Tag Archives: jesus christ

A Centurion’s Long Good Friday

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This is a re-do of my original “Long Good Friday of Longinus the Centurion.” Since I first wrote that piece three years ago I have wrote a prequel which I published last year and with minor changes again this year. Like George Lucas I felt the need to change and improve the original. Unlike Lucas who simply tweeked Star Wars I have chosen to spend my time completely re-writing the original in light of the prequel series dealing with the events leading up to Good Friday that I did this week. I don’t know about you but I like to imagine events as they might have actually happened. As an Iraq veteran who served with our advisors to the Iraqis I do understand the plight of soldiers from an occupying power serving far away from home where their presence is barely tolerated, much less welcomed. I have always felt a special affinity for the soldiers that have interactions with Jesus, who are treated very sympathetically by the writers of the Gospels as well as Luke in the Book of Acts.

Longinus had finally decided to try to get a bit of rest. After his rather morose meeting with Flavius and Decius he and Decius went back to check on the preparations for the executions scheduled for the next day. Quentin his Tesserarius had been working with the squad chosen to to conduct the actual crucifixions of the prisoners, Bar-Abbas the insurgent as well as the common criminals and murderers Dismas and Gestas who he had met in the hell hole of a jail in the dungeon of Fortress Antonia after Pilate had assigned him the task of conducting the executions.

Longinus was certain of his unit’s ability to carry out the mission, though he would have rather had a unit from Italy than his unit of Syrian and Samaritan troops. There was one positive aspect, his Samaritans and Syrians had no love for the Jews and would have no qualms whatsoever in disposing of the criminals.

He thought for a moment about the prisoners. That Bar-Abbas fellow, he would be glad that he or any other Roman would have to deal with him again once the crucifixion was over. As for the common criminals he felt that everyone would be better off with Gestus dead although he hoped that Pilate might take pity on the repentant thief named Dismas. However, despite his feelings he also knew that the law was the law and repentant or not that Dismas was guilty of the crimes and the sentence was just. As he had realized earlier in the day while talking with Flavius it was important not to become emotionally involved with the locals, especially prisoners. Maintaining an emotional distance ensured that he would not flinch in times when ice rather than blood needed to flow through one’s veins. He was proud that he could do this but envied the humanity that his comrade and friend Flavius still maintained in spite of everything.

He was just about to prepare for bed when a messenger from Pilate knocked on his door. It was late, too late and Longinus wondered just what was going on.
“Come.” He said, the weariness in his voice obvious in the way he answered.

The messenger, a relatively young Italian soldier assigned to Pilate’s bodyguard entered, came to attention and saluted.

Longinus looked at the young man, like him far from home and asked “what am I needed for now?”

“Centurion, the Governor has requested your presence” the soldier replied.

“May I ask what for?” A now increasingly irritated Longinus asked.

“Sir, I do not have the details but it is a pressing matter regarding the Jews and that Galilean preacher.” The young man was obviously uncomfortable in having to request a career officer like Longinus, a veteran of real battles and campaigns appear before Pilate for what was not much more than a religious dispute among an occupied people.

“Pressing matter?” Asked Longinus.

“Yes Centurion. I was told that it was urgent that you come to Governor Pilate now and alert your unit as at least some of your men may be needed if things get out of hand.”
“Can you please tell me just what is going on?” Longinus asked as he pulled his armored breastplate over his shoulders.

“I’m sorry Centurion, I have no more information. You are to report to the Governor within the half hour. The Governor wants your unit ready within the hour.” When he finished he came to attention, saluted and exited the room.

Longinus hated how leaders sent young men to be their messengers and would not give them all of the relevant information.

He then sat back down in his chair where he had been sitting and discussing the situation with Flavius and Decius. He wondered to himself what could be so pressing that Pilate needed him now.

After briefing Decius and Quentin, instructing them to wake the men and be ready for action Longinus took a squad and went to Pilate’s headquarters. When he arrived Pilate greeted him.

“Centurion, I hate to have bothered you at this hour in light of how busy you and your men will be in the morning but a situation has arisen.” Longinus looked around the room and then heard some commotion on the area called “the Pavement.”

“What is happening my Lord?”

“Longinus, these Jews have brought that Jesus fellow here and are accusing him of fomenting a rebellion against the Emperor.”

“A rebellion sir?”

“That is what they say Centurion. They claim that one of his closest associates had turned him in and after a trial of their own that they found him guilty of claiming to be a king and God that will overthrow the Emperor.” Pilate could not hide his discomfort.

“Do you actually believe them sir? After all we had heard this morning that this Judas Iscariot fellow had betrayed him for 30 pieces of silver.”

“I know Centurion, I know.” Pilate looked at Longinus then back out at the crowd gathered outside in the dark. He was afraid and Longinus could sense that fear, fear that if he made the wrong move that a real rebellion could break out and that Pilate as the Governor would take the blame and bear the punishment and wrath of Caesar.

“Centurion, I tried to placate these people be questioning this Jesus fellow myself.” Pilate paused. “I must say that he is a rather unusual man and truthfully I could not find anything that under Roman law that I could find him guilty of doing. Not a thing Centurion, nothing but their leaders kept pressing me.” Pilate’s gaze seemed to be almost pleading with Longinus to help him escape this decision. Longinus knew at that moment that his day was about to get worse. Pilate continued “It seems to be a religious squabble of some kind so in order to deal with it and to try to keep us out of it I sent Jesus to Herod since Herod is the ruler of Galilee.”

“So Herod will certainly deal with the situation, will he not Governor?”

“Centurion, I thought that that corpulent bastard Herod would deal with it but I just got word that Herod too could find no crime. The Jewish leaders and of their Temple Police are supposedly bringing him back to me to render judgment. They are leaving it to me.”

“Judgment for what?”

“Sedition, treason, blasphemy, proclaiming himself a king.” Pilate paused, his face flushed. “My God I’m surprised that they haven’t accused the man of fathering the High Priest’s daughter.” The sarcasm and bitterness was evident in his voice.

“So what do you intend to do.”

“I intend to try to get us out of this with as little trouble or guilt as possible. When they return him to me I will ask a few more questions and set him free as is my prerogative, certainly they wouldn’t want to release a real murderer like Bar-Abbas back into society, I do give them more credit than to stoop that low.”

“I do hope that you are right governor, but from what I understand it seems that they are intent on ridding themselves of the fellow once and for all. I think that their leaders see the Galilean as more of a threat than a man like Bar-Abbas.”

Pilate said nothing and during the silence Longinus’s troops under the direction of Decius entered the perimeter of the court adding an additional security cordon as the crowd grew and got more boisterous. As they took up position the Temple Police and members of the High Priest’s entourage approached the court with the Galilean in custody. Quentin with four soldiers met them and took custody of the obviously tired and already abused man. They delivered Jesus to Pilate and stood back. Longinus watched as it happened. As he did so Flavius entered the room with his servant. The servant appeared unsteady and full of emotion when he saw the man who had healed him two years before. Flavius stood by his face not betraying any feelings except deep seated rage that was boiling as he saw this travesty of justice take place.

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Pilate attempted every trick in the book to garner a way to save the life of the man standing before him. He asked him questions and Jesus clothed in a purple robe that Herod had mockingly placed upon him said nothing. Finally in desperation Pilate asked Jesus if he was a king. The answer both fascinated and terrified Pilate and caused him to wish that he had never come to the city. As he deliberated earlier and debated the members of the Sanhedrin his wife again urged him to “have nothing to do with that innocent man.”

But the answer of Jesus to the question of his kingship troubled Pilate. Had he thought the man insane he would have scourged him, declared him mad and been done with the affair.

“My kingdom is not of this world, if it were my followers would be fighting to ensue that you did not hand me over to the Jewish leaders.” Jesus looked into Pilate’s eyes, the look sent a chill through Pilate’s soul and so he restated the question “so you are a king?”

Jesus replied solemnly “You say I am a king. I was born for this and it is why I came to this world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to me.”

Pilate appeared stunned and both Longinus and Flavius knew that he was beaten. They listened as Pilate asked “what is truth?” The question was one of a man who had long ago sold his soul to gain the world, it was the question of a deeply cynical man who had long determined that truth was only in the eye of the beholder and to be used as needed to acquire power. At the same time they could see a touch of genuineness in the question as Pilate, desperate for an answer that would enable him to please everyone and spare the life of the man before him wrestled with the question of truth for the first time in years.

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They watched as Pilate attempted to bargain for the life of Jesus only to be shouted down by the increasingly riotous crowd who demanded that Bar-Abbas be released. Again attempting to assuage the mob he had Jesus scourged with a barbed whip. The soldier who did that brutal work was a Syrian, big and burley without a trace of feeling in his eyes or face. The servant of Flavius begged him to intervene but Flavius now knew that the things happening to Jesus could no longer be influenced by sentimentality and stories of the goodness of Jesus. He had seen this type of Justice before, and though he despised it, he earnestly hoped that it would be enough to deliver Jesus.

