The Cloth of the “Mocking Cross.”


The picture above is a stained glass window in the First United Methodist Church in Gainesville, Ga. It is one of many windows depicting various aspects of the Old and New Testament. A few years ago I put together a coloring book and a book of the windows accompanied by mini-sermons to explain and elucidate the biblical significance of each. I chose to take a stab at the window with the cross. I have a preacher friend who as it turns out has the same birthday as me, April 15th, and I asked him about the origin of the cloth you see draped about the cross. “Oh, the mocking cross,” he says. I had never heard that term. Then one day shortly before Easter that year I happened into the hospital chapel to, as my mother would say, “say a little prayer.” I noticed a small wooden cross with  purple cloth draped about it, it was no larger than six inches. Then I happened to be on call that Easter Day and went in there again and someone had replaced the purple cloth with a white one. Then I asked several preachers the origin of the white cloth and got several different answers. So…this is origin of my taking this picture and attempting the explain the significance of it.  You’ll note the crown of thorns, crossed spears-one with a sponge and one with a blade and then the cloth. “Woven into the fabric” of this story is the confusing political interactions of the Roman and Jewish leaders and my attempt at explaining how this impacted Jesus’s ultimate fate.

I hope for those of you who have an interest in biblical history that you will find this interesting. I thought that Easter was an appropriate time to share it.

Mark 15:20

And when they had mocked him, they took off the purple robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him.

Ps 22:18

“They part my garments among them, and cast lots upon my vesture.”

The Cloth of the Mocking Cross

A different type of cross adorns our sanctuary during the time preceding Easter. The wood of the cross is rough and the design simple. What makes this cross, The Mocking Cross, different from other times of the year is the purple cloth that is draped over the cross beam (Lat. patabulum). Iconographer Charles Z. Lawrence of Willet Stained Glass Studios also included other accoutrements of the cross.  There is the crown of thorns and crossed at its base is a spear and a sponge each attached to a pole. One might wonder why a rooster, a flagrum, a reed, a nail, a hammer, and the superscription (Lat. titulus) which Pilate inscribed “Jesus the Nazarene-The King of the Jews” were not depicted as well. Each of these items has their own important role in the Passion (Lat. suffering) of Jesus. However, because it is the material that adorns the patabulum that makes this cross different from other times of the year, the focus here will be on the cloth. The cloths of The Passion mentioned in the scripture are intricately woven throughout the fabric of the journey of Jesus to the cross.

The Passion of Jesus is that time encompassed by the arrest, trial, suffering and ends with his crucifixion. Caiaphas, the high priest of Jerusalem and President of the Sanhedrin, had Jesus arrested in the garden of Gethsemane (Lat. olive press) shortly after the Last Supper. He was first taken to Annas (John 18:12-14), the father in law of Caiaphas who was a previous high priest. Setting the tone throughout the several trials over the next many hours Jesus speaks little and doesn’t attempt to defend himself. He is beaten, mocked and then sent back to Caiaphas. Of note, it is during the interrogation of Jesus by Annas that Peter denies Jesus three times in the palace courtyard. (John 18:15-27) Hence, the rooster also is often depicted as an accoutrement of the cross.

It is now night time and the Sanhedrin is not in session, so Caiaphas questions Jesus and imprisons him in his palace in anticipation of the trial planned for the next morning, April 15, 30 A.D., by the Sanhedrin. The Sanhedrin finds Jesus guilty of blasphemy for claiming to be “The Son of God.” Because this body of Jewish leaders can condemn but cannot execute someone, Jesus is sent to the Roman governor of Judaea, Pontius Pilate. The Sanhedrin’s hope is that by morphing the charge of blasphemy into the concept of Jesus being “King of the Jews” they will entice Pilate to crucify Jesus on the basis of sedition (threatening the sovereignty of Emperor Tiberius), which was a Roman charge punishable by death.  During this trial Pontius learns that Jesus is a Galilean and as such is under the jurisdiction of the tetrarch Herod Antipas (whose claim to fame was that of serving the head of John the Baptist to his wife on a silver platter). Pilate promptly forwards Jesus on to Herod who happened to be in Jerusalem at the time and was only a short distance away. (Luke 23:7)

Herod Antipas (whose father, Herod the Great, had attempted to kill the baby Jesus 30 years before), was more interested in preserving his relationship with the Sanhedrin and possibly being entertained by Jesus performing miracles than in conducting a trial. Jesus again refuses to answer questions or defend himself, and the mocking and beating that had become a part of the ritual since the arrest continues. It is here that the soldiers of Herod place on Jesus a “gorgeous robe” that is meant to mock him as well as ridicule the title referring to Him as King of the Jews. (Luke 23:11) One notes that the meeting with Herod is only mentioned in Luke and that there is no mention of the color of the robe. Is this the cloth that is draped over the Mocking Cross?

