CAUSES OF THE CROWN OF THORNS
“Transgressors shall all of them be plucked up as thorns, and they shall be set on fire.” [2 Kings 23: 5]
1. These are words of inspiration, and refer to the thorny crown of our blessed Lord. They were uttered by holy David in his old age, and are a portion of the last words which this holy king, and prophet pronounced under a special inspiration of the Holy Ghost. David the son of Isai said: “The man to whom it was appointed concerning the Christ of the God of Jacob … The spirit of the Lord hath spoken by me and His words by my tongue. The God of Israel said to me … Trangressors shall all of them be plucked up as thorns.” These words of inspiration evidently refer to the Crown of Thorns of our Divine Savior and indicate the causes, which induced Him to wear upon His adorable Head, this terrible crown of pain and ignominy. This will form the subject matter of this present chapter.
2. Thorns seem to be the natural fuel for fire. Hence the Royal Prophet in this place says: Transgressors shall all of them be plucked up as thorns, which are not taken away with hands … but they shall be set on fire. As we have already observed, thorns are the effect of sin, and the most striking figure of sinners. Hence, St. Augustine says: “What do thorns signify but the condition of sinners who, like hedgehogs, are all over bristling with the thorns of sin,” spinae quid significant, nisi peccatores, qui quasi ericiis spinae peccatorum cooperti sunt. [In Ps. 10] St. Basil says, that whenever he beheld a beautiful and sweet smelling rose, his heart was more deeply pained than his senses were gratified. He reflected that the rose, queen of flowers, is surrounded with sharp and crooked thorns, that bitterly reproached him for his sins, on account of which this earth has been condemned by the irritated justice of God to produce thorns and thistles. [St. Basil in Exame.] Hence, according to the opinion of this holy Doctor of the Church, the rose would have been free from thorns, if sin had never been committed by men. St. John Chrysostom affirms, that God did not originally create thorns upon earth, but, that He only permitted their growth in consequence of sin and as a punishment to sinners. No wonder, then, that sinners, like prickly thorns and thistles, are doomed to be burned up with fire, as holy David says: “All transgressors shall be plucked up as thorns … and shall be set on fire.” To fire then we wretched sinners are condemned.
3. But happily for us, there are two very different kinds of fire. The first is the uncreated fire of God’s eternal love. The second is the created fire of His irritated justice, prepared, and intended for the punishment of the rebellious Angels, and of all unhappy sinners. To deliver us from the fire of Hell, our merciful Savior brought with Him from Heaven the fire of His Divine love. It was in fact of this love, He spoke, when He said: I am come to send fire on the earth, and what will I, but that it be kindled? [Lk. 12: 49] Sinners, He says to us, sinners, like thorns and thistles, you are doomed to be burned with fire. In punishment of your transgressions, you should have to burn in Hell, during a miserable eternity in company with the devil, and all his wicked companions. It is however, in My power to offer to you, the blessed fire of My Divine love, which burns in the bosom of God from all eternity, in exchange for the terrible fire of Hell due to your crimes. Accept My love and I undertake to atone for all your sins. “I am come to send fire on the earth, and what will I, but, that it be kindled?”
Behold here the first formal cause of the Crown of Thorns. It is the goodness of God: It is the love and mercy of His Incarnate Son, Who with the Crown of Thorns assumed upon His Head, the responsibility of atoning for all the sins of mankind. The great St. Leo, the Pope says: Causa reparation is nostrae non est nisi misericordia Dei.” [Serm. de jejun. 10. mens.] Origen says, our Lord Jesus Christ assumed the thorns of our sins, infixed upon His Head. These are His genuine words: “In spina illa corona suscepit [Jesus] spinas peccatorum nostrorum intexta in capite suo.” [Tract. 35 in Mt. 27: 29] The Angelic doctor St. Thomas says: “These bloody thorns of our Savior’s crown are intended to signify the stings of sin, with which our conscience is wounded. Our merciful Lord accepted these thorns as our substitute, because He undertook to suffer and die for our sins. [St. Thom. in Chap. 27 Matt.] He is truly the Good Shepherd Who thrusts His Head and Body within a thorny bush in order to disentangle the suffering sheep from its prickly branches by which she is surrounded, and held captive, in pain and hunger. Prompted by His love, He endures the pricks of the thorns in His effort to free His beloved sheep from suffering and death. His love and mercy was then the moving cause that induced our blessed Savior to endure the painful and ignominious Crown of Thorns. “In His love and in His mercy the prophet says: He redeemed them, and He carried them and lifted them up.”