After the scourging, soldiers assigned to Longinus jammed a crown of thorns down on the blood covered Jesus and placed the purple cloak over him. Jesus’s body trembled. Pilate again approached the mob and tried to decline the odious responsibility thrust into his hands. The mob led by the Chief Priests and joined by man of their rivals, the Pharisees cried out for Jesus to be crucified.

They heard Pilate plead with Jesus, again noting that he had power over the life and death of Jesus to which Jesus replied that Pilate “had no power over him that had not been given by God.” Finally he pleaded with the Jews one more time to take Bar-Abbas for execution and to spare the Galilean. The leaders shouted him down again and cried out that Pilate would be “a traitor to Caesar” if he let a man who claimed to be a king live.

Defeated By the mob and by his own weakness of character Pilate asked for a ceremonial washing basin full of water. When it came in the hands of a court member he placed his hands in it and proclaimed “I am innocent of this man’s blood.” He then ordered the soldiers to take Jesus to be crucified even as the prisoners Dismas and Gestus were led from the dungeon for execution and a profoundly perplexed Bar-Abbas was released by the jailer.

Longinus looked at Flavius and whispered to him “wash my hands of his blood? My God, he knows that he is as guilty at them.” Flavius looked on and simply said “I know my friend, we all are.”

The detail of soldiers assigned to the crucifixion detail was commanded by Quentin, a man who had fought many battles and like Longinus and Flavius felt that these executions of helpless prisoners were unworthy of soldiers like himself. The soldiers of Flavius’s unit had responsibility for helping to clear a way down the narrow street called by the Romans Via Delarosa. The street of suffering. It was the street that all the condemned travelled to the hill of execution so fittingly called the place of the Skull. Longinus had seen others walk this path but in the past he had been able to shield his person from their suffering, but today was different.

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Longinus’s own execution squad led by Quentin led Jesus and the others along, forcing them to carry their crosses. About halfway down the street Jesus collapsed under the weight if his cross and grabbed a bystander, a man from Cyrene to carry the cross while the soldiers prodded the bloody body of Jesus down the street and out of the city to the place of execution. People jeered at the condemned as they did at very execution as for most this was no different than any other crucifixion and most of those present knew little about any of the condemned men and even those that were familiar with Jesus probably did not recognize the bloody man stumbling down the street. Of course there were others present who did know Jesus and watched in horror as their friend, teacher and for one woman her son struggled to the execution site. Longinus wondered about his own elderly mother and thought of her as he saw the mother of Jesus. He quickly tried to chase her image from his mind, he needed to be strong and hard if he was to keep his objectivity and conduct the mission as distasteful as he found it.

When the macabre parade arrived at the hill, the prisoners were stripped, placed on the crosses and nailed to them. Their screams as Quentin hammered the large iron nails home through their already abused flesh echoed for all to hear. Thankfully Quentin knew what he was doing and this part of the execution process happened quickly. Then the crosses were raised, but just before this a messenger from Pilate arrived with the placards that denoted the charges. He handed them to Longinus who noted what was written on the one for Jesus. It said “The King of the Jews.”

The placards were placed and with a thud the crosses were placed in the holes on the hill. The suffering of the prisoners was great, the crowds jeered and mocked them while those that loved them stood at a distance. Soldiers stood guard to ensure that no one interfered with them in any way. There was a bit of banter between the real criminals one of whom, the unpleasant one named Gestus joined in the mocking of Jesus only to be put in his place by the other one named Dismas.

Longinus, Flavius, Decius and a few other officers watched as their soldiers from the crucifixion detail divided the paltry worldly possession of the men between themselves. The men argued over a one piece tunic worn by Jesus, Not wanting to destroy it they cast lots for it. A trooper from Tyre won the tunic. Longinus and Flavius looked at each other and realized how little most of their men earned and neither begrudged the men the few items that they gathered from the men being executed.

The skies which had began the day with bright sunshine now became dark and foreboding. Lightening appeared in the distance and occasionally Jesus would address his mother or one man, Flavius believed him to be a disciple who stood by the cross. Jesus even promised the Dismas character that “he would be with him in paradise” and told others, Longinus thought the soldiers but he wasn’t sure “forgive them they know not what they do.” As it approached the ninth hour Jesus cried out in Aramaic “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me!”

A cold rain began to fall.

Quentin approached him with a sponge on a pole which was soaked in a sour wine. It touched Jesus’s lips and Jesus said “Father into your hands I commit my spirit” and then “it is finished.”

With that last dying remark the head of Jesus fell to his chest and his body, bloody and mangled hung limp. As the men looked on the ground began to tremble and as the ground shook and the officers looked about amid the gloom and confusion as the onlookers took flight Longinus exclaimed “surely this man was the son of God.” Flavius looked at his fellow Centurion in astonishment. Longinus, the man who had closed his heart in a fortress was echoing what he had believed since Jesus had healed his servant, the young man who was more than a servant to him.

As the crowds dispersed Longinus received the message that the executions had to be concluded before the Jews began their Passover. With that he sent Quentin to break the legs of the prisoners to hasten their deaths. When Quentin reached Jesus he called for Longinus.

“Centurion, I believe that this man is already dead. Do you still want me to break his legs?”

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Longinus looked up at the bloody corpse and then at his subordinate and said “no I must do this myself.” He had a soldier bring him his lance, a ceremonial lance that denoted his seniority as the senior Centurion in the Legion. He looked at the lance and plunged it into the side of Jesus into his heart. Jesus did not move but from the wound blood mixed with what looked like water poured out of the wound and down his side.

“Quentin, he is dead, you may take him down.” Other soldiers pulled down the dead bodies of the thieves. As they did this a man approached Longinus and Flavius.

“Gentlemen. I am Joseph, I am a member of the Sanhedrin. I have come to take responsibility for the body of Jesus of Nazareth.”

Longinus replied in a businesslike manner “by whose authority?” He had a hard time believing that a member of the Sanhedrin would claim this body.

With that Joseph produced a letter from Pilate. Longinus looked the letter over and handed it back to Joseph without comment. Joseph then motioned to several men with him to take the body as Longinus, Flavius and the others looked on. Longinus thought to himself that it was good that a man of some means and influence would at least take the time to give this innocent man a decent burial.

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As Quentin took charge of the cleanup Longinus instructed Decius to prepare the troops to return to Fortress Antonia. Flavius instructed his optimo to do the same. The last thing that any of them wanted to be was on the streets when the Jews began their Passover, as always they decided that it was unwise to stir up any more animosity than was needed. Today was a near run thing with e demonstration outside Pilate’s headquarters and none of them wanted any more excitement this evening.

When the clean up was completed and the bodies removed Longinus and Flavius ordered their soldiers back to Fortress Antonia. When they arrived the Centurions went to Pilate to inform him that the mission was complete. Pilate was glad the ordeal was over but was obviously still disturbed by the events of the day. Longinus, now exhausted was glad to leave Pilate’s presence. He still loathed politicians and wondered if had Pilate been a soldier if he would have had the courage to tell the leaders of the Sanhedrin to “pound sand” and keep Jesus alive. But then he knew that had Pilate done something that only a diplomat could do, he kept the peace. Had he been in charge the man named Jesus might have lived but hundreds maybe even thousands of others might have died.

After he dismissed his soldiers he went to his room, doffed his gear and went to the tavern in the fortress. Flavius joined him about 15 minutes later. They sat at the table as the barkeeper brought them each an ale. They looked at each other and Flavius asked “What did you mean by surely this man was the son of God?”
Longinus shook his head. “My friend I do not really know.” He paused and took a drink from his cup. “Until today I simply figured that he was a good man, but after today, after what I witnessed I just don’t know.”

“If you ask me my friend I think that he must be a God, if not somehow connected to the greatest of Gods, the God of the Jews.”

“Perhaps Flavius you are right. All I know is that I can no longer see the world, the Empire or my life in the same light as I did just a week ago.”
Flavius nodded his understanding as Decius entered the tavern. The younger officer reported to his seniors. They acknowledged his entrance and Longinus asked the younger officer to sit with them.

“What do you know Decius?”

The younger officer spoke. “Sir, I do not know if you heard the latest about the man that betrayed Jesus.”

Longinus asked sarcastically “did they elect him High Priest?”

The younger man caught the sarcasm and replied “if only that we’re the case. He was found dead, hanging from a tree in the Potter’s Field.”

Flavius answered “So the traitor couldn’t handle his own act of duplicity?”

Longinus replied, “evidently not, serves the bastard right.” He took a drink from his cup and motioned for the barkeep to get Decius a cup of ale too. The three men continued to drink silently and wondered what else could happen…

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Duplicity, Politics & Betrayal: A Centurion in Jerusalem

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This is the final part of my Holy Week prequel for my series on Longinus the Centurion. It deals with the night that Christians now refer to as Holy Thursday or Maundy Thursday. 

Longinus continued to think about the various intrigues that he saw in Jerusalem but he could not imagine what he was soon to learn about. The morning had started normally until the corpulent and corrupt Herod Antipas, the appointed “Jewish” ruler of Galilee and son of Herod the Great arrived in Jerusalem with his entourage.

