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How to Meditate on the Crowning With Thorns

How to Meditate on the Crowning With Thorns

Martin van Heemskerck, “Christ Crowned With Thorns,” c. 1550, Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem, The Netherlands (photo: Public Domain)


ROSARY & ART: The Third Sorrowful Mystery

(Matthew 27:27-31; Mark 15:16-20; John 19:2-6)

Scourging was a recognized Roman punishment. The crowning with thorns was a sadistic game.

The Sanhedrin’s true motive in attempting to kill Jesus was his claim to divinity, which they deemed blasphemy. (They also saw him as a threat to their religious dominance and the stability of “Temple/state” relations in occupied Israel). But Pilate would not be interested in internal Jewish religious debates. He already had a record of going out of his way to poke the Jewish leadership in the eye. They needed a charge that would interest Pilate. Alleging Jesus challenged Roman rule would.

By Jesus’ time, Judaea had been subject to Roman rule for nearly 100 years, yet the people constantly chafed under it. Judaea had a reputation as a rebellious province. Its monotheism complicated the picture: other conquered peoples could accommodate Roman gods alongside their own (as those deities often overlapped in “function” anyway, e.g., the “god of the sea”). Judaea could and would not. By Jesus’ day, there were revolutionary movements and even a group known as the Sicarii, named for the little knives they carried by which they dispatched Romans whom they surrounded and captured in a crowd.

Pilate would be interested in any questioning of Roman rule.

He had ordered Jesus scourged, a punishment that might turn the crowd’s frenzy against him to sympathy. In any event, it couldn’t hurt to dissuade Jesus (or anybody else) of bad ideas. The crowning with thorns was purely the soldiers’ invention, designed further to humiliate Jesus.

Service in the Roman garrison in Jerusalem was not a plum assignment. It was a dangerous task in a stinking and rebellious backwater with a hostile local population of religious fanatics who had not accepted the righteousness of Roman rule. And here was a Jew they said he thought was “king” of these wretches.

Well, a king ought to have a crown!

Using local thorn plants, they fashioned a “crown” like a laurel leaf. When shown in art, their manufacture is often shown as involving pliers or some other kind of tools, because the hardwood thorn plants would hurt their artisans, too. Having finished scourging this pathetic figure, he deserved a proper coronation!

Roman centurions wore red cloaks. A faded old cloak would do for royal purple. A reed would serve as a stand-in scepter. Now all we need do is drive this thorny crown right into his skull. “All hail, King of the Jews!”

Their sadistic game let them vent their frustrations about being assigned here while jeering the alleged pretensions of this prisoner. And remember, Jesus’ forehead would have already been sensitive, not only from his nocturnal bullying but from his blood sweat.

Matthew and Mark both report the crowning with thorns. Luke does not. John also does, but adds an important element fitting for our meditation.

After Jesus was redressed in his own clothes, the scourged, beaten, bloodied and crowned Christ was sent back to Pilate in the praetorium. He must have already been a half-dead figure. Was Pilate even surprised at the extent to which his soldiers “chastised” him? In any event, Pilate makes a final pitch to save him. “I am bringing him out to you to let you know I find no basis for a charge against him” (John 19:4).

Pilate may have thought the sight of this human pulp might turn the crowd around. He calls Jesus out, but his presentation of Christ is telling: “Behold, the man!” (John 19:5).

Pilate speaks a truth of which he himself may not have been aware. Ecce homo! Behold, the man! Yes, this is the man. This is the man whom God intended man to be. This is the man who, as Vatican II and Pope St. John Paul II constantly taught us, “fully reveals man to himself.” This is the man as God made him.

But this is also the man deformed, injured and degraded by sin. This is what sin does to man. (And this man is innocent!)

Whatever hope Pilate had for Jesus’ fate is quickly dissipated. The sight of Jesus only fires up the chief priests and their crowd for blood. “Crucify him!”

In the three Gospel accounts that mention the crowning, this is the moment after which Pilate gives up all effort to put off Jesus’ execution. He yields to the mob and sends Jesus to the cross.

Just as, in the case of the scourging, theology has also seen a further meaning to Jesus’ crowning. If the scourging reflected the chastisement due for sins of the flesh, the crowning with thorns points to sins of thought and the mind. If sin begins in the mind and heart, the inner side of man, before it reaches external expression, then the torture wreaked on Jesus’ sacred head can be understood as pointing to that. We can sin mentally. We sin when we decide to sin; we remain thieves, even if the getaway car breaks down on the way to the bank or it’s Columbus Day and the bank is closed.

(There is also a mystic, whose name I do not now recall, who claimed that Jesus’ mortality was irrevocably and finally set in motion by the crowning: one of the thorns pierced his skull, penetrating the cerebral region, which would be fatal.)

So what care do I devote to my thoughts? How clean is my mind? How many sins do I commit “in thought?” How many of those thorns am I responsible for?

The Third Sorrowful Mystery is depicted in art by the Netherlandish painter, Maarten van Heemskerck. “Christ Crowned With Thorns” dates to around 1550 and is held by a Dutch museum.

I chose this painting because it exhibits the sheer perversity of this act. Unlike Jesus, who nevertheless shows a certain calm, the three perpetrators of this act demonstrate an almost animal-like frenzy in their appearances and work. The two on either side of Jesus wield various tools to wedge this crown on Jesus’ head even as they injure themselves to carry out a deed no one (except their infernal inspirations) demanded of them. The third perpetrator, facing Jesus, jeers him with his tongue stuck out. The bearded figure whose gaze meets ours, bringing us into the picture, is probably a Jewish official. But his pointed finger imitates Pilate’s: Ecce homo! Unlike the torturers, his clothes might seem to blend both the Netherlandish clothes of Heemskerck’s time and the clothing of the ancient world.

Jesus is presented in the traditional “Man of Sorrows” pose typical for this scene, his body again pallid. The only problem I have with this painting is that, since the biblical sequence of events puts the crowning after the scourging, I would expect to see a more tortured body of Christ.

On the other hand, haven’t we tortured Christ enough?


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