All my bones are on display; people stare and gloat over me. They divide my clothes among them and cast lots for my garment.” This was written approximately a thousand years before Jesus was born. All this was fulfilled in Jesus’ crucifixion. It is amazing to know that God is God of time.
Pictures of the heel bone with a nail through it remind us how horrific a death it was, to be beaten, stripped naked and nailed to a cross and left in a pubic space to die. However long it took. The Roman Senator and Orator Cicero said in 1BC that crucifixion was “the most miserable and most painful punishment”. But God the Father planned it and Jesus the Son went through with it. Why? “Not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10 v 45). Who do we know who needs to know this?
As we turn to Easter then, I know two towns whose annual March of witness this year will have an outward direction, for people in those towns walking past who don’t go to church. Could the churches in your town do the same? Could your church do an event for people in the community – an Easter egg hand out in the shopping centre, an easter egg hunt in the park – that communicate something of God’s love to them?
We could spend time in Lent praying for and spending time with people who don’t know Jesus and look for opportunities to share why is Easter important not just for us but for everyone. I was once at a pub with a guy who was asking questions about God, life and faith. I said at one point that it all comes down to Jesus. If he was who he said he was and did what he said he did, everything changes for everyone. Who could you say something like that to?
The cross is international and local.
The cross is past, present and future.
The cross is death and life.
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