Longinus knew that there was no love lost between Pilate and Herod, nor between the Pharisees and Herod. Herod chafed knowing that he only ruled a portion of the land his father had ruled especially that he did not rule in Jerusalem. His father had rebuilt and restored the Temple after it was desecrated by the Seleucids, something that the Pharisees and the Priestly class in the city seemed to not give his father enough credit for doing. The fact that Herod was coming to observe the Passover in the city could only add to the tensions that were simmering.

Pilate called Longinus and the other senior officers, including the Centurion Flavius to his headquarters to be part of his official greeting party. Pilate may have despised Herod, but he was the representative of the Empire and Herod, like any proxy ruler needed Pilate’s support.

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The meeting at the court referred to as “the Pavement” was filled with ceremonial pleasantries as Pilate, Herod and their staff members and court followers conducted the business of the day. Nothing of much importance was discussed, Pilate decided not to bring up anything about the Galilean preacher despite the uproar of Sunday that accompanied his arrival. Pilate thought it amusing that a poor preach from Herod’s own province would be greeted as a king while the population hardly acknowledged Herod, apart from the rathe sullen looks that greeted his arrival.

After Herod departed Longinus, Flavius and the other officers were dismissed, yet another morning that they would never get back. But again that was part of life as an officer in a Godforsaken backwater like Judea. Such meetings of course were a necessary evil for them to attend and sometimes one could find out information that could be useful. Though nothing important was shared in the meeting Longinus noted that no Jewish religious leaders were in attendance. He thought that odd until he arrived back in his quarters where he was doffing his more ceremonial dress uniform items for the more practical daily kit.

After Herod departed Longinus, Flavius and the other officers were dismissed, yet another morning that they would never get back. But again that was part of life as an officer in a Godforsaken backwater like Judea. Such meetings of course were a necessary evil for them to attend and sometimes one could find out information that could be useful. Though nothing important was shared in the meeting Longinus noted that no Jewish religious leaders were in attendance. He thought that odd until he arrived back in his quarters where he was doffing his more ceremonial dress uniform items for the more practical daily kit.

As he changed his second in command, Decius knocked on the door.

“Come.” Longinus said and his subordinate entered. Decius came to attention and saluted.

“Be at ease my friend, what news do you bring?”

“Centurion I have some rather interesting news from our Jewish spy regarding this Jesus fellow.”

“Is that so?” Longinus inquired.

“Yes sir. He said that one of Jesus’s own men, one of his 12 closest followers went to the ruling elders this morning and offered to betray him.” The words coming from his subordinate were stunning.

“Tell me more.” Longinus said, his voice now full of curiosity.

“Sir, our man said that a man named Judas Iscariot, who is trusted by Jesus enough that he carries the money bag and pays whatever expenses that Jesus and his men incur.” Decius paused while Longinus pondered this unexpected turn of events.

After a few moments of silence Longinus asked his Tesserarius, Quentin to fetch Flavius and asked Decius to sit at his desk. Flavius arrived within a couple of minutes and joined Longinus and Decius at the desk.”

Longinus began the discussion.

“Flavius, we have news about your friend the Galilean preacher, it seems that one of his merry band is a traitor.”

If Longinus’s reaction to the news was surprise and maybe even amusement with the duplicity of these Jews the reaction of Flavius was one of stunned disbelief and horror.

“You can’t be serious?” He stammered.

“Well that is what Decius says my Jewish insider at the Sanhedrin has reported just a little while ago.” He looked at Flavius as Flavius asked “do you know which one of his men has done this.”

“A certain Judas Iscariot. That is the correct name isn’t it Decius.”

“Yes Centurion, Judas Iscariot.”

Flavius looked at Decius and Longinus and said “Iscariot.”

“You know of him.” Inquired Longinus.

“Yes I do know of him. Before he joined with Jesus he was reported to be linked to a group of assassins called the sicarii.”

“The sicarii?” Longinus asked , hardly believing what Flavius said. The sicarii were a particularly violent group, known to kill Romans and people that they suspected of being collaborators. They armed themselves with a particularly nasty dagger that they carried beneath their tunics. If this was true it could be a particularly disturbing turn of events.

“Yes my friend. You see many people followed this Jesus not because of his goodness or any thought of benevolence, but because they believed that he would overthrow the Jewish regime and drive us out of this land.”

“I had no idea. I thought they were all a bunch of do gooders. In fact until Jesus took a whip to all the merchants in the Temple the other day I didn’t think that he had a violent bone in his body.”

He looked at Decius and asked “What does our spy say about this Judas fellows motive?”

The younger officer replied “our man said that He overheard Judas talking before he went into the chambers of the Sanhedrin with some Priests sympathetic with the Zealot party of the Jews.”

“Continue.”

“What he said is that evidently Judas told these men that he was disappointed by the fact that Jesus did not appear to be seeking to overthrow us.”

“That would not be surprising for a member of the sicarii.” Added Flavius, his expression changing from disbelief to anger and after a moment’s reflection he slammed his fist down on the table and added “I could kill that miserable bugger myself…the man Jesus has done nothing wrong.” As Flavius spoke his voice rose in intensity. Longinus knew his friend was upset.

“Flavius, I can understand, this seems a vile thing but there are even larger issues than your friendship with this man and what he did for your servant.” Longinus hoped that his outward calm and acknowledgment of his friend’s feelings would help calm the anger.

“Longinus my friend, I know how you feel about these people and I hoped for better, I wanted to believe that they were a cut above us with their One God, but I see that even a people as devout as the Jews are as capable of evil as the worst Greek, Egyptian, Cretin or Arab.” He paused. “Do you have wine? I could use a drink about now.”

“Of course, my friend. Decius, please pour each of us each a cup of wine.”

As the younger officer got the wine Longinus looked at his angry and downcast friend. He felt a certain amount of sympathy for Flavius, but he had long ago learned not to let the sufferings of occupied people touch him deeply. He had built a fortress at impregnable as Fortress Antonia around his own heart years ago. It was the only way to survive. The being said he recognized a certain amount of humanity in his friend that was absent from so many of his comrades. In a way he envied Flavius. As he thought these things he realized that he needed to move the subject from Flavius’s emotional response to this situation to the practical consequences of this development. About that time Decius brought the wine and placing three cups on the table poured the wine.

“Thank you my friend.” Flavius said as he lifted the cup to his lips.

Both men raised their cups and took a drink. As he set his cup down Longinus continued. “I know that you hoped for better from these people, but you know I have found that some of the most religious people are also the most violent and intolerant.”

Flavius looked at his friend who continued “it seems to me that when someone, you know true believers, know that they have any deity at their disposal they are inclined to be less tolerant of others.” He paused and took a sip of wine. “I think that it is a testament to the Empire that we have so many religions and that in the name of law and order that violent ones are suppressed. That is why throughout most of the Empire we have peace.”

Flavius interrupted his friend. “But we enforce the religion of Caesar, a man, who we claim as God on our citizens.”

“True, but none of us really believe he is a real God anyway, it is a way to keep order. The state makes a religion of itself, it keeps the really dangerous types at bay. So long as people put Caesar first, even if it means burning a bit of incense to a man that they do not believe is God it serves a purpose doesn’t it?”

Flavius looked at his friend and quietly replied “I guess until I met this Jesus fellow I would have agreed completely, but now I don’t know.”

Longinus listened to his friend and could see the sincerity in his face. He continued saying softly “I really believe my friend that the second that any religion that proclaims something different arises and gains control of the Empire you can be assured that the peace that we know will be gone.”

“But that is no substitute for belief in a real God.” Answered Flavius.

“That may be so my friend but it helps keep the peace and is why we don’t have problems throughout the Empire like those that beset us here.”
A curious silence descended in the room as the two friends pondered the situation. Finally Flavius broke the silence. “I just hope that what this man has done stays a Jewish problem for their leaders. I would hate for us Romans to have to become involved in it.”

“As do I my friend, I can drink to that.”

The three men sat silently continuing to drink their wine as they pondered the position that they found themselves…. It was nearly sunset.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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A Centurion’s Long Good Friday

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This is a re-do of my original “Long Good Friday of Longinus the Centurion.” Since I first wrote that piece three years ago I have wrote a prequel which I published last year and with minor changes again this year. Like George Lucas I felt the need to change and improve the original. Unlike Lucas who simply tweeked Star Wars I have chosen to spend my time completely re-writing the original in light of the prequel series dealing with the events leading up to Good Friday that I did this week. I don’t know about you but I like to imagine events as they might have actually happened. As an Iraq veteran who served with our advisors to the Iraqis I do understand the plight of soldiers from an occupying power serving far away from home where their presence is barely tolerated, much less welcomed. I have always felt a special affinity for the soldiers that have interactions with Jesus, who are treated very sympathetically by the writers of the Gospels as well as Luke in the Book of Acts.