4. The second cause was the source of sin. Three conditions are essential to sin. Sufficient matter, full knowledge, and deliberate consent. Whatever may be the matter of sin, no sin can be committed without the necessary knowledge of its malice, and the free deliberate consent of our will. Now knowledge is a prerogative of our mind, as consent is the free act of our will. Sin therefore is committed first in our mind, when, with full knowledge and deliberate consent we form in our head the resolution of doing anything morally wrong. Hence, St. Augustine says “that it is with the will that we do wrong, as it is with the will that we do good.” “Voluntate peccatur, et bene agitur.” All sins originate their malice in our mind. Sin is first conceived in the head, and consented to in the soul. “Every man is tempted, being drawn away and allured by his own concupiscence. Then, when concupiscence hath conceived it bringeth forth sin.” [James 1: 14] Our Divine Master expressly teaches: “that it is out of the heart of man that originate, and proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false testimonies, blasphemies, which defile with sin the soul of man.” [Mt. 15: 19] The organs, senses and members of the body are only the instruments used by the soul in her operations and external deeds.
Hence, the external action, as theft, murder, adultery, blasphemy is not the cause, but it is the consequence and the effect of the internal sin of the heart. In short, sin is committed with the mind, and with the will. Every sin is an internal rebellion of the soul against God’s eternal law. Now the brain is the organ of human intelligence and will. The head is the workshop of the mind. The brain is the laboratory of the soul. This head, this human brain deserved therefore a special punishment. Behold here the other cause of our Savior’s Crown of Thorns. Like a wise and skillful physician, He applied the remedy to the seat of the complaint, to the very root of the evil. Having become our Redeemer, He applied to His innocent, most holy and adorable Head, the painful Crown of Thorns as a full atonement, and most effective cure for our sins. Moreover, man fell off from God, through pride. “The beginning of the pride of man is to fall off from God … For pride is the beginning of all sins.” [Eccli. 10: 14]
Pride being the origin of every sin, it was necessary that humility should become the general remedy of all evil. Now, we have seen in the previous chapter, what profound humility our Divine Lord practiced at His crowning of thorns. Thus the Crown of Thorns on the Head of our Lord, becomes the general remedy of sin. May the contemplation of this crown enlighten the mind of men, to understand the malice of sin and especially the internal sins of thought and affection.
5. Many persons make little account of internal sins. But besides the fact, that all sins are essentially committed by the mind, and will of men, we should, moreover, observe that the greater number of our sins are by their nature accomplished in the soul. All bad thoughts, and sinful affections belong to this category. The Holy Ghost says: “Perverse thoughts separate from God.” [Wis. 1: 3] In fact evil thoughts and sinful affections by their nature, corrupt more immediately the heart, and defile the soul more directly than bad external actions. For, as we have observed, the malice of sin is derived from the knowledge that the mind has of the evil, and from the consenting of the will to it. All this mischief is perpetrated in the sacred cabinet of the soul.
