The Centurion at the Cross–A Lenten Meditation
Read Mark 15, especially verse 39
The centurion had been summoned by the garrison commander. There was nothing particularly unusual about that. The centurion was one of the senior officers in the cohort that was stationed at the fortress in Jerusalem. Of course, all the centurions and officers of the cohort stationed there were tested and experienced men.
Jerusalem was a difficult and challenging posting for a Roman army officer. He’d learned over his years in Roman Palestine that if you were too lenient with these people, they’d walk all over you. And Pilate, he knew, wouldn’t tolerate that for a minute. But if you leaned on them too hard, they’d explode like a volcano. And he knew that Rome wouldn’t put up with that. Most of the centurions and officers in the cohort in Jerusalem were tough but steady men. They’d learned who you had to intimidate and how to do it, and who you had to finesse and how to do that.
Entering the commander’s quarters, the centurion saluted. The commander was a gnarly old army officer, gruff and terse. He looked up and said, “Ah, good! It looks like we might have a . . . special crucifixion. I want you to get things ready.”
The centurion sighed and looked up to the ceiling. The commander noticed and said, “I know. I know. But this one is . . . hmm . . . unusual.”
The centurion walked briskly down the hall toward the wardroom of the barracks. His short-cropped hair was gray. His leathery face was creased with wrinkles and several jagged scars—one of them quite dramatic, running from above his right eyebrow across the bridge of his nose and then down his right cheek. That one came from the tip of a slashing sword on the Parthian frontier. He had other less impressive scars won while putting down local rebels and dealing with a few of his own insubordinate troops. He took pride in the knowledge that not a single man who had put a scar on his body had lived to gloat about it. He’d left them all dead as payment for the scars they’d given him.
He supposed he ought to consider this crucifixion assignment to be a compliment. The commander had explained that Pilate had given explicit instructions to put his best man on this assignment. And the commander had chosen him. But really! Crucifixion duty! Nasty, nasty work and boring beyond words. The centurion thought he had risen in the ranks and in seniority above such assignments.
The centurion hadn’t really fully understood why Pilate was so concerned about this particular crucifixion or this particular man—some rabbi from up north. But the centurion had been on patrol around the city over the past week. The garrison was always on high alert during these local holy days. The city was always pack especially during the one they called Pascha, Passover. They always tried to make sure that their troops were very visible to the crowds, but they also tried to interfere as little as possible with the religious rites. It was a fine balance to keep.
This past week, though, the centurion had certainly felt an extra tension. He heard about some sort of motley procession into the city on Sunday, crowds and palm branches. Talk of some old King David from a long-ago Jewish kingdom. He’d heard that the temple authorities were all stirred up about that for some reason. Then there was word of some sort of disturbance in the temple itself the next day. But he had strict orders to keep his people out of the temple. The temple authorities had their own police to deal with things there. Did this northern rabbi had something to do with that? But then why would Pilate get mixed up with that? Pilate despised those temple authorities; that was well-known. If this country rabbi was giving trouble to the temple authorities, why would Pilate want to crucify him? It was all a bit above the centurion’s pay grade. What the commander had told him was that Pilate was in a rare temper about it all and was worried that the whole thing could go sideways on him. That’s why he wanted someone tough but steady to oversee the deed.
For nearly thirty years now, he had served proudly in Rome’s army. During almost twenty of those years, he’d held the rank of centurion. He remembered the promotion ceremony well. Most of his cohort had been assembled on the parade grounds. The legate colonel had called him forward, read the declaration of promotion, and then presented him with emblem of his rank, the meter-long vine staff.
Every centurion carried one. He never went anywhere without his. He had adjusted the attitude of many a raw recruit with a swift, firm stroke of that vine staff across some bit of exposed flesh. It did not real harm, but it raised a vivid welt that helped the recruit reflect on the error of his ways.
As continued his brisk march toward the wardroom of the barracks, he could hear the echoing hoots and laughter of his troops. Apparently this little rabbi had already arrived from flogging. One of the centurion’s colleagues was well-known for his skill at flogging a man just to the point of killing him, then leaving him in his agony. That man had been called in specially for this flogging. The governor was bringing all his resources to bear on this case.
The centurion stepped through the doorway just in time to see one of his men throw such a roundhouse to this country rabbi’s cheek that it sent him halfway across the room and thudding to the floor. The others howled their approval. The broken man lay for a moment in his own blood on the floor. His back and sides were flayed open. Ribs and sinews were showing through the shredded flesh. The centurion was pleased to see this. It mean that the crucifixion wouldn’t take too long. Men in that condition rarely lasted long on the cross.
As they all watched in astonishment, this ragged, broken man began to drag himself up off the floor. The centurion was impressed. He’d been on many fields of battle in his years. He’s seen strong men break under lesser wounds than this. Strong fighting men who had charged into the fight with great war cries only to lie whimpering in the field when struck down.
