We come at last to the glorious climax of the whole affair; the destination towards which the previous four Sorrowful Mysteries have been pressing us forward; the single moment in history around which all of Salvation History revolves, as a sort of sacred center for time and space. This is the Royal Enthronement of the King, the great "lifting up" of His Royal Majesty for all to adore and worship.
True, it does not look like an enthronement. It looks more like an ignominious and humiliating death. But we must see it through the eyes of Faith for what it really is: the King, taking His seat in the Royal Throne, wearing the Royal Crown, and in taking His seat, simultaneously conquering all His enemies.
The actual crucifixion of Our Lord was truly a horrible thing, physiologically speaking. We will once again consult Dr. Barbet's singular work, A Doctor at Calvary.
Barbet maintains that the nails which fixed Our Lord to the cross were certainly not driven through the palms of His hands. This, He says, would be quite impossible, since there is nothing firm in the palm of the hand which would hold a nail in place. Rather, the soft and fleshy skin and muscles would quite quickly tear when the weight of an entire body was dragging on them. In other words, if Our Lord's hands were nailed through the palms, He would not have hung there very long before the nails would have ripped right through His hands, and He would have fallen off the cross.
Barbet performed a number of experiments on actual human body parts. He writes:
"I have indeed performed the following experiment. Having just amputated an arm two-thirds of the way up from a vigorous man, I drove a square nail ... into the middle of the palm ... I gently suspended a weight of about 100 pounds from the elbow ... After ten minutes, the wound had lengthened; the nail was at the level of the metacarpal heads. I then gave the whole a moderate shake and I saw the nail suddenly forcing its way through the space between the two metacarpal heads and making a large tear in the skin as far as the commissure. A second slight shake tore away what skin remains." (Barbet, pg. 98)
How, then, was Our Lord affixed to the cross, if not with nails through the palms? Barbet suggests, using scientific data and the evidence of the Shroud, that the nails were driven into the wrists. If you're not flinching, you should be.
Look at the wrist of your hand right below where the palm ends. If you poke around a bit, you should be able to see the place where there is a slight gap in the ligaments and joints. Follow on your own wrist as Barbet explains the location of "[a] transversal projection consisting of the junction in their upper end of the thenar and hypothenar eminences, the short muscles of the thumb and little finger. Behind this ridge, there is a small bundle of thick fibrous muscles, as high as the width of a finger ... [a]bove this ridge, a hollow appears, which corresponds to the chief bending fold of the wrist ... [i]t is then in the chief bending fold of the wrist that the point [of the nail] is actually placed." (Barbet, pg. 101)
Can you locate that spot on your wrist? If you apply slight pressure there, and bend your wrist back and forth, you should be able to feel that natural hollow where the nails would have been driven in. You may also have noticed the most terrible thing of all: if you apply too much pressure on this place, you will notice that there is quite a bundle of nerves at that exact location. Push hard, and your whole arm will feel a slight electric-style jolt. It's actually quite painful, isn't it?
Yet, this is precisely where the soldiers fixed the points of the nails, and slammed them through Our Lord's skin. Dr. Barbet describes this in the most precise and painful way:
"Now, dissections have revealed to me that the trunk of the median nerve is always seriously injured by the nail ... alas, the median nerves are not merely the motor nerves, they are also the great sensory nerves. When they were injured and streched out on the nails ... like the strings of a violin on their bridge, they must have caused the most horrible pain. Those who have seen, during the war, something of the wounds of the nervous trunks, know that it is one of the worst tortures imaginable; so bad is it that its prolongation would not be compatible with life, without some sort of suspension of the normal functions; this most frequently takes the form of a fainting fit.
Now, Our Saviour, the God-Man, Who was able to extend His resistance to the extreme limit, went on living and speaking until the consummatum est, for about three hours! And Mary, His Mother and our Mother, was there, at the foot of the cross!" (Barbet, pg. 104-105)
What horror! Who can even imagine the pain caused by having these most sensitive of nerves drawn tightly against the cold rigidity of the nails? It is little wonder that Our Lord only spoke seven words from the cross, and those, in very short sentences!
What, exactly, caused Our Lord's death? How does a crucifixion victim die? Barbet considers several possibilities, but with careful precision rejects the improbable causes and identifies for us the cause of death. You will forgive me for quoting at some length here:
"Hunger has been mentioned. It is true that He ate nothing from the Last Supper till His death ... He was thirsty, violently thirsty, like all crucified beings. This thirst was due in the first place to loss of blood, and then to the profuse sweats which, as we shall see, went with the hanging by the hands and the cramps which this brought on...
It is true that He experienced one of the most terrible forms of suffering which can be imagined, that caused by the rupture of a great nerve trunk, such as the median nerve ... This wound can cause loss of consciousness ...
There certainly was a hydopericardiac condition, which means that there was a serious effusion within the envelope of the heart ... It is possible ... that it was due to a traumatic pericarditis, which developed rapidly, and was the consequence of the various traumatisms undergone by the thorax, especially during the scourging ...
