“When they came to the place called The Skull, there they crucified Him and the criminals, one on the right and the other on the left.”–Luke 23:33
This is a photo of an icon on the wall of my house. Christ is seen at the moment of His death on the cross. His mother is foremost on your left; foremost on your right, you see John, the only one of the 12 who had the courage to be there with the women. Behind him is the centurion who saw Christ die and understood who He is. But what is going on at the bottom? Some Orthodox crosses will actually include a skull and crossbones at the bottom. I have known of some who, in ignorance, have taken this as a sign of something sinister in the Orthodox Church, but this has to do with “the place of the skull.”
In my last post, I talked about atonement and contrasted the ways in which Eastern and Western Christians view it. The Eastern Orthodox Church very much sees the incarnation as the central thing–the human and divine quite literally became “at one” in the person of Christ. Union with Christ heals us. In the West, so far as atonement goes, there is a much more concentrated focus on the crucifixion because atonement is viewed in juridical terms. In Orthodoxy, the cross is not less important; it is the climax of His union with our fallen nature in which He fully enters death and destroys it from within. What happens in the above icon and in the days following is the ultimate victory in which we see Christ, the conqueror, healing human nature and reversing the fall of man.
In the scripture quoted above, we are told the place where He was crucified was called “the skull.” Many people are only aware of the modern, rather obvious theories about why the people of that time referred to it in that way. Specifically, some have noticed some indentations in the rock on one side which could remind one of a human skull, if one looks at it the right way in the right place.
Well, if you are looking for a reason and know of no other, that is a reasonable speculation.
Another natural guess is simply that the Romans were executing people there and, perhaps, there were some skulls lying about. There may be reasons to doubt that but, again, without other ideas, it is reasonable.
However, there was a widespread belief among the earliest Christians corresponding to a Jewish legend predating the time of Christ which was neither of these theories. The legend is that Adam’s skull was buried on that hill in Jerusalem. “The place of the skull” was the place of Adam’s skull. To me, this theory seems the most reasonable; if we want to know what they meant at the time by calling it “The Skull,” let’s find out if people who lived around that time said anything about it. Well, this is what they said about it.
By way of discussing the atonement in my last post, Christ was referred to as “the second Adam,” which is a designation coming from the New Testament writings (see 1 Cor. 15). Paul says, “as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive.” The sad irony is that so many of us Christians seem to understand the first part of that more than the second part. We are abundantly aware of the powerful effect which Adam had upon all of us. He sinned, became mortal, and our connection with him made all of us mortals, prone to sin. So the connection of humanity with Adam is seen and palpably felt, while a similar connection with Christ, which brings human nature upward rather than downward, is so easily forgotten, especially when atonement is viewed juridically. However, it is clear from the scripture that the human connection with Christ is quite the same kind of thing as the human connection with Adam and also that while Adam caused human nature to fall into death, Christ causes human nature to live with the very life of God, having the very life of God in Himself.
Now, let’s look again at the icon. Why is that skull beneath the cross and why is the blood of Christ flowing down upon it? Whose skull is it? I’m sure you can guess the answer to that question. The Jewish legend, predating Christ, was simply that the skull of Adam was located in this hill. The early Christian legend added a bit more to the story. As Christ bled on the Cross, His blood flowed down through some cracks in the ground and reached Adam’s skull, reversing the fall at it’s source.
The Exapostilarion of Pascha:
“In the flesh, you fell asleep as a mortal man, O King and Lord. You arose on the third day, raising Adam from corruption, and destroying death: O Pascha of incorruption, the Salvation of the world!”
Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.