It wasn’t like I had never seen a crucifixion before. Of course I had. Even as a child in Gaul, I had witnessed executions. My grandfather died resisting the legions. My grandmother still hates them. My mother does not. At least, she married my father, a legionary from northern Italy who took his parcel of land along the banks of the Somme when he retired and married her.
No, I, Decimus Longinus, Centurion of the Tenth Legion, had seen many crucifixions over the years. This wasn’t even the first I had carried out. It was part of the job when you were a Roman centurion—a part I would like to forget. For some reason, the locals never seem to take kindly to Roman rule, no matter the improvements Rome brings in roads, baths, aqueducts, and free trade.
The little procession approached the city gate jammed with pilgrims come for the local Passover feast—something about their invisible god “passing over” houses with blood on the doorposts.
Blood. Gruesome thing to celebrate.
As far as I could tell, it was some kind of commemoration of their independence from…Egypt maybe? A thousand years ago. As long they focused on the distant past, it made no difference to me.
“Move along!” I shouted in a vain attempt to clear the way.
But the procession stopped altogether. I drew an impatient breath. “What now?” I demanded.
One of the prisoners had fallen to his knees. Again. The one with the crown of thorns pressed down on his head—one of these self-styled “messiahs” from Galilee in the north, wanting independence from Rome. Always wanting independence from Rome. Now, they were a problem. Stirring up the people to revolt. My troops had been having a bit of fun with this so-called “King of the Jews,” crowning him with thorns, draping a scarlet cloak around his bloody shoulders, even giving him a staff for a scepter and pretending to bow. Of course, then they beat him about the head with the staff, but what can you expect of soldiers after all the violence they’ve seen?
The prisoner collapsed forward, the weight of the heavy crossbeam he carried to his own execution pressing him to the paving stones. The wails of women rose around him. I shoved my way past the other two prisoners. One of them leaned against the nearest stone wall without lowering his own cross. Did he welcome the extra minutes of life the delay afforded him? Or did he resent the prolonging of his suffering?
All three prisoners dripped blood from the beatings they had received at the Praetorium. The flagellum, with its bits of metal fastened into the end of the leather thong of the whip, is quite effective for ripping most of the skin from a prisoner’s back. I shook my head. Sometimes the prisoner didn’t even survive to get executed! Maybe this would be one of those days. That would make my job easier.
“Gaius!” I called to my second in command. I jerked my head at the prisoner on the ground.
Gaius nodded crisply. “Come on, you. Get up.” He pulled at the man, who only fell back to the ground under the weight of the crossbeam. One of the other prisoners moaned and looked ready to collapse as well.
“Here! You!” I pulled a muscular man with the healthy tan of a North African from the crowd. “You carry it.”
The man’s eyes widened in horror. I glared at him. Did I need to draw my sword? The man couldn’t refuse a Roman soldier’s request to carry a load. He was obligated for a mile, and it was nowhere near a mile to the place they called Calvary—Skull Hill—just outside the gate.
“Abba! Abba!” came a terrified cry.
Mithras spare us! There were kids!
Two little boys reached for the man’s tunic. I gave a snort of exasperation. Pilgrims caught in the crowd as they came in from the country. If I’d seen the boys before, I could have grabbed someone else, but this man was by far the strongest and most able in sight. Drat these women weeping for the condemned!
One of them held back the children. They’d be all right.
“Pick it up!” I ordered the pilgrim.
The muscles of the North African’s arms bulged. His calves tightened as he lifted the heavy crossbeam and swung it to his shoulders as if it weighed no more than one of his young sons. Gawkers shouted and backed away to avoid being hit. Yes, I chose the right man to carry the cross. The North African pressed back out the gate he had just entered without looking behind him. The crowd scattered to make room.
Gaius and one of the other soldiers dragged the condemned man to his feet. His shoulders still bent as though the weight that bore them down had nothing to do with the cross the North African now carried. He said something to the weeping women, but over the noise of the street I caught no more than, “Don’t weep for me; weep for yourselves.” What a thing to say on the way to your execution! The women wailed all the louder.
“Move on!” I shouted again above the crowd. The procession pressed slowly after the North African.
