The parade route begins near the twin towns of Bethpage and Bethany, less than two miles from Jerusalem and winds into the Holy City. The Grand Marshal is an unlikely hero – a rustic from a blue-collar town up north, the son of a woodworker. In keeping with his “common man” image, he decides to ride on a cut-rate float – the back of a donkey.
The crowd that chokes the road on that long-ago Sunday is made up of ordinary folk: merchants and mothers, goldsmiths and goatherders, clergymen and children. All of them were straining their necks to catch a glimpse of the man who would be Messiah. A copper-skinned fellow with a bushy beard calls out: “Anyone see him?”
“Not yet,” cries a taller man, and then adds, “Do you think Jesus is the One? Do you think he will finally liberate us?”
“Who knows?” the swarthy man replies. “He can’t be any worse than the other pretenders we’ve put up with.”
The crowd erupts. He is coming! Like a surging sea, the people press forward as one. Children are hoisted on shoulders. Shouts of “Hosanna!” – “Save us now!” – tumble from excited lips. Some of the spectators leap onto the dusty road, spreading out cloaks and freshly-cut palm branches to welcome the King of the Jews. Jesus rides by with a smile, touching outstretched hands and occasionally leaning forward to bless a child.
The parade ends at the steps of the great temple of Herod. Jesus dismounts and takes a stroll as his disciples fend off zealous sightseers. Finally Jesus announces he will return to Bethany for the night and return the next day.
Monday comes and then Tuesday. Jesus tosses shady cashiers out of the temple and argues theology with robed priests. Thursday is a day of fellowship. Jesus retreats to a second-floor room with his disciples, washes soiled feet and eats a Passover supper. In the midst of dining on roasted lamb and unleavened bread, the Lamb of God and Bread of Life inaugurates a new meal in his name, saying, “This is my body. . .this is my blood.”
Friday is the day of suffering. Sometime around midnight, as the disciples rub sleep from their eyes, temple police arrest Jesus in an olive garden, tipped off by the kiss of a betrayer. Through the dead of the night, Jesus endures a brutal round of mock trials. Two high priests and a religious Supreme Court interrogate him. Rigged witnesses trot out false testimony. Temple guards blindfold and strike him. Adding insult to injury, his foremost disciple denies that he knows him – not once, but three times.
The pious graybeards confer and quickly render a verdict: since Jesus claims to be the Son of God, he is guilty of blasphemy – a high crime. The Jews are not allowed to carry out a sentence, so they recommend the death penalty to the Roman governor. At daybreak, as Jerusalem stirs to life, an exhausted Jesus is dragged into the Praetorium, the fort-like palace of Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor.
Pilate is irritable. He would rather be sleeping on soft pillows than judging such an insignificant case. He listens to the charges with his head in hand, frowning. He sees no criminal in this man Jesus and certainly nothing kingly. He tries to free the carpenter’s son, but a mob surrounding the palace will hear nothing of release. They demand blood! Jesus has blasphemed – and more importantly, though they dare not confess it, he has let them down by not leading an army against the enemy of Israel.
Suddenly Pilate has an inspiration. He doesn’t want to execute an innocent man, nor does he want to set a spark to the volatile crowd below. So he tries to pawn off Jesus on Herod, the Galilean puppet-king who happens to be in Jerusalem for Passover festivities. But Herod soon grows bored because this religious rube will not perform miracles, so he shuttles him back to Pilate.
The Roman governor tries another tack – he offers to set free Jesus or a murderous thug called Barabbas. Surely the crowds will choose a rabbi over a renegade! But they do not. They screech for Jesus’ death: “Crucify him! Crucify him!” A desperate Pilate plays a trump card: he will order a scourging and perhaps satisfy the mob’s bloodlust.
Plumed soldiers shove Jesus into an open courtyard, where they strip him to the waist and rope his hands to a post. Then they begin the punishment, lacerating his naked back with leather straps tipped with scraps of bone and metal. After the beating, the soldiers decide to have a little fun. They invite the entire palace guard to deride Jesus. Someone weaves a crown of thorns and drives it into the carpenter’s skull, while another drapes a purple robe around his bloody shoulders.
“Hail, King of the Jews,” they sneer, mockingly bowing down. Then they pick up canes, pummel Jesus and spit in his face.
“Behold the man!” Pilate shouts to the crowd. And the hardened mob shouts back: “Crucify him!” The governor sighs. He is trapped. Turning to a guard, he quietly orders the execution, and then calls for a bowl of water to formally wash his hands of the sordid affair.