Herod, serving no purpose in this affair other than continuing the beatings and mockery of Jesus sends him back to Pilate. The political consequences of putting Jesus to death by crucifixion was something not lost on Pilate. He knows Rome expects him to keep the Jews in check without disruptions or uprisings and condemning an innocent man, a popular one at that, was something he’d prefer to avoid.

After brief questioning and getting nothing back from Jesus but clever replies, the ever-evasive Pilate, having misgauged the ultimate intent of the Sanhedrin, attempts to free Jesus by using a custom that allows him to release a prisoner before Passover. Yet again the crowd assembled is influenced by the Chief Priests of the Sanhedrin who are among them. They choose to crucify Jesus and release Barabbas, the murderer and thief, instead. (Mark 15:11)

Pilate then hopes to appease the Sanhedrin by ruthlessly scourging Jesus (repeated lashes to the back while attached to an iron ring with hands tied), thereby avoiding having to decree that Jesus be put to death. The instrument for the scourging is the flagrum which has three leather thongs, each bearing metal balls and bone, the purpose of which is to tear the flesh. Although at this point the formal pronouncement that Jesus be put to death by crucifixion has not been made, the Roman ritual “preparing one for crucifixion” has begun in earnest as Jesus is now severely dehydrated, weakened by beatings, and losing bodily fluids through open wounds on his neck, back and legs as a result of the scourging. The scourging of Jesus is done in Pilate’s palace Praetorium where a twisted crown of thorns is placed on His head, he is given a reed meant to symbolize a king’s staff, and adorned with a robe. All these combined actions proceed from an effort to mock Jesus as “The King of the Jews.”  Of note, this robe has been described both as scarlet (Matthew 27:28) and purple (John 19:2). Whether it was a red shade of purple or a purple shade of red, again Jesus is mocked through a robe color suggesting royalty. It has been supposed that the “gorgeous robe” that Herod placed on Jesus earlier in the day may very well have been the same one used here. After the flogging, Jesus is taken from The Praetorium (which was felt to be unclean for the Jews), and brought out into The Pavement, the open space in which Pilate’s judging seat was located and where it was acceptable for the Jews to congregate.

If Pilate thought that beating Jesus again by scourging would suffice in deterring the Sanhedrin’s wish for crucifixion, he was mistaken. Of the crowd of Jews that had assembled to witness this trial, members of the Sanhedrin were inculcated. Knowing full well the consequence and threat to their power by Jesus having overturned the money changers’ tables at the Temple, it was imperative to them that he die. Passover the next day gave immediacy to this desire. Pontius washes his hands in front of the crowd and says, “I am innocent of this man’s blood. It is your responsibility.” (Matthew 27:24)  Jesus is then led away to be crucified. Again there is a reference to cloths of the passion as, before they lead Jesus away, they remove the robe and put his clothes back on. (Matthew 27:31) The robe placed over Jesus’ scourged body in addition to the healing mechanisms of the body had probably begun to seal the flesh wounds and stem further loss blood and fluids. Removing the robe would have reopened these wounds and worsening his dehydrated state. This weakened physical condition caused by scourging is what the Roman crucifixion death squad hoped to achieve in all of its condemned men before crucifixion– increase the suffering and yet hasten the time to death on the cross.

The distance from The Praetorium to Golgotha is about .3 miles and, although Jesus is depicted carrying an entire cross, the condemned usually were given only the crossbeam to carry. The crossbeam weighed about 75 pounds. Simon of Cyrene, who had come to Jerusalem for the Passover from Cyrene, Libya, was compelled by the Romans to help Jesus carry the crossbeam. Although not mentioned in the Gospels, along the way a woman named Veronica offers a piece of cloth to wipe the sweat from Jesus’ forehead. This cloth later becomes the Veil of Veronica and Veronica’s kindness is represented in the Catholic Church as the sixth station of the cross.

Once the upright portion of the cross (the stipe) was reached beyond the outer walls of the city, Jesus again was stripped and thrown on his back in order to attach him to the crossbeam. This was achieved with nails that were 5-7 inches in length and a diameter of 3/8 of an inch at the head. Contrary to what has been believed, the nails were most likely placed between the two bones of the forearm as opposed to the hands. The crossbeam and Jesus were then lifted and attached to the stipe. Additional nails were placed in the feet with the legs bent to accommodate placing one foot over the other. A seat (sedulum) was sometimes placed on the stipe to prolong the time to death, but in Jesus’ case, with Passover approaching, the Roman guards needing a quick death, most probably did not use this or the foot rest (suppendaneum). Each of these additions to the cross helped the condemned by enabling the torso and feet to improve respiration and thus delay the death, usually caused by hypovolemia and asphyxiation. At this time, the description of the crime (previously written by Pontius) is attached to the top of the cross.

