A Place Calling Itself Jerusalem
The archbishop undid the chain at the back of his neck and took off the ornament, bowing his head slightly as he did so. Grasping it only by the chain, he leaned forward and held out the cross to the governor. "Would your Excellency care to take a closer look?"
The governor held out his hand, and the archbishop dropped the nasty thing into it. The governor wound the chain around his fingers and dangled the cross before his eyes. Now he could see that the figure was nailed in place through its feet and the palms of its hands, and that there was a wound in its side just under the straining ribs. He saw also that the spiky, irregular protrusions were not confined to the brow but grew all across the top of the head; they did not so much resemble horns as a sort of insane crown. Running a finger across them, the governor found the spikes authentically sharp.
"The sins of the world," said the archbishop, watching closely, "which He took, is taking and will take upon His head for ever, until the end of time. Every offence against the law of our god increases His agony; in some families there are small reproductions, either painted or made of plastic, to which the children have to add a thorn every time they sin in word, thought or deed. His blood is on us and on our children, and on our fathers and mothers too."
"But who was he?” The governor was wearily certain that he had heard all this before; perhaps even several times. There were always so many more important things to do than keep track of native superstitions.
"Who was He? Your Excellency, I assure you He still exists. We are not discussing a mere historical event. He was, is and will be a man begotten by our god, to suffer and die for the remittance of those debts which we can never hope to pay without His intercession. Each year He suffers and dies, and then rises from the tomb to suffer and die again the following year. So long as the world exists in sin, His pain can have no end. Hence the blank face, as your Excellency will understand: to suffer beneath such a burden is so profound an agony that any depiction would be presumptuous."
It was the clean shiny surface that seemed presumptuous to the governor. Delivered three at a time outside the city walls, prisoners condemned to be crucified were dragged up the hill by the legionaries, often accompanied by sullen elders and wailing families. When the procession drew near the summit, the presiding centurion would emit a signal and the three crucifixtures would each grab a prisoner, hooking him through the wrists and then reeling him, screaming and bleeding, up against the cross-beam. As soon as the prisoner was in place, further hooks would emerge, like a spider’s jaws, and clamp his feet, while details of the charge and sentence were displayed on a luminous screen above his head. At a predetermined time, if a recommendation for mercy had been entered and approved, the crucifixture would automatically break the prisoner’s knees to facilitate a faster death from suffocation; otherwise, they hung there until they died from thirst, or from shock as the birds pecked away their soft parts. Their agony was most perceptible.
The archbishop held out his hand for the ornament and the governor gave it back, repressing an urge to wipe his hands afterwards.
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