Good Friday is a day more than any other to talk about, think about, gesture, portray, contemplate, kneel before, and sing praises to "the cross."
Crucifixion was a HORRIBLE way to die, the worst the ancient world could imagine. Several ancient empires somewhat employed crucifixion, but Rome adapted it as the normative way to keep slaves, conquered peoples, and the "free poor" in line.
Even so, it was something "proper" Romans didn't (publicly, at least) talk about. Cicero is quoted as saying: "(T)he very word 'cross' should be far removed not only from the person of a Roman citizen but from his thoughts, his eyes and his ears." (Pro Rabirio 9-17, 70 BC)
The profoundly enlightening book by German theologian Martin Hengl, Crucifixion: In the ancient world and the folly of the message of the cross, notes there were all sorts of places -- including histories, journals, letters, war chronicles, poetry -- where Rome could have mentioned something about the thousands of crucifixions she ordered, yet just about everywhere she remained strangely silent.
Except in her comedy. Roman mime, satire and farce all featured "cross-talk", played for big laughs.
Hengl says the subject is most frequently mentioned, and at its most vivid and crude, in the plays of Plautus (c. 254–184 BC), arguably the most popular playwright of Roman times. Plautus wrote comedies, mostly involving the machinations of clever slaves who did their master's underhanded bidding, got in all kinds of scrapes and out again through canny schemes, and, by the end, all was well. "Crucifixion" was a gruesome taunt between these slaves or the subject of self-deprecating ridicule as they got in and out of crazy trouble.
Here are a few examples:
In Miles Gloriosis the slave Scleredrus is told to guard a door so a beautiful courtesan doesn't sneak out. When she shows up outside, dressed in different clothes, calling herself the courtesan's "twin", another slave taunts Scleredrus by saying, "You'll soon perish outside the gate in that pose, I guess, with your arms outstretched, when you're on the cross!" (356-60)
Scleredrus responds by saying, "Don't threaten me. I know the cross will be my tomb. That's where my ancestors lie, my father, my grandfather, my great-grandfather and my great-great-grandfather!" (372)
In, The Bacchides, the deceitful slave Chrysalus pauses to consider what will happen when his master, whom he has sent on a wild goose chase, returns and discovers his scheme: "I suppose he'll change my name for me, and transform me from Chrysalus ['gold-bearer'] to Crucisalus ['cross-bearer']. (362)
There's the slave in Mostellaria, realizing his demise is imminent, who asks, "Anybody here want to make some easy money? Anybody ready to be crucified in my place today?….I'm offering a talent to anyone prepared to jump on a cross…after that he can come and claim the money, cash on the nail!' (359)
In addition, Plautus' slave characters frequently and vulgarly put-down one another by calling one another "cross-meat" and "cross-bird" or bidding one another to "go be hanged!"
Hengl and others suggest that the lower class members of the audience laughed at all the crucifixion humor because it provided much-needed catharsis from the constant very-real possibility that the cross could be their fate. (It was especially helpful that after all the threats of crucifixion no one in Plautus' plays ever actually ends up "a human sieve.")
The wealthy in the audience laughed because it reminded them of the kind of power they had, especially over those who needed to joke in this most grim and self-deprecating of ways.
I try and imagine what it would have been like as a member of Plautus' audience, hearing the scandalous "c" word publicly mentioned, and boldly for big laughs. I wonder if it's like the experience of hearing African-American comics use the "n" word in their material today. For example, if you want, check out this brief clip from Chris Rock (beware, it is quite blue).
Black and white audience members laugh, arguably, for different reasons. And yet there is a strange but very real bridge that the "n" word as its used here creates: the crowd enthusiastically becomes one heart despite all the terror, injustice, ignorance and pain that have and continue to otherwise keep us angrily apart. Masterfully handled, using comedy to confront the "n" word unearths the problem and heals it at the same time. Joyfully and instantly. At least for this moment. And that's a start....
I like to think that's the kind of power the story of the Jesus' crucifixion had on ancient hearers.
Actually, I'm on the verge of giggling uncontrollably at this thought, because it's so NOT the way God is supposed to work, right??