April / May - 2020 Vol. 109

Crucifixion of Christ with spear by

A Love Unto Death

Jesus’ Journey to the Cross

By Jeanne Kun

On Golgotha Jesus’ Heart was pierced by a lance as a sign of his total self-giving, of that sacrificial and saving love with which he “loved us to the end” (John 13:1), laying the foundation of the friendship between God and man. 
— John Paul II  

The crucifixion was Jesus' enthronement as King. The inscription that hung above him on the cross was written in Hebrew, the language of religion; in Latin, the language of the empire; and in Greek, the language of culture – thus serving as a universal proclamation testifying to the truth of who Jesus is. As St. Ambrose explained in his Exposition of the Gospel of Luke, 

The superscription is written and placed above, not below the cross, because the government is upon his shoulders [Isaiah 9:6]. What is this government if not his eternal power and Godhead! ... The superscription is fittingly above the cross, because although the Lord Jesus was on the cross, he shines above the cross with the majesty of a king.

Jesus' death begins to make sense only when we recognize the great love that the Father has for us – so great a longing in the Father's heart for us to be restored to full friendship with him that he would ask his Son to go to such great lengths on our behalf. The words of the Exsultet, the proclamation sung at the Easter Vigil [in the Roman Catholic liturgy], marvel at God's motive: "Father, how wonderful your care for us! How boundless your merciful love! To ransom a slave you gave away your Son."
We have come full circle now from the time when Adam and Eve, by partaking of the fruit of the forbidden tree, brought sin and death into the world. Jesus Christ, the new Adam, restored our relationship with the Father through the tree of the cross. Paradoxically, it is the death of the Son of God on this tree that secured new life for us: 

How precious the gift of the cross, how splendid to contemplate! In the cross there is no mingling of good and evil, as in the tree of paradise: it is wholly beautiful to behold and good to taste. The fruit of this tree is not death but life, not darkness but light. This tree does not cast us out of paradise, but opens the way for our return.... This was the tree upon which the Lord, like a brave warrior wounded in hands, feet and side, healed the wounds of sin that the evil serpent had inflicted on our nature.... What an astonishing transformation! That death should become life, that decay should become immortality, that shame should become glory! (St. Theodore the Studite, Oratio in adorationem crucis)

John 19:13-22, 25-37

13 [Pilate] brought Jesus outside and sat on the judge’s bench at a place called The Stone Pavement, or in Hebrew Gabbatha. 14Now it was the day of Preparation for the Passover; and it was about noon. Pilate said to the Jews, “Here is your King!” 15They cried out, “Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!” Pilate asked them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but the emperor.” 16Then he handed him over to them to be crucified.

 So they took Jesus, 17and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. 18There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them. 19Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” 20Many of the Jews read this inscription, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek. 21Then the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews.’” 22Pilate answered, “What I have written I have written.”

25 . . . [S]tanding near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary, the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” 27Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.
28 After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), “I am thirsty.” 29A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. 30When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

31 Since it was the day of Preparation, the Jews did not want the bodies left on the cross during the sabbath, especially because that sabbath was a day of great solemnity. So they asked Pilate to have the legs of the crucified men broken and the bodies removed. 32Then the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first and of the other who had been crucified with him. 33But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. 34Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out. 35(He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe. His testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth.) 36These things occurred so that the scripture might be fulfilled, “None of his bones shall be broken.” 37And again another passage of scripture says, “They will look on the one whom they have pierced.”

(See Matthew 27:32-54; Mark 15:20b-39; Luke 23:26-49)

“Behold Your King”

Jesus’ journey led from the house of Caiaphas to Pontius Pilate’s official quarters in Jerusalem, most likely located in the Antonia Fortress (see John 18:28). It would be Jesus’ last stopping place before Golgotha.

As the Roman governor of Judea, Pilate possessed the jus gladii (the “right of the sword”), the authority to order an execution. Although the Jewish religious leaders despised Pilate, they had to submit their case to him if they wanted Jesus to be sentenced to death; the Sanhedrin was under Roman jurisdiction and had no authority to impose capital punishment (see John 18:29-31).

