Tag Archives: pharisees

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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I Want to Believe this Easter

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“Religion carries two sorts of people in two entirely opposite directions: the mild and gentle people it carries towards mercy and justice; the persecuting people it carries into fiendish sadistic cruelty…” Alfred North Whitehead 

Sometimes Holy Week can be a downer and I can understand why people who doubt, or who have been abused by Christians, either in the church or as outsiders find this to be so. I am a Christian, a priest, a Navy Chaplain. By all estimates I should be on the “inside” so to speak, but in the current religious and political climate I am an outsider. My crime to the “true believers” is that I question their certitude, and I reject the hateful ideas of an American Christian theocracy preached by the politicians, pundits and preachers of the Christian Right.

As for me, this year, Holy Week has been a bit of a downer. I believe, but I don’t. For a while I wondered if it was my post-Iraq agnosticism returning, but after spending some time meditating and thinking on it I realized that was not the case. I do still believe, or at least I want to, but my doubt and unbelief now mainly comes from of my experience with Christians, not so much God.

Truthfully I wonder. I wonder if God is the God whose Son reconciled the world to himself, how those that claim to be his most devout followers seem more intent preaching a message of alienation and rejection rather than reconciliation. I wonder how people who claim to be the disciples of the Prince of Peace seem far more intent on conducting a jihad like culture war than the message of peace and reconciliation. I wonder how such people who claim to be God’s elect and anointed can so maltreat the very people who Jesus would have gone out of his way to care for, and in fact died and rose again in order to save. But I am not alone in this.

Rachel Held Evans wrote in a CNN religion blog yesterday:

“This is the tragic irony of the culture wars: The casualties tend to be the very people Jesus went out of his way to serve: the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the outcasts, the people ostracized and deemed “sinners” by the religious elite. And when the world sees Christians hurting rather than helping such people in the name of political gain, our testimony is profoundly diminished.” 

I fully understand what she is saying. Personally I am tired of the abuse of people who in the name of their culture warrior political Christian elite must resort to the most loathsome methods to demonize people who do not agree with them, including me. Sadly, in addition to people who don’t know me from Adam who do this I have experienced it from so called “Christian” friends. If it wan’t for people, including conservative Christians who have stood by me through thick and thin, even when they disagree with me, I probably would just chuck Christianity and the church.

But I cannot do that if I believe in the message of Jesus. I cannot do that if I actually even somewhat believe message of Jesus. A message that reaches out even to the same people who seem to loath me and others like me with a hate stronger than life itself.

When when a person like me struggles to believe in the first place, and at the same time is rejected by those who loudly proclaim to be the disciples of Jesus it does get old. Way too old.

Since it is Holy Week and I am struggling I have decided to not get involved with any discussions this week with the supposed followers of Jesus on any social media that denigrate those who Jesus died to save. If I am to preserve any sort of faith I have to do this.

Sadly, that can and does include things not even connected with the actual Christian faith, mostly the politics of the supposedly “Christian Right.”  A couple of days ago I dared to state the truth that a certain Republican Presidential candidate espoused the same theocratic views as his Christian Dominionist preacher father. That got me attacked by a number of so called Christians including one whose Facebook avatar picture was a soldier wearing a death’s head mask with a pistol pointed directly at me. That man called me a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” I told that man that I had a feeling that I knew what he would do if he actually met me. I picture is worth a thousand words, especially when it comes to revealing attitudes of the heart.

Personally, between the rejection and abuse I have experienced from Christians that I thought were friends, as well as those who are no better than hateful trolls on social media I am pretty much done with all things remotely considered Christian by most Americans today. I find it no wonder that people are fleeing the church, and have no doubts as to why why every poll and trend shows that people increasingly want nothing to do with the those that call themselves Christian or the church.

