Sunday, March 24, 2013

Vulnera Christi: The wounds to the back

According to Jewish Law, the maximum number of stripes a man can receive at his flogging is 40. Since the number of lashes was administered in multiples of three, the maximum was usually left at 39. One could receive anything upto 39 stripes, but the full number was reserved for those who deserved the greatest punishment.

And so, Our Lord receives the full 39 in an attempt by Pilate to placate the pharisees baying for crucifixion.

The back is associated with our labours. When we are not giving our best we are told to put our back into it. It is upon the back that burdens are borne, just as today - Palm Sunday - when the colt bears upon its back the person of Our Lord, while those around cheer and rejoice triumphantly.

Injuries to our backs render us unable to work effectively. We can be laid up with bad backs and the experience is indeed rather miserable. Thus we begin to see the extent to which Our Lord's Passion is greater than we imagine. He is given the 39 stripes and re-clothed - His ability to labour is now severely compromised - and then He is made to carry the cross, a beam of splintery wood upon his torn back, all the way out of Jerusalem to Golgotha. Then the clothes are wrenched off of His back and it is forced against the wood again in His crucifixion.

Thus Our Lord's labour does not cease until He dies. Although rendered unable to move, unable to embrace, to perform acts of wonder, His labours continue right up to that last ecstatic "tetelestai!"* and He does not for one moment stop that labour even though He is offered an opportunity to dull the pain with a spunge soaked in vinegar. He works until the work is complete, done, finished, fulfilled!

That is Our Lord's tenacity for us.

In so doing, He offers us a way for our repentance, to turn our lives around. He offers us the opportunity to see that our labours in our darkness are not in vain. He tells us that if we can persevere to the end, even as He perseveres to the end, our own personal cry of "tetelestai!" will reach the ears of God and we shall find Him there with us.
Now the thirty years are ended
which on earth He willed to see,
willingly He meets His passion,
born to set His people free;
on the cross the Lamb is lifted,
there the sacrifice to be.
Venantius Fortunatus tr J.M. Neale
* An almost untranslatable phrase, rendered by many translators as "it is finished" but this lacks the  power, relief and triumph with which it is uttered.


sarumuse said...

The Romans weren't the only ones to mete out this barbaric punishment. One only needs to look at the British Navy in the 18th century -

Captain William Bligh was the most notorious until the Admirals came to the conclusion that flogging with the "cat" "breaks a good man's heart and makes a bad man worse".

Warwickensis said...

Indeed, Father, Sir Erasmus Wilson the surgeon who formally proved the harm of flogging in the British Navy is buried in my erstwhile CofE PArish.