He Descended Into Hell
Centurion: King Herod is sending back the prisoner, Governor Pilate, and he wants you to know that he is confirming whatever decision you make.
Pilate: Really? So, not even Herod wants to have anything to do with his subject…
Centurion: He also wants to inform you that his order of the best wine from Arabia has come. Today, this afternoon, the eve of the great Sabbath, he wishes to try it with you…
Pilate: Well, well, I like that…
Centurion: Good wine and pretty women…. You already know the parties hosted by the palace tetrach…
Pilate: Sure, I know. There’s none in the whole country as brazen as he is. But let’s admit it, no one ever organizes better parties than he does! Tell Herod we shall arrive on time at his party… And we’ll be the last ones to leave!
Centurion: That’s well understood, Governor.
Pilate: Well then, centurion, you may leave.
Centurion: Excuse me, Governor. I have the prisoner downstairs. What shall I do with him?
Pilate: Oh yes... I forgot about the Nazarene… Make him talk. I want more information about this group he works with.
Centurion: By scourging?
Pilate: Yes, whatever is necessary to make him talk. Find out their plans, where they meet, and above all, who are involved. I want their names, do you understand? Let him spill the beans. Then we’ll find out their connections in the provinces.
Centurion: Leave everything to me, Governor.
Pilate: Be careful. The Nazarene is a brave little cock.
Centurion: In that case, we’ll shed his feathers to make him talk better…!
From Herod’s palace, in the high barrio of Jerusalem, the soldiers went back to Antonia Fortress, bringing the heavily guarded Jesus. Notwithstanding the beatings received in front of the Galilean king, we gathered again at the foot of the Roman fortress, demanding freedom for Jesus and for those who had been arrested during the holidays…
A Man: Set Jesus free! The man is innocent!
A Woman: Freedom for Jesus and for the prisoners!
That Friday, in spite of the rain, the Temple’s courtyard teemed with pilgrims buying animals to be sacrificed at the altar of the priests. The lambs, arranged in a row, and without protesting, were beheaded one by one over the altar stone, which was totally drenched in blood. When the pilgrims heard about the turmoil in front of the Roman quarters, they left the Temple to join us in protest…
All: Freedom, freedom, freedom!!
In the midst of that uproar, we saw the high priest, Joseph Caiphas, enter the Antonia Fortress through a private corridor connecting the Temple to the Roman quarters…
Pilate: An amnesty? Is that what you have come for, your Excellency?… I had even thought of having all of them hanged, to teach them a lesson!
Caiphas: One does not contradict the other, Governor. In this regard, our ancestors have this to say: With one hand you discipline, and with the other, you smooth with oil.
Pilate: I admire your wisdom, illustrious Caiphas. I might end up naming you as my state counsel. Speak more, I’m listening.
Caiphas: The people are clamoring for the prisoners’ freedom, Governor. Very well. You may grant a reprieve. It will pacify them. But some crosses have to be put up, to teach them a lesson.
Pilate: And who is this prisoner you want to set free?
Caiphas: Let the people decide…
Pilate: If I let them, I’m sure they’ll choose the Nazarene.
Caiphas: Unless my men take care of it. Leave this to me, Governor. Who knows, they might ask for Barabbas. That’s right, set Barabbas free. What do you think?
Pilate: No, Barabbas is a dangerous man. We had a hard time catching him!
Caiphas: You may leave the cage open, but the bird’s wings must be clipped… This way, it cannot fly very far…
Pilate: I see what you mean, your Excellency… It’s not a bad idea… Say, are you coming tonight to savor the Arab wine of Herod?
Caiphas: But of course… Hopefully, the case of the Nazarene shall have been resolved… He will have been condemned to death, is that right?