Longinus had finally decided to try to get a bit of rest. After his rather morose meeting with Flavius and Decius he and Decius went back to check on the preparations for the executions scheduled for the next day. Quentin his Tesserarius had been working with the squad chosen to to conduct the actual crucifixions of the prisoners, Bar-Abbas the insurgent as well as the common criminals and murderers Dismas and Gestas who he had met in the hell hole of a jail in the dungeon of Fortress Antonia after Pilate had assigned him the task of conducting the executions.

Longinus was certain of his unit’s ability to carry out the mission, though he would have rather had a unit from Italy than his unit of Syrian and Samaritan troops. There was one positive aspect, his Samaritans and Syrians had no love for the Jews and would have no qualms whatsoever in disposing of the criminals.

He thought for a moment about the prisoners. That Bar-Abbas fellow, he would be glad that he or any other Roman would have to deal with him again once the crucifixion was over. As for the common criminals he felt that everyone would be better off with Gestus dead although he hoped that Pilate might take pity on the repentant thief named Dismas. However, despite his feelings he also knew that the law was the law and repentant or not that Dismas was guilty of the crimes and the sentence was just. As he had realized earlier in the day while talking with Flavius it was important not to become emotionally involved with the locals, especially prisoners. Maintaining an emotional distance ensured that he would not flinch in times when ice rather than blood needed to flow through one’s veins. He was proud that he could do this but envied the humanity that his comrade and friend Flavius still maintained in spite of everything.

He was just about to prepare for bed when a messenger from Pilate knocked on his door. It was late, too late and Longinus wondered just what was going on.
“Come.” He said, the weariness in his voice obvious in the way he answered.

The messenger, a relatively young Italian soldier assigned to Pilate’s bodyguard entered, came to attention and saluted.

Longinus looked at the young man, like him far from home and asked “what am I needed for now?”

“Centurion, the Governor has requested your presence” the soldier replied.

“May I ask what for?” A now increasingly irritated Longinus asked.

“Sir, I do not have the details but it is a pressing matter regarding the Jews and that Galilean preacher.” The young man was obviously uncomfortable in having to request a career officer like Longinus, a veteran of real battles and campaigns appear before Pilate for what was not much more than a religious dispute among an occupied people.

“Pressing matter?” Asked Longinus.

“Yes Centurion. I was told that it was urgent that you come to Governor Pilate now and alert your unit as at least some of your men may be needed if things get out of hand.”
“Can you please tell me just what is going on?” Longinus asked as he pulled his armored breastplate over his shoulders.

“I’m sorry Centurion, I have no more information. You are to report to the Governor within the half hour. The Governor wants your unit ready within the hour.” When he finished he came to attention, saluted and exited the room.

Longinus hated how leaders sent young men to be their messengers and would not give them all of the relevant information.

He then sat back down in his chair where he had been sitting and discussing the situation with Flavius and Decius. He wondered to himself what could be so pressing that Pilate needed him now.

After briefing Decius and Quentin, instructing them to wake the men and be ready for action Longinus took a squad and went to Pilate’s headquarters. When he arrived Pilate greeted him.

“Centurion, I hate to have bothered you at this hour in light of how busy you and your men will be in the morning but a situation has arisen.” Longinus looked around the room and then heard some commotion on the area called “the Pavement.”

“What is happening my Lord?”

“Longinus, these Jews have brought that Jesus fellow here and are accusing him of fomenting a rebellion against the Emperor.”

“A rebellion sir?”

“That is what they say Centurion. They claim that one of his closest associates had turned him in and after a trial of their own that they found him guilty of claiming to be a king and God that will overthrow the Emperor.” Pilate could not hide his discomfort.

“Do you actually believe them sir? After all we had heard this morning that this Judas Iscariot fellow had betrayed him for 30 pieces of silver.”

“I know Centurion, I know.” Pilate looked at Longinus then back out at the crowd gathered outside in the dark. He was afraid and Longinus could sense that fear, fear that if he made the wrong move that a real rebellion could break out and that Pilate as the Governor would take the blame and bear the punishment and wrath of Caesar.

“Centurion, I tried to placate these people be questioning this Jesus fellow myself.” Pilate paused. “I must say that he is a rather unusual man and truthfully I could not find anything that under Roman law that I could find him guilty of doing. Not a thing Centurion, nothing but their leaders kept pressing me.” Pilate’s gaze seemed to be almost pleading with Longinus to help him escape this decision. Longinus knew at that moment that his day was about to get worse. Pilate continued “It seems to be a religious squabble of some kind so in order to deal with it and to try to keep us out of it I sent Jesus to Herod since Herod is the ruler of Galilee.”

“So Herod will certainly deal with the situation, will he not Governor?”

“Centurion, I thought that that corpulent bastard Herod would deal with it but I just got word that Herod too could find no crime. The Jewish leaders and of their Temple Police are supposedly bringing him back to me to render judgment. They are leaving it to me.”

“Judgment for what?”

“Sedition, treason, blasphemy, proclaiming himself a king.” Pilate paused, his face flushed. “My God I’m surprised that they haven’t accused the man of fathering the High Priest’s daughter.” The sarcasm and bitterness was evident in his voice.

“So what do you intend to do.”

“I intend to try to get us out of this with as little trouble or guilt as possible. When they return him to me I will ask a few more questions and set him free as is my prerogative, certainly they wouldn’t want to release a real murderer like Bar-Abbas back into society, I do give them more credit than to stoop that low.”

“I do hope that you are right governor, but from what I understand it seems that they are intent on ridding themselves of the fellow once and for all. I think that their leaders see the Galilean as more of a threat than a man like Bar-Abbas.”

Pilate said nothing and during the silence Longinus’s troops under the direction of Decius entered the perimeter of the court adding an additional security cordon as the crowd grew and got more boisterous. As they took up position the Temple Police and members of the High Priest’s entourage approached the court with the Galilean in custody. Quentin with four soldiers met them and took custody of the obviously tired and already abused man. They delivered Jesus to Pilate and stood back. Longinus watched as it happened. As he did so Flavius entered the room with his servant. The servant appeared unsteady and full of emotion when he saw the man who had healed him two years before. Flavius stood by his face not betraying any feelings except deep seated rage that was boiling as he saw this travesty of justice take place.

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Pilate attempted every trick in the book to garner a way to save the life of the man standing before him. He asked him questions and Jesus clothed in a purple robe that Herod had mockingly placed upon him said nothing. Finally in desperation Pilate asked Jesus if he was a king. The answer both fascinated and terrified Pilate and caused him to wish that he had never come to the city. As he deliberated earlier and debated the members of the Sanhedrin his wife again urged him to “have nothing to do with that innocent man.”

But the answer of Jesus to the question of his kingship troubled Pilate. Had he thought the man insane he would have scourged him, declared him mad and been done with the affair.

“My kingdom is not of this world, if it were my followers would be fighting to ensue that you did not hand me over to the Jewish leaders.” Jesus looked into Pilate’s eyes, the look sent a chill through Pilate’s soul and so he restated the question “so you are a king?”

Jesus replied solemnly “You say I am a king. I was born for this and it is why I came to this world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to me.”

Pilate appeared stunned and both Longinus and Flavius knew that he was beaten. They listened as Pilate asked “what is truth?” The question was one of a man who had long ago sold his soul to gain the world, it was the question of a deeply cynical man who had long determined that truth was only in the eye of the beholder and to be used as needed to acquire power. At the same time they could see a touch of genuineness in the question as Pilate, desperate for an answer that would enable him to please everyone and spare the life of the man before him wrestled with the question of truth for the first time in years.

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They watched as Pilate attempted to bargain for the life of Jesus only to be shouted down by the increasingly riotous crowd who demanded that Bar-Abbas be released. Again attempting to assuage the mob he had Jesus scourged with a barbed whip. The soldier who did that brutal work was a Syrian, big and burley without a trace of feeling in his eyes or face. The servant of Flavius begged him to intervene but Flavius now knew that the things happening to Jesus could no longer be influenced by sentimentality and stories of the goodness of Jesus. He had seen this type of Justice before, and though he despised it, he earnestly hoped that it would be enough to deliver Jesus.

After the scourging, soldiers assigned to Longinus jammed a crown of thorns down on the blood covered Jesus and placed the purple cloak over him. Jesus’s body trembled. Pilate again approached the mob and tried to decline the odious responsibility thrust into his hands. The mob led by the Chief Priests and joined by man of their rivals, the Pharisees cried out for Jesus to be crucified.

They heard Pilate plead with Jesus, again noting that he had power over the life and death of Jesus to which Jesus replied that Pilate “had no power over him that had not been given by God.” Finally he pleaded with the Jews one more time to take Bar-Abbas for execution and to spare the Galilean. The leaders shouted him down again and cried out that Pilate would be “a traitor to Caesar” if he let a man who claimed to be a king live.

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Defeated By the mob and by his own weakness of character Pilate asked for a ceremonial washing basin full of water. When it came in the hands of a court member he placed his hands in it and proclaimed “I am innocent of this man’s blood.” He then ordered the soldiers to take Jesus to be crucified even as the prisoners Dismas and Gestus were led from the dungeon for execution and a profoundly perplexed Bar-Abbas was released by the jailer.

