The Centurion, Longinus
I was no stranger to death. Dealing it out was part of my job. I was a Roman soldier. I had seen death come swiftly and unexpectedly on people - dying with the surprised look on their face that it could possibly be happening to them. Fools. I had seen death come slowly and with much agony - so that when it finally came it was a relief and answer to prayer. I had seen death inside and out, and the stench of it was something I never grew accustomed to. But I had never seen a death like the one I witnessed that day. A Friday it was.
He was a Jew - and that usually meant trouble. Better to be almost stationed anywhere else in the empire than in that land of Palestine where rebellion constantly boiled just beneath the surface. They were a handful, these Jews. But from the moment I laid eyes on the man whose execution I was to supervise, I knew here was something different.
He was in worse shape than the others. He’d been flogged to within an inch of his life. He couldn’t even make the climb with the cross-beam on his back. Some stranger had had to help him. As they spread his hands and tied them, placed the nails, lifted the hammer and let it fall, no curse, no venom came from his lips. Instead the oddest cry: “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.”
It startled the men who were hammering, and they hesitated, shrugged and went back to work, but I kept my eye on Him. They hoisted the cross up into the air and there he hung, a dead man for all intents and purposes. He had only a short while yet, and it would be agony for him with that torn up back. How would he breathe?
I was curious as to the charge against the man, so I read the titular above his head. His crime? “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” My brow furrowed as I wondered what that meant. Had he attempted rebellion against Caesar? He didn’t look the part of some zealot terrorist, fomenting anarchy and violence.
The people began to jeer at Him. “You! You who would destroy the temple and raise it three days! Save yourself. If you are God’s son, get off the cross.” God’s Son, did they say? Ah, I thought, that’s why He cried out: “Father, forgive.” He thinks He’s divine? My thoughts were interrupted by more mockery hurled His way: “He saved others. Himself He cannot save. Let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down from the cross and we will believe.”
The Christ! That mythical rescuer the Jews were always yammering about. THAT’S who He thinks He is? Their Savior? The One who will rescue them from their enemies. I wanted to laugh myself, it seemed so ludicrous. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. There was something about Him, about the way He hung there.
One of the criminals crucified next to Him joined in the jeering: “If you are the King of the Jews save yourself AND US.” But his fellow criminal shouted back: “Do you not fear God, man? Look we are under the same condemnation; we’re getting what we deserve. But He’s done NOTHING wrong. Nothing. Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” I looked up startled as I heard His voice promise: “Today you will be with me in paradise.”
It was getting darker by the minute. A storm felt like it was brooding. I drew my cloak tighter about me and waited and wondered, drawn again and again to the man hanging in the middle.
A woman was silently weeping near the bottom of the cross. His mother, I supposed. A man stood there beside her, young and heart-broken. From the depths of His pain, He called out to His mother and gave her to that young man and the young man to her. Even in His horrible suffering, He was still loving, still providing… I was amazed.
As the darkness enveloped us entirely and the lightning flashed I heard Him cry out in a language I could not understand: Eli, eli, lama sabachthani? I thought I’d never heard sadder words in my whole life, even though I didn’t know what He was saying. I knew He was very sad. He said plainly: “I’m thirsty.” They gave him some vinegar on a stick and then He did the most shocking thing. Gathering up all His strength He cried out: “Tetelesthai! It is finished!” A victor’s shout of triumph. And then He whispered softly: “Father, into Your hands I commend my spirit.” His head bent down and the life went from His eyes. He died. He ended the crucifixion as He had begun it: crying to His Father.
He’d no sooner breathed his last than the earth rolled beneath our feet, the rocks crying out, the temple veil, they say, split that day from top to bottom. As I watched it all, I became convinced in a way that I’ve never forgotten: “Truly, this man was the Son of God.” When He called on His Father, it was because God WAS His Father. And He didn’t just die, He wasn’t killed, He gave Himself into death, He gave up His Spirit, He died of His own volition. I’ve never seen anything like it ever, and never would again.
They wanted me to make sure He was dead. I had one of the soldiers run him through with a spear, and would you believe it? Out of that dead body streamed blood and water. Not trickling, gushing. It splashed on me and I knew in that moment that I had been made clean.
My name is Longinus. I saw what I have told you. I wanted you to know and to believe with me and to confess that the One who died on that center cross truly is God’s Son. I had seen death, but I’d never seen a death like His - a death by which, I came to understand, death itself had just died, and so it would lose all power over those splashed in the water and the blood from His side, those bathed in His forgiveness. I was no stranger to death, but a stranger death than His I’d never seen, and death now held no fear for me anymore.