Pilate: But before that, I’d like to stretch out his tongue a little to make him reveal his collaborators and those involved in this conspiracy. He’s downstairs, right now, in Hell. Hannibal, the centurion, is working him over…
The centurion called one of the executioners, and the two pushed Jesus to the dungeons of the Antonia Fortress. The Roman soldiers called the place Hell. It was a dark, humid basement, reeking of blood and excrement, where prisoners were tortured. Above the stone walls could be seen the iron collars, the shackles, the pliars for pulling out the nails and gouging the eyes, and the blades for castrating…. In a corner were piled up poles for crosses and the turnstiles… At the center, was a rack for twisting arms and joints, as well as the low columns used for flagellating the prisoners…
The Hell was full during the holidays. A line of Jewish patriots awaited their turn to be beaten and tortured. A number of zealots and young sympathizers of the movement had died in that dungeon after receiving thirty-nine lashes…
Centurion: Hey, you my friend, let’s see how many you can take…
They brought Jesus to one of the those shortened posts used for torture by lashing. The stone was still dripping with the blood of the previous victims…
Centurion: Will you talk or not?… I want the names of the conspirators.
Jesus: I won’t say anything.
Centurion: Then we’ll have to soften your tongue a little… Remove his robe. Tie him.
The executioner stripped Jesus almost naked and pushed him on to the post. His hands and feet were tied to an iron collar that was nailed to the base, such that his whole body, with his head bowed down, formed an arch over the stone… Then, the whip was lowered from the wall. It was a whip with eight leather strips, each with a small iron ball at one end, the size of an almond. These little balls had small hooks to tear the flesh of one’s back…
Centurion: Talk! Where are these Galileans who made trouble during the holidays?… Who are your supporters here in the capital? Speak up, you wretch!…
The executioner pressed the wooden handle and the lashes just awaited the orders of the centurion…
The whip was raised in the air and landed violently on Jesus’ naked back.
Centurion: Now, do you recall their names?… Not yet?… Whom are you working for?… Who pays you?… C’mon, talk!… I command you to talk!…
The blood began to flow on his back. The little iron balls stuck to his flesh tearing and breaking it open….
Centurion: Now confess! Who are with you?… Where are your friends hiding…?
The executioner’s whip continuously landed on the bent body of Jesus. In front of him, the centurion grabbed him by the hair, then lifted his face…
Centurion: Talk, you Jewish dog!… I command you!… Who are your companions? Where do they meet?… Now, give it to him on the legs!
The executioner moved to the side and landed the whip on the back of his legs, on his calves, on the heels of his feet… Jesus’ arched body collapsed on the post, as he began to suffocate...
Centurion: Confess! Who else are with you?… Damn it, beat him harder, till he talks!!
The Roman governor went down the courtyard and ordered the gates facing the patio opened, so that all of us who were shoving each other in front of the fortress could hear him… Then we noticed that a group of the family members and servants of the priests of the Temple and the magistrates of the Sanhedrin had sneaked into the first rows…. Pontius Pilate, seated on a Tribunal chair, demanded silence….
Pilate: Citizens, we are here on holidays. Rome is magnanimous and listens to the voice of the people. You are demanding freedom for the prisoners. Well then, that will be granted!
When the governor said that, all of us looked at each other with relief. Mary, Jesus’ mother, who was beside me, gave a stunned smile, as if she could not believe what she heard… Pontius Pilate, well-shaven and wrapped in a purple robe, continued….
Pilate: I am granting amnesty to a prisoner, whom you yourselves will elect. Now you’ve heard it: Whom do you want me to release?
Paid Group: Release Barabbas! Release Barabbas!
People: Release Jesus! Release Jesus!
Everything went fast and was confusing… Those in the first row were frenetically clamoring for Barabbas. We, at the back, the great majority, shouted for Jesus… The governor raised his hands asking for silence…
Pilate: Silence!… I cannot hear you with such an uproar… Soldiers, control the mob… I repeat, whom do you want me to release?
The soldiers were pushing us backward with their shields and they were threatening us, as the group hired by the priests and the magistrates continued screaming, while being protected by the Roman troops…
Pilate: Very well. If the people want Barabbas, then Barabbas is free.
Two soldiers took up the zealot leader from the dungeon and set him free amid the multitude. Barabbas rubbed his skinned wrists, and without stopping to talk to anyone, slipped away, passing through the streets of Barrio Ephraim. Behind him were some soldiers who were secretly following him. Their mission was to arrest him when the holidays were over.
Meanwhile, in Hell…
Centurion: Who works with you? What are their names…?
The leather whip spurted blood on the walls of the prison cell. The small iron balls sunk deeper each time, into the broken tissues, becoming embedded in the ribs… Jesus’ back was a mass of bloody flesh…
Centurion: Speak up, damn!… I command you to speak up!…
Executioner: This man can’t talk anymore. He’s almost dead.
