A Crown of Thorns
Centurion: Governor Pilate, we have given the Nazarene 39 lashings as ordered by the law.
Pilate: Were you able to get anything?
Centurion: Nothing. Not even a word. It’s like milking a stone.
Pilate: He’s not a Jew for nothing! A breed of stubborn brutes! I’m sick and tired of these people and all their troubles, damn it!
Centurion: The truth is, this beast won’t last anymore, Governor. The prisoner is beaten to a pulp….
Pilate: Then release him. See to it that Caiphas and his gang don’t bother me anymore.
Centurion: Caiphas and his gang are waiting for his Excellency outside….
Pilate: May the god Pluto take them to hell!… Say, where is this man?
Centurion: The Nazarene?
Centurion: He’s still in the pits with the soldiers, Governor.
A Soldier: It’s your turn, Tatus!
Tatus: Hell! Here, everybody falls asleep… And with this heat!
Fatso: C’mon, man, cast the dice again…
Soldier: Three and two! You lost, Tatus! You’ll be the little king!
To kill boredom for two long hours, the Roman soldiers played dice in the humid and stinking prison cells of the Antonia Fortress…
Fatso: Hey, have this rascal blindfolded!
The game of the little king was very popular in our country. A roulette was drawn on the floor with several drawings, and the dice were thrown over them. The loser had to be king and blindfolded, and guess who among his companions hit him…
Tatus: Hey, don’t make the blindfold too tight, I’m not going to cheat!
Another Soldier: Look what I brought you, buddies…!
Tatus: Lemme see… Well, well! What have you done to the Jewish prophet!… He’s been beaten to a pulp!
Another Soldier: What did you expect… He’s a very dangerous man.
A strong and stout soldier dragged Jesus to one of the corners of the jail and left him there to die. His almost naked body doubled up as he tried to catch his breath. From his back, furrowed by lashes, flowed trickles of blood forming little pools on the wet soil…
Fatso: But, why did you bring him here?
Another Soldier: You know how it is in “Hell?” A cage full of birds like him!… It’s during the holidays when we have to work hard to make them sing… This man was a pest and I was ordered to take him some place… Here, take him! He’s all yours!
Tatus: So this is the famous “prophet,” ha, ha, ha…
The soldier leaned and grabbed Jesus by the hair to get a glimpse of his face…
Tatus: Bah… this “was” the prophet… but now, he’s no more than trash. He’s a goner. It’s best to throw him on to the dunghill for the vultures to feast on him.
Another Soldier: You won’t believe this, but this fellow is strong… He was able to stand the thirty-nine lashings… This morning, two of his type didn’t last half the trip…
Fatso: Agitators! That’s what they get… and more! For being meddlesome….
Tatus: A few months ago, I met one of these revolutionaries… You should have heard him speak…! But his bragging didn’t last, you know.
Fatso: Hey, enough of this and let’s go on with our game… Will you stay, Fatso? We cast the dice, making Tatus the little king…
Soldier: Listen. Wasn’t this Jesus arrested because he said he was king of the Jews…? Well, let him be the king! What do you think?
Tatus: Ha, ha, ha! That’s a good idea!… C’mon, let’s sit him here… Get something to blindfold him…
Fatso: That’s it…
Tatus: Not my scarf, damn it…. Look for an old rag over there, hurry.
Fatso: Shall we go, your Majesty, the Messiah? Ha!
Two soldiers lifted Jesus from the ground and dragged him to a small stone bench at the center of the prison cell used to torture the prisoners... They sat him there…
Tatus: Ha! What a throne! What do you say?
Soldier: Cover his “nakedness” Tatus!… A king in the nude loses some dignity… Ha, ha, ha…!
Tatus: You’re right… Does your Majesty want to be caressed? Hmmm… Here, take it!!
The soldier kicked him in the balls… Jesus’ face contracted in pain…
Tatus: You don’t play easy with Rome, my friend… Do you want another one?
Fatso: Have him blindfolded, man… Otherwise, the game won’t be fun…
Tatus: Okay, put on this rag… Didn’t your Jewish countrymen say that their prophets foresee everything? Well then, let him guess who’s giving him the blows!
