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Suffering of Christ deepened physician’s faith

Kevin Kelly, Catholic Key Associate Editor:

BUTLER – It is not a book for the squeamish.

But it is a book for those who want to understand fully and exactly, from the perspective of a medical professional, what Jesus Christ gave to humankind through his passion and death.

Dr. Gerard Stanley Sr. was a resident in family practice in the early 1980s when he read Dr. William Edwards’ paper, "On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ," in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The paper moved him both as a physician and as a Catholic – what could possibly lead Jesus to suffer some of the most brutal torture any human being could possibly suffer unless he loved us enough to die horribly for us?

For years, Dr. Stanley, now in practice in Butler where he is a member of St. Patrick Parish, would lecture on the passion and death of Jesus to small groups. Finally, at the urging of friends, he put his years of research and knowledge into a book.

"He Was Crucified," subtitled "Reflections of the Passion of Christ," was published in January by Concordia Publishing House. It is available at the I. Donnelly Co., 6601 Troost in Kansas City; from the publisher at 1-800-325-3040 or online at, or through online retailers such as Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

"I have a PhD in theology," said his pastor, Father John Bolderson who got the first copy off the press in January. "This is as scholarly a presentation on the crucifixion as I have ever read anywhere."

Stanley said it was a book that he had to write.

"How could I not write it," he said. "That became the question."

Far from a gory rehash, Dr. Stanley writes with precision and plain simple language as he breaks the death of Jesus into four phases – the weakening of his body during the agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, the horrendous scourging at the pillar, the carrying of the cross to Golgotha, and finally, his agonizing death on the cross.

"Every time I reflect on Jesus’ passion, I grow in my appreciation for what my Savior endured for me and my sins," Stanley wrote in his introduction. "If you receive insight into Christ’s suffering, then this book has accomplished its purpose.

The book is filled with art from ancient to modern that depicts Jesus’ suffering. It is also filled with Scripture, hymns and reflections from great thinkers ranging from Cyril of Alexandria to Martin Luther that were added by the book’s editor, Dr. Kent J. Burreson who sits on the faculty of Concordia Theological Seminary in St. Louis.

It is a book, Stanley told The Catholic Key, that is not meant to be read and put aside.

"How do you not help spread the word to help shed light on what Jesus went through for us?" he said.

Stanley said even depictions of Jesus nailed to the cross don’t fully reflect the agony he suffered.

"We always give Jesus a nice clean body, but that’s not what happened," he said. "I guess if that helps us relax and gives us a chance to meditate, then it’s a good thing."

But understanding the fullness of Jesus’ suffering is also important, he said.

"It’s hard to imagine how people could be so cruel to another human being," he said. "We wouldn’t allow this to happen to an animal."

Stanley said that Edwards’ original paper was written to debunk a short-lived heresy floating around at the time that Jesus death was faked and that he was resuscitated, not resurrected, a few days later.

But even today, not even with the tools of modern medical technology, could Jesus have survived what he experienced, Stanley said.

Stanley said he paid particular attention to Gethsemane because that is an important, yet overlooked, part of the passion story.

He pointed to the Gospel of Luke, the physician, who described Jesus sweating profusely, his sweat "like great drops of blood."

That is a medical condition called hemohidrosis, a phenomenon so rare that no observer could imagine it, Stanley said.

Stanley said the same profuse sweating under intense agony was recorded in the horrific experiments that Nazis performed on concentration camp prisoners.

"You ask yourself, what could have been so intense that could have caused this?" Stanley said.

"It begs the question: Did Jesus in his final few hours in the garden actually experience what was about to happen?"

Stanley said that in his three hours in the garden, Jesus fully experienced everything that was about to happen to him. He went through every stage of grief – denial and the final temptation of the serpent, bargaining with God the Father to remove the burden from him, then finally, with the assistance of an angel sent to strengthen him, acceptance.

But by that time, after three hours, the profuse sweating of blood had taken its toll on Jesus’ body, leaving him profoundly weakened, Stanley said.

"He surrendered himself with complete understanding of what was going to happen," he said.

Following his arrest, Jesus was beaten, tortured and shuttled back and forth between the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, and Jewish authorities who could not, by Roman law, execute Jesus themselves.

Pilate actually wanted Jesus alive, Stanley noted.

"Jesus was a disruptive force to the Jewish hierarchy, and anything that was disruptive to the Jewish hierarch was welcomed by Pilate," he said.

But the Jewish leaders who wanted Jesus dead prevailed by telling Pilate that Jesus claimed to be the "King of the Jews."

"That’s what got him," Stanley said. "Jesus’ claim that he was a ‘god’ would not have been offensive to Pilate. But Pilate didn’t want the word getting back to Rome that he had spared a threat to Rome."

Pilate ordered Jesus scourged and crucified.

The scourging alone was fatal, especially to a man in Jesus’ weakened condition from Gethsemane, Stanley said.

"That was the routine procedure. The condemned were to be scourged before being put on the cross, but they were to die on the cross," he said.

Roman scourging caused more than pain, he said. Attached to the whips they used were barbs that ripped off flesh, muscle and even bone. Using the Shroud of Turin as evidence of what a victim of scourging endured, Stanley said that Jesus endured well over 100 strokes.

"His flesh and muscle was literally ripped off," Stanley said. "His back, neck, arms, buttocks, anywhere a whip would have hit, was ripped open. Think of the hatred the Romans must have had: ‘Here is your king. We will beat him.’ They beat him so severely that he died rapidly on the cross."

But not that rapidly. After crowning him with thorns and opening gashes on his head, the Romans nailed him to the cross with a precision they learned over decades of crucifying their enemies.

They were very careful to place the nails in the wrists and ankles that would hold up the weight of a man, yet not rupture vital blood vessels and cause quick death.

The crucifixion was all about pain, Stanley said.

"Now think back to the Garden of Gethsemane," he said. "Is that enough to ask your Father to take it away?"

Bleeding and in anguish from the brutal scourging, the crown of thorns digging dozens of new wounds into his head, Jesus heaved and gasped for every breath he took, his open wounds scraping the rough cross for three solid hours.

His internal organs began to fail, Stanley said. His lungs could not exchange oxygen, and carbon dioxide began to build up. His kidneys began to quit. His heart was ready to burst. Any one of a number of causes, including loss of blood and body fluid, was enough to kill.

When the Roman centurion delivered the "death thrust" into Jesus side, puncturing his heart, it wasn’t to kill him, but to make certain he was dead, Stanley said.

Stanley admitted that as a physician, Jesus’ death was horrifying. But the story does not end there. In his final chapter, Stanley reflects on the triumph over death of the resurrection.

It is that miracle of the promise of eternal life that Stanley has also witnessed in his patients as they are facing death.

"Part of our job as physicians when we can’t change the outcome is to make patients as comfortable as possible as they die," he said.

"They go through it all. First you ask your saints and God the Father for help, then you see that Jesus went through the same thing," Stanley said.

"Knowing Jesus went through this and more, there is a comfort there," he said. "They can then die with a peacefulness that you can see. It is just remarkable."

Stanley will give a presentation on the suffering of Jesus following the 10 a.m. Mass Feb. 22 at St. Patrick Parish, 400 W. Nursery St., Butler, where he will also sign his book.

The following Sunday at 6 p.m. the parish will host a screening of Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ."

The Catholic Key: Online Edition Newspaper of the Diocese of Kansas City – St.Joseph

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