Cornelius crept stealthily, taking care not to step on any fallen limbs or twigs which might signal his presence. His heart pounded with a mixture of fear and excitement. He knew he would be in trouble if Marcellus caught him. Moving from tree to tree, he heard some of the words exchanged between his father and the other men.
“No, taller. Strong trunk. . . the right tree.”
The footsteps of the men stopped and Cornelius ducked behind a tall cedar. He was risking severe reprimand by following them, but he had to see which tree his father chose. Cornelius reasoned he had a right to be excited about the impending ceremony, so he should share in the preparation.
Just hours before, his parents had spoken in hushed tones. They still considered him too young to be involved. Yet, he had hoped his father might allow him to attend the tree cutting.
“Why can’t I go, sir?” he had asked Marcellus.
“Son, it is my job to choose the right tree. It is your job to stay home and do your work. When you are older, you can go.”
“Why must it be a particular tree?”
“Because many people will see it. No more questions. Obeying orders without question is part of learning to be a good soldier.”
“Yes, sir.” Cornelius had responded, but he believed risk-taking was a mark of a good soldier, too.
Now, as he shivered in the shadows, he heard the witnessing wind whisper - shame, Cornelius , shame- but he didn’t turn back. Whack! He jumped at the first smack of axe hitting bark. The thud of rhythmic strokes matched his beating heart. Just as he neared enough to see the glint of an axe, his father shouted, “Hurry, men! My orders are to have the tree ready before daybreak, so it can be decorated.”
The men laughed at the way his father said the word “decorated.“ Quickly, Cornelius turned and ran toward home, before he was discovered. He knew the plans for the tree. Tomorrow he would show his father he was old enough to comprehend the whole event.
Sleep danced around his bed all night, stopping only for brief moments to carry him away from his imagination. Would the tree be finished in time? His father had promised everything would be ready and Marcellus was a man of his word. Would it be strong enough to stand? Would it be high enough so all could see?
Cornelius awoke with a start and could tell it was late. He hurriedly dressed and made his way into the heart of the city. Of all days to be late! It was well past noonday by the time he reached the temple area. He struggled to make his way through the crowds of pilgrims - some reveling, others weeping.
He realized that not all of them were there for the same purpose. Jews were celebrating Passover.
He trudged his way through the streets to the hill outside the city where he knew his father would be on centurion duty. His heart pumped hard with anticipation; the closer he came to Golgotha the darker the sky became. Soon I will see for myself what happens to enemies of Rome, how such criminals get what they deserve - crucifixion! I will see the special tree my father cut especially for the Jew who claims to be a king and a god. What treason! All Roman subjects worship only one king - Caesar.
Finally, he pushed through the crowd to behold the scene. Framed against dark clouds stood three crosses bearing three limp, bloody figures, fighting for breath. . . Cornelius joined them; the suffocating reality gripped his throat, his mind, his heart. A chaotic mixture of weeping and laughing fouled the air.
“If you are king of the Jews, save yourself!“ Cornelius turned toward the derisive shout. Almost total darkness blanketed the hillside, yet Cornelius recognized his father standing near a group of gambling soldiers.
Marcellus stood transfixed, gazing at the dying man hanging on the tree. He looked different to Cornelius. His face was soft, compassionate, devoid of the usual centurion’s rigidity and steeliness.
Suddenly, the man called out loudly, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”
Marcellus sank to his knees and Cornelius ran quickly to his side.
“Father, what is it?”
Tears filled Marcellus’ eyes as he cupped Cornelius’ face.
“Surely this was a righteous man. God be praised. Remember, son.”
“Yes, Father, always.”
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