I pitied the women. I was pretty sure one was the condemned man’s mother. She leaned on another enough like her to be her sister. And there were several friends with them. All women. Where were the men? Hiding no doubt. Afraid of being arrested along with their leader. But Rome needn’t bother with them. With their leader dead, they’d scatter, and that would be the end of yet another “messiah.”
But I wished these foolish women would have the sense to stay away. What they were about to witness would take a lifetime to forget, decades of night terrors and horror. Hardened as I was after years with the army, alone in the dark I still suffered over some of the atrocities I had seen…things I had done…things I regretted.
I shook myself. Not something a mother should see.
I pressed through the crowd at the gate, some entering, some leaving, some starting to enter, but turning when they saw the fun about to begin on Skull Hill. Nothing more exciting than a public execution.
I threw back my scarlet cape from my shoulders and felt the spring breeze that blew over the Judean hills here outside the city walls. I turned off the Hebron road and began to climb the little hill. By the time I reached the top, the two thieves arrested in the insurrection were already stripped naked, being forced to the ground, their arms stretched out on the crossbeams they had carried.
“Hold still,” Gaius commanded. “You’ll only make it worse.”
The man paid no attention and continued to struggle and shriek curses. It took three soldiers to bind him to the cross and drive a spike through his wrist into the wood. Blood splattered Gaius’s face. He winced and wiped at it with his sleeve, but it still left a smear. A scream of terror as much as of pain tore from the prisoner’s throat. I turned away as the second spike was driven home, but I couldn’t block out the cries, nor those of the second thief.
The North African stood where he had dropped the heavy crossbeam in the thin and straggly grass beneath one of the uprights. They rose like branchless cedars from this hilltop, always ready to bring Roman justice to slaves and criminals. The man might have run, but instead he watched warily.
The soldiers dragged their third prisoner to the middle spot. The Galilean prophet raised his head and looked at the man who had carried his cross. The North African’s eyes filled with something I could not define. Compassion? Regret? No. Love. The man bowed his head as humbly as I ever had before my god Mithras, only this man seemed more sincere than we soldiers had every been about our worship.
Who was this man whose very look commanded that kind of devotion? He might be a greater threat to Roman power than I thought.
Lucius, one of my soldiers, pulled the prophet’s robe and tunic roughly off and tossed them at Gaius’s feet. The Galilean stood naked, vulnerable and bloody. Blood still ran from the puncture wounds of his thorny crown. He didn’t wait to be forced to the ground, but raised his eyes toward heaven and knelt, before voluntarily stretching out his arms on the cross.
I caught my breath. Never had I seen a condemned man give himself up to die in that way. I glanced at the North African. He was on his knees. I jerked my head impatiently at Gaius. “Get him out of here.”
“You heard him,” Gaius said roughly, and the North African rose and backed off to stand with the women at the edge of the crowd that had followed them to the execution.
The prisoner murmured something as Lucius bound his arms to the beam. “Father,” he gasped, “forgive them.”
What? No angry curse? I leaned forward to catch what this strange man would say.
“Forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
Lucius laughed roughly as he jerked the ropes tight. “We know what we’re doing, all right. Done this before. More times than I care to count.”
But that was not what the man had meant. “Who is he?” I whispered.
He couldn’t be innocent. He had been turned over by his own people—the chief priest and the ruling council. They said he was fomenting rebellion.
I saw the crowds myself, larger than ever this festival week, listening to the man’s teaching in the temple, waiting for some miraculous sign from their god to start a riot. There had been signs. Lots of them, according to my friend Tertius, centurion at Kfar Naum in the north. Tertius himself had a servant healed by this prophet. Or so he said. But then, Tertius was already more than half way to believing in this invisible god of the Jews.
No. This man was a religious fanatic, dangerous to Rome for the very devotion I had admired in the North African. True, Pilate, the governor down from Caesarea for the festival, didn’t consider him a threat. He publicly washed his hands before turning the man over to be crucified. But Pilate was weak, always giving in to the demands of the locals. Still, it was Bar Abbas who was the greater threat to Rome—Bar Abbas who stuck knives in the bellies of those he called collaborators for cooperating with the government.