But I stay, and the the only reason I remain now I think is that I believe in the Jesus of Good Friday, the Jesus who is rejected by all the theologians of glory and Christian Dominionists, the crucified God. I believe in the Jesus whose death was considered a scandal to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks. If I am to believe this is the Jesus that I have to believe in, not the God of the “theologians of glory” or the Dominionists who seek to establish their kingdom on earth with a thin veneer of faith. It as as Jurgen Moltmann wrote:

“The God of freedom, the true God, is… not recognized by his power and glory in the history of the world, but through his helplessness and his death on the scandal of the cross of Jesus”

Theologian Paul Tillich, who served as a U.S. Army Chaplain wrote “Sometimes I think it is my mission to bring faith to the faithless, and doubt to the faithful.”  

In light of my belief in the scandal of the Cross, something that certainly is offensive to those that seek the power and glory of God even if it means trampling those that Jesus most identified, is a mission that I can subscribe.  Most of the people I deal with are those marginalized and rejected by the Christian pharisees, or what I call the “Christian Taliban.”  Personally I am tired of being associated with people who treat the poor, the alien, the different, the sinful and the afflicted as less than human, or less than worthy of God’s love and grace.  I am tired of being associated with people who claim to be pro-life so long as it only applies to life in the womb, who have no problem blessing war without end and the merciless killing of innocents abroad. I am tired of people who scream “let them die” at Presidential debates referring of course to the the poor and uninsured being the voice of Christianity in this county. People who have so discredited themselves and the faith as to make no one want to have anything to do with Jesus.

In the movie Joyeux Noel a priest and chaplain serving with a Scottish regiment during the Christmas truce of 1914 tells the Bishop who is sending him home: “I belong with those who are in pain, and who have lost their faith, I belong here.” Of course the bishop is a man who heartily subscribes to a war without mercy, just as so  many who call themselves Christians do today. When the priest questioned the bishop about being relieved of his duties, the bishop, in a manner similar to what I have experienced tells the priest: “You’re not asking the right question. Think on this: are you really suitable to remain with us in the house of Our Lord?”

I have experienced such comments too much. So regardless of the cost, even the cost to myself I will chose to believe and serve the Crucified God, the God who is not the God of the theocrats of the “Christian” right, but the Crucified God who stands against them. The God who in humility and weakness  proclaimed that his kingdom was not of this world and who stands against those who fraudulent attempt to establish their kingdoms in his name. People that often do so upon the bodies of those that they kill, and the lives of those that they despise. If this means that I am not suitable to “remain in the house of the Lord” than I would rather be an outcast on my own Golgotha this Holy Week than in that house.

Frankly, I don’t know what this Holy Week will bring for me. I am struggling. I want to believe, but sometimes I get so discouraged as one of those wounded by such people that I need to create some safe space if I am to find some solace.

I am opposed to the conservative Christian “Culture Wars” that so many of my friends and others have, and sadly still embrace. I see the “”Culture Wars” as antithetical to the Gospel. I see them as vain attempts to establish a state religion, an American Theocracy that would crush and destroy any that dare oppose it.

That being said I want to remain open to any who seek God. Henri Nouwen wrote:

“Ministry means the ongoing attempt to put one’s own search for God, with all the moments of pain and joy, despair and hope, at the disposal of those who want to join this search but do not know how.”

My journey this Holy Week is one of hope. I do want to believe. Jurgen Moltmann wrote:

“Totally without hope one cannot live. To live without hope is to cease to live. Hell is hopelessness. It is no accident that above the entrance to Dante’s hell is the inscription: “Leave behind all hope, you who enter here.”

That is my journey this week, a journey from my own Golgotha to the Easter Alleluia. To do so I cannot give up hope. I probably won’t do very well at it,this week or any other, but that is my journey.

I don’t know if that makes any sense, but somehow, it does make sense to me.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

 

 

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A Centurion in Jerusalem

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This article is the first story in a prequel trilogy to a trilogy that I wrote about Longinus the Centurion who according to tradition commanded the detail in charge of the crucifixion of Jesus. I plan on re-publishing each segment this week as part of Holy Week and I hope that you find them interesting. Story is basically historical fiction and my imagination about what it must have been like to be a Roman officer witnessing the drama of the Passion during what we now call Holy Week.

