The centurion felt confused. Wasn’t he, an experienced soldier, a valued officer in the mighty army of Rome, an expert on battlefields? Wasn’t that his profession? Yet now he wasn’t so sure.
He remembered the big staged battles against the Gauls: the tightly regimented Roman formations, with every spear and sword sharpened and ready, and every man in his assigned position, trained to know exactly what to do when the moment came. The cavalry were off to one side, and a fine showing they made of it, their banners fluttering in the morning breeze, their horses, controlled and still. He had often thought how afraid he would be if he were on the other side, seeing the silent, relentless might of Rome arrayed against him, waiting in perfect discipline for the order to advance. But then, he had always found that time of waiting before the battle to be the most nerve-racking part. Once they were engaged, weapon to weapon, with the howling, screaming hordes of the enemy, there was no time to think, only react with every trained muscle moving by instinct. And that was what a battlefield was like. It was noisy: deafeningly, overwhelmingly noisy, with uncouth battle cries, the clash of weapons, the pounding of hoofs, the screams of injured men and horses. And the smell of battle: hot metal andall sorts of unpleasant human odours, but, overriding everything, the smell of blood – salt-sweet, metallic and utterly sickening. A man needed a strong stomach as well as a strong arm to survive in battle. And the sights of battle? Well, sometimes as a commander you got to step back and see the big picture, but mostly it was a kaleidoscope of close-ups – the sword thrust you parried back instinctively, the screaming face that was almost in yours, the body you sidestepped carefully so as not to slip in the gore and ooze. Yes, that was what a battlefield was like.
But now he was not so sure. Could an even greater battle possibly be fought in near silence, with just the marks of dried blood down a single, ordinary body to track the subjugation of the victim?
The men on the other two crosses gave him no concerns. He had supervised many crucifixions; it was an unpleasant but necessary part of the job. And these two were typical victims, the one who yelled out his anger and hate, cursing and swearing at the world that had brought him to this; the other one moaning and trembling and seeking only release. But the one in the middle? He was different. He was calm and still, in the middle of his suffering, and yet when he did speak, he spoke with incredible authority, and .. he struggled for the right word ... compassion? awareness? kingliness? In the end he decided that the right word was love. And that frightened him. Why were they crucifying someone who loved?
The man had had a hard time of it too. They had beaten him, and not lightly either. He had seen hardened soldiers die from a beating like that. And that crown of thorns they had pushed down on his head? Yes, it was a little thing compared to the larger tortures, but a cruelty just the same. And yet, somehow he wore it with more dignity than many the centurion had seen bedecked with crowns of gold. And then there wasthat placard above his head proclaiming him king of the Jews. It was supposed to mock him, show him up as ludicrous and totally defeated, but that wasn’t the effect at all.
Then the darkness fell, absolute and terrifying. Something was terribly wrong, and he had a growing conviction that it was all to do with this man hanging here from the vicious nails. But a Roman soldier does not desert his post. So he stood there and he watched (as best one could in the dark) and he wondered. And he recalled snatches he had learned about the mystery religions of the Greeks who said that sacrificial death led to life, and the things that the Persians said about the battle between darkness and light. Could one man alone, nailed and dying, constitute a battlefield?
He remembered a conversation he had once had with a Jewish teacher. He had tried to convince the obstinate old man that their mysterious God must be weak and powerless since he had let them be conquered by Rome. The man had looked at him with disconcerting amusement. “Do you really believe that Rome’s victories make her greater than God?” he had asked. Then he had quoted something from their wisdom literature, “The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong ..”
Somehow he found himself believing that a cosmic battle was being played out right before him: light against darkness, good against evil, life against death. The man cried out one final time, “It is finished!” And even as he spoke there was an earthquake, and the soldiers fell to the ground.
The centurion rose slowly to his feet. Somehow fighting Gauls and Germans seemed like the sport of little children, compared to the battle this man had fought, and won, on his own. He shook his head to clear it. There was much he needed to learn, much that was difficult for him to understand. But of one thing he had no doubt. “Truly,” he said, “this man was the son of God.”