Jesus’ eyes were blindfolded. Since he could hardly support himself, one of the soldiers, held his shoulders from behind to sustain him….
Tatus: Tell us, petty king, who gave you the blow?
The first blow landed on his face, shaking his whole body…
Tatus: C’mon, say something! Aren’t you a prophet? Then, do your job well, my friend! We, the Romans, have done our job: keeping you at bay… Now, brave man, speak… we’re listening to you…!
Fatso: We’re all ears, King of Israel!
Soldier: Hey, man, it’s my turn now…. Take it! Now guess, prophet!
Jesus would have fallen on the ground if the soldier had not held him from behind. Like a pair of pincers, his hands were stuck on Jesus’ blood-drenched back…
Soldier: You’re not very good at this game, my friend. You neither cackle nor lay eggs! Ha, ha, ha!
Fatso: Hey, this is getting to be boring…
Soldier: Leave him alone… They’ll come for him soon… I think they’re gonna release him… The governor doesn’t want any trouble with him… The people are pretty agitated out there…
Fatso: Ha! Of course, since he claims to be the Messiah!
Tatus: The Messiah! It’s not always that you have the Messiah in your hands! You should take advantage! Ha, ha, ha…!
Soldier: Listen. Why don’t we dress him up like a king? If indeed he is the Messiah… So when they free him, this mob will acclaim him as he deserves…
Tatus: Exactly!… Here, let me take care of the crown!
Fatso: Be back soon, for his Majesty is in a hurry!
Soldier: Meanwhile, let’s have a cloak for the king, buddies!
Fatso: That one over there will do! Bring it here! Ha, ha, hay!
A young soldier, with a pimpled face, took a red rag from the floor, which, for a time must have been the cloak of someone in the group, and now was just lying in one corner, greasy and full of dust…
Soldier: Perfect! King Messiah, the people are entrusting into your hands, the care of the kingdom!
They put the red rag over his wounded and blood-stained back, pressing it on to his wounds…. Jesus gave a groan, blinded by the unbearable pain….
Soldier: That’s what you get for pretending to be a savior! Leave us alone, my friend! Here, everyone must save his own skin!
Fatso: Take off his blindfold!… He ought to see his royal bearing!
Tatus: Here’s the crown, pals. What do you think?
Soldier: Not even King David whom these Jews revere, had it better!
It was a skullcap of blackberry thorns, almost dried, which the soldier had pulled from the patio of the guards. Two of them hurriedly made a braid of that macabre cap.
Soldier: Hell! This really pricks, huh!
Tatus: Put it on his head, and we’ll adjust it!
Soldier: You deserve this crown, for being so stubborn, you rebellious little king!
The soldier placed the crown of thorns on Jesus’ dishevelled hair…
Tatus: The crown has not really touched his royal head!
Soldier: Go get a sceptre…!
They brought an olive stick, knotty and twisted, which was used to beat the prisoners…
Tatus: Let’s go inside! Here…! Each one must hold the sceptre and pledge obedience to the petty king, c’mon!
With the stick, they hit down on the crown, to make it settle on Jesus’ head. The thorns, sharp and hard as needles, penetrated through the skin of the head and the forehead… From Jesus’ face flowed thick trickles of blood….
Soldier: At your orders, your Majesty! Here, take it…!
One of the thorns got stuck in the right eye of Jesus. A whitish liquid mixed with the blood flowed onto his cheeks…
Tatus: Hey man, you don’t do that to our king! If he becomes blind, he won’t see how his subjects revere him!
Having gotten tired of beating him, the soldiers placed the olive stick in Jesus’ lifeless hands, and began to gather around him, making faces and kneeling before him…
Soldier: Cheers to the king of the Jews!
Tatus: To your health, your Majesty, the Messiah!
Soldier: Hey, but hasn’t anyone noticed that our king has grown his beard? This can’t be!… Do you hear, my friends?… We’ll have to shave you! This is a Roman custom and we’ve got to comply with it… Is that okay, huh?
