For Holy Week, a series of meditations written as if by some of the characters who would have been involved in the story, even if not named.
For Good Friday, the Centurion in charge of the crucifixion remembers years later ……
33 At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. 34 And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).
36 Someone ran, filled a sponge with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink. “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to take him down,” he said.
37 With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last.
38 The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. 39 And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!”
You never forget your first crucifixion, I was told donkey’s years ago. And its true. I remember it well; a young man in Southern Gaul – he had been passed over for a promotion, so next morning threw a javelin at the local Consul. Missed by a mile and so weekly thrown, it would not have done him much damage had it hit the Consul. No matter an example had to be made, so we nailed him up three days later. Since, I’ve been involved in dozens, possibly hundreds, and they all merge into one. You remember the odd one where the victim was particularly brave or afraid, but no details of them or indeed their crimes, if there was a crime that is. I have no illusions a lot of the men I executed were not guilty of the charges, but the authorities wanted rid of them. But I was a soldier, and we do what we are told.
Except there is one I remember in virtually every detail.
Must have been, let me think, I’ve been out of the army for 15 years and it was 5 years before that so, 20 years ago in Jerusalem this guy was sent to us. Poor chap had managed to upset both the Jews and the Romans – not a good idea – anyway Governor Pilate wanted to keep life quiet, so agreed to condemn this bloke to keep the Jewish authorities onside. He was sent to us. We already had two scheduled for that Friday, so another was not much of a problem. Pilate wanted him flogged, but he was so quiet and accepting, the men never had the heart to do their worst, but it was bad enough. That’s when I started to think there was something different about him.
Usual circus having to carry his own cross up that hill, he slipped a few times and eventually someone came out of the crowd to carry it for him. By rights I shouldn’t have allowed that but come on? Where’s the harm?
Up to the site, strip them and nail them up, hoist the crosses and wait. That’s the usual routine. Try and keep the men sober enough for the end, and make sure it doesn’t get out of hand when they divi up the clothes of the condemned. In fact, in this case the guy’s cloak was so good even my men didn’t have the heart to cut it up, so they played dice for it; kept them out of mischief for half an hour anyway.
Apart from his calmness there was nothing much to mark this man out. He did say he forgave us, but that wasn’t unusual – they thought we would make their end a bit quicker. He chatted a bit to other two miscreants, again that wasn’t unusual. So far, so much the same, until at about midday; the sky turned black. This was Jerusalem mind, in April, when one day is as clear and hot as the next, but this was weird, not a cloud in the sky then bang, complete coverage.
His friends and I think his mother and a few others were standing nearby, they didn’t seem surprised. It was then that I realised who he was; Jesus that teacher from Galilee. He had been causing a right storm lately, not affected me in my city garrison, but stories came in from the countryside that he was causing trouble. Some said he was that Messiah the Jews were always on about. It was said he had cured lepers, mutes, deaf folk and the blind. Spoke a lot of sense too, apparently, but Son of God? Come on, that was going too far.
But I watched him closely for the next few hours. As the life choked out of him he cried out ‘Why have I been forsaken?’ but not in the way many men dying on a cross did.
It was a Friday, and the Jewish authorities were anxious that all three were dead before sunset for their Holy Day. They were asking us to break the legs so the condemned couldn’t stretch up and get breath. It was a way of ending i,t but I always tried to avoid doing it if I could. Crucifixion was bad enough without the agony of getting your legs broken too. I was about to give the order though, to keep the peace, when this Jesus looked up and cried aloud… ‘It is finished’ and his head flopped forward and he died.
Now, as I said, I’ve seen way too many men die in many different ways, but never one like this. There was just something about him on that dark afternoon. In fact, someone ran up the hill to say the curtain in the Temple had ripped top to bottom.
There was something, and I had never been that religious before, but as I looked into his dead eyes as the other two were finished off, it struck me he could only have been one thing. Truly, he must be as he claimed; the Son of God. I think I might have said it out loud; I got a funny look from a couple of the soldiers, but others nodded in agreement.
Anyway, after that I followed the stories about his friends and what they got up to afterwards. Some said he came back to life. I don’t know about that, but I do know he was dead on that Friday evening.
Did it change my life? Some might say yes; I became more respectful of human life, perhaps kinder, but I certainly did believe that he was. and is. the Son of God.
Lord God, our loving Father in Heaven, your Son changed so many lives, not only in his living, but in his dying too. May we seek to find ways to change, that we might follow you and do your work.
In your Mercy hear our prayer,