Jesus Bore in His Flesh the Sins We Commit in Ours

ROSARY & ART: The Second Sorrowful Mystery, the Scourging at the Pillar

William-Adolphe Bouguereau, “The Flagellation of Our Lord Jesus Christ,” 1880
William-Adolphe Bouguereau, “The Flagellation of Our Lord Jesus Christ,” 1880 (photo: Public Domain)

(Matthew 27:26; Mark 15:15; Luke 23:16; John 19:1, 4-5)

The Rosary’s Sorrowful Mysteries pass over a significant expanse of time in silence. From Jesus’ arrest in Gethsemane to the scourging there has occurred:

  • a prolonged kangaroo court night trials before rump sittings of the Sanhedrin, in which the Jewish Temple establishment physically abused Jesus; 
  • the Apostles’ flight;
  • Peter’s denials; 
  • a likely night of further torture and imprisonment until morning; 
  • the transfer of the Jewish case against Jesus on concocted charges to the Roman procurator, Pontius Pilate; 
  • Pilate’s attempt to divert the case by sending Jesus to Herod Antipas; and
  • Pilate’s temporizing, aimed at avoiding having to sentence Christ himself.

In contrast to all those events, the scriptural texts mentioning Jesus’ scourging or flagellation take up, at most, a total of seven verses across four Gospels.

Why did Pilate scourge Jesus? Three reasons. Pilate probably hoped that some physical punishment might satiate the almost manic bloodlust of the contrived mob staged in front of his praetorium. If Jesus was guilty of anything, scourging would be a salutary punishment. (Remember, Roman citizens and non-Roman citizens had different standing before Roman law, e.g., a Roman could not be crucified.) And, just in case Jesus (or any in the crowd) had ideas about challenging Roman rule or doing anything else illegal, a good flagellation should disabuse them of such notions.

Scourging was a Roman punishment that could be imposed on its own or as a preliminary to crucifixion. As such, Pilate could have stopped there or it could have been a prelude to crucifixion.

What was scourging? It was a form of chastisement. It generally involved binding a victim by the arms to a fixed position and then striking his generally naked body with leather belts studded with objects like stones, animal bones or hooks. Its purpose was to inflict rip-and-tear torture. It was not just a lashing. 

The Old Testament capped any lashing of prisoners at 40 (Deuteronomy 25:3). Jewish custom had limited lashes to 39, so as not accidentally to exceed the biblical ceiling. But Roman practice generally knew of no such restrictions. Those who scourged prisoners did so until they got bored or tired or their victim collapsed or even died. Scourging could be fatal, either in its own right or as a result of infections subsequently contracted if the victim endured the beating.

Scourging had a perverse relationship to crucifixion. A scourged prisoner might have to carry the patibulum (the horizontal bar of the cross) to the place of execution on his already lacerated back and, if crucified, scrape against the stipes (vertical bar) of the cross. On the other hand, the severity of scourging and the blood loss it entailed also tended to weaken a prisoner, leading to quicker death.

That would have been the legal/cultural context for Jesus’ scourging. Let us also meditate on what theology has suggested.

Scourging was a very corporal punishment. Many of man’s sins are bodily. He is, after all, a bodily-spiritual being whose contact with the world comes through the senses. The senses have a direct and powerful impact on human beings: food and sex are powerful physical appetites. Even the devil doesn’t work harder than he has to: why tempt someone with pride when gluttony or fornication or other sins will do? 

Are “sins of the spirit” worse than “sins of the flesh?” Yes. But that doesn’t make the latter less sinful. Aggressive brain cancer may be “worse” than long-term cardiac disease, but you’ll wind up dead either way. Same in the spiritual realm. Our Lady of Fatima warns that “the sins that cause most souls to go to hell are sins of the flesh.” That should deter us from minimizing their significance, even in comparison to other, more malignant sin.

In undergoing his scourging, Jesus bore in his flesh the sins we commit in ours. Remember, even when we repent of sin, that’s not the end of the story. God may forgive us our guilt, but theologians used to talk of the “temporal punishment” due to sin. God gave us a nature, which sin deforms. Confession may take away the guilt of our sins, but not necessarily our appetites, inclinations, attachments to those sins. That’s why we often succumb to temptation. 

Now God doesn’t want back a tattered and torn, full of spiritual holes nature we’ve made of the nature he gave us (or restored to us in Baptism). Forgiveness of sins is one thing; reshaping our bent spiritual frames is another. Jesus, in enduring his Scourging, suffered to fix our bent-out-of-shape spiritual frames.

So, in the Second Sorrowful Mystery, let us reflect on the “sins of the flesh” to which we might be inclined, resolving to wrestle with the “thorn in the flesh” that many of us bear. They often involve sex: premarital sex, adultery, masturbation, pornography, contraception. God wants us to be free of those enslavements, but it won’t necessarily be easy. Consider what an innocent Jesus endured in the flesh.

The Second Sorrowful Mystery is depicted in art by the late 19th/early 20th century French painter William-Adolphe Bouguereau. Bouguereau was known as a realist in art and often focused on figure painting, i.e., physically accurate human bodies. 

That is apparent in “La Flagellation du Christ” [The Flagellation of Christ], which dates from 1880. Jesus is the central figure. His body is light, white, with almost the pallor of a corpse. The contrasts of light and dark are not just natural shadows; they also suggest a moral division.

Most of Jesus’ clothes lie on the floor. The typical technique of scourging is underway. Jesus’ arms are pulled upwards so that his torso is wholly exposed and will remain suspended, even if his legs give out beneath him. The flagellation appears only to have begun, considering the limited wounds on his back, even though his legs are already buckling and his eyes rolling into the back of his head.

Two torturers, one on each side, are already exchanging turns with their multi-thonged whips. Two others — the one in a white shirt and the one kneeling on the ground, are ready to step in or provide additional “tools” as needed. Various witnesses, including probably two Sanhedrin members on the right, watch. Most of the facial expressions exhibit a sadistic glee at the work: as in our own day, how often do defenders of sins of the flesh revel in their advances?