Centurion: How many lashings did you give him?
Executioner: About thirty-nine already.
Centurion: Make it exact, then.
Executioner: What if he dies…?
Centurion: It doesn’t matter anymore… Anyway, for the last time, talk! Tell me the names of your companions!
But Jesus did not say anything. When the centurion lifted his face, his eyes were expressionless. Jesus had passed out.
Centurion: Untie this hunk of raw flesh and throw him some place. Damn these people who won’t talk.
He was so beaten he no longer looked like a man.
He was scourged, wounded, and humiliated, but no word came from his mouth.
He was maltreated by people without pity,
beaten to no end by the unjust,
yet he bore the pain for our sake.
Like a silent lamb to be sacrificed,
like a sheep, mute before those who shear him,
neither did he open his lips nor utter a word.
In the Credo, we say the following prayer: “....he was crucified, was dead and was buried, he descended into hell...” “To descend into hell” means that Jesus really died, just as all people are buried with the limitations and anguish of death. “Hell” in the traditional language of Israel was the “sheol,” the abyss where everyone, good or bad, was bound to go at the end of life. It was a place of silence, of sadness, where there was no hope. In this episode, “hell” is the torture chamber of Antonia Fortress. Jesus also descended into this hell before going down to his death.
Rome tortured her prisoners. Jesus’ death was murder, as decreed by the imperial power. We should not see in Jesus a criminal in solitary suffering or a man “who suffered most,” the only one who went through bad times. Thousands of Israelites before him were tortured and crucified and thousands more would suffer later. It was not the people who recommended nor demanded the freedom of Barabbas, the zealot leader whom the authorities had long pursued, for his involvement in violent uprisings of the people. It was even possible that during the incidents of Palm Sunday in the Temple, Barabbas and the other revolutionary groups had taken advantage of the confusion to use arms and kill some soldiers. It was the religious authorities, together with the hired group, who wanted to release a prisoner as an act of “indulgence,” to cover up with legalities the case against Jesus. It is very clear in the gospels that those who wanted Barabbas were the priests and his clique (Mk 15:11; Jn 19:6). At that time, the religious leaders and the Roman authorities preferred to free a zealot with violent ways rather than Jesus.
The Jewish laws allowed the scourging of the accused. Poles were used for this type of punishment and during gospel times, lashing was common in the synagogue. All the doctors and the magistrates were authorized to pass this punishment. Rape, calumny, transgression of the Law were enough motives to apply it. Later, the poles were replaced by a three-stripped whip. The lashings should not exceed 40 – thus, 30 were ordinarily given. Tradition dictated that a bare chest should receive 13 lashes, and the rest 13 on each side of the back. The Romans popularized this kind of torture. It was used for several motives: to castigate rebellious slaves; when soldiers, in their tour of duty, committed grave mistakes; as a type of torture to obtain confessions from prisoners, and as a prelude to torture on the cross. Among the Romans, there were three types of whips. One consisted of three cords in which small pieces of bones were attached. The other two had cords fastened from end to end, with small balls of lead hanging at the end. One of these whips, the one with several long strips, was used with Jesus. Although the lashings totalled only 39, it was real, inhuman torture which often resulted in the death of the victim.
In the basilica of the Holy Sepulcher of Jerusalem, there is a small chapel where a post similar to those used in Jesus’ time in lashing the prisoners, is still preserved. It is a black stone, thick and short, with iron rings to which the naked and arched body of the prisoner was fastened.
Jesus’ silence before his tormentors should not be interpreted in this episode as a passive silence, a simplistic tameness, a vacuous “surrender” to his enemies. Yes, Jesus gave himself up for the sake of his companions, to save them. His was a unified silence so as not to betray anyone, in order not to compromise his friends. He did not open his mouth, according to the beautiful image of the Servant of Yahweh whom the prophet Isaiah had already announced (Is 53:3-7). While he opened his mouth with firmness to denounce the unjust, he did not do so when the lives of the rest were at stake. His unified silence has made him a brother to thousands of men and women who in their moments of torture, knew how to resist to the point of death, in order not to betray their companions in the struggle.
(Mt 27:26; Mk 15:15; Jn 19:1)