by Joan Costner
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Joan Clifton Costner
I knew it when the earthquake came. The day changed its face completely. The darkness forced the birds to go to roost! People carried lanterns to light the pathways. I had never seen midnight any darker, and I had never seen midnight in the middle of the day! Over two hours already and no sign of daybreak in the east.
So now what? All those tales these superstitious people told had been true! At the time, I had barely listened but had retained what I had heard, and this was too much! What do I do? I never uttered the name of God except in an expletive, and this guy looked so ordinary—so like any other man. How could I have known? Should I stop the whole thing? I’m a soldier and I’ve earned my way up the ranks. Though I hold some power, that position was gained by obeying orders. I knew I couldn’t take it upon myself to undo what they had ordered. I am only a centurion.
Trembling, I sat down and watched. The lightning flashed, illuminating His face. In the flickering glare, I saw the suffering, but I also saw the love. I even heard Him say, "Forgive them, for they know not what they do." I had never heard that one before. I was used to filth spewing from these criminals’ mouths, but…love? This was something new.
Now the darkness became even blacker. It wasn’t just that the sun was gone, it was really dark! Suddenly, the wind arose and the rain gushed in torrents. The roaring wind, the cracking lightning, the blinding flood—it seemed as though all of nature was in mourning. The thunder came again. Lightning flashed, illuminating the sign above his head: "Jesus, King of the Jews." My heart pounded. Was I executing a King? It was more than that! Caesar himself could not have called down this storm and certainly not the earthquake. That realization settled it for me. He was more than a King. That had been an area that I’d completely avoided in all my studies. I preferred not to clutter my brain with those superstitious lies. What did it matter how this world came to be? Who really cared? I was here, and I would do the best I could with the one life I had. But if someone created it, controlled it, cared about it, well, that’s something I had never toyed with, but now I wanted to know everything about it. Where had God been all my life?
The night hadn’t been a good one anyway. I’d been called to oversee the collection of some guy that had hanged himself. The Jews take this week too seriously, killing all those lambs, letting blood until the Kidron is drenched in red. What a strange people! And what a waste of good meat.
I had thought today would just be to oversee the execution by crucifixion of two thieves. Sometime in the night, though, they had thrown this fellow in. So, I thought, what’s one more? Three wouldn’t take any longer than two. But, it turned out, this was no ordinary man. We divided his few possessions. His robe was seamless. Woven in one piece—quite a masterpiece—no way to divide, so we cast the dice.
He spoke to no one until that thief said, "Remember me when You come into Your Kingdom!" and then He said, "Verily I say unto you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise!"
The day had grown so dark that I couldn’t see His face, but I heard Him cry out, his voice choked and gasping: "My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?"
I gripped my spear, feeling His agony twist my heart. For a long moment, I thought I’d never be able to get my own breath again. Thoughts raced each other through my brain. When things got back to normal, I promised myself to find out more about this Man. Through the next hours, sitting huddled in the rain, and trembling at the trembling earth beneath, I watched it all. He had directed his last words to only a few—that thief, his friend John, his mother, and some unseen force.
Finally, he lifted his head. Blood streamed from the plaited crown of thorns, mixing with rivulets of perspiration, tracing a checkered pattern down his bruised cheeks. He strained upward, his back arched, and looked toward the sky, "Father," He said, his voice loud, triumphant, “into Your hands I commend my spirit!"
I had never overseen a crucifixion like this. We had Him down before the sun set, having made certain of his death by thrusting a spear into his side. We didn’t break His legs. Suddenly, I didn’t want anything rash to happen to this man. His soul was gone (do we possess a soul?). No matter, I would pursue that later. I told my soldiers to be careful. Let Him down gently—not the way we put Him up.
Already two men were standing by with proper papers to take the body. I signed him over to them. No one needed to tell them to be careful. They handled this Man as if He were Precious Stone! These men were in that high court the Jews have—the Sanhedrin—I had seen them both at the temple grounds and at the palace.
The storm let up and the sky lightened. It was strange, like having daybreak from the west. We took our spoils and left. Never having been one to appreciate ignorance, I knew I had a lot of questions to be answered, but that would come later.
I just thought I was through with the Man. Only a couple of hours and the call came to send guards to watch His tomb. "Why would we need soldiers to guard a tomb?" I had asked. They told me because of some tales passed around by this Man’s friends, and they were afraid of someone stealing the body and then telling that He had risen from the dead. What a riot that would cause! It would have been better if they had left this Jesus alive! Well, the men assigned that job weren’t thrilled, but orders are orders. I dispatched them, knowing they would complain and be bored for a few days. Meanwhile, I had plans for my free time.
I had stuffed the sign that had been above His head into my pouch at my belt. I pulled it out, dusted it off, and read the carved words: "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews." Strange words for a criminal. Strange day. Strange feelings in my heart, heavy and calloused by the "orders" I had followed.
I felt that I was beginning a great adventure for it had grown quite dark again, and a definite chill filled the air. I wrapped my cloak around my shoulders, tucked the carved board under my arm and started out in the night. Nicodemus had said I could come any time. He’d told me that he once made a midnight visit that had changed his life. I would chance it, for I had questions too great not to pursue! Stepping out in the night air only brought back the events of the afternoon. I really expected the earth to tremble….
Then came the first day of the week. My guards answered to me, but I answered to Pilate. Even the Jews had set a guard at the tomb, and the body was gone! I never saw such scurrying! Money flew from all directions—pay for us all to say His body had been stolen! We knew better, for we knew the penalty, but better to take the bribe than to face the truth.
Someone had made a serious mistake, and for my part, I knew I would never be the same. Nicodemus had revealed some answers, and I was on my way to learn more.
What would you have done if you had been there? If you had seen the signs and heard the jeers, felt the earth quake and seen the day disappear? Heard kind words from a man dying because you did your job? What would you have done if you had been in charge of the guard?
The door to my soul was open, and I could not but follow, for He had truthfully said, "They know not what they do....Father, forgive."
I know I need many answers, but until I get them all, I will repeat what I said on that hill, on that dark day: "TRULY, THIS WAS THE SON OF GOD!"
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