The old man stood among the group of worshipers, a part of the church at Rome. He had moved to the imperial city years earlier, raised his family there. He had joined others there in sharing the news of Jesus the Christ. His two grown sons stood beside him, Alexander and Rufus, both now leaders in the church.
The preacher began to retell the story of the Lord’s crucifixion. The old man’s mind drifted deep into his own memory. He didn’t mean to be disrespectful to the preacher, but he didn’t need anyone else to tell him this story. His own memories carried him back.
He had been hurrying into Jerusalem, anticipation and excitement boiling in him. Since childhood he had dreamed of visiting the holy city, dreamed of finally being able to celebrate the Passover. In his excitement he had not been so attentive to his surroundings as he might otherwise have been. So, before he quite realized what was happening, he discovered that he had hurried right into a crowded procession.
The crowd lining the road had startled him. It was his first time in Jerusalem, his first time experiencing Passover. Maybe this was a normal part of the celebration that he did not understand. Then he saw the Roman soldiers and knew immediately that whatever was happening here could have nothing to do with Passover.
His had been a devout upbringing, a scrupulous Jewish family raising a scrupulously observant son. The Jewish community in Cyrene had been vibrant and strong. But at almost 1,000 miles from Jerusalem, few of the faithful Jews of Cyrene had first-hand experience of the holy city.
All through his childhood and youth, the young man had been fascinated by thoughts of Jerusalem, of the holy temple, and of festivals of faithfulness that drew Jews from all over the world into the city. And so, from his youth, he had begun setting aside money to fund a pilgrimage to the city and to Passover. He had been overwhelmed by excitement when he realized that his saving had finally reached its goal.
He had made the long journey, partly by sea, partly by land, in the company of several other devout Jews from Cyrene. When they had arrived in Jerusalem, they had been obliged to separate, each searching out lodgings in guestrooms in private homes in one or another of the villages outside Jerusalem. The young man had been amazed at the number of pilgrims swarming through the villages, all vying for lodging and board. He’d been dismayed by how much householders were charging to provide a bed for pilgrims. But with so many pilgrims seeking a place to stay, local householders with guest space could ask a high price and get it.
“Still,” the young man had thought, “I’m finally here. I will not allow anything to ruin my pilgrimage.” So, he paid more than seemed right to an old couple living about seven miles outside the city to the west. It would be a long walk in from Emmaus, but the walk would allow him to pray and recite psalms as he hiked up the ascent into the city each day. He was a young man, and the exertion did not trouble him.
But the climb into the city had been very exerting, and he had been sweating heavily as he stumbled into the crowded procession at the edge of Jerusalem. He was so eager to finally see the temple, and so the delay that this procession was causing irritated him. The obvious presence of Roman troops in the middle of the procession added confusion to his irritation.
Of course, Cyrene was a Roman city. He was very familiar with Roman troops. But Gentile Roman troops had never been part of his visions of the holy city certainly never part of his vision of Passover. A procession of Roman legionaries in the streets of Jerusalem at Passover offended him. It felt as though it tainted his holy pilgrimage.
As he began to look for some way around this off-putting obstruction to his pilgrimage, his eye caught sight of something that at once chilled his heart and turned his stomach. Amidst the Roman legionaries, was a man or what had once been a man.
Bent low under the weight of a heavy, wooden beam, he saw the figure of a man, blood running down his legs from the horror that was his back. The young man had never actually seen a Roman flogging. But he’d heard about them from older, more worldly acquaintances. He’d heard that men sometimes died from the effects of a skillfully applied Roman flagellum. “So, this,” thought the young man, “is what that looks like.”
The horror of the sight was overwhelming. This is not the beatific pilgrimage of his dreams. This was a nightmare from hell. He had to escape this. Bloody, dying men! Gentile Roman legionaries! The devout young man could think of nothing but uncleanness and defilement. If he did not get away from this filthy uncleanness, he might find his dream of observing Passover lost.