We should, moreover, observe, that for the accomplishment of exterior actions many external circumstances of time, place, persons, and means are required, which are not necessary for the commission of internal sins. Again sinful external acts naturally, and often bring upon the sinner temporal losses, disgrace, infamy and many other human and physical punishment, to which internal sins cannot be subject. Hence both reason and experience force us to conclude that internal sins are without comparison more frequently committed, than exterior evil actions. We cannot venture to form any calculation, but the knowledge of human nature induces us to fear that thousands of internal sins are committed before one external crime is perpetrated. But what idea shall we be able to form of the awful amount of interior sins committed, when so many exterior sinful actions are witnessed in human society?
Reflect, now, that all these sins were fully known to our Divine Savior. He knew all past, present and future sins of mankind. He saw them all committed in the soul, through the understanding and will. He observed the vast majority of sins accomplished in the mind. To offer to His Eternal Father an adequate satisfaction for them our merciful Savior consented to bear the painful and ignominious Crown of Thorns. “The Crown of Thorns, Theophilatus says, is the figure of our sins which Jesus Christ abolished by His Divinity, represented by His Head.” [Com. in St. Matt. 27: 29]
6. Reflect then, Christian reader, that our Divine Savior is crowned with sharp thorns, to punish on His own Head all your sinful deeds, but more especially the wicked thoughts, by which you have offended God, and have defiled His Divine image impressed upon your soul. Numerous thorns pierce, and torture His Divine Head, because we have harbored in our mind many bad thoughts of different kinds. Our thoughts against faith and against hope, our thoughts of presumption, or despair, impious and blasphemous thoughts against God, have produced the longest and sharpest thorns that torment the most holy Head of our Divine Savior. Our habitual dissipation of mind, our forgetfulness of God’s holy presence, our voluntary distractions in prayer, are the reeds with which, like His cruel executioners, we strike and more deeply press His thorny crown. Uncharitable thoughts against our neighbors, rash judgment, envy and jealousy against our fellow Christians, are the cruel thorns that torture our Savior’s Head. Those frequent thoughts of pride, ambition, vain-glory; that hypocrisy, that habitual disposition to over reach, and deceive our fellow men, so common in human society at the present time, those desires of revenge, sensuality and lust, have produced that terrible thorny bush from which the Crown of Thorns has been formed, that pricks and torment the Head of the incarnate Son of God.
Whilst, Christian reader, you are considering the sufferings of your Savior crowned with thorns, enter into your heart and examine therein what are the evil thoughts that more frequently occupy your mind. Conceive a sincere sorrow for them. Ask with profound humility your Savior’s pardon; and firmly resolve for the future to watch over your heart, and promptly to banish from your mind every imagination or thought that may be displeasing to God, and calculated to increase the sufferings of our loving Redeemer, crowned with thorns as the King of Sorrows. It is only in this practical way that we can render our spiritual reading, or our meditation on the Passion of our dear Lord, pleasing to His Sacred Heart, and profitable to our souls.
“We see Jesus … For the suffering of death, crowned with glory and honor.” [Heb. 2: 19]
1. A crown is an object of human ambition.
The reason may be because a crown, by its very nature and form represents the idea of perfection and of endless duration, having neither beginning nor end. Moreover a crown is always associated with the idea of honor, dignity, power and glory. Several crowns have been invented in different nations for the encouragement and reward for brave deeds and glorious achievements. The Pagan Romans, however, surpassed every other nation in inventing, and, in awarding these honorable distinctions. Different writers mention seven as the principal crowns bestowed upon deserving persons as a reward for their meritorious deeds.
The first and most illustrious was the Triumphal Crown. This was a golden crown placed on the head of the Emperor, or of some very distinguished general of the army, when he was received in triumph in the city of Rome, after having obtained some great victory over the enemies of the country.
The second was the Crown of Deliverance awarded to a general, or officer who delivered a city, or fortress from a siege by forcing the enemy to withdraw from it. This was a golden crown with a besieged city engraved on its front.
The third was the Mural Crown which was given by the emperor to any officer, or soldier, who was the first to scale the wall of a city or fortress of an enemy during an assault made upon it. This was another golden crown with a walled city or fortress being assaulted and scaled, engraven on it.
