Summary: The Roman soldiers knew that this Jeshua of Nazareth was unlike any criminal they had ever killed.
The Thirteenth Station: Jesus is taken down from the cross
(Those of us who have had the privilege and honor of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land always make Jerusalem part of the holy time. There, although the Jewish Temple has been replaced by a grand mosque, we can see the very places we read about in the New Testament, the actions of our redemption through the life, passion, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. Many make the way of the cross, the Via Dolorosa, an ancient prayer service with stops at places that commemorate events of Our Lord’s tortuous journey to the place of His execution. Some of the stations, as they are called, are taken directly from the Gospels, some are inferred from the practice of crucifixion, and a few come from the more reliable Christian traditions.)
Jesus was truly dead. The soldiers overseeing the executions on Skull place had done it before. They would use their tools to break the legs of the crucified thieves so that they could no longer push themselves up to enable their diaphragms to inflate and deflate their lungs. They would die within a couple of minutes without oxygen. But they saw that Jesus was already dead, and had enabled His last gift by opening His heart with a lance. So Jesus was truly dead.
But the Sadducees and Pharisees, zealous to keep from profaning the great Sabbath—the Passover Sabbath—on the next day, demanded that the bodies be taken down. Ordinarily they would have just been left up for the carrion fowl and scavenging dogs to profane and remove them. Not this time. For the first time in the two days, Jesus’s body would be treated with respect and human dignity.
Joseph of Arimathea, probably even before Jesus died, made his way to Pontius Pilate’s court and requested the body of Jesus. Pilate sent a messenger to the execution place and learned that the Galilean was already dead. So he respected Joseph’s request. Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, a member of the Sanhedrin who grieved over the mistreatment of the One he had believed to be the true Messiah. Nicodemus, another councilor, asked Joseph if he could help with the burial. Joseph brought the burial cloths; Nicodemus carried myrrh and aloes, a huge quantity truly fit for a king.
Now the soldiers knew that this Jeshua of Nazareth was unlike any criminal they had ever killed. They had heard one of the thieves testify that he had done nothing criminal, and so had to be a kind of political or religious prisoner. Maybe even some of them had heard Jesus preach, or heard of His miracles. Their boss, the centurion, had at His death testified “This man was innocent beyond doubt.” And the Jewish onlookers who had gathered for the public execution, ordinarily very self-satisfied and celebratory afterwards, had acted very differently this day. St. Luke writes that all the people gathered for the spectacle returned home beating their breasts, as though they had done something very wrong.
So when Mary asked them to take her Son down and give Him to her, they did so, maybe even reverently. John and Mary Magdalene and Mary Clopas attended them. We’ve all seen the image of the Pieta—Michelangelo’s masterpiece in stone—in the Vatican. Mary’s right arm supports Christ’s chest and head; the rest of His body reclines in her lap, just as it had three decades earlier when He was a child. Her head is bowed more in reverence than in sorrow. Her left hand is turned upward in prayer. She is, without doubt, offering herself with her Son as sacrifice to the Father. I view what my sins have done, and offer my contrition with my thanks to God.