I turned to Gaius. “Give him some wine mixed with myrrh to dull the pain.”
I motioned to Lucius, and he and another soldier used ropes to hoist the crosses of the two thieves onto the stakes where they would hang until they died of shock or blood loss or asphyxiation. Hopefully it wouldn’t take days like it sometimes did. Tomorrow was the Jewish holy day, and their leaders would not be happy about these men being left exposed.
I glanced at the Galilean. Gaius was offering the him a cup. No doubt the wine and myrrh I ordered, but the Galilean refused it. He’ll regret that.
“Where are the charges?” I demanded.
“Here, sir.” A soldier hurried over with three crude plaques.
Two of them had “thief” scrawled on them. They had obviously been used before. Thievery was not exactly rare in Jerusalem. I handed them to two of my men who hurried to nail them above the right-hand and left-hand crosses.
The third plaque I held a long moment in my hands. It was larger than the other two. It had to be to fit the longer inscription in three languages—Aramaic, Latin and Greek—we wouldn’t want anyone to miss the meaning. “Yeshua of Nazareth, King of the Jews,” it read.
I watched the man being lifted up onto the middle cross. “Yeshua. So that’s who you are,” but the name did not answer any of the questions that swarmed my mind.
I handed the plaque to Lucius and nodded for him to nail it over the middle cross. The condemned man shifted uncomfortably where he hung. His nailed feet pushed on the small wedge attached to the vertical shaft, which allowed him to relieve some of the pressure on his arms and chest—at least until he became too weak to raise himself and simply suffocated in his own body fluids.
“Here! Gimme that!”
I sighed. The soldiers were quarreling over the clothing of the dying men—one of the little extras they got for the distasteful duty.
“Tear it!” another demanded. “Half for you and half for me.”
“It’s seamless! That would ruin it, and it’d be worth nothing.”
“Let’s not tear it,” Lucius suggested. “Let’s decide by lot who’ll get it.”
So they did. I turned away in disgust.
A crowd was watching. A workman in a dirty tunic shook a fist. “You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days,” he sneered, “save yourself!”
Rude laughter erupted from those around him. “Come down from the cross if you’re the Son of God,” another called.
The North African glared at them from his position near the women, half way down the hill. I was afraid he was going to pick a fight, but one of the women touched his wrist and said something to him. Why didn’t they leave?
A group of priests in white turbans and crimson sashes toiled up the hill, carefully lifting their spotless white robes out of the dirt.
Gaius grunted. “Come to be sure the orders have been carried out?” At some point he had gotten most of the spattered blood off his face. Most of it.
I glanced up at the dying men. “Probably.” The priests should find nothing to complain about.
They stopped near and surveyed the hilltop. One gave a mirthless chuckle. “He saved others, but he can’t save himself!”
His companion looked around at the crowd as he spoke as if to be sure they were listening. “He’s the King of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross and we’ll believe in him.”
Not likely. These religious leaders didn’t seem very interested in their long-promised liberator. They knew where their futures lay—with Rome.
The crowd laughed, and someone threw a stone at the man on the cross.
“He trusts in God,” another priest agreed. “Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’” The priest smirked and spoke in a mocking Galilean accent.
I looked up at the dying man. Blood dripped from his hands, his feet, the raw meat of his back. Son of God? Of course, not. No god would allow his son to suffer a death like this.
I heard the echo of his words in my mind: “Father forgive them.”
Some of the women wept loudly at the mockery, but one raised her chin and stared defiantly at the priest. At least he had the shame to stop laughing and turn away.
I glanced around. Something funny was happening to the light. Colors weren’t as rich as they should be on a sunny spring day like this. I shielded my eyes and tried to look at the sun, but it was too bright. I looked away.
The soldiers had stowed the prisoners’ garments with their gear. They gathered around the jug of sour wine they had brought to wile away the hours it would take for the prisoners to die.
“You want some?” One laughed and raised his cup toward them.
Lucius glanced up at the sign over Yeshua’s head. “If you’re the king of the Jews, save yourself,” he said, joining in the fun and taking another swig.