Longinus and his men were tired. Pilate, the Governor had decided that he would travel from his Provincial capital of Caesarea in order to maintain a close watch on the Jews of Jerusalem during the annual celebration of Passover. During such times that city, the largest in the province would see its population expand exponentially as Jews from the diaspora, that is those living around the known world would make pilgrimage to the holy city.

Longinus’s men had helped provide the escort as Pilate travelled the nearly 80 miles moving up from the coastal plain where Caesarea was up to the hill country of Judea. The trip took three days as Pilate wanted to be in the city in plenty of time. The weather was conducive to the march, but though well trained Longinus’ men were not Romans but primarily recruited locally from drafts of Syrian’s and Samaritans.

Longinus never really enjoyed this assignment. He had served in other areas as a young officer and much preferred serving with and commanding Italians, Greeks, Macedonians and others to the men that he now commanded, but his duty was to serve wherever he was sent. He thought at times of his family in Italy near his home in Lanciano in the Abruzzo region near the Adriatic, missing his wife and children.

The duty of Longinus and other Romans in the region chiefly consisted of helping police the region and protecting the much despised tax collectors. One of those tax collectors, a Jewish man named Matthew had left the employ of Caesar a few years back and was now a “disciple” of some itinerant Jewish preacher named Jesus. He had heard a story from another Centurion about this preacher that made him chuckle. Evidently some Jews of the sect know as the Pharisees, a particularly strict group tried to trap the Jesus with the question of whether it was lawful to pay taxes to the Romans. They thought that they had trapped him because if he answered in the affirmative he would be rejected by them and discredited among the people, while if he answered that it was not they would have him on record as urging the people to disobey Caesar.

The Centurion who told the story said how with him standing in the background watching and listening that Jesus asked one of the Pharisees to bring him a coin. Looking at the coin he asked the man whose image was on it. The Pharisee, a bit hesitantly replied that it was “Caesar” to which Jesus, who supposedly was an unlearned but charismatic bumpkin from Galilee replied “give to Caesar what is Caesar and to God that which was God’s.” Longinus’ colleague, an outsider looking in at this curious religious dispute was amazed with the acumen of Jesus in dealing with a question that someone less intuitive could have botched with potentially fatal consequences.

The march through Samaria was particularly uneventful but as the Legionaries entered Judea, a region seething with hostility toward the Romans he and his men became more guarded, very aware of the hostility that sometimes invited violence.

They arrived about noon on Friday in order not to stir up the Jewish faithful on their sabbath and took up residence in the Fortress Antonia, the symbol of Roman might in this always rebellious city. That evening and the next day were uneventful, but on Sunday, Longinus was told to have his troops stand by in case of violence. The man named Jesus was entering the city and pandemonium was expected. According to rumor this Jesus had raised a many from the dead in Bethany the day before and was being greeted as a potential King and liberator.

The Roman presence was muted, Pilate and senior commanders not wanting to do anything that might provoke an insurrection. The troops remained on alert at the fortress while Longinus and a number of other officers went to observe events at a distance.

Longinus was amazed at what he saw. Thousands of people singing and throwing cloaks and palms along the street as Jesus, mounted on a white donkey accompanied by his disciples as well as numerous people from Bethany where he had been staying paraded down the street.

The procession moved toward the Temple where an understandably nervous delegation of Pharisees and the Priests of the Temple wondered what Jesus might do. If he was the “Messiah” that they preached about it could be a direct threat to their positions of power and provoke a Roman crackdown against them.

Jesus dismounted from the donkey and entered the Temple area, now crowed with thousands of pilgrims coming to offer sacrifice where he began to condemn the moneychangers. The moneychangers were in charge of selling animals for sacrifice to pilgrims, many of whom who could not bring their own animals for sacrifice. They were not according to what Longinus knew from his previous visits to the city at Passover and other Holy days men of good repute. They were believed to make their profit off the poor and widows and even the Romans that knew of the practice considered it less than honorable, and certainly the religious authorities were making money from their efforts.