Five days after enjoying a triumphal parade into Jerusalem, Jesus now endures a parade of horror. His cheering admirers have become jeering attackers. Beaten beyond recognition, Jesus suffers the cruelest indignity yet by dragging his own cross through the city streets. When he collapses, a Roman soldier forces a Passover pilgrim named Simon to carry the cross the rest of the way.
The site of the crucifixion is Golgotha, a skull-shaped hill overlooking the fiery city dump of Jerusalem. The cross is laid on the ground. Soldiers strip him and force him down on top of the cross. The hands are nailed first. The soldiers find a spot on each wrist where two bones come together near the pulse. Careful not to pound the nails into the pulse and thus guarantee a quicker death, they drive the six-inch iron spikes through Jesus’ wrists and into the splintery wood.
The nailing of the feet is a trickier matter. The soldiers have to make sure the knees of the condemned prisoner are bent when they fasten them to the cross – otherwise, the dying man will not be able to stretch, suck in air and therefore die more quickly. And that would simply not do – crucified criminals must linger and suffer as a gruesome public example. So the dealers of death bend Jesus’ knees and hammer one long spike through both of his feet.
Four soldiers lift up the cross and shove it into a deep hole, sending a shockwave through Jesus’ wracked body. Within minutes he begins to ache and shudder as tremendous weight presses down on his arms and shoulders. His stomach cramps, his wounds swell, his parched throat cries out in thirst. A Roman soldier cruelly offers him sour wine, which he knows will inflame rather than soothe.
Gawkers swarm at the foot of the cross. They squint as they make out a signboard nailed above the man’s battered head:
THIS IS JESUS OF NAZARETH KING OF THE JEWS.
Insults fly like arrows:
“He could save others, but he cannot save himself!”
“Ha! You who would tear down the temple and rebuild it in three days, look at you now!”
“If you are the Son of God, why don’t you come off the cross?”
Jesus dizzily rolls his head. Two robbers hang on either side of him. They join the taunting mob, but one later has a change of heart, moved by the sight of the crucified King. With a shaky voice he pleads, “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” A smile flutters across the cracked lips of Jesus as he offers a divine pardon: “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with me in Paradise.”
Jesus looks down with a feverish stare. As he witnesses soldiers roll dice for his clothing, a childhood Psalm floats up from his memory: “They divided my garments among themselves and for my clothing they cast lots.” Other scriptures flash across his mind. He remembers the description of a suffering servant in Isaiah, a man of sorrows who would suffer on behalf of many. Jesus groans in agony. Old prophecies are being fulfilled by his death.
At noon, a thick quilt of darkness blankets the skies above Jerusalem and a deep gloom suffocates the Man on the cross. In his soul he feels deserted, utterly alone. For one awful moment, his Father withdraws and allows the dreadful sins of humanity to swarm around his only Son like killer bees. Every transgression and indiscretion – graft and gossip, adultery and idolatry, shame and slander, murder and mockery – is heaped upon the Sinless One. Peter would later write of this event, “He personally carried the load of our sins in his own body when he died on the cross” (I Pet 2:24) and Paul the Apostle would declare that he took away the curse of the law by actually becoming a curse for us. (Gal 3:13)
The heartbreak of Christ spills out into a lonely cry: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Then, moments before his death, a flood of faith restores his soul and he shouts in triumph: “It is finished!” Jesus finds confidence that he did all that his Father sent him to do. His work is done. Mission accomplished. Nothing needs to be added or amended.
And so Jesus bows his head and gives up his spirit.
A third parade takes place that week, but human senses cannot revel in its pomp and pageantry. This parade happens in the spiritual realm and would later be described in New Testament scripture (Col 2:13-15). The mighty Christ stands in a flashing chariot, brandishing his own cross in nail-pierced hands. Cheering angels line the golden streets, their wings unfurled in glory. And behind the chariot – shackled and chained – stagger the conquered hosts of hell. The Sinless Savior has triumphed! Christ steps down from his chariot. Into the street he tosses broken commandments that have long dangled over humanity like swords of condemnation. Lifting high the cross, he brings it down with fury and shatters the violated regulations. The angels roar their approval. The old law is canceled, annulled – and now a cursed race can live in the blazing light of God’s mercy and forgiveness. The demons droop their heads in defeat. Grace has won! The very instrument that they used to kill the Son of God has been turned against them.
The parade that wound into Jerusalem on that long-ago Sunday was exciting, indeed – but it can’t hold a candle to the parade that took place on Friday.