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Stories of the Cross and Empty Tomb (Part 2)



Centurion's Story


“Surely, this man was the Son of God.”


I have seen it all. I’ve heard it all. Often have I spent long, dreary hours at the foot of a cross. Pitiable, vile wretches, suffering a gruesome execution, not undeserved. Their death is long and lingering. All strength and life ebbs away, ounce by ounce. By the end, they simply fade into death, all power gone. The public spectacle is a fitting reminder of who is really in control. It instills respect in the masses for the unquestioned authority of Caesar. Yes, the cross is cruel – but it needs to be. In its unforgiving strength it enforces Caesar’s supremacy on any who would dare question it. There is no one who can triumph over the cross.


Or so I always thought. But this cross left me unsettled, riveted, reeling.


I am a career soldier, rank of centurion – officer over a hundred men. Ten of us to a cohort. Sixty of us to a Legion. Not a high rank – one of the subordinate officers – but essential – we’re the backbone of the army. We may be ridiculed for our lack of class, our hob-nailed shoes, our thick calves, but the army would not survive without our level-headed strength ... and our absolute loyalty.


My allegiance is to Caesar. Look at any tribute coin currently in use throughout the realm, and right here in Judea, and you will see his name – Caesar, “Son of God”. Zeus, king of heaven, is manifest in him, as is Helios, god of the sun – rightly is Caesar known as “Lord our God,” “Bringer of Salvation”. In him, too, live again the supermen of past days, Hercules and others. Such is the rank and position of Caesar. Unquestioned. Well have I sworn my allegiance to him.


My rank requires me to be a man of decisive action. That’s me – simple, straightforward, take charge, get the job done. I’m not impulsive ... not a hot-head. There’s enough of those already among the rank of soldier. The army needs the cool wits, the decisive action of its centurions.


That’s what initially unsettled me about that centre cross. I was incensed by Pilate’s weak waffling. The trial of this preacher from Galilee was anything but decisive. Leave it to Pilate. The religious leaders of Jerusalem had him backed against the wall – they were the ones controlling the day. Crucifixion was necessary – there was a mob brewing – control needed to be exerted. But it should have been done quickly, decisively. All of Pilate’s back and forth of indecision simply made the final execution order look weak, unjust, arbitrary, flowing from the crowd’s demands rather than his own authority.


But in the process the issues did become clear. Before ever finalizing the order, Pilate had sent this prisoner, Jesus, back to the barracks for a flogging. My men were merciless. Stripping him down, they scourged him, stroke after stroke of the leather thongs, ripping across his back, tearing into flesh and muscle, laying bare a bloody wound. Soldiering has it crisis moments when focused discipline must be maintained. But as commanding officer it is crucial to give your men some leeway in the down times. This was one of those times. Having finished the flogging, they scornfully outfitted him in one of the short woolen cloaks of purple, standard issue in the Imperial army. They pressed it onto his bleeding back, clasping it at the shoulder. Someone got a branch of thorns, twisting it into a rough crown – the soldiers pressed it down on his head and mocked him: “Hail, King of the Jews!”


“King of the Jews” – my men had fingered the most damning charge in the whole case. Somehow this country preacher had come to be known as King. How could there be any king but Caesar?


Which is exactly what the crowds cried out when Pilate paraded him in front of them one last time. “What do you want me to do with your King?” he asked – what a fool! “Crucify him!”, they shouted. “We have no king but Caesar!” That put an end to Pilate’s waffling – the issue, long clear, finally dawned on him – all would-be rivals to Caesar must be eliminated. He ordered Jesus executed.


The journey from the Governor’s Palace to the place of execution, Golgotha, just outside the city, must have seemed endless to that convicted preacher. He was loaded down with the crossbeam of his own execution. But the scourging had almost killed him – it was clear that unless we wanted him to expire right on the spot he would have to be relieved of this extra weight. I ordered a black North African man, standing along the roadside, to be pressed into service, carrying Jesus’ burden.


At Golgotha, the instrument of execution was prepared. My men offered the preacher drugged wine, some small concession to decency, in hopes of muting the outer edges of his approaching pain. Jesus tasted it and then refused. “Principled fool,” I thought.