Pilate repeatedly declared Jesus innocent of any crime. In fact, he tried several times to avoid condemning him; he even had Jesus scourged in an attempt to appease the Jewish leaders and win the crowds’ sympathy (see Luke 23:13-16; John 18:28–19:12). Nonetheless, the chief priests and elders were unyielding, and Pilate buckled under their pressure. Although Pilate knew Jesus had done nothing to deserve the death sentence, he lacked the courage and integrity to release him. When the Jews reminded Pilate that anyone who made himself a king was Caesar’s rival, he acquiesced to the chief priests’ demands in order to preserve crowd control and protect his political career from the emperor’s displeasure (see John 19:12-16). Knowing that he was handing over an innocent man to quell an impending riot, Pilate tried to salve his conscience by symbolically washing his hands of responsibility for Jesus’ death (see Matthew 27:24).

Mary remained steadfastly by Jesus as he hung on the cross, demonstrating her solidarity with him and his mission. How terrible it must have been for her to see her son’s agony; yet she would not leave him without the comfort of her maternal presence. And even in his suffering, Jesus thought of his mother, entrusting her to the beloved disciple’s care. But first he directed Mary to extend her motherly care to John, thus creating a new spiritual family at Golgotha (see John 19:26-27). Mary’s maternal role now has a universal dimension; her motherhood extends spiritually to all humanity.

Standing nearby, John was able to hear and record for us Jesus’ last words from the cross: “It is finished” (John 19:30). In colloquial English, we might say, “I have done it!” This was a declaration of victory. “Jesus must have died in ecstasy of joy, knowing that at last he had completed the work that he was born to accomplish” (Wendy Beckett, Sister Wendy’s Nativity). Then he “gave up his spirit” (19:30), that is, handed himself over to the Father.  

According to Jewish custom, the slaughter of the Passover lambs in the Temple—male lambs without blemish (see Exodus 12:5)—began at noon on the day of Preparation. And it was at that very hour that Pilate handed Jesus over to be crucified, even though he had found no fault in him (see John 19:14). While the blood of the paschal lambs was being poured out to commemorate the Israelites’ deliverance from their bondage in Egypt, the blood of Jesus, the Lamb of God (see John 1:29), was being poured out on Golgotha to free us from the power of sin and Satan. And just as the bones of the Passover lambs were not broken (see Exodus 12:46; Numbers 9:12), neither were Jesus’ legs broken, as was commonly done to hasten the death of a crucifixion victim (see John 19:32-33, 36; Psalm 34:20).

Finally, in his eyewitness account John testifies that water and blood flowed from Jesus’ side when a lance was thrust into his body (see John 19:34). Now we have access to an inexhaustible source of eternal life: we are cleansed and purified from our sins by the waters of baptism, and in the Eucharist we drink from the fountain that flows from the heart of our crucified Savior. The Church, born from Jesus’ pierced side, is continually invigorated and renewed by these sacraments. And, as Pope Benedict XVI notes, it is by contemplating Christ’s wounded heart that we become “sensitive to God’s salvific will. It enables us to entrust ourselves to his saving and merciful love, and at the same time strengthens us in the desire to take part in his work of salvation, becoming his instruments.”  

“It is finished”—this was Jesus’ declaration of victory.


  1. Why, in your opinion, was Pilate so adamant about the wording of the inscription placed on Jesus’ cross (see John 19:19-22)? What does this suggest about Pilate’s view of Jesus? About Pilate’s feelings toward the chief priests? What does this incident add to your impressions of Pilate?
  2. Choose several adjectives to characterize Jesus’ relationship with his mother. Describe some of the human and natural dimensions of their relationship with each other. What qualities does Mary bring to her role as mother of the church?
  3. What similarities do you see between the Israelites’ Passover deliverance from Egypt and Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross at Golgotha? What differences? 
  4. What is the significance of Jesus’ words, “It is finished” (John 19:30). Read Ephesians 2:13-16 and Hebrews 9:11-15. What did Jesus accomplish by shedding his blood for us on the cross?
  5. Why is it so important that the evangelist John was an eyewitness to the events of Jesus’ life, ministry, and passion and so clearly stated this fact in his gospel (see John 19:35)? Read John 15:27 and 21:24 to for more insight into the validity and significance of John’s testimony.

