The wild cry, "His Blood be upon us and upon our children!" died away against the slopes of Olivet and amid the colonnades of the Temple, and with it died in Pilate's soul his opposition to the demands of the Priests and the clamors of the mob. "So Pilate, being willing to satisfy the people, released to them Barabbas, and delivered up Jesus, when he had scourged Him, to be crucified."
Barabbas was no longer a criminal. The shackles and manacles were stricken from his limbs and he walked the streets of Jerusalem once more a free man. The people had made their choice, and in doing so, as the Prophet said, chose two evils. "They have forsaken Me, the fountain of living water, and have digged to themselves cisterns, broken cisterns that can hold no water." Since that day and that choice this people has wandered from land to land, and from century to century away from the fountains of living water.
Although Pilate had not yet pronounced formal judgment and final sentence of condemnation and death our Lord was, however, handed over to the soldiers to be scourged, as Saint John tells us: "Then, therefore, Pilate took Jesus and scourged Him."
Scourging was a chastisement prescribed under certain conditions by the law of Moses. It was commanded in the Old Dispensation by the judges that "if they see that the offender be worthy of stripes they shall lay him down and shall cause him to be beaten before them. According to the measure of the sin shall the measure also of the stripes be, yet so that they exceed not the number of forty lest thy brother depart shamefully torn before thy eyes." According to the Jewish Law the number of stripes was limited so that they could not exceed forty, and Saint Paul tells us that He was scourged five times, and always with the greatest severity allowed by the Law, having endured at each scourging forty lashes less one. The Romans in the infliction of this shameful punishment were not restricted to any definite number of blows. Frequently criminals and slaves were sentenced to be scourged to death.
The instrument of torture employed in the scourging of our Blessed Saviour was probably the flagellum, a whip of several knotted lashes. Of the various instruments used in this torture the flagellum was the severest. This wielded by the strong arms of the rough, coarse soldiers, anxious to curry favor with the Governor and the Priests, doubtless inflicted the most agonizing torture. Pilate had the hope that the horror of the scourging and its pitiable effects upon its Victim might move the people to desist from their ferocious clamor for our Lord's death. As well might one expect to tame wild beasts by the sight of blood. The knowledge of this hope may have lent strength to the brawny arms of the soldiers wielding the blood-soaked lashes.
This scene of humiliation and cruelty is passed over rapidly, and in a few words by the Evangelists: "Then, therefore, Pilate took Jesus and scourged Him." Our Blessed Saviour was first almost entirely stripped of His garments, then bound to a low column, with His head and back bent so that the skin was taut, and the position convenient for the blows of the torturers. The scourging was one of the awful details of our Lord's bitter Passion which during His mortal life seems to have flung its dark shadows over His tranquil soul. "The Son of Man shall be betrayed, mocked, spit upon, scourged and crucified." All through His life the vision of this painful hour was before Him and occupied His thoughts. His Prophets in the Old Law saw it as they looked down through the coming years and pictured His agony. "I am prepared for scourges and My sorrow is always before Me."
All contemplatives are agreed that the scourging was most severe, cruel and prolonged. Some even say that blood-money had been distributed among the soldiers to induce them not to spare their victim any detail of suffering or any circumstance of agony which ingenious cruelty could inflict. Then, too, as already hinted, the soldiers knew, doubtless, of the Governor's desire to free the Prisoner whom he had declared innocent. Pilate at first hoped to bring about this release when he sent our Lord to Herod, but in this he failed. Then he had recourse to the humiliating and degrading comparison and competition with Barabbas. This also failed.
The scourging then is his last resource, his last effort, his last card in the game that he is playing in his weakness to shield his soul from the guilt of judicial murder. If this fails, all is lost. He will then have either to condemn to death an innocent and guiltless man or set at defiance the Jewish authorities. This last he is not brave enough to do. The Jews have resolved upon the death of their Victim, and Pilate knows full well it is too late to put himself in opposition to the Ancients and the Priests, for they could and would rouse the unreasoning mob to violence and sedition in the Sacred City, and then, instead of being a favorite in Rome, he would feel the vengeance of the imperial authority.
His last scheme, therefore, was to scourge his Victim so cruelly that the very sight of Him and His agony would rouse the people to sentiments of pity and compassion. Saint Augustine takes this view when he says: "Pilate did this we may believe with no other view save that the Jews might be satiated with His torments, and think enough had been done, and no longer rage for His death." To our Blessed Saviour, then, enduring this unspeakable torture we can apply the words of Isaias: "From the sole of the foot unto the top of the head there is no soundness therein: wounds and bruises and swelling sores. They are not bound up nor dressed nor fomented with oil."
