My Lucky Day

Roman soldier bending down to a crown of thorns
I have come to see that day as my lucky day. Mind you, I thought it at the time – for reasons I will reveal to you – but at the time I didn’t understand the real depth of my good fortune.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

My name is Constantos, and I am – or was – a centurion in the Imperial Forces of Rome, and I wasn’t all that enamoured with being posted to the god-forsaken outpost of Palestine, but when you’re in the army, you go where they send you.

On the morning of the day in question, I reported for duty at the barracks, to relieve those guards who had pulled night watch. They were in high spirits, having spent an unusually entertaining night with a prisoner they had arrested somewhere over the Kidron Valley, a young man who had fallen foul of his people’s leadership, the Sanhedrin. Apparently he was being tried by them for blasphemy, one of the petty rules these people loved to trot out when someone crossed them. It was the sort of in-house squabble we soldiers get called into, just to make sure that things don’t get out of hand. He had (according to the High Priest, Caiaphas) called himself the ‘King of the Jews,’ something that didn’t go over too well, because their god was supposed to be that.

Anyway, my soldier friends got into the spirit of things, dressed him in purple, made a sort of crown out of thorns and pressed it into his head, and gave him a reed to hold as a sceptre. They danced around him, paying mock homage, and then marched him off to the guard house where they had been ordered to flog him, which they did, with great gusto. They told me the story with such hilarity that I laughed along with them.

This man was obviously a scapegoat, and I despised scapegoats. They were weak – that’s why they were picked out for punishment in the first place – and I hated weakness. You had to stand up for yourself in this world. If you wanted something, you took it with both hands. After all, that’s what made the Roman Empire great, and I was a son of that Empire, and proud of it.

Since I was assigned to a squad that was sent to the Praetorium, I got to see this weak man in the flesh, and a very sorry sight he was. Bound, covered in blood, still wearing his ‘crown’, and so exhausted that he was rocking on his feet. ‘Oh yes,’ I thought, ‘my friends have done a good job on you.’

But just for a fleeting moment, I also saw a young, fit, strapping man, probably in his thirties, who wasn’t struggling or cursing in rage, simply standing there, mostly in silence, while our beloved Procurator, Pilate, did all the talking. And just for a fleeting moment I recognised a sort of dignity you don’t often find these days. And I almost felt sorry for him when the mob chose a treacherous rebel by the name of Barabbas to be released in his place. Here was a trouble-maker if ever there was, wreaking murderous havoc whenever and wherever he and his cronies, the zealots, could, and making it tough for us Romans. I know which one I’d prefer to meet in an alleyway on a dark night.

However, I had a job to do. There was a mob gathered there, who were baying for the man’s blood. I wondered whether we would have a riot on our hands, but my orders had been simply to keep some semblance of order, while allowing the crowd to vent their anger, which wasn’t aimed at us, as Romans, but at him, and which eventually would play itself out and dissipate with the crowd itself. Meanwhile it simply involved a bit of pushing and shoving people out of the way, a jab with the butt of a spear or a swift kick every now and then, and a lot of aggressive yelling, all of which I was quite good at.

So that was my first lucky break of the day – no real conflict.

The mob wanted him crucified, so that’s what we did. But we didn’t make the journey to Golgotha easy. He and the two others with him, a couple of thieves, had to carry their crosses all the way there. And so we began the slow journey, I, shouting and jabbing and kicking, and he stumbling and falling from time to time. In fact, it became apparent to me that in his exhausted state he might die on the way, and where’s the fun in that? Or was I going soft with pity? Either way, I grabbed someone out of the crowd by the scruff of the neck and made him carry his cross for him.

When we got to the killing ground, we nailed these three to their crosses. How many of these crucifixions had I witnessed? How many nails had I driven in to wrists and feet? I’d lost count. But never before had I experienced the prisoner looking at me while I did it – looking into my eyes as if to say, “It’s all right. I forgive you.” I must admit it shook me for a moment.

But we had a job to do. We hauled the crosses upright, then stood guard, or rather simply stayed there to see it through. Usually this was the most boring part of the job, but when we stripped off the victims’ clothes to divide between us, it turned out that the young man’s cloak was seamless, so we threw dice for it, and I won. It wasn’t very flash, but a soldier’s wages aren’t flash either, and this would be a bonus on cold nights.

My second lucky break.

The wait for death by crucifixion is interminable. Eventually you just have hasten the process by breaking the victim’s legs, which is what we did to the two thieves. But for this young man it was different. He appeared to be dead already, so, just to be sure, I ran my spear into his side. There was no need to break his legs. We took him down and handed him over to his mother and the small group of people with her to deal with. They had kept vigil before his cross the whole time, unlike the other two, who were probably outcasts anyway, with nobody to mourn them. I realised I was heading for pity again, and berated myself for being so soft.

I came off duty soon after and went back to the barracks. My friends were still recounting their story of the previous night to anyone who would listen, but I somehow no longer found it amusing. In fact it irritated me. That night, before I slept, I kept trying to figure out what was bothering me. And when I slept, my dreams were of the eyes of the young man. Not exactly nightmares, but unsettling, nevertheless.