In the Spotlight

Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews

Jesus was recognized and honored as the newborn king of the Jews by the gentile wise men who paid him homage at his birth (see Matthew 2:1-11), but the leaders of his own nation did not accept the truth of his kingship. When the chief priests and Sanhedrin brought Jesus before Pilate, they accused him of sedition and falsely claiming to be a king: “We found this man perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor, and saying that he himself is the Messiah, a king” (Luke 23:2). Ironically, it was the gentile Pilate who defied the Jewish elders and accorded the title “King of the Jews” to Jesus at his death (see John 19:19-22). 

It was customary to write the charge on which the accused was sentenced on a placard that was then carried in front of him as he made his way to the place of execution, where it was either affixed to his cross or hung around his neck. The inscription that Pilate ordered to describe Jesus’ “crime”—“Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” (John 19:19)—was written in Hebrew, the language of the Jews and their religion; in Latin, the language of the governing empire and its law; and in Greek, the language of culture. Thus, it universally proclaimed the truth of Jesus’ divine kingship as he was “enthroned” on Golgotha. “The superscription is written and placed above, not below the cross,” noted St. Ambrose, “because the government is upon his shoulders [Isaiah 9:6]. What is this government if not his eternal power and Godhead? . . . The superscription is fittingly above the cross, because although the Lord Jesus was on the cross, he shines above the cross with the majesty of a king.” 


  1. Like Pilate, have you ever yielded to fear, social or political pressure, or self-interest and made a wrong decision against your better judgment? Are you sometimes more concerned about personal advantage and what others think of you than with upholding God’s teachings and values? What might you do to strengthen your resolve to choose rightly in the future?
  2. Recall a time when you comforted and/or remained faithfully by someone dear to you when that person was in a time of deep distress or trial. What did this effort cost you? What enabled you to be steadfast? What have you learned from Mary’s presence during Jesus’ crucifixion that can help you support others in their difficulties or suffering?
  3. What particular work or mission has God entrusted to you? How do you feel about carrying out this task? How has this changed your life? Ask the Holy Spirit to help you fulfill God’s mission so that you will one day be able to say, as Jesus did, “It is finished.”
  4. Which moment from John’s account of the events on Calvary moves you most profoundly? Why? What impact has Jesus’ crucifixion had on you? How is the victory of the cross manifested in your life? 
  5.  In what way(s) do you acknowledge Jesus’ kingship over you? What could you do to grow in loving Jesus more deeply? To respond more actively to his authority in your life?

In the Spotlight 

Mary at the Foot of the Cross

Only a consistency that lasts throughout the whole of life can be called faithfulness. Mary’s fiat in the Annunciation finds its fullness in the silent fiat that she repeats at the foot of the cross. 
—Pope John Paul II

Nor was Mary less than was befitting the mother of Christ. When the apostles fled, she stood before the cross and with reverent gaze beheld her Son’s wounds, for she waited not for her child’s death, but the world’s salvation.
—Ambrose of Milan 

Just as the Father gave us the great gift of his Son to be our Redeemer, so also the Son gives us the great gift of his Blessed Mother to be our Advocate. When he said to John at the foot of the Cross: “Behold your Mother!” he said it to him representing all Christians.
—John of the Cross


  1. Reflect on this statement by St. Josemaría Escrivá:

    John, the disciple whom Jesus loved, brought Mary into his home, into his life. Spiritual writers have seen these words of the Gospel as an invitation to all Christians to bring Mary into their lives. Mary certainly wants us to invoke her, to approach her confidently, to appeal to her as our mother, asking her to “show that you are our mother.