Longinus looked at Flavius and whispered to him “wash my hands of his blood? My God, he knows that he is as guilty at them.” Flavius looked on and simply said “I know my friend, we all are.”

The detail of soldiers assigned to the crucifixion detail was commanded by Quentin, a man who had fought many battles and like Longinus and Flavius felt that these executions of helpless prisoners were unworthy of soldiers like himself. The soldiers of Flavius’s unit had responsibility for helping to clear a way down the narrow street called by the Romans Via Delarosa. The street of suffering. It was the street that all the condemned travelled to the hill of execution so fittingly called the place of the Skull. Longinus had seen others walk this path but in the past he had been able to shield his person from their suffering, but today was different.

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Longinus’s own execution squad led by Quentin led Jesus and the others along, forcing them to carry their crosses. About halfway down the street Jesus collapsed under the weight if his cross and grabbed a bystander, a man from Cyrene to carry the cross while the soldiers prodded the bloody body of Jesus down the street and out of the city to the place of execution. People jeered at the condemned as they did at very execution as for most this was no different than any other crucifixion and most of those present knew little about any of the condemned men and even those that were familiar with Jesus probably did not recognize the bloody man stumbling down the street. Of course there were others present who did know Jesus and watched in horror as their friend, teacher and for one woman her son struggled to the execution site. Longinus wondered about his own elderly mother and thought of her as he saw the mother of Jesus. He quickly tried to chase her image from his mind, he needed to be strong and hard if he was to keep his objectivity and conduct the mission as distasteful as he found it.

When the macabre parade arrived at the hill, the prisoners were stripped, placed on the crosses and nailed to them. Their screams as Quentin hammered the large iron nails home through their already abused flesh echoed for all to hear. Thankfully Quentin knew what he was doing and this part of the execution process happened quickly. Then the crosses were raised, but just before this a messenger from Pilate arrived with the placards that denoted the charges. He handed them to Longinus who noted what was written on the one for Jesus. It said “The King of the Jews.”

The placards were placed and with a thud the crosses were placed in the holes on the hill. The suffering of the prisoners was great, the crowds jeered and mocked them while those that loved them stood at a distance. Soldiers stood guard to ensure that no one interfered with them in any way. There was a bit of banter between the real criminals one of whom, the unpleasant one named Gestus joined in the mocking of Jesus only to be put in his place by the other one named Dismas.

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Longinus, Flavius, Decius and a few other officers watched as their soldiers from the crucifixion detail divided the paltry worldly possession of the men between themselves. The men argued over a one piece tunic worn by Jesus, Not wanting to destroy it they cast lots for it. A trooper from Tyre won the tunic. Longinus and Flavius looked at each other and realized how little most of their men earned and neither begrudged the men the few items that they gathered from the men being executed.

The skies which had began the day with bright sunshine now became dark and foreboding. Lightening appeared in the distance and occasionally Jesus would address his mother or one man, Flavius believed him to be a disciple who stood by the cross. Jesus even promised the Dismas character that “he would be with him in paradise” and told others, Longinus thought the soldiers but he wasn’t sure “forgive them they know not what they do.” As it approached the ninth hour Jesus cried out in Aramaic “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me!”

A cold rain began to fall.

Quentin approached him with a sponge on a pole which was soaked in a sour wine. It touched Jesus’s lips and Jesus said “Father into your hands I commit my spirit” and then “it is finished.”

With that last dying remark the head of Jesus fell to his chest and his body, bloody and mangled hung limp. As the men looked on the ground began to tremble and as the ground shook and the officers looked about amid the gloom and confusion as the onlookers took flight Longinus exclaimed “surely this man was the son of God.” Flavius looked at his fellow Centurion in astonishment. Longinus, the man who had closed his heart in a fortress was echoing what he had believed since Jesus had healed his servant, the young man who was more than a servant to him.

As the crowds dispersed Longinus received the message that the executions had to be concluded before the Jews began their Passover. With that he sent Quentin to break the legs of the prisoners to hasten their deaths. When Quentin reached Jesus he called for Longinus.

“Centurion, I believe that this man is already dead. Do you still want me to break his legs?”

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Longinus looked up at the bloody corpse and then at his subordinate and said “no I must do this myself.” He had a soldier bring him his lance, a ceremonial lance that denoted his seniority as the senior Centurion in the Legion. He looked at the lance and plunged it into the side of Jesus into his heart. Jesus did not move but from the wound blood mixed with what looked like water poured out of the wound and down his side.

“Quentin, he is dead, you may take him down.” Other soldiers pulled down the dead bodies of the thieves. As they did this a man approached Longinus and Flavius.

“Gentlemen. I am Joseph, I am a member of the Sanhedrin. I have come to take responsibility for the body of Jesus of Nazareth.”

Longinus replied in a businesslike manner “by whose authority?” He had a hard time believing that a member of the Sanhedrin would claim this body.

With that Joseph produced a letter from Pilate. Longinus looked the letter over and handed it back to Joseph without comment. Joseph then motioned to several men with him to take the body as Longinus, Flavius and the others looked on. Longinus thought to himself that it was good that a man of some means and influence would at least take the time to give this innocent man a decent burial.

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As Quentin took charge of the cleanup Longinus instructed Decius to prepare the troops to return to Fortress Antonia. Flavius instructed his optimo to do the same. The last thing that any of them wanted to be was on the streets when the Jews began their Passover, as always they decided that it was unwise to stir up any more animosity than was needed. Today was a near run thing with e demonstration outside Pilate’s headquarters and none of them wanted any more excitement this evening.

When the clean up was completed and the bodies removed Longinus and Flavius ordered their soldiers back to Fortress Antonia. When they arrived the Centurions went to Pilate to inform him that the mission was complete. Pilate was glad the ordeal was over but was obviously still disturbed by the events of the day. Longinus, now exhausted was glad to leave Pilate’s presence. He still loathed politicians and wondered if had Pilate been a soldier if he would have had the courage to tell the leaders of the Sanhedrin to “pound sand” and keep Jesus alive. But then he knew that had Pilate done something that only a diplomat could do, he kept the peace. Had he been in charge the man named Jesus might have lived but hundreds maybe even thousands of others might have died.

After he dismissed his soldiers he went to his room, doffed his gear and went to the tavern in the fortress. Flavius joined him about 15 minutes later. They sat at the table as the barkeeper brought them each an ale. They looked at each other and Flavius asked “What did you mean by surely this man was the son of God?”
Longinus shook his head. “My friend I do not really know.” He paused and took a drink from his cup. “Until today I simply figured that he was a good man, but after today, after what I witnessed I just don’t know.”

“If you ask me my friend I think that he must be a God, if not somehow connected to the greatest of Gods, the God of the Jews.”

“Perhaps Flavius you are right. All I know is that I can no longer see the world, the Empire or my life in the same light as I did just a week ago.”
Flavius nodded his understanding as Decius entered the tavern. The younger officer reported to his seniors. They acknowledged his entrance and Longinus asked the younger officer to sit with them.

“What do you know Decius?”

The younger officer spoke. “Sir, I do not know if you heard the latest about the man that betrayed Jesus.”

Longinus asked sarcastically “did they elect him High Priest?”

The younger man caught the sarcasm and replied “if only that we’re the case. He was found dead, hanging from a tree in the Potter’s Field.”

Flavius answered “So the traitor couldn’t handle his own act of duplicity?”

Longinus replied, “evidently not, serves the bastard right.” He took a drink from his cup and motioned for the barkeep to get Decius a cup of ale too. The three men continued to drink silently and wondered what else could happen…

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Duplicity, Politics and Betrayal: A Centurion’s Thursday Evening in Jerusalem

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This is the final part of my Holy Week prequel for my series on Longinus the Centurion. I should have published it last night but forgot.

Longinus continued to think about the various intrigues that he saw in Jerusalem but he could not imagine what he was soon to learn about. The morning had started normally until the corpulent and corrupt Herod Antipas, the appointed “Jewish” ruler of Galilee and son of Herod the Great arrived in Jerusalem with his entourage.

Longinus knew that there was no love lost between Pilate and Herod, nor between the Pharisees and Herod. Herod chafed knowing that he only ruled a portion of the land his father had ruled especially that he did not rule in Jerusalem. His father had rebuilt and restored the Temple after it was desecrated by the Seleucids, something that the Pharisees and the Priestly class in the city seemed to not give his father enough credit for doing. The fact that Herod was coming to observe the Passover in the city could only add to the tensions that were simmering.

Pilate called Longinus and the other senior officers, including the Centurion Flavius to his headquarters to be part of his official greeting party. Pilate may have despised Herod, but he was the representative of the Empire and Herod, like any proxy ruler needed Pilate’s support.