Jesus trembled. The soldier, heading the group grabbed his bloodstained, curly and abundant hair with his two hands… then he started to pull it off forcefully… Pulled from the roots, some of the hair got stuck with the skin, causing the blood to flow profusely from the shaven cheeks…
Soldier: This is it, your Majesty! Now we can recognize you as our Caesar! Ha, ha…!
Tatus: Cheers to the king of the Jews!
Soldier: Look at him, look at him tremble…. That’s how these men are... They seem very boastful in the beginning, but the moment you lay your hands on them, they even pee out of fear…!
Fatso: I knew something was missing here! Perfumes to anoint our king! You, go get the bedpans from the small room…!
The soldiers, trained by their chiefs to make a mockery of their prisoners, laughed boisterously… One of them came shortly, with a metal container, which the group used in jail for their necessities.
Tatus: Give me, give me, I myself will anoint him!… Long live the king of urine!
Excrement and urine fell on Jesus’ head, flowing through the red cloak and over his chest... The air was filled with a nauseating odor…
Fatso: What a stink this king of the Jews makes, fellas!
Jesus felt violent throbbings all over his body caused by the thorns on his head… His face was bathed in blood, dripping slowly down his naked chest… The merciless laughter of the soldiers got on his nerves like stones being hurled from a dark and bottomless pit, into which he was sinking… He felt completely desolate… The smell of the excrement was unbearable… He opened the one eye left unhurt by his torturers, to take a look at those who were mocking him…. and he wept…. His tears, saltier than his blood, rolled down his cheeks, which had become raw flesh… He felt he was going to faint, and with his remaining strength, wished to die….
This is not a fear-inspiring episode. It does not look for easy sensationalism, nor is it horror-fiction. Perhaps, sometimes we run out of words, trying to describe the pain of a man or a woman humiliated and shattered by torture. Jesus was one of these people. His physical dignity, his moral integrity, his very faith itself, suffered severe blows in the prison cell of the Antonia Fortress. If Jesus precedes us on our way, if by his faith, in the midst of trials, he became the pioneer of those who gave their commitment in the name of justice (Heb 12:2) then it was also because he was able to endure the depth of the pain of torture.
In the passion accounts, the evangelists are consistent in showing the three moments where Jesus was the object of the mockery of the powerful. The Levites-police in the service of the Sanhedrin priests, played with him some kind of a game called “the blindman’s buff,” making him guess the person who beat him (Lk 22:63-65). In the second moment, Herod and his corrupt court mock him by throwing over his shoulders a red cloak and a crown, making him king of the nation (Lk 22:11). Lastly, the Roman soldiers humiliate Jesus casting a red cloak on his shoulders and crowning him with thorns, symbols of royalty, since the time of the Greeks.
On the pavement still preserved in the Paved Patio of the Antonia Fortress, there are some interesting inscriptions that will make one understand the game played by the soldiers with Jesus while he was a prisoner. In one tile can be seen carved by knife, a type of a board with small compartments (like a small parcheesi). According to some researchers, this game, which consisted basically of having tokens pass over small boxes or compartments until reaching a goal, which at the end gave a reward to the winner: making the losers king and putting them to tests. The game was called “the game of the scorpion” or “of the little king.” At that moment, the soldiers must have played this game with Jesus who was their humiliated little king.
The court of Antonia Fortress was composed of men belonging to the auxiliary troops recruited by Rome in the provinces under their dominion. These troops were different from those of the legions, which fought in wars. As a whole, they were composed of Roman citizens. In the province of Judea, the auxiliary troops also integrated foreigners from the different areas of Palestine. A majority of those who served in the Antonia Tower were Sebastenes, from the central lands of Samaria. The Jews were exempted from rendering this type of military service to the invader. The group was composed of people from a lower social status; with no scruples, soldiers were indoctrinated by their chiefs to engage in repression.
Everything is humiliating in this scene. The only dignifying thing in it is Jesus’ resistance, his firm silence, his unbending spirit. Forgiveness of one’s enemy, non-violence, the very mystery of sin, individual as well as structural (the evil in the heart of the torturer, the evil in the structure that produces evil persons), find a very special meaning within the framework of torture.
(Mt 27:27-30; Mk 15:16-19; Jn 19:2-3)