As he turned to leave—to flee really—he heard a gritty thud. He turned back to see the ravaged dying man lying in the sandy dust of the road, the heavy beam pinning him down, as he weakly attempted and failed to rise up.
One of the legionaries kicked the fallen man. The crowd began to murmur, some jeered at the fallen man, a small group women wept. A sharp shout from the centurion in charge commanded everyone’s attention. Barking a series of quick orders, the centurion pointed with his vine staff into the crowd.
And to his horror, the devout young pilgrim realized that the centurion was pointing at him. The young shrank back. Foolishly he thought of running, fleeing to the horizon. But in two quick strides, the Roman soldier was upon him and had taken two fistfuls of the young pilgrim’s beautiful cloak, the one he’s bought specially for his first entrance into the temple. Now, godless, violent Gentile hands clutched the fine material, yanked the young man almost off his feet, and flung him toward the fallen criminal.
The young pilgrim’s devout excitement about the holy city, the holy temple, the holy Passover crumbled as he stumbled and fell beside the bloody ruin of the man lying in the dust under the heavy, rough, wooden beam. The grit of the dust, the sweat, the blood, the rough Gentile hands—there was no holiness here, only defilement, degradation, death.
All his life this young pilgrim had labored to keep himself pure, to keep himself clean, to keep himself separate from all that is unholy. Now, here on the outskirts of the holy city within which lay the holy temple where men who have kept themselves clean and holy even now offered holy worship raising up clean hands to the Holy One of Israel—here he knelt in the dirt of the road beside this bloodied, battered criminal, with brutal, unclean Gentile hands clutching at his pilgrimage robe. The horror of it all, the horror of his shattered dream overwhelmed him. He quietly wept.
There would be no Passover now for him. He dared not even think of entering the holy temple. He was defiled by these Gentiles and this condemned sinner. He know what they were about to do. He had heard the centurions orders.
One legionary lifted the young pilgrim to his feet. Two others lifted the heavy beam off this fallen man and laid it on the young pilgrim’s shoulders. He groaned at the weight of it. He could feel the stickiness of the blood on the beam as it glued itself to his once lovely pilgrimage robe.
The soldiers lifted the ruined man to his feet and prodded him forward. A shove from a soldier moved the young pilgrim in behind the condemned man.
As they trudged forward, the young man noticed a group of priests and temple scribes walking along beside this condemned man. They were jeering at him. “So, you are the Christ, the Messiah, the king of Israel, are you? Rise up and rule! Lift yourself up in your glory!” Raucous laughter came from many in the crowd.
Straining under the weight of the beam, sweating, and panting, the young pilgrim began to wonder, “Who is this man that I’m following to his death? Why are they shouting this at him?”
More jeering and mocking: “So, you are the Son of God? Where is God’s salvation now?”
“Where indeed is God’s salvation now?” thought the young pilgrim. “My hope of the Passover is now lost. The blood of the lamb was the salvation of Israel. I will have none of that now,” the young pilgrim lamented. He knew that even now the blood of Passover lambs was being shed in the temple courts. At that moment, the young pilgrim realized that this ruined man’s blood had been dripping from the heavy beam onto his own neck. He shuddered.
When the soldiers finally halted the grim procession, they lifted the beam off his shoulders and shoved him back toward the crowd. The young pilgrim collapsed on the ground and wept for his lost dreams of a holy Passover in the holy city. As he sat with his head bowed, he felt a gentle touch on his neck. A woman’s voice murmured quietly in his ear, “Thank you for helping him.”
The young man looked up to find a young woman looking at him, tears staining her cheeks. “Who is that man?” he asked her.
“He saved me. Stay here with us,” she said, nodding toward a small group of grieving women. “My name is Mary. I’m from Magdala. We’ll tell you about him.”
© 2021 Gary A. Chorpenning; all rights reserved; use with permission.