One of the themes that we have been exploring over the last week has been the nature of big crowds of people.
We may well have had different experiences of being in a large crowd from good natured and excitable to possibly a sense we are part of something that is a bit changeable and even unnerving.
The Gospel accounts of Jesus final hours suggest that the excited expectancy of Palm Sunday has passed.
The mood of the people is volatile. Pilate asks them who should be realised Jesus or the revolutionary Barabbas and when they cry Barabbas he is asks them what they want to do with Jesus.
The shout is “crucify him,” the punishment for treason, given predominantly to non-Romans and slaves. It was a common but horrible punishment and the Latin word “crucio” or torture, shares a root with crucifixion.
It was also a public event and the crowds would gather and play their part.
It is suggested that quite a few people gathered on the site outside the city to watch what was happening.
St Luke in his account describes that a “great number of people,” watched the “spectacle.”
Although we are told some of his followers watched from a distance closer to the cross there were many who enjoyed the opportunity to pass insults and to mock him.
The public nature of the event is significant. I watched a programme recently about the changing nature of punishment and in particular explored public executions in the Victorian period.
They were undoubtedly events of great entertainment and an insight into the proceedings was provided by a series of letters in the Times written by Charles Dickens in the 1840s.
Dickens was present at the execution of a husband and wife (Mannings) in 1849, but his focus is not on the unfortunate couple but the crowd.
The rationale behind making these events public was it would encourage a sense of repentance and reform. It would be a serious and reflective event.
Dickens felt that this was nonsense: ‘I did not see one token in all the immense crowd ... of any one emotion suitable to the occasion,’
No sorrow, no salutary terror, no abhorrence, no seriousness; nothing but ribaldry, debauchery, drunkenness, and flaunting vice in fifty other shapes ... It was so loathsome, pitiful and vile a sight, that the law appeared to be as bad as he, or worse.
When the day dawned, thieves, low prostitutes, ruffians, and vagabonds of every kind, flocked on to the ground, with every variety of offensive and foul behaviour.
Fightings, faintings, whistlings, imitations of Punch, brutal jokes, tumultuous demonstrations of indecent delight when swooning women were dragged out of the crowd by the police, with their dresses disordered, gave a new zest to the general entertainment.
Dickens concludes that there is a ‘horrible fascination’ attached to capital crimes and the condemned prisoner.
Under the influence of relentless press coverage, sensational reporting and a deluge of cheap souvenirs in the form of execution handbills and Newgate ballads, criminals become celebrities and even good and sensible people are swept up in an horrifying atmosphere of ‘depraved excitement.’
Dickens believed it captured the human condition at its worst, which raises an interesting question on Good Friday.
We can see what it says about the human condition, but what does it tell us about God?