Though the rabbi’s tenacity impressed the centurion, it seemed to enrage his men. Before the rabbi could get fully upright, another of his men struck him a sharp blow to the back of the head and sent him crashing down again onto the stone floor. The centurion roared, “Enough!” His instructions were to batter the man, bloody him, but not kill him outright. If he didn’t stop this now, it would have some dangerous explaining to do before an already angry governor. And he knew all too well that Pilate was very dangerous when he was angry.
The centurion watched as someone from Pilate’s staff directed the soldiers to dress this trembling, bleeding, country rabbi like some sort of pathetic king. They made him shuffle out onto Pilate’s balcony. He heard the crowd’s reaction. He heard Pilate’s attempt to argue with them. Then the governor stormed in from the balcony. The centurion could see that he was seething. Pilate caught sight of the centurion. With a look of recognition, the governor looked hard into the centurion’s face and said, “See to it. And see that it’s done right.” As the centurion saluted, Pilate strode away cursing loudly.
Collecting four of his steadiest legionaries, the centurion’s instructions were simple and firm, “By the book! No messing around! I want you fully armed. There’s something odd about all of this. I don’t like the feel of it. Let’s go.”
The actual act of crucifixion went off more smoothly than the centurion had expected. The rabbi gave them no trouble at all. He almost cooperated with them. The other two were not cooperative, but his men had sorted them out quickly and brutally but with business-like precision. He’s picked the right men.
But this rabbi—there was something strange, unsettling about him. There was not crying, no cursing, no pleading. He was plainly in agony. But of course, agony was one of the main points of crucifixion. Still, there was an unnerving focus about him, as if he were engaged in some mission, some purpose. The centurion had crucified more men than he could count, some women too. Some had been angry, struggling and fighting to the last breath. Some had been remorseful, begging for mercy and help to the very end. Some had abandoned hope before a nail was even driven into place, limp rag dolls who died quickly. But this rabbi—he’d never seen anyone like this one.
The rabbi spoke to some people in the crowd. He prayed. For a while, with his head hanging, he seemed to struggle for breath, but that was normal, especially for someone who’d been nearly beaten to death. Then the rabbi began to slowly lift his head. There was nothing labored about the action. This battered and broken rabbi’s body slowly began to exude a sense of power and purpose.
There was a frightening resoluteness in the rabbi’s face. Suddenly, memories began to run through the centurion’s mind, memories of faces, faces from all the battlefields where the centurion had fought and bled and killed, fighting men’s faces, the faces of warriors who had fought beside him and who had fought against him, fierce, determined. He had never seen such a face on a cross.
This warrior rabbi cast his fierce gaze off over the heads of everyone gathered around his cross. He wasn’t looking at any of them. He wasn’t looking at any human foe. What was he looking at? Who was he looking at? The centurion looked in the direction of the rabbi’s gaze. He couldn’t see anything except a sort of darkness above the horizon.
As the centurion brought his gaze back to the rabbi on the cross, he saw the rabbi open his mouth and utter a reverberating shout. The centurion started and realized that he’s drawn his sword instinctively. His men too had leaped to their feet and reached for their weapons. The rabbi’s shout was unmistakable. Every soldier in the world would have known it immediately. He had responded to it. His men had responded to it intuitively. It was a battle cry. Every soldier who heard it would have known it. It was the shout of a man charging to attack his enemy.
Never, never had a man shouted like that from a Roman cross. Who was this man? Breathing heavily and speaking almost without realizing it, the centurion said, “Surely this man was . . . (what?) . . . a son of the gods . . . the Son of God?” What did that even mean? He had to know. It was clear to him in an instant that he had to know who this rabbi was. There would be no rest for him until he knew who this man was.
In the days that followed, his fellow centurions had asked him about the crucifixion. He just shook his head and waved them off. They’d laughed at him at first, then they started looking at him with concern.
Soon there were weird rumors muttered around the cohort about some strange happenings at the man’s tomb. Then wider rumors running through the city about a resurrection. Angry denunciations came from the temple authorities. Five or six weeks later there was some sort of brief disturbance in the city that was said to involve this rabbi’s followers.
As far as the centurion’s superiors were concerned, all of this was just Jewish infighting, and they paid little attention. But for the centurion it was a hint of where to go to find out more about this warrior rabbi whose battlefield was a Roman cross. Or was the cross his weapon? The centurion was now on a quest. It was a quest that might not be well-received by his superiors. But now that sort of thing strangely didn’t matter anymore. Fear had never deterred him before. Nor would it now.
From the Apostle Paul: “But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!” 1 Corinthians 15:57 [NET]
(c) 2021 Gary A. Chorpenning; all rights reserved; use with permission.