The Arma Christi
A centuries old devotion practiced throughout the middle ages and beyond was the meditation on the Arma Christi, or the weapons of Christ—things associated with the Passion and Death of the Lord. The reason the instruments of Jesus’ suffering and death came to be known as his arms is because when they were used against him, they exhausted their powers of evil on him, only to be subverted by his willingness to accept them and to turn them into his own triumphs of patience, self-sacrifice, and love. Having disarmed evil, they became Christ’s own weapons of victory.
These various symbols of the Passion proliferated in medieval art, architecture, and devotional materials. There was never a codified list of the objects, but several of them were fairly ubiquitous among the different groupings:
The rooster – As Jesus foretold, on the night of his betrayal, after St. Peter denied him three times, “immediately the cock crew” (Jn 18:27). As a symbol of betrayal even from those closest to him, it became his victory in not abandoning those that would abandon him.
The money – Jesus’ life was sold by Judas for thirty silver coins (Matt 26:15). Being dehumanized by a person or system and becoming monetized as an object in a financial transaction did not prevent Jesus from overcoming this wicked commodification by conquering it with a new economy of grace.
The striking hand – The beginning of the abuse of the Passion was among the chief priests and elders, as they condemned him with false witnesses as a heretic, and struck him with their hands while saying, “Prophesy unto us, thou Christ, Who is he that smote thee?” (Matt 26:67-68). Yet Christ, knowing not only who struck him, but knowing them from the foundation of the world, failed not to love them.
The post and flagellum – “Then Pilate therefore took Jesus, and scourged him” (Jn 19:1). The Roman punishment of scourging involved tying a victim to a post, stripping them, and severely flogging them with a flagellum, or multi-stranded whip with cruel pieces of lead or rock tied in them. It was considered so brutal and humiliating that Roman citizens were exempt from it, reserved only for those considered lowest in the empire. The pain of this experience means there is no bodily pain in human experience that Jesus isn’t able to identify with, and in his rescue of our condition, “by his stripes we are healed” (Isa 53:5).
The crown of thorns – At humanity’s expulsion from Paradise, the ground was cursed because of Adam and yielded up thorns (Gen 3:17). Jesus bore that curse about his head for our sakes, wearing it in pain and in mockery from the very humans lacking the grace to bear that curse themselves (Mk 15:17).
The Cross – The cross itself became the preeminent sign of Jesus’ subversive victory amidst apparent defeat. The torturous Roman execution device, combining pain and shame, became for the whole world the Tree of Life, and the Fruit which hung from it—the Body and Blood of Jesus—the food of immortality. Jesus carried the cross to where it would be planted: the place of the skull (Jn 19:17).
The skull – The new Tree of Life was planted on top of the skull (Mt 27:33). Depictions of a skull under the Cross are figurative of Adam’s skull, representing all human death. But Christ, as the New Adam, liberates the old Adam and all of humanity from the futility of that old death by defeating death from within and draining the venom from its fangs.
The sign – Pilate mockingly put a sign above the Cross reading “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” (Jn 19:19), in three different languages so everyone could read it. The Latin version, “Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum,” is often shortened to “INRI” in depictions. Jesus, the true King not only of Judah, not even only of Israel, but of every nation, every people, and of the entire creation of men and angels, endured the mockery and redeemed this special suffering it causes in every man, woman, and child who experiences it.
The robe and dice – To add to his shame, the Roman soldiers stripped Jesus naked in front of all the bystanders and, further insulting him, gambled among themselves to see who got to take his seamless tunic (Jn 19:23-24). It was his seamless, whole, and unified body, soul, spirit, and divinity that was of true value, though, and which alone was able to empty shame of its power.
The hammer and nails – Jesus was nailed to the wood of the cross like an object hung on a tree. Brutal hammer blows striking cruel nails impaled his sacred body on that conspicuous gibbet as a show of force and intimidation to any who would threaten the might of Rome. The hammer of empire’s strength and the nails of empire’s industry were proved impotent against the life-creating Savior, who in his Resurrection wore the nail marks as a glowing badge (Jn 20:27).
The sponge – Jesus, in taking on our human condition in the midst of all its trials, experienced thirst. That thirst was most intense on the Cross. Even his thirst was mocked when he was given a sponge soaked in vinegar (Jn 19:28-30). Knowing the bitter disappointment of having unfulfilled thirsts, longings, and desires, and having drunk to the dregs the sour, unlooked for cup which was set before him (Mt 26:42), Jesus redeems our disappointments by transforming our losses into unimagined blessings.
The spear – The final indignity that Jesus’ humanity suffered was the piercing of his dead body with a spear, striking his heart and producing a flow of blood and water (Jn 19:33-37). Not only were the life and teachings of Jesus inconvenient to the rulers of Judea and the Romans, but so too was the timing of his death. To hasten and confirm his death, the side of his sacred body was violently rent open, abasing it instead of honoring it. So even to all those whose bodies in death have lacked the decent treatment of proper preparation and burial, Jesus redeems, and takes their indignities into his own holy side.
All the weapons that evil and death could throw at Jesus have been won by him and turned against those very powers. In identifying with all of humanity, including human death (even the death of the cross), Jesus accomplished for the first time in the history of the world a perfect human life, lived in perfect unity and harmony with the Father’s will. It is accomplished (Jn 19:30), and the instruments of his suffering have become his weapons of victory.
– Article by Stephen Brannen