“Aren’t you the Christ?” The voice came from over my head—from one of the crucified thieves. “Save yourself and us!” he spat.
I waited for the sharp retort that was sure to follow, but the Galilean only shifted his weight on the cross to look over at the man. The thief continued to glare as if it were the prophet’s fault his life was ending here rather than the result of his own crimes.
The other thief drew in a shuddering breath. “Don’t you fear God since you are under the same sentence?” He struggled to draw air into his tortured lungs. “We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve.” He looked at the Galilean between them. “But this man has done nothing wrong.”
He gasped in pain as he pushed up with his nailed feet and struggled to breathe. “Yeshua,” he said, “remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
I frowned. These two thieves had robbed merchants and unwary travelers, claiming to distribute the wealth to the poor. It was their Zealot idea of an idyllic kingdom that had brought them to Skull Hill. But what kind of kingdom could they expect now?
Dried blood matted Yeshua’s beard and clung to his face in streaks from the mocking crown of thorns. Yet something about that face looked almost regal in the strange light. He answered the thief as calmly as if they had been standing in the temple. “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”
Paradise? I looked from prophet to thief and back again. King of the Jews. But perhaps it was not an earthly kingdom at all that he referred to. A look of peace came over the dying thief’s face. Even now would he find a different kind of kingdom? One where the poor had no need to steal and soldiers did not commit atrocities on their fellow-men?
The first thief’s face was still twisted with hate and anger. He spewed insults and obscenities on me, my men and the whole Roman world. There was no peace there.
Maybe I should send Lucius up to cut out his tongue so we don’t have to listen to this.
The sun seemed to be growing dimmer by the moment. People looked up and pointed. They murmured among themselves and turned toward the city. The priests had gone—to report to their leaders, no doubt. Even my fearless soldiers looked nervously about them, glancing frequently at the sun, fading like an untended fire.
Gaius approached. “Centurion?”
Gaius positioned himself where the men could see neither his face nor mine and so guess what was said. He leaned on his spear and made an unsuccessful attempt to appear casual.
“The men are getting nervous,” Gaius reported.
I gave an ironic chuckle. “And you are not?”
“Well, sir, it is unusual.” He glanced at the sky. “Any idea what’s going on?”
I looked up without raising my head. I could look longer now at the sun without turning my eyes away. Something was definitely strange. “I’ve…heard stories,” I began slowly. “Stories…of darkness at midday.” I paused and watched the crowd scattering back to the city. “You can assure the men that the sun will return.”
I looked confidently at my captain while Gaius searched my face. “It will be back, Gaius. Assure your troops of that.”
“Yes, sir.” Gaius returned to the cluster of men around the wine jug. He jerked his head toward the Antonia Fortress. “Lucius, go get some torches,” he ordered. “We aren’t going anywhere.”
It would be back.
Surely it would.
As the light dimmed, one of the women drew near the foot of the cross—the prisoner’s mother. By Hades, why didn’t she leave? A young man supported her. So the men hadn’t all fled. If memory served me right, this one had been hanging around the palace during the trial.
Yeshua spoke to his mother from where he hung above her, unable to embrace her, unable to do anything to sooth her grief.
“Dear woman,” he said. “Here is your son.” He nodded at the young man who laid a gentle hand on her shoulder. The woman sniffed and pressed against her protector. I looked away, embarrassed at the intimacy. Where was my mother today?
The prophet tipped his head back to rest on the vertical shaft below the criminal charge, pressed up with his tired legs, and took two long, shuddering breaths. He opened his eyes and nodded to the young man. “Here is your mother.”
I swallowed the lump in my throat. I hadn’t seen my mother since I left Gaul with the legion. She had relatives, but was anyone caring for her as a son should?
The young man led the woman back to where the other women stood at the brink of the hill.
The darkness grew deeper, like evening although it was not yet the ninth hour. The torches arrived, and Gaius lit them. Silence suffocated the bustling city. The silence of fear. No bird chirped here outside the walls. No animal stirred. No one remained on the hillside but the cluster of weeping women, the North African, and a handful of mockers still shouting insults.