The crucifixion detail was not the most desirable of duties for the Roman soldiers and as an incentive to their unpleasant job they were allowed to keep any possessions or garments of the person crucified. Jesus had on a tunic, an undergarment which had been made in a seamless fashion by his mother. Because of this type construction the guards were unable to divide it into parts so they cast lots for Jesus’ tunic. (John 19:23-24) The material of the tunic would have been of a common material and there is no mention in the Gospels of it being purple or having color. That lots would be cast for Jesus’ tunic was foretold in Psalm 22:18.

By Roman law a concoction of vinegar wine and myrrh was offered to Jesus on two occasions. The myrrh was added as an analgesic. The first time Jesus declined the liquid (Mark 23:15) was because he preferred to remain conscious and experience his suffering with a clear mind. He did accept it the second time after stating, “I thirst.”(John 19:28) This also fulfilled the scripture as stated in Psalm 69:21. The wine vinegar was offered to him on a sponge attached to hyssop. (John 19:29-30) One recalls that Moses instructed the Jews to apply the blood of a lamb with a hyssop plant on the lintel of the door during the Passover in Egypt. Just as the blood of the sacrificial lamb saved the Israelites in Egypt, so too Jesus as the sacrificial lamb is given up for the sins of others.

One of the duties of the Roman death squad was to stay with the condemned until they were certain the crucified was dead. Often times the legs would be broken with a large mallet to hurry the process. The broken bones of the legs not only caused internal bleeding but more importantly negated the use of legs in supporting the body and facilitate breathing and thus hastening death. The Jewish elders wanted the bodies off the cross because of the coming of Passover. The Roman guard did break the legs the criminals on either side of Jesus, but upon reaching Jesus, they noted he was already dead. To prove that Jesus was dead, he was speared on his right side by the Roman guard. Water and blood emanated forth and the soldier was content that Jesus was dead. (John 19 32-34) This also fulfilled the scripture that, “He protects his bones, not one of them will be broken.” (Psalm 34:20) Hence, the crossed spear and sponge were included in the symbol of the cross.

Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Sanhedrin, boldly obtained permission from Pilate to take Jesus down from the cross for a proper burial. In doing so he took risks in alienating himself as member of the Sanhedrin and because touching a corpse violated Jewish law. He bought fine linen in which to wrap Jesus  for placement in a tomb hewn in rock which he possessed. (Mark 15:46)

One can imagine the process of taking a lifeless, limp, grown man whom you love down from a cross to which he is attached by nails under the downward pressure of gravity. Nicodemus and Joseph, who only hours ago were present at the assembled Sanhedrin in which Jesus was condemned, using a ladder placed sheets of cloth under Jesus’ arms and waist to support the dead weight of his body while the nails were driven in the reverse direction to free the body from the cross. The release of the body was done in a sequential fashion as the support of the nails having been removed gave way to the supporting cloth. When all the nails had been driven out, Jesus then was slowly lowered, using the cloth, into the arms of Joseph, as His mother Mary watched. As Jesus descended there was a mighty earthquake. The fine linens brought by Joseph were used to wrap Jesus with the 75 lbs of aloe and myrrh provided by Nicodemus in preparation for the sepulchre (tomb). As it was the day of preparation for Jewish Passover a tomb nearby and not previously used was chosen for Jesus. (John 19:42) Does the cloth of the cross represent the linens used to facilitate taking Jesus down from the cross?

Mary Magdalene on the first day of the week goes to the tomb to find the stone moved and Jesus gone. Simon Peter and John run to the tomb with John beating Peter there, however he only looks in; he doesn’t go into the tomb. Peter gets there, and, in keeping with his impetuous character, goes immediately into the tomb. Here he sees the burial linens, but something else is specifically mentioned.  The face cloth is rolled and separate from the other cloths. (John 20:6-7) The significance of this detail is debated, but all agree that the cloth being rolled and not just thrown about shows that the disappearance of Jesus was not rushed or hurried as one would expect if his body had been stolen. It implies that He left in an orderly fashion and of a time of His choosing.

So The Mocking Cross in our church begins The Passion with purple linen draping its crossbeam and ends Easter with a white one signifying both the trial and the triumph of Jesus. All of the symbols in our windows chosen by Rev. Thompson tell an important story but none more so than the cross and its accoutrements.

Now about that face cloth, or handkerchief, or napkin in which Jesus’ head was bound but then found so nicely rolled and put aside. It is of interest that some relate the head cloth to a custom whereby if the master leaves the table with his napkin folded that the servants are not to clean the table because this indicates the master will be coming back.

You can almost hear Rev. Thompson saying after quite reflection, “Tonight after you’ve cleared the table and done the dishes… you might want to make sure your house is in order too.”

John McHugh

Crucifix,Crown,Sword,Sponge (1)

4 Replies to “The Cloth of the “Mocking Cross.””

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