[T]he determining cause of death ... may I say at once, was asphyxia ... [T]he raised position of the arms, which were thus in a position for inspiration, would entail a relative immobility of the sides, and would thus greatly hinder breathing out; the crucified would have the sensation of a progressive suffocation ... The heart has to work harder; its beats grow faster and weaker. There then follows a kind of stagnation in all the vessels of the body ...
After a certain time violent contractions of all the muscles are seen to appear ... These cramps begin in the forearm, then in the arm, and spread to the lower limbs and to the trunk. The great muscles which produce inspiration ... are invaded. The result is that the lungs are filled with air, but are unable to expel it ...
The lungs being thus caught in a state of forced inspiration and unable to empty themselves, the normal oxygenation of the circulating blood is unable to take place and asphyxiation begins in the victim, as thoroughly as if he was being strangled ...
The victim, with his chest distended, is then seen to show all the symptoms of asphyxia. His face reddens, and then goes a violet color; a profuse sweat flows from his face and from the whole surface of the body ... How then could [a crucifixion victim] escape for the moment from these cramps and this asphyxia, so that they survived for several hours, even for two or three days? This could only be done by relieving the dragging on the hands ...
The victim could ... use his two feet, which were fixed to the stipes, as a fulcrum, so as to lift his body and bring his arms ... back to the horizontal. The dragging on the hands would then be greatly reduced; the cramps would be lessened and the asphyxia would disappear for the moment, through the renewal of the respiratory movements ... Then, the fatigue of the lower limbs would supervene, which would force the crucified to drop again, and bring on a fresh attack of asphyxia. The whole agony was thus spent in an alternation of sagging and then of straightening the body, of asphyxia and of respiration." (Barbet, pp. 72-76)
This is certainly all we need to hear of the violent death of Our Lord. Just think: the only way for Him to momentarily relieve His cramping and asphyxiation was to briefly lift Himself up by applying weight on His feet - but His feet were nailed to the cross, and so even this momentary relief of the respiratory system came at the price of jolting pain in the feet, caused by applying pressure to the wounds there.
Let us leave this discussion for now, and turn to a brief spiritual meditation.
Observe the tender compassion of Our Lord, Who, even while undergoing the greatest of injustices, prays for the very ones who are nailing His flesh and bones to the cross: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34). See how, even in His hour of pain and misery, He thinks not of Himself, but of His Blessed Mother - and entrusts her to the care of "the beloved disciple." Perhaps even greater than this is the fact that He shows His love for "the beloved disciple" by entrusting him to the care of the Blessed Mother. St. John has purposefully written, "the beloved disciple," and not "John," because he wishes you to understand that if you are a beloved disciple of Christ, you too are given to the care of the Virgin.
How greatly will we benefit if we also pray the words of Christ at the time of our death, "Father, into Thy hands I commend My spirit" (Luke 23:46). Is there any other way to leave this world and enter into eternity, than to entrust our well-being to the care of our Loving Father?
At long last, the Immortal died, for He intended to redeem the souls who were held captive by Death (Ps. 67:19, 1 Pet. 3:19), and who were waiting patiently for the day of Redemption. The only way to accomplish such was to pass through the doors of Death itself. Do you see how Our Lord is not only sovereign over sin, the flesh, and spiritual powers, but also over the power of Death as well? (1 Cor. 15:26) As St. Paul writes, "he also himself in like manner hath been partaker of the same [human flesh]: that, through death, he might destroy him who had the empire of death, that is to say, the devil," (Heb. 2:14) and also, "Death is swallowed up in victory" (1 Cor. 15:54).
We can only respond to this mystery by entering into eternal adoration and worship, along with all of the angels and saints! Certainly, this will be our lot in Heaven, but observe how the Father intends for us to share first in the Cross of Christ, as we have seen in the preceding mysteries. The glory which Our Lord has, He has because He intends to share it with us, His children; yet, we will only share in His glory if we participate in His suffering. (Rom. 8:17) Let us then die to ourselves, crucify the desires of our flesh, and let the Holy Ghost purify us until we have become like Christ.
There is nothing we can add to this most Holy Mystery of the Crucifixion - rather, our response is to partake of the precious Body and Blood of the Lord in the Most Holy Eucharist, take up our cross (and the crosses of our brothers), and follow after Christ. Let us say for all eternity: Adoramus Te, Christe, et benedicimus Tibi, quia per sanctam Crucem Tuam redemisti mundum (We adore Thee, O Christ, and we bless Thee, for by Thy Holy Cross, Thou hast redeemed the world). Amen.
Now watch carefully as Our Lord's sacred body is lifted down from the cross and placed in the arms of His sorrowing mother. She glances at you, and by her gaze she bids you come closer. Approach this pieta, then, with reverence and devotion. Kneel before the Mother and her Son, and devoutly say:
"Oh my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell, lead all souls to Heaven, especially those who are in most need of Thy mercy."
"O mi Jesus, remitte nobis peccata nostra, custodi nos ad igne inferi, attrahe omnes animas ad Caelum praecipue illas maxime egentes misericordiae Tuae."