At my order, they stripped him naked, haggling later over who got which pieces of clothing. They forced him down onto the ground, arms stretched out on the rough beam he’d had too little strength to carry – now it would carry him. His hands, which had failed to grasp it, were now nailed in place, never to slip away again. The beam was hoisted up, then dropped onto the upright, jarringly setting him in his place. A single spike was driven through both feet. Jesus – crucified king.


But what were those words that spilled then from his mouth, spoken with more strength and passion than I had imagined yet remained in him? “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” To whom was he speaking? And if the words focused on the actions of my men, then they focused primarily on me.


My unsettled feelings about that cross intensified as I stood at its foot.


Like moths to a flame, words of scorn and taunting and mockery were drawn forth from every direction. Those passing by shouted out: “You were going to destroy the temple and build it in three days! Save yourself! Come down from the cross if you are the Son of God.”


Son of God? Not only King, but Son of God? This was Caesar’s title. Was this country preacher, at every level, a would-be rival to the Imperial majesty? What could such a claim mean? Why would it ever be made?


I recognized, then, the religious leaders of Jerusalem coming to the foot of the cross, surveying their handiwork. Their skillful handling of Pilate had ensured this execution. They taunted Jesus too. “He saved others but he can’t save himself! He’s the King of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’”


This was the preacher’s own claim, then. Son of God. And what could it mean? I have always worshipped many gods, Caesar, “Son of God,” included. But these Jews fiercely maintain that there is but One God, their Lord God Almighty whom they call King of the Universe. To truly be “Son of God,” then, would more than rival Caesar.


Even my own men joined in the taunts. “If you’re the King of the Jews, save yourself,” they shouted. Others raised their voices in mockery, too – the titles, spoken in jest, multiplied: “King,” “Son,” “Christ of God,” “Chosen One.” Thrown like mud to smear him, they seemed to stick to the cross.


And still I stood at its foot, overseeing all that went on.


Now a drama played itself out before my eyes and ears. Two robbers, crucified on either side of the preacher, entered into debate. One insulted Jesus, saying: “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!” The other shot back at him: “Don’t you fear God since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Then, craning his head in Jesus’ direction he said: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”


With strength and passion undiminished in his voice, Jesus said: “I tell you the truth – today you will be with me in paradise.”


Confidently, this King claimed a Kingdom.


And then things came undone. It was noon – what should have been the height of the sun’s power. But suddenly darkness fell. Everything was veiled. Where was the power of the sun-god, Helios? What strange forces were here at work? And was it simply my imagination that it all seemed riveted to that centre cross?


The darkness lingered until mid-afternoon. Jesus passionately cried out words completely foreign to me. Some said he was calling for an ancient Hebrew prophet to come rescue him. One of my soldiers soaked a sponge in the diluted wine vinegar my men used for refreshment – he put it on a stick and passed it up to Jesus in hopes of prolonging his life long enough to see if the prophet would really come.


But it was not to be. With sudden passion, his voice rending the darkness, Jesus cried: “It is finished.” And he died.


At that very moment the whole of Golgotha was rocked by an earthquake – the earth shook, rocks split. Later, I would hear that tombs had been thrown open and some of those long-dead had been raised to life. The massive curtain in the very heart of the Jerusalem temple was said to be split from top to bottom.


But I stood on Golgotha where the whole of my being shook with the ground. And then the light of the sun returned.


Any of this would have been enough to arrest my attention. But what gripped and rocked me more than the shaking ground was the strength of his death. The cross, tested and true, was designed to break men and triumph over them, to exhaust and deplete them before death ever gripped them. But this final cry was not the cracking whisper of the exhausted dead. No – there was the unmistakable sound of triumph in his voice. There was nothing of death’s overpowering intrusion. Rather, as Jesus passed from this world it was as if he were the victor, springing an ambush on death, taking it by sudden surprise, wrestling it out the door.


Never have I heard such power in a voice from the cross, encountering death.


Something was happening here greater than Roman justice. Something more compelling than the authority of Caesar, beyond the authority of the sun. Something stretching to the heavens, rocking the earth, reaching beyond the grave, piercing the very mystery of the divine.


My lips spoke in irresistible confession. I cannot say I even understood what I spoke – but words could not be constrained. My loyalty to Caesar is undiminished. I remain awed by the power of death. But this was beyond.


“Surely, this man was the Son of God.”


But what does it all mean?

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(Reflect on the meaning. Reflect on the sacrifice. Reflect on Jesus.)

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Photo by Frantisek Duris on Unsplash

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