My soldiers, the pride of Rome, cowered sullenly by their pot of wine, casting fearful glances at the fading sky.
“Look!” one said. His pointing finger trembled. “Something is eating the sun! We’ll all be devoured!”
A crescent of darkness was indeed missing from the flaming circle, exactly as if a monster had taken a bite from a piece of flatbread.
A voice rang out. “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani!” The words cracked at the end. By this time moisture had evaporated from the prisoner’s body. Who would believe such power could still come from this man after the beating he had received and nearly three hours on the cross?
Gaius stared upward. “He’s calling on their prophet Elijah.”
But I had been in Palestine long enough to have learned a bit of their language. “I think it means…’My god, my god, why have you forsaken me?’” A shiver went down my spine. What had we done to this innocent man?
Darkness deepened quickly to night. The stars came out. Shrieks rose from the city behind us. Only the flickering torch light revealed the wide eyes and terrified faces of my men. They must. Not. Panic. Whatever happened.
A wind rose and tugged at my crimson legionary cloak and the horsehair crest on my helmet that proclaimed my rank. I pulled my cloak around me against the chill. I could hardly make out the women in the deep shadows beyond the torchlight.
“I’m thirsty.” The voice was hoarse and weak. The end was near.
“Gaius, bring a sponge of vinegar,” I called.
Gaius hurried over. I stuck the dripping sponge on the tip of my spear and raised it to the man’s dry and cracked lips. Yeshua sucked at the sponge, licked his lips and sucked again. He swallowed with difficulty.
“Now leave him alone,” shouted Lucius from the wine barrel. “Let’s see if Elijah comes to save him.”
I didn’t bother to rebuke my irreverent underling. Yeshua looked over the dripping sponge into my eyes. The man’s chest rose and fell in shallow breaths.
“It is finished,” he said quietly as if he had accomplished some important task. There. Alone. On the cross.
Slowly I lowered my spear.
The dying man rallied for one more cry. “Father,” he shouted into the darkness. “Into your hands I commend my spirit.” And he bowed his head.
For a moment I thought he was praying, but then I realized the chest no longer rose or fell.
He was dead.
A rumbling sound came from deep within the earth and vibrated up my legs. The ground shook beneath us. The crosses with their gristly burdens swayed. One of the thieves shrieked a curse; the other merely moaned in pain. Lucius’s eyes were wide with terror. Gaius beat his chest; the others threw themselves on the ground in fear. Panicked cries came from the city along with the sound of falling masonry.
I fell to my knees. Who was this man?
Along the ridge opposite the city, rocks split. The tombs built into the side of the hill shook. One crumbled as I watched. Another gaped as if to release the dead. Someone screamed.
The women! Where were the women? I rushed to where they cowered, weeping and reaching trembling hands toward the cross as if even now they could touch him and sooth his pain. The North African was stretched face down on the ground as if before the altar in their marble temple. The young man bent over the women. Our eyes met. He turned away from me to gaze on the cross.
The ground stopped its shaking.
Slowly the light returned. I could see the city walls now, the surrounding hills, dimly as if an hour before dawn. Three crosses showed black against the lightening sky.
I looked back at the lifeless body hanging between two dying thieves. I had seen dead men on crosses before. Their faces were twisted in agony, in hate for Rome. But not this one.
“It is finished,” he had said.
What was finished? I wondered. Perhaps the women who had known him could tell me, but the young man was leading them away, the North African following close behind.
I started after them. I must know.
“Sir.” Gaius spoke behind me, reminding me of my duty before I could go after them.
The little group moved toward the city gate in the growing light. I turned back to the cross where the dead man still looked as if his head were bowed in prayer.
“Surely he was the Son of God,” I breathed.
[I hope this story moved you. It is part of a collection of short stories I am working on about encounters with Jesus--Yeshua. Last Easter I posted this retelling of the Road to Emmaus.]
LeAnne Hardy has lived in six countries on four continents. Her books come out of her cross-cultural experiences and her passion to use story to convey spiritual truths in a form that will permeate lives.
Add http://www.leannehardy.net/1/feed to your RSS feed.
To receive an e-mail when I post a new blog, please subscribe.