As Jesus went into the Temple, Longinus and his fellow officers stayed back. As Gentiles their presence would create a crisis so they remained outside entrusting a Jew who worked with them to make the observation. They could hear commotion in the Temple and as they watched money changers and others came spilling out of the Temple grounds, many surrounded by their animals, lambs, doves and oxen. Longinus wondered what in the name of Jupiter was going on and soon his spy came running out of the Temple to make his report.

Slowing down as he approached Longinus he breathlessly gave his report. Jesus had taken a whip and driven out the moneychangers, condemning their activities and those of the religious leaders. Longinus had never heard of Jesus ever doing anything remotely violent before and this shocked him. He asked what else had happened and the spy reported that the Temple police and authorities did nothing and that Jesus left without further incident.

Longinus knew that the coming days could prove interesting. Going to Pilate that evening he gave his report. Pilate was quite concerned about the situation and considered it volatile. He ordered Longinus and the other officers to maintain an elevated state of readiness in case there was some sort of protest or even civil strife between the followers of Jesus and the Jewish authorities.

Longinus left Pilate and he and his fellow officers discussed the situation, briefed their subordinates and as night fell met in the tavern in the fortress where they quietly drank and wondered what the coming days might bring.

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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A Centurion’s Remarkable Sunday in Jerusalem: The Story of Longinus

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This article is the first story in a prequel trilogy to a trilogy that I wrote about Longinus the Centurion who according to tradition commanded the detail in charge of the crucifixion of Jesus. I plan on re-publishing each segment this week as part of Holy Week and I hope that you find them interesting. Story is basically historical fiction and my imagination about what it must have been like to be a Roman officer witnessing the drama of the Passion during what we now call Holy Week.

I find a special affinity to this soldier who while serving his country in a land far from home whose people detested the occupiers of their country by a foreign power that most considered infidels. I don’t think that anyone can really understand the plight of the Roman officers assigned to the occupation of Judea and Samaria in the First Century until they have  done their time in Iraq or Afghanistan. These peoples, though not Jewish have similar divisions,  contradictions and prejudices against foreigners as those that lived in First Century Palestine. Those American, NATO or coalition troops that served in Iraq or Afghanistan, especially those who actually worked alongside or came to know the people in those countries understand the plight of the Roman soldiers assigned to occupation duty throughout the Empire, but especially in the volatile provinces of Judea and Samaria like Longinus.

So enough of the introduction, on to the story…

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Longinus and his men were tired. Pilate, the Governor had decided that he would travel from his Provincial capital of Caesarea in order to maintain a close watch on the Jews of Jerusalem during the annual celebration of Passover. During such times that city, the largest in the province would see its population expand exponentially as Jews from the diaspora, that is those living around the known world would make pilgrimage to the holy city.

Longinus’s men had helped provide the escort as Pilate travelled the nearly 80 miles moving up from the coastal plain where Caesarea was up to the hill country of Judea. The trip took three days as Pilate wanted to be in the city in plenty of time. The weather was conducive to the march, but though well trained Longinus’ men were not Romans but primarily recruited locally from drafts of Syrian’s and Samaritans.

Longinus never really enjoyed this assignment. He had served in other areas as a young officer and much preferred serving with and commanding Italians, Greeks, Macedonians and others to the men that he now commanded, but his duty was to serve wherever he was sent. He thought at times of his family in Italy near his home in Lanciano in the Abruzzo region near the Adriatic, missing his wife and children.

coin-vespasian-judea-capta-sestertiusThe duty of Longinus and other Romans in the region chiefly consisted of helping police the region and protecting the much despised tax collectors. One of those tax collectors, a Jewish man named Matthew had left the employ of Caesar a few years back and was now a “disciple” of some itinerant Jewish preacher named Jesus. He had heard a story from another Centurion about this preacher that made him chuckle. Evidently some Jews of the sect know as the Pharisees, a particularly strict group tried to trap the Jesus with the question of whether it was lawful to pay taxes to the Romans. They thought that they had trapped him because if he answered in the affirmative he would be rejected by them and discredited among the people, while if he answered that it was not they would have him on record as urging the people to disobey Caesar.

