Summary: A centurion recognised God on the cross. How did he see the events that led to his conclusion?
The Passion by the Centurion
Although today is Palm Sunday, this is one of the rare times when we hear a reading of the passion on a Sunday. As you will have heard, it is a long reading and one which I thought would stand best on its own. The events told in the reading are those which brought Jesus to Jerusalem on that triumphal Palm Sunday; they are the things he prayed for courage to face before he was arrested at Gethsemane and they were, for the Jews, the unexpected way in which their Messiah defeated their greatest enemy; not Rome, but their own sin!
Lent, and Holy Week especially, are times when we try to face the cross with Jesus and to understand what he went through for our sakes. It is in grasping that reality that we can know the extent of the sacrifice he made, so willingly, for us. So today, following that powerful story from Mark Chapter 15 I thought I would present a view of that last day from the eyes of the Centurion whose voice is heard in the last verse. I have done this once before but I have also been inspired by two books which I received recently as gifts and which were written by a Methodist minister from Crediton, David Gregory. They are a series of Bible stories told by witnesses; sometimes real and sometimes created for the purpose.
This is an opportunity to be near to Christ in his Passion and, perhaps grasp the chaos, terror and violence wrought that day. The centurion is not given a name and I have not made one up because it is in his anonymity in the Bible that there is so much strength in his witness. So here is his recollection of the day.
The day began much like any other day even though I knew it could be busier than usual because of the number of Jews in the city for their religious holiday, Passover. Someone told me once that over two hundred thousand people could be found in Jerusalem at this time, and judging by the crowds of the evening before, I could easily believe that.
We Roman soldiers are creatures of habit, especially when it comes to our eating habits. Having the right food, and plenty of it, ensured that we were fit for our work. Our first meal, ‘jentaculum’ was always taken at the first hour and today consisted of a wheat pancake biscuit; some porridge, dried fruits and my favourite, bacon.
I was to be in charge of the crucifixion party, something I had done many times before, but I could not see why they could not wait until after this wretched Jewish festival. Still, we always drew in some reinforcements at this time because of the risk of activity from the Jewish Zealots, who were always looking for a chance to have a go at us Roman soldiers.
I walked through the streets of Jerusalem on my way to the Praetorium prison to pick up the two thieves due to be crucified that day. I knew that there might be a third crucifixion today because that fellow Barabbas had been around in jail for a while and he deserved crucifixion after leading a violent uprising and murdering a Roman soldier. Some people say that crucifixion is barbaric but I tell you something; it works as a deterrent.
I am not sure I can think of a worse way to die; a dreadful slow and excruciatingly painful death without dignity or honour. Give me a death by the sword in battle any time; something that shows courage and bravery.
But as I got closer to the Praetorium, I sensed that emotions were running higher than normal and I could hear a crowd shouting in the square. Our Prefect, Pontius Pilatus, the fifth Prefect of the Roman province of Judaea, had been in charge for the last four or five years, I think, and as I walked into the square I could see him up on the balcony addressing the crowd. He had a rather bedraggled and tired looking Jew with him and one of my soldiers told me it was Jesus of Nazareth who had been arrested the night before.
It turned out that the chief priests, led by Caiaphas, wanted him to be executed for treason and had brought him to Pilatus for him to make the decision. It was against the Roman Law for the Jews to have someone put to death on their own orders you see; and a good thing too as far as I was concerned. There would be anarchy if the Sanhedrin were allowed to deal with everyone they felt threatened by with execution.
It was clear to me pretty quickly that Pilatus did not want to give in to their demands but Jesus did not seem to be helping him much. After some questioning, Pilatus had Jesus flogged in public and I assumed that that would be the end of it. The soldier charged with administering the flogging did a good job, presumably hoping to help Pilatus out of his predicament. I made a mental note to reward the soldier that evening. Jesus was bloody and weak but, I admired his courage for he remained calm and faced his accusers. Some of these Jews would be begging for mercy at the first stroke.