  2. How do you express your relationship to Mary as your “spiritual mother”? In what ways can you more consciously bring Mary into your home and make a place for her in your life as the apostle John did? 
  3. Reflect on the following passages to enhance your understanding of the significance and power of Christ’s death on the cross:
  4. Surely he has borne our infirmities
     and carried our diseases;
    yet we accounted him stricken,
     struck down by God, and afflicted. 
    But he was wounded for our transgressions,
     crushed for our iniquities;
    upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
     and by his bruises we are healed. 
    All we like sheep have gone astray;
     we have all turned to our own way,
    and the LORD has laid on him
     the iniquity of us all.
    —Isaiah 53:4-6

    When you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross.
    —Colossians 2:13-14

    Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.
    —Hebrews 12:2

    Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps. 
      “He committed no sin,
      and no deceit was found in his mouth.” 

    When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.
    —1 Peter 2:21-24

    In the Spotlight

    Pontius Pilate

    “Pontius” was a hereditary family name of Roman origin. The given name “Pilate” was probably derived from the Latin pilatus—a “pikeman” or person armed with a pilum or javelin. Pontius Pilate’s wife was Claudia Procula, granddaughter of the emperor Augustus Caesar.

     Pontius Pilate was appointed the Roman governor of Judea, Idumea, and Samaria in A.D. 26. He held the official title of prefect (military commander), but also performed the duties of a procurator (civil administrator). Apparently Pilate was an able administrator since he remained in office ten years, while the region had had four governors in the previous twenty years. But he was also a harsh and insensitive ruler who made himself unpopular with the Jewish people by bringing images of the Roman emperor into the Temple precincts in Jerusalem and by using money from the Temple treasury to pay for the construction of an aqueduct.

    Pilate’s headquarters were in Caesarea on the Mediterranean coast in the palace built by Herod the Great. Most of the soldiers under his command were stationed there, but others manned the Antonia Fortress, adjacent to the Temple in Jerusalem. During Passover Pilate and his Caesarea troops went to Jerusalem to keep order among the pilgrims and crowds gathered for the feast. Pilate retained Caiaphas as the Jewish high priest during his whole term as governor, which suggests that the two men maintained a working relationship, most likely playing off one another’s political interests and ambitions.

    In A.D. 36 Pilate was removed as governor after his troops killed some Samaritans. Nothing certain is known of his later history. According to one tradition, he was executed by the emperor Nero. Another tradition holds that Pilate was exiled by the emperor Caligula to Gaul, where he committed suicide.


    Teresa of Avila experienced a fuller conversion and deepening of her prayer life after seeing an image that portrayed the wounded Christ. St. John of the Cross was frequently moved by depictions of scenes from Christ’s life, and he taught that religious paintings should be prized because they point the heart toward the living image or mystery that they represent. As art historian Sr. Wendy Beckett points out, “Gazing upon sacred art is an exercise in prayer! The artists, by their very nature, and perhaps without even knowing it, teach us to pray!” (In the Midst of Chaos, Peace).

    Kneel or sit quietly before a crucifix, painting or icon depicting Jesus’ passion. Allow the image to lead you into prayer. Tell Jesus of your love for him and express your gratitude for his death on the cross.

    In the Spotlight

    “I Have Done All You Gave Me to Do”
    “It is consummated.” These are our Lord’s last words to his Father cited in St. John [19:30]. “I have done all you gave me to do.” My God, may these words also be ours at our last hour—though they will not then have the same meaning and the same perfection. We are only worthless human beings; but granted our wretchedness, may they at least be ours as far as they can be. What must I do if they are to be, O God? I must ask you what it is you have given me to do, and I must ask you—from whom alone strength comes—to do it. I beseech you, my Lord and my God, to let me see clearly what your will for me is. Then give me the strength to do it, fulfilling it loyally till the end, in thanksgiving and love.
    —Charles de Foucauld, The Spiritual Autobiography of Charles de Foucauld

This article is adapted from God’s Promises Fulfilled: A Scriptural Journey with Jesus the Messiah, by Jeanne Kun, © 2006 The Word Among Us, and Jesus’ Journey to the Cross: A Love Unto Death, by Jeanne Kun, © 2009 The Word Among Us. Used with permission.

Jeanne Kun is a noted author and a senior woman leader in the Word of Life Community, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA.

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