The Centurion who told the story said how with him standing in the background watching and listening that Jesus asked one of the Pharisees to bring him a coin. Looking at the coin he asked the man whose image was on it. The Pharisee, a bit hesitantly replied that it was “Caesar” to which Jesus, who supposedly was an unlearned but charismatic bumpkin from Galilee replied “give to Caesar what is Caesar and to God that which was God’s.” Longinus’ colleague, an outsider looking in at this curious religious dispute was amazed with the acumen of Jesus in dealing with a question that someone less intuitive could have botched with potentially fatal consequences.

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The march through Samaria was particularly uneventful but as the Legionaries entered Judea, a region seething with hostility toward the Romans he and his men became more guarded, very aware of the hostility that sometimes invited violence.

They arrived about noon on Friday in order not to stir up the Jewish faithful on their sabbath and took up residence in the Fortress Antonia, the symbol of Roman might in this always rebellious city. That evening and the next day were uneventful, but on Sunday, Longinus was told to have his troops stand by in case of violence. The man named Jesus was entering the city and pandemonium was expected. According to rumor this Jesus had raised a many from the dead in Bethany the day before and was being greeted as a potential King and liberator.

The Roman presence was muted, Pilate and senior commanders not wanting to do anything that might provoke an insurrection. The troops remained on alert at the fortress while Longinus and a number of other officers went to observe events at a distance.

Longinus was amazed at what he saw. Thousands of people singing and throwing cloaks and palms along the street as Jesus, mounted on a white donkey accompanied by his disciples as well as numerous people from Bethany where he had been staying paraded down the street.

The procession moved toward the Temple where an understandably nervous delegation of Pharisees and the Priests of the Temple wondered what Jesus might do. If he was the “Messiah” that they preached about it could be a direct threat to their positions of power and provoke a Roman crackdown against them.

Jesus dismounted from the donkey and entered the Temple area, now crowed with thousands of pilgrims coming to offer sacrifice where he began to condemn the moneychangers. The moneychangers were in charge of selling animals for sacrifice to pilgrims, many of whom who could not bring their own animals for sacrifice. They were not according to what Longinus knew from his previous visits to the city at Passover and other Holy days men of good repute. They were believed to make their profit off the poor and widows and even the Romans that knew of the practice considered it less than honorable, and certainly the religious authorities were making money from their efforts.

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As Jesus went into the Temple, Longinus and his fellow officers stayed back. As Gentiles their presence would create a crisis so they remained outside entrusting a Jew who worked with them to make the observation. They could hear commotion in the Temple and as they watched money changers and others came spilling out of the Temple grounds, many surrounded by their animals, lambs, doves and oxen. Longinus wondered what in the name of Jupiter was going on and soon his spy came running out of the Temple to make his report.

Slowing down as he approached Longinus he breathlessly gave his report. Jesus had taken a whip and driven out the moneychangers, condemning their activities and those of the religious leaders. Longinus had never heard of Jesus ever doing anything remotely violent before and this shocked him. He asked what else had happened and the spy reported that the Temple police and authorities did nothing and that Jesus left without further incident.

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Longinus knew that the coming days could prove interesting. Going to Pilate that evening he gave his report. Pilate was quite concerned about the situation and considered it volatile. He ordered Longinus and the other officers to maintain an elevated state of readiness in case there was some sort of protest or even civil strife between the followers of Jesus and the Jewish authorities.

Longinus left Pilate and he and his fellow officers discussed the situation, briefed their subordinates and as night fell met in the tavern in the fortress where they quietly drank and wondered what the coming days might bring.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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