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The meeting at the court referred to as “the Pavement” was filled with ceremonial pleasantries as Pilate, Herod and their staff members and court followers conducted the business of the day. Nothing of much importance was discussed, Pilate decided not to bring up anything about the Galilean preacher despite the uproar of Sunday that accompanied his arrival. Pilate thought it amusing that a poor preach from Herod’s own province would be greeted as a king while the population hardly acknowledged Herod, apart from the rathe sullen looks that greeted his arrival.

After Herod departed Longinus, Flavius and the other officers were dismissed, yet another morning that they would never get back. But again that was part of life as an officer in a Godforsaken backwater like Judea. Such meetings of course were a necessary evil for them to attend and sometimes one could find out information that could be useful. Though nothing important was shared in the meeting Longinus noted that no Jewish religious leaders were in attendance. He thought that odd until he arrived back in his quarters where he was doffing his more ceremonial dress uniform items for the more practical daily kit.

After Herod departed Longinus, Flavius and the other officers were dismissed, yet another morning that they would never get back. But again that was part of life as an officer in a Godforsaken backwater like Judea. Such meetings of course were a necessary evil for them to attend and sometimes one could find out information that could be useful. Though nothing important was shared in the meeting Longinus noted that no Jewish religious leaders were in attendance. He thought that odd until he arrived back in his quarters where he was doffing his more ceremonial dress uniform items for the more practical daily kit.

As he changed his second in command, Decius knocked on the door.

“Come.” Longinus said and his subordinate entered. Decius came to attention and saluted.

“Be at ease my friend, what news do you bring?”

“Centurion I have some rather interesting news from our Jewish spy regarding this Jesus fellow.”

“Is that so?” Longinus inquired.

“Yes sir. He said that one of Jesus’s own men, one of his 12 closest followers went to the ruling elders this morning and offered to betray him.” The words coming from his subordinate were stunning.

“Tell me more.” Longinus said, his voice now full of curiosity.

“Sir, our man said that a man named Judas Iscariot, who is trusted by Jesus enough that he carries the money bag and pays whatever expenses that Jesus and his men incur.” Decius paused while Longinus pondered this unexpected turn of events.

After a few moments of silence Longinus asked his Tesserarius, Quentin to fetch Flavius and asked Decius to sit at his desk. Flavius arrived within a couple of minutes and joined Longinus and Decius at the desk.”

Longinus began the discussion.

“Flavius, we have news about your friend the Galilean preacher, it seems that one of his merry band is a traitor.”

If Longinus’s reaction to the news was surprise and maybe even amusement with the duplicity of these Jews the reaction of Flavius was one of stunned disbelief and horror.

“You can’t be serious?” He stammered.

“Well that is what Decius says my Jewish insider at the Sanhedrin has reported just a little while ago.” He looked at Flavius as Flavius asked “do you know which one of his men has done this.”

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“A certain Judas Iscariot. That is the correct name isn’t it Decius.”

“Yes Centurion, Judas Iscariot.”

Flavius looked at Decius and Longinus and said “Iscariot.”

“You know of him.” Inquired Longinus.

“Yes I do know of him. Before he joined with Jesus he was reported to be linked to a group of assassins called the sicarii.”

“The sicarii?” Longinus asked , hardly believing what Flavius said. The sicarii were a particularly violent group, known to kill Romans and people that they suspected of being collaborators. They armed themselves with a particularly nasty dagger that they carried beneath their tunics. If this was true it could be a particularly disturbing turn of events.

“Yes my friend. You see many people followed this Jesus not because of his goodness or any thought of benevolence, but because they believed that he would overthrow the Jewish regime and drive us out of this land.”

“I had no idea. I thought they were all a bunch of do gooders. In fact until Jesus took a whip to all the merchants in the Temple the other day I didn’t think that he had a violent bone in his body.”

He looked at Decius and asked “What does our spy say about this Judas fellows motive?”

The younger officer replied “our man said that He overheard Judas talking before he went into the chambers of the Sanhedrin with some Priests sympathetic with the Zealot party of the Jews.”

“Continue.”

“What he said is that evidently Judas told these men that he was disappointed by the fact that Jesus did not appear to be seeking to overthrow us.”

“That would not be surprising for a member of the sicarii.” Added Flavius, his expression changing from disbelief to anger and after a moment’s reflection he slammed his fist down on the table and added “I could kill that miserable bugger myself…the man Jesus has done nothing wrong.” As Flavius spoke his voice rose in intensity. Longinus knew his friend was upset.

“Flavius, I can understand, this seems a vile thing but there are even larger issues than your friendship with this man and what he did for your servant.” Longinus hoped that his outward calm and acknowledgment of his friend’s feelings would help calm the anger.

“Longinus my friend, I know how you feel about these people and I hoped for better, I wanted to believe that they were a cut above us with their One God, but I see that even a people as devout as the Jews are as capable of evil as the worst Greek, Egyptian, Cretin or Arab.” He paused. “Do you have wine? I could use a drink about now.”

“Of course, my friend. Decius, please pour each of us each a cup of wine.”

As the younger officer got the wine Longinus looked at his angry and downcast friend. He felt a certain amount of sympathy for Flavius, but he had long ago learned not to let the sufferings of occupied people touch him deeply. He had built a fortress at impregnable as Fortress Antonia around his own heart years ago. It was the only way to survive. The being said he recognized a certain amount of humanity in his friend that was absent from so many of his comrades. In a way he envied Flavius. As he thought these things he realized that he needed to move the subject from Flavius’s emotional response to this situation to the practical consequences of this development. About that time Decius brought the wine and placing three cups on the table poured the wine.

“Thank you my friend.” Flavius said as he lifted the cup to his lips.

Both men raised their cups and took a drink. As he set his cup down Longinus continued. “I know that you hoped for better from these people, but you know I have found that some of the most religious people are also the most violent and intolerant.”

Flavius looked at his friend who continued “it seems to me that when someone, you know true believers, know that they have any deity at their disposal they are inclined to be less tolerant of others.” He paused and took a sip of wine. “I think that it is a testament to the Empire that we have so many religions and that in the name of law and order that violent ones are suppressed. That is why throughout most of the Empire we have peace.”

Flavius interrupted his friend. “But we enforce the religion of Caesar, a man, who we claim as God on our citizens.”

“True, but none of us really believe he is a real God anyway, it is a way to keep order. The state makes a religion of itself, it keeps the really dangerous types at bay. So long as people put Caesar first, even if it means burning a bit of incense to a man that they do not believe is God it serves a purpose doesn’t it?”

Flavius looked at his friend and quietly replied “I guess until I met this Jesus fellow I would have agreed completely, but now I don’t know.”

Longinus listened to his friend and could see the sincerity in his face. He continued saying softly “I really believe my friend that the second that any religion that proclaims something different arises and gains control of the Empire you can be assured that the peace that we know will be gone.”

“But that is no substitute for belief in a real God.” Answered Flavius.

“That may be so my friend but it helps keep the peace and is why we don’t have problems throughout the Empire like those that beset us here.”
A curious silence descended in the room as the two friends pondered the situation. Finally Flavius broke the silence. “I just hope that what this man has done stays a Jewish problem for their leaders. I would hate for us Romans to have to become involved in it.”

“As do I my friend, I can drink to that.”

The three men sat silently continuing to drink their wine as they pondered the position that they found themselves…. It was nearly sunset.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Easter and the Outcasts: For Many the Season is Painful

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Sieger Köder
“Barmherzigkeit” (Mercy)

“Let us not underestimate how hard it is to be compassionate. Compassion is hard because it requires the inner disposition to go with others to place where they are weak, vulnerable, lonely, and broken. But this is not our spontaneous response to suffering. What we desire most is to do away with suffering by fleeing from it or finding a quick cure for it.” Henri Nouwen

It is now Holy or Maundy Thursday, the beginning of the Easter Triduum. Mid-way through Holy Week and I am doing some thinking about Christians that have suffered a crisis in faith or loss of faith. I meet them all the time and read their stories on blogs, books and social media. Of course I run across more now because I have gone through such a crisis and have written about it and through that had my story publicized. As a result I am contacted by people who have suffered trauma, especially related to PTSD as well as those that care for such people.

For many Christians Holy Week and Easter can be particularly painful. Having known plenty of these people I can say that this phenomenon is one of the more tragic aspects of the season. People who at one time felt the presence of God in their life only sense emptiness and loneliness. For some this loneliness can transition to a feeling of hopelessness where even death appears more comforting than life in the present.

I say this because so many people suffering people often go unnoticed or are ignored in church. Their loss could be that of a spouse or child, the loss of something else significant or another type of trauma that devastates them. Others find that they are rejected by the communities of faith that they had been part of all of their lives because of divorce or because of their sexual preference. However, no matter the cause of the suffering many people discover that they are outcasts in the place where they should be cared about more than anywhere else.

Many pastors and priests are either unaware of them, uncomfortable around them or irritated by them because they don’t respond like “normal” people to the message of Easter. I have found from my own experience returning from Iraq that Easter despite the message of resurrection and hope often triggers a despair of life itself. It is not so bad this year for me but I can remember coming home from Iraq and going through an extended period of time where I felt absolutely alone and no longer sensed the presence of God. I have to say that as a Priest and Chaplain that experience was one of the most frightening of my life.

