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A Special Weekend

What might it have been like to be a Roman soldier witnessing the events of that first Easter weekend?

It was a typical day, unfortunately. Crucifixions are sadly common. I was a Roman soldier, answering to my centurion, and he ordered me to help keep the crowd back from the scene. This kind of execution was reserved for those who were considered by Rome to be the worst of criminals. They deserved to die, and needed to do so in a way that was a deterrent to others.

So I pushed back those who wanted to watch, or jeer, or cry, or ridiculously attempt a rescue. When needed, I stepped in to lend a hand: Hold the victim down, handle the ropes or the hammer, or hoist the cross up into position.

Usually, this was done to a chorus of screams and curses from the criminals. That was true again that day, from two of them. But the third, he was different. Sure, he cried out as the spikes went in. And he moaned a bit as the cross dropped down into its holder. But no curses, no searching for escape, no pleading for mercy. Instead, he said some of the most amazing things:

  • “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34)
    • Who was he forgiving? We all — soldiers, religious folks, even the lookie-loo’s — knew exactly what we were doing. We had made a choice, and were there of our own free will. And besides, who was his father? Where was he? What right would he have to forgive anyone, and why would any of us need forgiveness? I was just doing my job.
  • “Today shalt thou be with Me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43)
    • This, to the criminal beside him who was just as doomed as he was. Maybe it was meant kindly, at least, giving the poor wretch a shred of (false) hope to cling to as he died.
  • “Woman, behold thy Son.” (John 19:26)
    • Well, that was decent of him to make sure that his mother was taken care of. Most of these condemned men were reduced to crying for their mothers to come take care of them!
  • “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” (Mark 15:34)
    • Hey buddy, look around. The gods have forsaken this entire rotten desert of a country. Why should you be any different?
  • “I thirst.” (John 19:28)
    • Finally, asking something for himself. That’s the first — and only — request I heard from him all day,.
  • “It is finished.” (John 19:30)
    • Interesting, he needed the drink only to have enough voice to be able to announce to the world that he was done. OK, then, good for him. A bit later, one of my colleagues used his spear to make sure that everything was well and truly finished! (John 19:34)
  • “Father, into Thy hands I commend My spirit.” (Luke 23:46)
    • He chose that moment to die, and so he did. Usually, these folks hang around for hours, even days, wishing they could die and not yet being able to. It seemed as if he could control the timing. How?

It was all very strange. In fact, I heard my centurion say afterward that this man surely was the son of god! (Mark 15:39) I wouldn’t go that far. But…very, very strange.

It seems that others thought something was unusual about this man also. For one thing, he was buried respectfully, in a tomb. For another, the priests asked that the tomb be guarded around the clock. For how long, I wondered! I ended up on guard duty a couple of days later, on the last watch of the night leading into the first day of the week. The tomb was still sealed; the guards rotating off post reported that everything had been quiet; it promised to be a boring shift. Times like that, boring duty very late at night, make it easy to zone out and drift off a little. That is counteracted, though, by the knowledge that doing so means death. Any soldier who falls asleep on duty is killed without mercy. So, no napping for me!

It was early morning, about halfway through the shift, when it happened. What “it” was, I couldn’t say exactly. I know that first there was an earthquake. Then we all saw a man (?) in dazzling white robes coming down from heaven! We stood in shock as he rolled the stone away from the opening of the tomb, sat down on it, and made himself comfortable (Matthew 28:2-4). We had all been frightened before during our military careers — battle is scary — but nothing like this. We knew that we had offended the gods and were going to be struck dead. We practically were: We all passed out cold, completely blacked out.

When we came to, the god-messenger was gone, and we were still alive. That was a relief…but what was going on? We looked at each other: Had we imagined it? All had a joint hallucination? But there was no denying that the stone was moved and the tomb was empty. We hurried to town to let the priests, our employers, know what had happened.

They told us to say that we had been asleep, and that this man’s disciples had stolen the body (Matthew 28:11-15). What a ridiculous, thin story that was! No soldier was asleep. Instant death, remember? Even if we had been, how on earth could we continue to sleep through several men rolling a 2000-pound stone away from the opening? 1 If we were so deeply “asleep” that we didn’t hear even that, how would we know that it was the disciples stealing the body? No, we were knocked (or frightened) unconscious by watching a glowing man descend and move the stone easily. Those priests told us to lie, and I, for one, did NOT appreciate it!

I had to know what had really happened, so I went back to the tomb by myself. I was going to look for evidence: maybe footprints (glowing ones?) or signs of some kind of trickery.

As I approached the tomb, I could see a woman crying. She hadn’t been there earlier, but I did recognize her from the crowd at the cross. A man came up behind her and spoke to her. She barely looked up, but she said something to him. From her body language, I suspected she was saying “Where is he?!” The man spoke again, causing her to turn and really see him for the first time. What a change! Suddenly, she was sobbing with joy, clinging to him as if she would never let go. He hugged her back for a moment, then gently set her away from him and said something else. She nodded, gave him one last hug, and ran — really, raced — back into town (John 20:14-18).

Then the man looked toward me. Wait a minute: That was the man from the cross! He was alive! Not just “barely alive”, either, showing effects of all the trauma of scourging and crucifixion. He was healthy, vibrantly ALIVE. How could that be? !!!

And, he saw me…and knew who I was. If I hadn’t been killed by the dazzling god-messenger, I was certainly going to be destroyed now. I had helped to execute this man. I had tried to make sure that he stayed dead, in the sealed tomb. And now he was here, looking right at me. I was doomed.

But… He didn’t look angry. He didn’t seem to hate me. Then I remembered his words, “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they are doing.” He had meant me! He was more powerful even than Death, yet he forgave me! He smiled at me, and I could feel the love coming off of Him in waves. He loved me!

I fell to my knees in awe and worship, covering my face before His majesty. When I looked up again, He was gone…but the forgiveness and love remained.

I remembered that my centurion had said “Surely this man was the son of god”.

He was wrong.

Surely this Man IS the Son of God!

Note: See other Easter articles here.

Footnotes and Scripture References

  1. More on the stone here.