We suggest that you begin reading the Centurion series from the beginning.
I took my post in the watch tower at the Eastern Gate, but this time it was to watch the pilgrims begin to depart for their villages. They’re always more subdued as they leave – back to their farms and vineyards, to their fishing nets and potters’ wheels. Back to the endless grind of survival; for most of them, they’re always just one bad harvest, one serious injury, one disease or one shipwreck away from disaster. I can see why they have their stories about this messiah who’s going to deliver them from all this – and from us. As I watched the endless stream of people trudging along, my mind went to Jesus, this one who some of them had thought was their messiah. This man who I had nailed to a cross. Whose death had drawn such a strange exclamation from my lips. This nobody from Nazareth who had made such powerful enemies. But who suffered the fate the rest of us will – food for the worms.
I returned to the barracks that night anticipating the usual carousing that accompanies the end of one of their festivals, when we can relax after a stressful week of enforcing the Pax Romana. I hung my armor on its stand, realizing as I did so that I needed to clean off the dust and blood that always accumulates during Passover. I said a silent prayer to the gods that it would be my last one in this miserable city, then went in search of my friend. I heard him long before I saw him.
Following the sound of his voice, I pulled a curtain aside, and stepped into a room to find him tearing a strip or two off four of his soldiers. They stood erect, their shoulders back, with faces white as a Governor’s bed linen. He paused for breath, and when he saw their eyes flicker towards me, turned and saw me for the first time. His face was red; he was shaking with barely suppressed fury. He turned back to the men, and practically spat out, “Go on then. Get out of here.” He held up a sack that had the jingle of coins about it, and said, “And we’ll talk more about this in the morning.” With obvious relief they practically ran past me. My friend collapsed into his old campaign chair and pulled the plug out of a wineskin, and took a long draught before handing it to me. As I took a long pull myself, he visibly calmed down and grabbed another skin.
“Unbelievable. What in hades am I supposed to do about this?” He tossed the bag to me, and I felt the weight of a considerable amount of money. “Where did that come from?” I asked. He nodded towards the doorway and said, “Those fools came back with it from what I assumed was the simple assignment of guarding a dead man’s body. Of course, there’s never anything simple about soldiering in this country.”
I took a guess, “They were the guard Pilate ordered you to place at the tomb where they laid Jesus’ body. Obviously something happened.”
“You could say that. At least they did. What a pack of lies!” He drained half the wineskin before continuing. “So they report back to the barracks with this story. Apparently one of them stood guard in front of the tomb, while the others decided to catch up on their sleep. Somehow he managed to fall asleep as well, and when the light of dawn woke them up, what do you know, that big rock had been rolled away – by some of Jesus’ followers, they claimed – and the body taken. Just like the chief priests feared. Who they then proceeded to report this to, instead of to me. When they did come back to barracks, that’s the tale I got out of them.”
“But that’s ridiculous! To admit to sleeping at your post – that’s a capital offense. If I was going to make up a story, that’s hardly what I’d come up with.”
He leaned forward. “Exactly. And that’s what I told them – that they’d swing for this.” He pointed at the bag of money. “That’s when they pulled that out, and handed it to me before telling me the real story. At least what they claim is the real story. Although it’s just about as ridiculous as the first one.”
“Seems that the earth quaked for a second time this week – but only in the garden where they were guarding the tomb. It knocked them to the ground, and when it was over, they maintain that one of the gods had descended in a blinding flash of light and they passed out in terror. When they came round, the stone was rolled back and the body was gone. That’s the story they reported to the chief priests: the one they gave me was the one the chief priests concocted. So, I’ve got two equally unlikely stories to explain a missing corpse, a sack of money, and a report to make to the Governor first thing in the morning.” He drained the rest of the wineskin, and looked me square in the eye. “What am I going to do?”
I tossed the sack back to him, and he hefted it in his hand. His face sagged, and he suddenly looked very tired. “This is a lot of money. Enough to buy my way out of the Legion. I could go back home, tend my vines, make my own wine. Forget all about Judaea.” His speech began to sound a little slurred. “I could take those four fools with me – I’ll need some field hands – then if the body does ever show up we’ll be long gone.”
We sat in silence for a while. Then I said, “So what do you think really happened?” He looked blankly at me. I continued, “Well if his disciples didn’t steal his body, where is it?”
“I don’t know, and I don’t care.”
“You don’t think he could have actually…” My voice trailed off.
He snorted. “What, rose from the dead?” Gesturing towards the doorway he said, “No. I don’t think he’s out there walking around somewhere. If he was, don’t you think we’d have heard about it by now?”
“I suppose so. But just suppose he…he was alive. What then?”
He leaned forward and poked me in the chest. “I’ll tell you what then. You’d be coming with me to my farm.” It was my turn to look at him blankly. He laughed. “Don’t you see? The threat of death is the heart of Rome’s conquering power. Challenge the Emperor – die on a cross. But if this ‘messiah’ truly was back from the dead, then where would that leave us? Powerless, that’s where.” Shaking his head, he lay back on his bunk and stared up at the ceiling. I got up, bid my friend a good night, and headed to my own bed.
Knowing that thoughts of Jesus of Nazareth were probably going to keep me awake all night.
This is part of an ongoing historical fiction series leading up to Easter. It features the story of Jesus’ path to the cross from the perspective of a Roman Centurion. It was written by Sean Gladding, the author of The Story of God, The Story of Us. This series will be posted as a daily devotional. We hope this narrative stirs deeper reflection on the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ final days.