Years ago I believed that if someone was in the midst of a crisis in faith if they read the Bible more, prayed more and made sure that they were in church that things would work out. I believed then that somehow with a bit of counseling, the right concept of God and involvement in church activities that God would “heal” them.

Call me a heretic but I do not believe that now. That line of thinking is nice for people experiencing a minor bump in their life. However it is absolutely stupid advice to give people who are severely traumatized, clinically depressed, and suicidal or who no longer perceive the presence of God in their lives. This is especially true for those abused by parents or clergy. That kind of wound does damage to the victim’s very concept and understanding of God which can last a lifetime, and in some churches leads to continued re-victimization as the victims are blamed for their plight.

Thus I cannot condemn those who have lost their faith or are wavering in their faith due to trauma, abuse or any other psychological reason. The numbers of people victimized by family, teachers, clergy other authority figures is mind numbing. Likewise we don’t even bother to count the vast numbers of people in our churches who have lost children or other loved ones, experienced some kind of physical trauma related to accidents, had near death experiences or combat deal with the wounds of war. They are all over the place and many go unnoticed in the church.

Sometimes the damage makes it nearly impossible for people to comprehend a God who both cares about them and who is safe to approach. To some God is at best a detached and uncaring being who allowed them to be hurt, and those that serve him in positions of authority are willing accomplices and are no safe.

My experience of coming home from Iraq and the trauma of my return and were absolutely frightening. I was in such bad shape that I left Christmas Eve Mass in 2008 before it started and walked through the dark wondering if God even existed. My isolation from other Christians and the church community and despair that I experienced showed me that such a loss of faith is not to be trifled with by care givers. Nor is it to be papered over with the pretty wallpaper or neat sets of “principles” drawn up by “pastors” who refuse to deal with the reality of the consequences of a fallen world and their impact on real people.

Those that I have talked to and read about who have suffered a crisis or loss of faith almost always express how they feel cut off and even abandoned by God. It is also something that I experienced, thus for me it is not an academic exercise. It is not simply depression that people are dealing with, but despair of life itself. Sometimes it seems that death or just going to sleep is preferable to living. This overwhelming despair impacts almost all of life. It is if they never are able to leave the “God-forsakenness” of Good Friday and cannot climb out of the tomb. For some the pain is so much that suicide becomes an option and the belief that their family, friends and loved ones would be better off without them. I have seen this too many times to count.

It is hard to reach for the person experiencing this pain to reach out but it is also difficult for those who care enough to reach out to them. I can say that I was not easy to deal with and because of my distrust it was hard to believe that anyone cared, even when they did. However the people who chose to remain with me and walk with me through the ordeal in spite of my frequent crashes, depression, anger and even rage helped get me through the worst of this. I’m sure that some who had to deal with me in that condition got burned out as I was not easy to deal with. Some chose not walk with me as I began to go down this road in early 2008 and the sad thing is that many were ministers and fellow chaplains. In some ways I don’t blame them. However it is telling that the first person that asked me about my spiritual life “or how I was with the Big Guy” was my first therapist.

The topic of a loss of faith or the reality of feeling God forsaken is had to deal with but is something that we need to face especially during Holy Week. The Cross necessitates this, Jesus was considered “God-Forsaken” and that is what is so perplexing about Good Friday. He is the battered and abandoned victim on that day, a day when all hope appears to be gone. German theologian Jurgen Moltmann wrote something quite profound:

“When God becomes man in Jesus of Nazareth, he not only enters into the finitude of man, but in his death on the cross also enters into the situation of man’s godforsakenness. In Jesus he does not die the natural death of a finite being, but the violent death of the criminal on the cross, the death of complete abandonment by God. The suffering in the passion of Jesus is abandonment, rejection by God, his Father. God does not become a religion, so that man participates in him by corresponding religious thoughts and feelings. God does not become a law, so that man participates in him through obedience to a law. God does not become an ideal, so that man achieves community with him through constant striving. He humbles himself and takes upon himself the eternal death of the godless and the godforsaken, so that all the godless and the godforsaken can experience communion with him.” 

Scripture plainly teaches that we are to “bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” But this can be hard to do, we don’t like dealing with suffering. But as Dietrich Bonhoeffer said “We must learn to regard people less in light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.” It is our willingness to be with people in their suffering that is one of the true marks of the Christian. Being with someone in triumph is far easier than with walking with and holding on to those who suffer the absence of God. It is presence and love not sermons that people who have lost their faith need as Bonhoeffer so eloquently said “Where God tears great gaps we should not try to fill them with human words.”

I do pray that as we walk with Jesus this Holy Week that we will not forget those who despair of live and feel as if they are “God-forsaken.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Padre Steve Shrugged: My Frustration with the Christian Subculture

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“If Christ were here now there is one thing he would not be – a Christian.” Mark Twain

Padre Steve is shrugging a lot today, so please excuse this but I have to say it. Sometimes I just want to scream when I see people and institutions claiming to be Christian when they exhibit none of the Christian graces or marks of the Christian faith.

I am constantly amazed by the self serving and self-righteous hatred shown by many of my allegedly Christian brothers and sisters towards that they do not approve.  This is especially true of how they treat the LGBT community, who only want to get equal rights under the law. Of course my brothers and sisters who want to legislate the LGBT community out of existence. Some American Christians promote laws in Africa to send gays to prison or even worse sentence them to death. They do this with gusto, all while claiming with absolute certitude their interpretations of the Bible. While they condemn gays they ignore all the other Old Testament laws that prescribe similar harsh sentences, such as death for the very things that they do. The fact that supposedly Christian leaders such as Scott Lively and others are attempting to pass laws in the United States and other countries, especially in Africa to openly persecute and even execute gays is abhorrent.

To use the power of the State to enforce one’s religious beliefs on others is exactly what the founders of our country attempted to negate in our Constitution and Bill of Rights. Thomas Jefferson writing to Alexander Humbolt in 1813 correctly noted: “History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government. This marks the lowest grade of ignorance of which their civil as well as religious leaders will always avail themselves for their own purposes.”  

Thus I shrug my shoulders and wonder which Bible they are reading, and I am a Priest, with a sound Biblical and theological education. Thus to those without that it really has to be confusing. But I am also a historian, ethicist and occasionally a stand up philosopher and I can spot theological and historical bullshit when I see it and smell it. Unfortunately many leaders of the American “Christian Right” are full of it and it stinks to low Hell.

I shrug my shoulders in wonder of the ignorance I see displayed by my Christian bothers and sisters, some of whom certainly regard me as an apostate or heretic for criticizing their political-religious crusades.  But then I remember that the Bible they read is the one that excuses all the sins that they approve of, but condemns the sins of those that they don’t like. I think that the translation they cite is the Damn Everyone Else to Hell But Me Version of the Bible. But wait, you say that that there is no such translation? Well it may not be in print but it is certainly written on their hearts, like it is on the hearts of all true believers, but I digress. The great American philosopher Eric Hoffer wrote: “A doctrine insulates the devout not only against the realities around them but also against their own selves. The fanatical believer is not conscious of his envy, malice, pettiness and dishonesty. There is a wall of words between his consciousness and his real self.”

Likewise I get frustrated by my Christian brothers and sisters who routinely tell those suffering from Cancer or other painful or terminal conditions that they need to read a book or listen to a sermon by some Christian that is obviously more spiritual and better than the rest of us. Instead of coming alongside of those suffering they spout empty words, just like Job’s friends.

So I shrug because I remember that the command of Jesus to Christians is to bear one another’s burdens, not preach at those that are suffering.

But that being said I shrug my shoulders in amazement when I see those same Christian brothers and sisters embracing the abject and atheistic Social Darwinism of Ayn Rand and her Objectivist Philosophy. This has now been “baptized” by many leaders of the Christian Right as “Biblical” or “Christian.”

I also shrug when I see men who are paid millions of dollars a year to stir up hate and discontent by criticizing those that they do not approve throw tantrums and compare themselves to Jesus. Fox News Pundit Bill O’Reilly whined last week and did just that, saying that “even Jesus had haters.” Sorry Bill, but there is no comparison. You and those like you are hacks paid to stir shit up and keep people enraged so they keep watching your program. Unlike you, Jesus showed love and compassion to those that condemned him and didn’t get a penny for it.

I am a Christian, but I hate to say that the more I look around the more I see Christians who make me wonder about the God that they claim to represent. If I was not a believer I would have to admit that I see nothing redeeming in what I see and that have to wonder why I would want to believe in a God who according to the Christian Right is capricious, vindictive, petty, unloving, unethical and unjust. A “God” who is nothing like the one who according to Paul the Apostle:

“who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” (Phil 2:6-8 NRSV)

Thus I shrug. I cannot fathom the absurd depths of ignorance and hatred that is so routinely and even unthinkingly a part of the lives of some of my fellow Christians.

