I was fortunate to draw the duty of attending to these three crucifixions. It’s an assignment that every centurion wants to receive. There’s no real difficulty to it, no heavy marching — just standing by and joining the jeering and cheering of the crowd. Friends and neighbours often come by, allowing for a bit of a visit while on duty. You’re there as a guard, but what’s going to happen? Is one of them about to fight his way off his cross? Ha! There’s a certain stature that comes with being seen in this role. People fear you, associating you with the power to put these criminals and insurgents to death. The sight of the crosses from past crucifixions further along the road, with the bones still hanging off them after the birds had taken away the flesh always inform the sight of the men currently being nailed to their crosses with an immediate horror. Not for us centurions of course, but for the condemned men and for the onlookers. Not the kind of horror that makes them turn away, but the kind that makes them call out their support of the death sentence, that makes them go to extra lengths to make it known that they fall in step behind our Roman rule. Everything as it should be. There’s no better deterrent than the specter of a public crucifixion.
I don’t really understand these Jews though, wanting this man who purported to be their king to be put to death. If they really rushed their sentence of death through as fast as I heard they did, then it must be a pretty big deal to claim to be better than their current leaders. Well. I suppose Caesar would take the same view of the situation. After all, the other two of these fellows are here for crimes against the state, having been deemed in some fashion a threat to Caesar. Word is that this one we put up in the middle was found by Pilate not to be any genuine threat to the state, at least not as much a threat as he was to the Jewish leaders. Interesting that they exhibited enough pressure to obtain a death sentence anyway. They even took the release of that dog Barabbas over this one… they must have some kind of hate for what he’s been doing. Whatever it was. I don’t follow these Jewish sensibilities all that closely — I only know he was some kind of teacher and their leaders didn’t seem to like what he was saying. It’s said that he healed many others, though.
As our three subjects reach the place for the crucifixion on top of Golgotha, they drop their crosses. The “Jewish King” stumbles along of course, just behind his cross that’s being carried by that man we pulled out of the crowd. If we’d made him carry it all the way as we normally did, we might have taken all day to get here — they’d flogged him and beaten him so badly that he didn’t have the strength to carry the cross all the way. Quite a sight he is. With his back all ripped open from the flogging, he was a mess of blood and torn flesh. You can even see bone in a few spots — whoever held the whip certainly knew his job well! I’ll have to find out who it was and commend him for it.
We throw all three men down to the ground on top of their crosses and lash their arms to the crossbeams. Next we twist their legs to the side and bend their knees, lashing their ankles to the upright of the cross. You have to do this or it’s just too difficult to drive the spikes through their hands and feet — they just recoil reflexively and you have to give it another go. So much easier to lash them down first. As one of the ranking soldiers, I pick up the large hammer and motion the two under my command to hold down the right arm of the man in the center, with one of them holding the spike. As I draw the hammer up behind my back, I wait for a scream of pain following the hammer-strike behind me. This always puts a special kind of fear into the eyes of the dog on the cross, and I look for it.
Ah, I think, as my eyes fall on his face while I raise the hammer above my head — I’ve got the King-Jew below my mallet. Something in his eyes catches me off-guard: he looks me right in the eye! They never do that! Certainly not like this, with not a single spot of fear showing. He looks almost… peaceful, impossible as it sounds. It’s unnerving, and I would have paused if I wasn’t already in mid-arc with the hammer swing. I almost missed the spike, my mallet not catching it squarely and glancing off it. At least I had enough force still to pierce his flesh completely and drive the spike at least a little bit into the beam. That’s the key, you know — the spike has to go right through the limb and into the beam on the first blow, otherwise they start to struggle too much before you get a chance to properly line them up again.
I pause a moment and glare back down at the Jew. His face is racked with pain, but there’s still no fear in his eyes. What’s with this guy? I swing my hammer around two more times, then we’re ready to move on to the other arm. We finish driving our spikes just following the group behind me — the third group has had some trouble with one of their spikes and had to deal with their subject thrashing around and cursing at them while they set themselves up a second time to drive in their spike. I don’t know the centurion with the mallet — looks almost like it’s his first crucifixion.
A soldier arrives with placards to state the crime of each prisoner — the one he fixes above the head of our Jew says “King of the Jews.” He chides the man about this, and I smirk.
We raise up the three crosses and drop them in their stands, marking the end of the “hard” work. This is the part where we let loose some jeers and taunts at the three condemned men in order to get the crowd going. They take the cue nicely, which leaves us a bit of time to divide up the belongings that these dogs won’t be needing any longer. Another of the perks of this assignment! As it turns out, our guy didn’t have much to divide though… a nice seamless tunic though. We decide not to rip it, but to cast lots instead. I lose, and one of the other centurions scoops up his winning.
I realize for the first time what the Jewish leaders in the crowd are yelling at their defrocked “king,” inciting the others in the crowd to follow suit. The guy apparently claimed to be the Son of God. This gives me a moment’s pause, but only a moment. It’s a more serious charge than just claiming to be better than the other Jewish leaders, but still. This is a Jewish matter, no real concern of mine apart from what I’ve been assigned to do here. I turn aside and talk for a while with one of the other centurions, scanning the crowd for any signs of trouble from the followers of any of these men. I don’t expect any — they can see now what end will come of any trouble they decide to make.
Even one of the prisoners starts to taunt the Jew, telling him to save all of them. Now that’s something I’d like to see! But the other one defends him, saying the Jew had done nothing wrong. Strange events taking place… maybe he thinks the guy really is the Son of God. Sure… but which god? Ah, it’s a Jewish matter anyhow, I remind myself.
The Jew begins to speak, talking to two of the people at his feet, a few of his followers. They’ve made no trouble, so we’ve let them be. At noon, darkness falls, and my soldiers and I look at each other, baffled. Something is going on here that we don’t understand — the gods are making some kind of statement about what’s happening. I can only assume it has to do with this Jew. I’d best stay vigilant. The crowd has lost some of its enthusiasm for the jeers and taunts, everyone being somewhat bewildered about the darkness. My soldiers begin to take turns throwing small stones at the prisoners, making sport of it. This is the boring part of the task, waiting for them to die.
Three hours later, the Jew starts talking again — I don’t catch all that he says, but a few nearby probably hear his final words more clearly. I’m pretty sure he dies at this point. As he slumps down after speaking, the darkness lifts and there’s an earthquake that splits large stones in two. This is no ordinary crucifixion. Before long, some more Jews rush into the crowd from town reporting that they’ve seen dead people up and walking again. The Jewish leaders who have been overseeing the death of this king of theirs don’t seem to give it any credence, ignoring all that has gone on this day. At least, they ignore it until one of their own rushes up and reports that the veil that separates their holy place from their most holy place in their temple has been split in two from top to bottom. Seems odd to me that the earthquake would do that without damaging the rest of the building, but it all happened at the same time this king Jew died. Most of the Jewish leaders disappear into the crowd at this point, and I lose track of them.
I take it all in, slowly piecing together several realizations. I speak a little louder than I realize, as the man at the foot of the Jew’s cross turns and looks at me, taking in my words. His eyes have that same unnerving quality that the Jew’s had. “Surely,” I say, the full truth finally dawning on me, “this really was the Son of God.”