Friday, 06 April 2012
From the very beginning, nothing about this crucifixion had been routine:
In little over three years, this young rabbi had traveled throughout the land teaching an inward piety and accountability to a personal God, while his words of reform seemed to undermine and even run counter to the religious authority of ‘the powers that be’.
In addition to this, the Galilean had reputedly performed all sorts of wonderfully miraculous deeds that reflected a tender compassion, mercy and forgiveness that were essential elements of his message and the very essence of who he seemed to be. Consequently, Jesus had won the admiration and hearts of the common people wherever he went.
It was not unusual for large numbers of people to witness Roman executions. The specter of such exquisite agony always attracted the lowlifes. What was it that drew them so? Was it a grotesque obsession toward violent death, or did they somehow derive, in the dying victims’ extreme suffering, a bit of comfort for their own contemptible and wretched existence?
Indeed, as usual, they were present with their noisy, coarse and abusive patter. However, the Legionnaire and his men were taken aback. For although convicted outlaws, rabble-rousers and enemies of the state all had their friends and family, they rarely, if ever would risk such exposure at a public execution. And yet they were obviously here: the friends, family and followers of the condemned rabbi. The soldiers had never seen so many. Pockets of them were scattered here and there across the entire landscape of Jesus’ bitter suffering and death.
The enemies of Jesus were there as well. Typically an officer or two from the temple might be dispatched by the Sanhedrin as formal witnesses to such an execution. But today, numerous Jewish officials-not only temple police, but scribes, law experts, chief priests and several rulers from the Sanhedrin itself, arrived with great fanfare.
Longinus wondered: “It is their High Holiday; Why are they here? What is it about thisman that stirs such interest that they put aside other more pressing matters and responsibilities to be at this place?”
He then understood as he saw and heard the pure undiluted hatred and animosity cascade from their lips: “It has been told; ‘He walked on water–he saved his men from drowning by calming a storm in the midst of the sea.’ Save yourself and come down from the cross if you be the master of the forces of nature, God’s very own Son. At least, call upon God, your Father that he might rescue you!-if he will.”
To Longinus, it was a baffling and ironic sight. Who could ever have imagined these elite high brow Jews who were so very careful and prudent in their greetings on the streets should be so completely at ease in this setting? And yet here they were, intermingling freely with the dregs of society, casting their insults and derisive slurs toward the dying Jesus. It seemed their combined animosity had brought them all together in solidarity for the first time -- and last? -- against their despised common enemy-Not Rome, but theirking, the king of the Jews.
As crucifixions went, it was not uncommon for gathered crowds to be completely subdued in awed silence at the noisy spectacle before them. Indeed, two of the malefactors, the men dying by Jesus’ side, for the most part, were playing out this customary role. Alternately they ranted and raved, raining down curses of unspeakably vile things one moment, and the next, filling the air with shrieks of despair in their utterly bleak appeals for mercy-even mercy for a lethal but abrupt end to their suffering.
On the other hand, the Nazarene and his demeanor throughout this whole ordeal, was an enigma tothe officer and his men. It was true; Jesus had suffered intensely. The marks of merciless beatings upon his body were obvious. In the judgment hall he had often cried out while his back was being sliced to ribbons during the scourging.
At the place of the skull, they beheld the shudder of his body and the gasp escaping from his mouth as the spikes were driven through his flesh into the wood of the cross. The sudden thud of the post finding its place in the earth that held the cross in its upright position, elicited a sudden rush of air from Jesus’ lungs and a muted groan that emerged from his lips.
Yet throughout the nightmare of his agony and pain, Jesus never uttered a word of invective: there was no wailing, no cursing, no whimpering or complaining. Like the thieves beside him, he verbalized his despair, but it did not seem to be so much a despair at the prospect of his death or physical suffering. Rather it was more the deep lament or agony of a heart grieving the momentary loss of some treasured and close relationship.
No one would ever associate the scene of a Roman crucifixion with expressions of comfort, selflessness, compassion, pardon, forgiveness or blessing. However, throughout the day, that is precisely what the Centurion and the soldiers with him heard and saw-repeatedly. As they had lifted up the cross in its place, Longinus would never, could never forget to his dying day, the gentle words falling from the lips of Jesus: “I forgive you, and I will pray the Father that he too will grant you pardon.”
Execution by a Roman cross was an efficient process of painful death. Being solely dependent on one’s stamina,some people had survived for as long as three days. The principle at work here was the ebbing of strength-each person became weaker and weaker until life was simply extinguished by the combined loss of blood and energy.
To the soldiers’ surprise, Jesus had lasted in his agony for only about five hours. However, his abbreviated suffering on the cross was not due to a lack of strength. Rather, in spite of the repeated beatings the Galilean had received, to Longinus’ total amazement, his energy level surged moment by moment. It soon became obvious that this man was not dying as a victim at all. He alone dictated his destiny.
His voice became more and more robust until at last, his shout reverberated through the surrounding hills: “It is completed! I have finished the task! Father, receive me to yourself!“
He then bowed his head and breathed his last. In that instant the earth shuddered beneath the Centurion’s feet, as if seized by vast spasms of sorrow and grief. After three hours of a thick darkness that had enshrouded them at noontide, they were again bathed in brilliant warmth as if the extinguished sun had suddenly been reignited.
For a long moment Longinus was utterly speechless as his mind raced in a vain attempt to explain away and process all that he had witnessed that wondrous day. Yes, it was true: the full measure of a man is not determined only by how he lives, but more significantly in how he dies. And at that moment, the Centurion heard his voice speak the treason that had already taken root in his heart: “This man may have lived well, but he has died even better! There can be no doubt -- He is indeed the master of nature, the very Son of God!”
If you had been in Longinus’ place, what would have had the greatest impact to bring you to the same conclusion he reached concerning Jesus’ Sonship? What was it Jesus said or did that was witnessed by the soldiers that could have had such an effect on you? Do you see similarities between Pilate’s actions and attitudes, displayed by political leaders -- on all levels, not just in governmental positions -- today? In what ways are they similar or even identical? How may we avoid such pitfalls where we exercise a degree of power or influence?