If the fact that I say this pisses people off, I have to say that I no longer care.  I cannot pretend as I can no longer live in the cloud cuckoo land of conservative American Christianity.

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So anyway. I had to get it out. I know that there will be some people who take offense to most of what I said and that is fine with me. But it has to be said if Christianity is to survive in the West. If Christians do not throw aside the mantle of power, privilege and priority that it assumed under Constantine, the mantle of the imperial church and return to being Christians, the Christian faith will not survive. And yes, that includes all of those massive auditoriums built by narcissistic mega-church pastors and the congregations that worship them.

People are fleeing what we call Christianity in the United States. They are fleeing churches in ever growing numbers and all the statistics, surveys and polls confirm this. More and more people are identifying themselves as not having a particular religious belief. Likewise more and more are openly admitting to being atheists or agnostics.  The numbers and percentages of unbelievers are growing at exponential rates. They are known as “the Nones” or those with no religious preference. As a military chaplain I have seen this trend growing for the past 25 years and it is only getting worse, and truthfully I cannot blame them. And who can blame the “nones” for turning their backs on Christianity? If I was not already a Christian there is little that convince me to become one today, not because of Jesus, but because of how Christians treat others. So that being said I will still love and care for all of my “nones” and be there for them.

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Christians have forgotten the reality of the Gospel. The world will not know us by our correct doctrine, nor will it know us by how well we observe the law, nor will it know us by any other thing but this: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

The fact is that if I wasn’t already a Christian there is nothing in the witness of most American Churches and Christians, especially Evangelicals and conservative Catholics that would ever bring me to faith in Jesus.  I totally agree with author Ann Rice who back in 2010 said:

“For those who care, and I understand if you don’t: Today I quit being a Christian. I’m out. I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being ‘Christian’ or to being part of Christianity. It’s simply impossible for me to ‘belong’ to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I’ve tried. I’ve failed. I’m an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else.”

The sad thing is, that before Iraq and my PTSD crash and crisis of faith that left me a practical agnostic for nearly two years that I used to be just like many of people that I am calling out today. Maybe I was a bit more nuanced theologically and better able to say cruel things without making them sound too cruel, but truthfully some of the things that I said and believed at one time were not much different than what my more crass brothers and sisters do today. For that I am sorry.

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Okay, I have said it. I have gotten it off my chest for now, though I am sure that some time in the next number of months or year that I will pop my cork again. But what can I say?

So for tonight and until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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God With Us? The Misuse of God’s Promise by Political Partisans

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It is one of the most amazing stories of salvation history. The Incarnation of God in Jesus the Christ. Matthew’s Gospel (Ch 1 v.24), referring back to the words of Isaiah delivers the message in words which find their way into our culture every Christmas through Georg Friedrich Handel’s Messiah: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, ‘God with us.’”

That message, which lays at the heart of the Christian Gospel is really amazing.  It is a message that points to a Gospel meant for all people and not any particular nation, nor any political, racial, or ethnic group that wishes to appropriate it for themselves alone.

It is the message of the humility and grace of God.  It is the message God humbling himself to become incarnate and not only live among his creation, but to suffer and die for the salvation of it. All of it. As Paul wrote so well in his epistle to the Philippians:

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death– even death on a cross.” (Phil 2:5-7)

Unfortunately that message is all too often appropriated and twisted into something unrecognizable by those who seek to use it to bolster their particular ideology, nationalism or even racism. In practice, human beings are much more likely to claim this message to bolster their own hatred and intolerance or justify their nation’s desire for conquest. It matters not if the a Christian in any sense of the word or not. One sees the same idea floated by zealots of almost every major religion. The appeal to being on the same side of God trumps all other arguments.

As a historian I have studied this often. In the United States it is encompassed in the idea of Manifest Destiny; but can be seen in the life and history of many nations who in their belief that God was on their side have slaughtered hundreds of millions of people. One does not have to look far to see leaders of nations, political factions, ideologues or other fanatics appropriate God as the trump card of their message. However, it is not just a matter for history. It happens every day, and it is not pretty. Many use it to justify the most reprehensible crimes, persecution, ethnic cleansing and even genocide. They do so all in the name of God, preaching that God is with them, and not those who they despise.

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Today I saw a blog on a service that I use to promote my website. The author of the blog promotes an extremely conservative political ideology with most of his posts being directed with some vehemence, often colored by blatant racism at President Obama and others that he does not agree with. Usually his posts are filled with such hyperbole and nonsense that I simply ignore them. However, today he posted something that as a Christian really bothered me. His post was titled Do Not Fear, God is With Us, and it featured the picture shown above. When I saw it, I felt a chill run down my spine. It was as if I was envisioning the virulent hatred of other races, creeds and nations exhibited by those who have claimed that mantle before. I can see it now, a belt-buckle with a Swastika, ringed in the words “Gott Mit Uns.” 

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The sad thing is that the Christians who claim this mantle misuse scripture and twist it to justify their hatred of all that they disagree with, have lost sight of the Gospel. Instead they have allowed their passionate hatred and prejudice to hijack the message of the Gospel to promote political partisanship, hyper nationalism and xenophobia. This can hardly be called Christian. If such ideas were was limited to the fringe of society it would not be so concerning. However, this blogger represents a significant portion of the American electorate; and his comments are echoed by the very powerful, and allegedly Christian leaders of partisan political organizations, as well as pundits, politicians and preachers. If you do not agree with them you are not a real American.

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Cartoon from the Nazi Der Sturmer linking the Nazi Movement to Christ, with the Jew being the villain 

Instead of seeing the message of God’s grace, love and mercy for all people, we see triumphalist Christians that claim that God is with them. In their zeal they ride roughshod over others, and despise all who disagree with or oppose them. Their opponents are painted as being in league with the Devil, modern Judas Iscariots. In their lives and ideology many Christians follow leaders who espouse brutal doctrines of Social Darwinism and sell their birthright for a pittance. They attempt to use of the police power of government at every level against those that they disapprove, in matters of faith, lifestyle or politics. Likewise they have no compunction about using the military and economic power of the nation to crush weaker nations, all because they believe that they and their country have God on their side.

But do such sentiments have any place in the message of Christians? I think not. As Paul the Apostle notes: if in Christ “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:28) Or as Paul writes in 2 Corinthians “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.” (2 Cor 5: 19)

The Gospel is not about God being on the side of any nation or political ideology. Such ideas always end in disaster for those that believe them, and who use God to justify their actions.

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McNoughton’s “One Nation under God”

The picture on the website that triggered this little article is one by a Mormon artist, John McNoughton. McNoughton has frequently blended the image of Jesus with the most banal appeal to American “patriotism” and crude attacks on President Obama. In this picture as well as others the artist has Jesus holding a copy of the Constitution of the United States in his right hand, with his friends on that side, and his foes, including judges, others viewed as liberals and women. In his more crass attacks on the President in other paintings he shows Obama trampling the Constitution while white people are bound in chains. All of these show up with startling frequency on supposedly Christian websites.

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US Political Cartoon from 1896

The sad truth is that McNoughton is not the first to practice this crude form of xenophobic patriotism, which appeals to God in order to vilify the opponents of their ideology. It has been used in this country before, as well as in Europe to vilify Jews, racial minorities and political opponents.

Yes, I do believe that God is with us, however, that is not confused with appeals to my patriotism, which is real and has led me to serve this nation for over 30 years in the military including two combat tours in the Middle East. Nor does it add or detract from my support of our Constitution, why does not mention God once, despite its guarantee of religious freedom for all, not just Christians. It is an amazing document, one that I will die to defend, but it is not handed down by God, and Jesus never referred to it.

Instead, my belief that God is with us flows from the mystery of the Incarnation, that miracle of salvation history.  I believe in the message wonderfully referred to in the liturgy as the “mystery of faith,” that Christ has died, Christ is risen and Christ will come again. My belief flows from the simple message that for God so loved the world… and not that God so established this or any other nation or political ideology as his own.

I understand the fear that drives men like the blogger who posted the article I saw, as well as men like McNoughton. Their fear of the other allows them to use these images to promote their hopelessly confused faith and ideology. Dietrich Bonhoeffer who saw the same fear and hatred present among his fellow Germans, especially German Christians wrote:

“The Christian must treat his enemy as a brother, and requite his hostility with love. His behavior must be determined not by the way others treat him, but by the treatment he himself receives from Jesus; it has only one source, and that is the will of Jesus.”

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What I see from the present political ideologues has nothing to do with love of God or our neighbor, but their efforts to protect their status in society, their political power and subject all others to their will.

God is with us indeed, in the humility of a borrowed manger, on the gibbet of a Roman cross, and in shame of a borrowed tomb. God is really present with us in the the bread and wine, in the word, and in the lives of his people; especially the least, the lost and the lonely. To attempt to crudely use God to buttress any earthy power is heresy. Those that use it in such a manner, though proclaiming their fealty to Christ, or any other God, willingly trample the message of the God who humbled himself, even to death on a cross.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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