The fourth was the Camp Crown awarded to the soldier who was first to enter the enemy’s entrenched camp during: a battle. This crown was also made of gold and had a military encampment engraven on it.
The fifth was the Naval Crown made of gold having a ship engraven upon it. This crown was given to the sailor who during a naval engagement was the first to board an enemy’s ship.
The sixth was the Civic Crown. It was formed of small boughs of holm and oak trees, carefully entwined in a garland, with which was publicly crowned any person who had saved the life of a citizen.
The seventh was the Poetic Crown formed of laurel leaves, and awarded to poetic genius.
2. These crowns were highly esteemed by the ancient Romans. No man upon earth deserved all these crowns more than our Divine Savior.
But as He came to redeem man from the curse of sin, and thorns being the most expressive figure thereof, so He selected for Himself a Crown of Thorns. By this choice, our Lord wished to announce to us, that He came to remove from earth the malediction pronounced against it by God on account of the prevarication of our first parents, Adam and Eve. These are the sentiments of the great and glorious Martyr, St. Cyprian, the eloquent Bishop of Carthage in northern Africa. In his sermon on the Passion and Cross of our Lord, St. Cyprian says: “In order that you may understand the deep mystery of the Crown of Thorns, you should know that our Savior not only came to take away sin from the world, but also to remove the curse from the earth which God pronounced against it in punishment of the sin of our first parents when He said: “Cursed is the earth in thy work … Thorns and thistles shall it bring forth to thee. Hence, Jesus our Lord, is crowned with thorns to the end that this first sentence of condemnation may be removed … Propterea ergo spinis coronatur Jesus, ut prima ilia condemnationis sententia solvetur.” [St. Cypr. Serm. de Pass and Cruce Domini] As this first sentence of condemnation was pronounced by God against the first man, who was the head and representative of mankind; so our Divine Redeemer as the Head of the Church, and the first of the elect wished to have His adorable Head crowned with thorns, to teach us that by so doing He, as God, removed the curse which had been pronounced against us. For the Head of Jesus represents His Divinity. “Corona ex spinis peccata sunt; quae Christus sua neitate consumit. Per caput enim Deitas praesignatur.” [Theophil. in Matt. 27: 29]
3. Jesus is crowned as a victim.
It was a general custom among Jews and Gentiles to crown the victims intended for sacrifice. This crown laid on the head of the victim was a public profession of profound respect for him to whom the sacrifice was offered. Sacrifice strictly speaking being, by its very nature offered to God alone, hence, to Him should always be offered the most perfect, the most worthy and select victims. Now a crown was placed on the head of the animal to declare it to be the best victim found for the occasion.
We have a remarkable illustration of this in the Acts of the Apostles. St. Paul and St. Barnabas being in the city of Lystria in Lycaonia, miraculously cured in an instant a poor man who had been born lame, and never could walk. When the multitude had seen this prodigy they all lifted up their voice saying: “The gods in the likeness of men are come down to us …” Then the priest of Jupiter, bringing oxen and garlands would have offered sacrifice in honor of the two Apostles, had he not been strongly rebuked for it by St. Paul. [Acts. 14: 12] Now Jesus our Lord was truly the most worthy, indeed He was the only worthy victim fit to be offered to the supreme majesty of God. He was to be offered to God for the four principal objects for which victims are immolated, namely in recognition of the supreme dominion of God over all creatures; as the most perfect act of adoration of His Divine majesty; as the most complete act of atonement for sin; and lastly, as the most powerful and effective prayer to obtain every grace and blessing from Almighty God for time and eternity.
