John Chapter 19 includes the following words, ‘It was the day of Preparation, and the next day was to be a special Sabbath. Because the Jewish leaders did not want the bodies left on the crosses during the Sabbath, they asked Pilate to have the legs broken and the bodies taken down. The soldiers therefore came and broke the legs of the first man who had been crucified with Jesus, and then those of the other. But when they came to Jesus and found that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water. The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is true.’
The Jewish leaders did not want to spoil their holy day with a view littered with crosses on the horizon, so they decided to kill the three men and remove the bodies before sundown. A crucified man generally died of shock and blood loss, but also of asphyxiation because it’s nearly impossible to breathe with your arms above your head all the time. A man dying of crucifixion would therefore heave his body up and down, artificially, rhythmically moving his diaphragm that way instead of breathing properly. It was ultimately useless, of course, because the Romans knew how to kill a man and they always did. So they broke the legs of the crucified men to stop his artificial breathing and accelerate his death. It was ultimately a mercy, but spoiled the theatre of the death.
Incidentally, as a man started dying, so his heart started failing and a large amount of fluid accumulates around the heart. This additional pressure on the heart is also likely to promote death.
A soldier pierces Jesus’s side with a lance. He does not do so to kill him — he has already ascertained the fact of death — but to save his own skin. He doesn’t want his superiors to say that Jesus was still alive. So he proves that Jesus is dead by stabbing up and into the man’s heart. And he was dead as shown by this outflow of blood and water. If he was still alive, the two would mingled but after death they flow separately. Jesus was certainly dead. That’s what the final sentence in the reading means when it says, ‘The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is true’.
Today as we watch Jesus being tortured to death, we are invited to have compassion — to share his passion. We are invited to look at his heart and the way we are his willing subjects. Jesus heart was filled with love. As he approached Jerusalem he wept for the lost. He wept again at the graveside of Lazarus. The human heart of Jesus was somehow superimposed on the heart of God, the two beating within the one chest of Jesus the God–man of Nazareth.
If we are to share the love of God, we need to love as he did. We therefore need to be more like Jesus. We need to have the love of God beating inside our hearts, beating like a separate heart within our own chests. And, miraculously, we can. St Paul was a rabbi and a teacher, so he will have known the Law intimately. That’s one theory of why he’s so obsessed with writing his own lists. In Galatians 5, he lists the fruits of having the Holy Spirit dwelling in a human heart, and the first on the list is love. The list in full says, ‘The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy peace, patience, kindness goodness, gentleness, thankfulness, and self-control’. But elsewhere he lists the gifts of the Holy Spirit, so he’s thinking more supernatural in scope and power. And the first on that second list is also love. So love is a fruit and a gift of the Spirit. If you have the Spirit, you will love.