I had the next day off, and went looking for fun, but found none. It was the Sabbath in these parts, a holy day, so all was quiet in the city. ‘These people are not very fun loving,’ I thought. And then I thought about yesterday’s crowd baying for blood. It was all entertainment for a lot of them. Then I thought about my own eagerness to be entertained by blood sports. As a boy I longed to be one of those gladiators in the arena, fighting to the death for glory. It had made sense at the time, and it’s why I joined the army. But I had just witnessed someone who went to his death with dignity and love for his persecutors. Both gladiator and scapegoat die, but which dies best? I wandered the city, and, unable to be distracted by amusement, found myself wrestling with this dilemma.

That night I pulled duty relieving the guards at, of all places, the tomb where the young man had been laid. ‘This’ll be a doddle.’ I thought. ‘Nothing to do all night by play dice and chew the fat with the others. Another lucky break.’ And it was a doddle.

That is until about 2 am.

I must confess that I was dozing. Not quite asleep – that, for a soldier, would be punishable by death. No. Just resting my eyes you might say. Anyway, suddenly the place was lit up, and suddenly we were all wide awake. We looked around to find the source of the light was actually two men who were busy heaving the stone at the entrance of the tomb to remove it. They shone like nothing we had ever experienced before, and I don’t mind telling you it was frightening! My legs gave way for a while and I fell to the ground, but then self preservation kicked in and I simply ran with the others, each of us leaving our spears stuck into the ground (another punishable offence).

Once we had stopped running and come to our senses, we didn’t know what to do. To go back to barracks and tell our story – well, nobody would believe us for one, and we would be charged with dereliction of duty for another. The only thing we could think of was to say that we were overpowered by the man’s followers, who were intent on opening the tomb and taking the body. That too was an offence punishable by death, but at least it would be their deaths, not ours. In the heat of the moment I went along with this deception, but regretted it later. We roughed each other up a bit, then stumbled back to barracks with our story. Disciplinary action was taken, but at least we escaped with our lives.

The problem was that a different story about the empty tomb began to circulate in competition with our own. Apparently some women had gone there a few hours after we had left, and had seen the young man alive – still bearing the wounds of his crucifixion, but definitely alive. What’s more, in the days and weeks that followed, there were many reports to back this up.

I didn’t believe it – couldn’t believe it – because if I had, our story would have been shot to pieces, and our necks would have been on the line.

So I stuck to our story – that is, until I saw him myself.

I happened to be off duty a couple of weeks later and decided to get out of the city, mainly to think, because it was all getting to me. I found myself wandering along a dusty back road, when I rounded a bend and almost ran into a small group of people, conversing and laughing. I recognised some of them as the young man’s followers, and was about to beat a hasty retreat (was I feeling guilty?), but then I saw him. I recognised him alright, but what shook me was what I saw when he moved his hands as he talked.
I was close enough to see wounds – wounds that I had inflicted. I could do nothing but stare
in disbelief. I must have looked like an idiot. And then he turned, looked at me and smiled. It was bad enough seeing the wounds, but seeing those eyes again……my world began to disintegrate.

It was some time before I realised that the group had moved on down the road, and I was left with my mouth open and my brain turning to mush. If seeing the two bright men at the tomb left me shaken, this left me positively legless! I had to sit down.

Somehow I managed to stumble back to the barracks, only to find the others discussing the supposed tomb robbery, and the rumour of the man coming back to life. It was too much to bear. I said, “It’s true. I’ve seen him!” They turned and stared at me with open mouths, then all began to laugh and tell me I’d had too much cheap wine. It didn’t matter how vehement I was, it was no use, and I retreated to my bed, and, because it was cold, wrapped myself in my cloak. It then dawned on me that it had been his cloak, and, for the first time since I was a child, I wept.

The next morning I knew what I had to do. I resigned my commission, and in the process told the whole story of the tomb and encounter on the road. I didn’t care what they did to me, I simply had to tell what I had seen. But since it was more politically convenient to blame the empty tomb on his disciples, I, and my story, were dismissed. The next day I left the barracks for good, and as I left, I gave the cloak to a beggar who sat freezing at the gates. I somehow felt that it was what the young man would want me to do. Then I went searching for him and his followers.

By the time I found them, it was too late to see him again. He had gone – ‘ascended’ they said. I believed them. After the events of the past month or so my hard-headed cynicism had taken such a battering that I could no longer dance to it’s tune. Besides, being among such joyful people, who should have been cowering in fear of the authorities, made a deep impression on me. They seemed to reflect what I had seen in that young man, and I longed for whatever they could offer me in stories about him. I found myself hanging on every word. Eventually they decided that they could trust me, and I was invited to eat with them. And when the bread was broken it was as if he was there with us.

Since then I have come to trust my instincts. Now I know he is at every such shared meal. And not just that, but at every other time and place. We have become friends.

That’s why I see the day of that crucifixion, for all its horror, as being the luckiest day of my life, because it introduced me to this remarkable man. And tomorrow will be another lucky day. You see, my boyhood dream will be coming true, but not as I had envisaged. As a result of the persecutions (the kind that happened to our beloved friend) I will be taking my place in the arena with the gladiators, but stripped of armour and weapons. Like this young man I will be defenceless. But he has taught me that there are worse deaths than that. He has taught me that accepting his way, the way of the cross, is the most life-giving way. When I look back on my life and my military career, I know that what I thought was ‘life’ before, was an illusion. I have found a friend who journeys with me even to death, who will bring me through it into new life.

I mean, how lucky can you get?

© Rev’d. Sr. Sandra Sears CSBC
21 June 2017

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