He took off his helmet and set it on the stone pavement. Then he unbuckled his breastplate and let it fall onto the stone floor. Sitting on his cot, he unbuckled his sandals and rubbed his tired feet. He could feel the fatigue of a long, strange day.
He was a centurion, a Roman soldier in charge of 100 men - theoretically. In truth, his command occasionally shrank to less than 50; a new influx of recruits might bring the total up to 80.
The centurion had seen his share of blood. He enlisted in Caesar's army at 13, fought the Barbarians at border outposts, stood guard over a government treasury in Philippi and finally rose to be an independent commander. Master of the whip, he knew how to rip the flesh off a man's back, leaving him in agony but short of death. It took a hard soul to persevere in hand-to-hand combat; a calloused soul was needed to crucify a man.
The day started with word that a quick trial was going to take place at Pilate's palace. He sent some of his men there to guard the prisoner and went about organizing the rest of his troops for the missions of the day. A messenger arrived from Pilate: He was sending over the prisoner for a whipping. There were clear instructions: Do not kill him, just bloody him up. The centurion thought this over. Usually, he would let one of his squad leaders handle this, but he had just sent out his best man on another assignment. No one on the guard detail was skilled enough yet to know just how much to beat a prisoner and leave him alive. He would have to do this job himself.
They brought the prisoner into the courtyard, and the centurion recognized him. He was the man they called Jesus, the one who nearly created a riot the Sunday before. Some of the Jews were spouting their usual nonsense about this Jesus being a Messiah, the one to deliver Israel. "Not a chance while I am on duty," thought the centurion.
He gave the instructions to bend Jesus over a high-rounded piece of wood. A rope was passed over the man and under the wood to hold him fast. The centurion lifted the whip from a nail driven in the stone, unfurled it and sent out the first lash. The bits of pottery and stone weaved into the leather dug into the flesh. The centurion pulled back on the wooden handle, and chunks of the man's back flew across the courtyard. The blood began to flow. One of the new soldiers, a boy of 14, turned green. He turned aside to throw up but resumed his tough demeanor when his comrades made fun of him. Thirty-nine times the lash struck Jesus' back. He screamed like any man would, but there was something different about him. The centurion could not put his finger on it, but no matter. Jesus was one more Jew who needed some sense beaten into him.
The soldiers untied Jesus. Then the young soldier, the one who had thrown up, came out of the barracks with a purple cloak and thorny vine he was weaving into a crown. The centurion saw the men put the crown and the cloak on Jesus and hit him. Soldiers have to have their fun.
They sent Jesus back over to Pilate, and the centurion thought that would be that. He could hear a crowd shouting in the direction of the palace, but he could not make out what they were saying.A messenger came back with instructions from Pilate: Release Barabbas (a notorious rebel), get the two other condemned men, come to the palace, and get Jesus, crucify Jesus and the other two, and make sure they are dead before sundown.
The orders made no sense. Whoever this Jesus guy was, he was no threat to the Empire. Barabbas was trouble; he was the one they should be crucifying. But a soldier learns not to question orders, not even from politicians. Just carry them out. And the centurion knew he would have to supervise this crucifixion. All his squad leaders were out on assignments.
He instructed his men, took charge of the detail, and went out to get Jesus. He was weakened by the beating, no question. The centurion was not sure he would even make it to Skull Hill, where the crucifixions were done. He picked a man out of the crowd, a foreigner in town for the big Jewish feast, and made him carry the heavy crossbeam.
When they got to Skull Hill, he issued the necessary orders and watched his men move swiftly to stretch the men out. The two from the dungeon struggled; they all do. But not Jesus. The centurion could not tell if this was from his weakened state or that same thing that made him uneasy during the beating.
The soldiers divided up the clothes and gambled for them. It was how the young soldiers passed the time. As the centurion, he could, of course, claim the best pieces for himself, but it was good to let young ones get their fair share.
Jesus said things he had never heard from a man on the cross: "Father, forgive them, they do not know what they are doing." What did this mean? The two rebels on either side argued, then Jesus said to one, "Today you will be with me in paradise."
It got dark about noon, an eerie silent dark, unnatural. He had to stay at his post. There were more words from Jesus. He spoke to his mother who was crying; to a young man, giving her into his care. Then in rapid succession: "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me;" "I thirst (one of the detail offered him vinegar as a joke); "It is finished;" then, "Father, into your hands I commend my Spirit."
The ground shook; an earthquake. The centurion was not a religious man, but he was superstitious. The earthquake and the darkness seemed like a sign the gods were angry. He wanted to tell Zeus he had nothing to do with this. He looked and saw Jesus breathe his last breath, and his sigh seemed to cover all the darkness. Words he never thought before came out of his mouth: "This man was a Son of God." The centurion felt the moment was almost holy, strange like a portal had opened to another world.
They had to break the legs of the other men; they died quickly. The detail carried the men off to graves. Jesus went into a new tomb, provided by a friend. They worked quickly. The Jews were so touched about their work after sundown on the Sabbath.
Now, alone in his room, the centurion could not make sense of all he saw, all he felt. What had made him cry a confession - a confession of faith? Something in his heart leaned in the direction of this man Jesus.
Sleep would not come. He heard the snores of the soldiers in the barracks next door. His soul was wide awake. What if Jesus was a son of God? The centurion knew what that meant. If you killed the son of a God, it meant you would hear from that God. How long before he would find what the Father of this Jesus would do?
On Sunday, he found out.
The Rev. Dr. Clay Smith is the lead pastor of Alice Drive Baptist Church in Sumter. Email him at email@example.com.
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