Moreover, in the person of our Savior sacrificed on the Altar of the Cross on Mount Calvary, all the victims and sacrifices of the old Testament were contained in a most eminent degree of perfection. “For if the blood of goats and of oxen, and the ashes of a heifer, being sprinkled, sanctify such as are defiled, to the cleansing of the flesh; how much more shall the Blood of Christ, Who, through the Holy Ghost, offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse our conscience from dead works, to serve the living God? And therefore He is the mediator of the New Testament; that by means of His Death for the redemption of those transgressions, which were under the former Testament, they who are called may receive the promise of eternal inheritance.” [Heb 9: 13] Surely this great, this glorious, this Divine Victim of the Cross deserved to be crowned before sacrifice. Behold here another cause of the Crown of Thorns.
5. Jesus is crowned as our model.
We have seen above that our Divine Lord has been crowned with thorns in order to atone for our sins, and thus satisfy Divine justice. The holy and learned Pope, Innocent III, concludes from this fact our individual duty of doing penance. The Crown of Thorns is intended, he says, to teach us that we should surround our head, or rather our mind with deep sentiments of sorrow and penance for our sins according to the words of the Royal Psalmist who says: “I am turned in my anguish whilst the thorn is fastened. I have acknowledged my sins to thee.” [Ps. 31: 4] By these words: “I am turned in my anguish whilst the thorn is fastened,” may be expressed the intensity of the Royal Prophet’s sufferings, who could not enjoy any rest; but they may also signify the salutary effect produced in his soul by these intense pains which become the happy cause of his perfect conversion and turning to God. Let us imitate his good example.
Sin being committed by the understanding and will, our conversion should begin from a full understanding of the malice of sin, passing then to sorrow of heart, and to the detestation of sin by the will. All this we shall learn and accomplish, if we meditate deeply on the mystery of the Crown of Thorns.
Moreover, from our thorn-crowned Savior, we should learn the duty of penance, because, as St. Bernard says, we should be ashamed to be delicate members of Jesus Christ crowned with thorns. Thorns and thistles represent the sorrows, trials and sufferings of this life. Let us learn from our Divine model to bear them with perfect patience and full resignation to the will of God. “Not my will, but thine be done.” The holy Martyr St. Agapitus having red hot coals put upon his bare head exclaimed with joy: “I can cheerfully bear to have my head burned with fire, which will be crowned in Heaven with glory. These burning coals will be changed into precious stones to adorn and enrich my crown. Oh! how glorious that crown will be for my head tormented for love of Christ.” An habitual dislike for suffering, and a constant yearning for the amusements and pleasures of this world, are essentially opposed to the spirit of Jesus Christ, the King of Sorrows. How can loving and faithful subjects crown themselves with flowers, when they behold their King crowned with thorns on account of their sins? Saint Clement of Alexandria says: “It is contrary to reason and to common sense for a Christian who has heard the history of the Crown of Thorns of our Lord, to wish himself crowned with flowers. This is a mockery and an insult to our thorn-crowned King.” [Lib. 2 Poer,. Chap. 8]
The famous ecclesiastical historian, Baronius relates that about the year 167, the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, on a certain occasion of general rejoicing, commanded all his soldiers to wear a crown of laurel leaves in sign of joy. Observing however that one of them had no crown, he asked the cause of it. The brave soldier calmly and respectfully answered: “Sire, it is not proper for a Christian to wear during this present life a crown of pleasure.” Worldlings may wish to be crowned with roses, but they renounce thereby the crown of eternal glory. Those who wish to be crowned with Jesus in Heaven, must be willing to share His Crown of Thorns upon earth. The pious king of Jerusalem, Godfred de Bouillon, constantly refused to wear a crown of gold in that city wherein our Lord, the King of Kings, was crowned with thorns.
6. Jesus is crowned as our King.
Jesus Christ, being the incarnate Son of God is consequently by creation, preservation, and redemption, the Lord, Master and King of the Universe. But, here, we wish here to consider Him as our King in relation only to His Crown of Thorns. Through His Passion and Death our Savior has conquered sin, death and Hell.