Pilate's hope to appease the desire of the Jews for blood was vain. Their appetite was whetted the more by the sight and the sound of the hissing lashes. The Precious Blood reddening the marble pavement of the Praetorium only strengthened their determination to shed its last drop on Mount Calvary before the evening shadows crept over the city. This horrible torture left our Lord's Body in the most pitiable condition. Bound to the low pillar, He was cut and bruised and mangled under the numberless blows administered by the savage and unfeeling soldiers, eager to carry out the wishes of the Governor, and urged on in their bloody work by the promptings of the Priests and people. True, indeed, were the words of the Prophet, who centuries before saw in vision this scene of sorrow and of pain. "There is no beauty in Him, nor comeliness . . . and His look as it were hidden and despised. . . . We have thought Him, as it were, a leper, and as one struck by God and afflicted." Surely He was never more beautiful, never more comely in our eyes, never dearer to our hearts than He is in this scene. He was beautiful beyond the sons of men preaching on the Galilean hills or by the Lake; He was winsome and attractive, as a Babe of Bethlehem or as a Boy of Nazareth, but he was never so attractive, never so lovable as He is standing by the pillar, meekly enduring the thousand burning stripes from biting lashes as they fall heavily upon His Sacred Body.
Whatever may have been the designs of the Roman Governor, whatever may have been the hate of His enemies, Priests and people, it was not the will of the Heavenly Father that His Son should die under the scourge. All the pain, bruises and cutting that the lash can inflict He willingly endures, but He is not to die bound to a pillar in the Praetorium of Pilate. His sacrifice is to be consummated, His death accomplished only at the ninth hour, hanging between heaven and earth outside the city wall on Mount Calvary, in the sight of His own people who had clamored for His Blood.
Pilate had said openly: "I will chastise Him and let Him go." Abundantly has the first part of that promise been fulfilled. Never had a slave been torn or cut more unmercifully; but Pilate will never let Him go. The wild cries, "Crucify Him, crucify Him" from the ignorant rabble and the Priests will break down the last barrier of the Governor's resistance, and he will give sentence of death.
Why, we may ask, did our Lord suffer so intensely, shed His Blood so profusely in such an excess of pain and agony? It was prescribed in the Old Law: "According to the measure of the sin shall the measure also of the stripes be." On the stainless soul of the Immaculate Lamb of God there could be no sin. He was all sinless, without taint or blemish. There could be in Him no union of darkness with light. His human nature was substantially united with the infinite sanctity of the Godhead. He had from the steps of the Temple challenged His enemies to convict Him of sin, and that challenge had remained unanswered. Yet while He has not and would not have any touch of personal sin, still "the Lord put upon Him the iniquities of us all." The innocent Lamb of God was wounded for our iniquities and bruised for our sins. The chastisement of our peace was upon Him, and by His bruises we are healed. As our sins are beyond the counting and above measure, so also was the measure of the stripes received in the Praetorium of Pilate by the innocent Victim who bore our iniquities.
It is true that any least thought, word or deed, any tear, any sigh, any single drop of His Blood would have sufficed to appease the anger of His Father for the sins of countless worlds; but what would have satisfied God's justice in dealing with a fallen race would not satisfy the great love that burned in the Sacred Heart for each one of us. "He loved me and delivered Himself up for me." Here we have the explanation of the "measure" of the stripes," and the excess of the sufferings due not to the hatred of the Jews or the cruelty of the unfeeling soldiers or the weakness of a Roman Governor, but to the unfathomable ocean of love in the Heart of our Blessed Saviour.
One more suggestion. The sins of sensuality so uncounted and so gross, to which man is inclined and in which he has ever indulged clamored for reparation. The concupiscence not only of the eyes, but especially of the flesh, had outraged from the beginning the Divine Majesty "for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon earth"; even the Flood and the destruction of the cities of the Plain have been powerless to stem the tide of sensuality. In this struggle fire could no more prevail than water. Our Blessed Saviour then, to teach us to conquer our grosser nature, to win us away from sensual and lower tendencies and inclinations and to allure us to the practice of mortification, was chastised in His own Flesh and shed His own Blood copiously for our example and our strengthening. His Sacred Flesh writhed and agonized under the lash, was bruised and torn by cruel blows that we might struggle manfully against the tyranny of the flesh and be its masters and not its slaves.
Alas, how comfort-loving and how sensual and even sinful we are! How we dread discomfort and inconvenience, and how tactfully we shirk what is disagreeable to our senses! How little penance and mortification there is about us! No wonder our spiritual lives are feeble, and lack the vigor and ruggedness which flourish in souls only by conquest of self and the practice of penance.
- from The Mountains of Myrrh, by Father John O'Rourke