First. He wished to be crowned with thorns and thistles, both being the emblem and the punishment of sin. Our Lord, through His thorny crown, shows to all the world that He has removed sin from mankind, and the curse of God from the Earth. Through the punctures of the Crown of Thorns, our crucified Lord has removed from the penitent sinner the sting of conscience, and the pang and danger of despair. Moreover as the Crown of Thorns caused copious streams of Blood to flow from our Savior’s Head down on the inferior members of His suffering body, so, through this sacred crown He obtained for all His elect, who are the mystical members of His Body the Church, all the graces, blessings, and gifts of God. As sinners we were thorny, noxious and barren trees destined to be cut down to the ground, and doomed to eternal fire. But since our Lord has been crowned with the thorns of our sins, He has removed the thorny branches, and by engrafting His prolific holiness upon us through His Sacraments, has enabled us to bear abundant fruits of virtuous actions.
Second. Through His Crown of Thorns our Heavenly King has conquered death. By removing sin our Savior has taken away its terrible sting from death. “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death where is thy; victory? O death where is thy sting? Now the sting of death is sin. But thanks be to God Who hath given the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” [1 Cor. 15: 55] Our Lord, then having obtained the victory over sin and death, deserved to receive a crown. The crown which He was pleased to choose was that of thorns.
Reflecting on this glorious victory the servants of God rejoiced at the hour of death. Gerard, the pious brother of St. Bernard, feeling that he was dying, intoned aloud with a cheerful voice the Psalm, Laudate Dominun. “Praise ye the Lord from the Heavens; praise Him in the high places, Praise ye Him all His Angels.” [Ps. 148: 1] St. Bernard says: “I was called to witness this prodigy. I saw this man exulting in death, and defying its terrors.’
In his last agony the seraphic Patriarch, St. Francis, was singing sacred hymns and psalms, together with His religious. Being somewhat chided for this by Brother Elias, the dying Saint mildly answered: “Dear brother, I cannot help doing this, knowing that I shall soon be with God.”
Blessed Reginald, a Dominican friar, being near death, was exhorted by his religious brethren to prepare himself for his last combat by receiving the Sacrament of Extreme Unction. “I desire, my dear fathers,” he said, “to receive all the Sacraments of the Church, because through them all the merits of our Savior’s Passion are applied to our soul, and because the grace that we have received through them is by them increased. However, I have not the least fear of death; on the contrary, I am expecting it with great joy. Christ our Lord has overcome death and has taken away from it its sting. Through the Crown of Thorns He has blunted the sting of death. Death, my dearest brothers, is life for those for whom the passage to Heaven is opened through the sacred side of our crucified Savior. Do then, very dear fathers, in your charity, administer to me the Sacrament of Extreme Unction.” This dying servant of God having received this last Sacrament with the most lively faith and devotion, sweetly slept in the Lord.
Third. Through the Crown of Thorns Hell has been conquered. Sin and death being overcome, the devil can no longer have any power over our soul. The infernal serpent is defeated by those very thorns which he sowed upon earth, through the sins of our first parents, and the malediction that on his account God pronounced against this earth, rebounds with terrible effect upon his proud and malignant head. The Crown of Thorns, on our Savior’s Head is the impenetrable hedge with which He surrounds and protects the vineyard of His Church, and every one of His elect. Through this hedge the friends of Christ are defended, and the infernal enemy of their soul is excluded.
Fourth. Lastly the Crown of our Savior is the infallible pledge of our diadem of everlasting glory. Sin, death, Hell being overcome, Heaven is secured to us. It was in a special manner through His Crown of Thorns, that our Savior has merited, for His faithful servants the crown of immortal glory, “Be thou faithful unto death and I will give thee the Crown of Life.” [Apoc. 2: 10]
Dionysius the Carthusian says: Jesus has been crowned with thorns, that we may be crowned in Heaven with a crown of precious stones. “Therefore they shall receive a kingdom of glory and a crown of beauty at the hand of the Lord.” [Wis. 5: 17]