Everything happened so fast.
It seemed like one moment, we were on the way to the Garden, and the next, a seemingly innocent man was robbed of the trial Rome insists on and accused and sentenced for…nothing.
I stood in the same chamber as the governor, Pontius Pilate, a pragmatic man by all counts, rendered a verdict of Not Guilty. And still, the Sanhedrin objected. They were out for this Yeshua’s blood!
Things got heated. A crowd called for Yeshua’s crucifixion and I wondered at how a crowd full of Jews would call for the death of one of theirs by a Roman method they abhorred.
Yeshua Himself stood silent. I wondered at His calm. I wondered how, with His death looming before Him, He would not plead, counter and groan.
Things took an even more confusing turn when, the crowd, being offered a prisoner for release, chose the barbaric Barabbas over Yeshua! I could not believe it. But I kept silent as it was not my place to question the Governor’s orders.
Pilate sentenced him to be flogged, and then delivered to be crucified. I was ordered to oversee the flogging. Something in me balked at the verdict passed by the governor. I almost curled my lip in derision at his weakness; being taken to task by the conquered and the blustering threat of the Sanhedrin. How dared they accuse a governor of not being a friend to Caesar? If I were him, I would have had the lot of them flogged and tossed out! If he had but called their bluff, he would have discovered that under their puffed up exterior lay quivering cowards afraid of a simple preacher because He pointed out their own corruption. But…orders were orders.
Yeshua was taken to the courtyard and stripped to his loincloth and tied to the post. I ground my teeth and nodded to the soldier to begin whipping.
At the first stroke, I heard the muffled cries of women and turned to see a few Jewish women pressed against the bars separating the outside from the courtyard.
“Tell these women to go away. This is no spectacle for them,” I ordered.
“You! Go away!” ordered one of my soldiers.
A woman responded, “We have our bodies torn apart at childbirth and are no strangers to blood. We will stay with our Lord.”
“Leave them be,” I said, my eyes never leaving the bowed, bleeding form of Yeshua. I was in no mood to handle the protests of a brood of cackling hens. I nodded and the soldier raised his arm and whipped.
I heard a primeval groan, like the sound of the very core of a human being ripped out from within. It was the sound of grief. And it came from a woman.
I turned again, ready to reprimand the women. And then, I saw her. Her arm was stretched out through the bars, as though she was trying to touch Yeshua. Her mouth was open, although no further sound came out, her face was as pale as alabaster and her eyes were wide in shock. Those eyes, I would know them anywhere. Amber eyes.
I looked back at Yeshua, bowed and bleeding, His back an open raw wound streaming blood, His breath coming in small bursts as He whimpered. His hands were bound and on His Head was a crown of thorns, placed there by some of my own soldiers. He looked up at me. Amber eyes.
I felt sensations of hot and cold course through my body at the same time as I realized Who He was, and what I had done. I couldn’t bring myself to turn back to Mary. I wanted to close my eyes in a bid to escape the horrible reality.
And yet, even as Yeshua looked at me, I saw no anger or condemnation. Only sorrow and compassion. I couldn’t understand it; something in me moved and I knew that Rome had sentenced the wrong Man to die. My throat constricted and I had to swallow several times to regain my composure.
I began to walk away. One of the soldiers asked me where I was going and I said I wanted to relieve myself. In truth, I was too much of a coward to stay and face Yeshua and Mary. I could not stand by. I heard the whip thudding again and again, and the muffled groans of Yeshua. With each stroke, I could hear Mary let out a strangled cry.
As I walked past the columns surrounding the courtyard, I was startled by the small, huddled figure of a woman hiding behind one of the columns, her hands over her face as she wept. She was dressed in a stola of Roman aristocracy. Her hands dropped and I was shocked to see the tear-streaked face of Claudia, the wife of Governor Pontius Pilate.
Our eyes met and in that instant we both seemed to understand that in our own way, we were part of a travesty.
I heard the hobnailed sandals of a legionnaire coming toward me and stood tall, waiting for his message. He saw me and saluted, his fist against his heart. I reciprocated the gesture.
“Centurion, Sir. Orders from the Governor.”
“What is it?”
“You are ordered to oversee the crucifixion of the criminals today. I am told to remind you to have it all done before sundown today.”
I nodded and as he turned to walk away, I had to still myself from groaning. Would the agony of this day ever end?
I remember the walk from Jerusalem to Golgotha. It was a heady mix of noise, blood and crushing guilt.
I remember the jeers and taunts of the crowd as Yeshua, bowed with fatigue and pain, ambled with the heavy wooden bar. I remember snatching a whip from a soldier and in my rage, beating the crowd back, muttering curses under my breath. I realized that more than half of the crowd baying for Yeshua’s blood like rabid hounds were likely among those who had celebrated His entry into Jerusalem only a few days prior. And still, in the midst of it all, He managed to suffer like a king, full of dignity, without a word of anger or reproach.
I looked back and saw Yeshua stumble, and then Mary knelt before him, her face tear-streaked and pale, crooning at her Son as she tenderly wiped the blood away from His Face.
I turned, my heart constricting. I spotted a man in the crowd, a Cushite from his skin tone, and I beckoned. He came forward, his face filled with fear.
“Help him carry that,” I said, pointing in the direction of Yeshua, unwilling for my eyes to meet His or Mary’s. The man nodded, relief spreading across his features.
And so we went on. I walked ahead, my head straight as we approached Golgotha, the skull-shaped hill on the outskirts of Jerusalem.
I will never forget the screams of the men as they were nailed to the cross. I will never forget the shadows they cast on the ground as they were lifted up, laid bare in body and agony for all to see and curse.
I heard Him say, with a Voice filled with pain, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”
He forgave us all. Even as He hung in agony, with every right to curse and condemn us all to Hades, He forgave.
But I said nothing.
I remained silent for hours. I said nothing when my soldiers divided Yeshua’s clothing among themselves. I said nothing when the hecklers laughed at Yeshua, calling Him the ‘Son of God’ in mockery. I saw Mary, huddled with some women, her grief stark. She looked at me and I saw, in her, the horror of a mother watching her child die in the most gruesome fashion. I turned away.
In that moment, I felt emptied of everything, of whatever little I thought I had. I looked back over the past three decades and realized that I had been chasing illusions: Rome, honour, and strength. It all meant nothing. I was dispensable to Rome, the huge monster that gobbled up everything in its path, even its own. I represented a monolith that severed families, tore children from mothers, crushed spirits and then congratulated itself on the blood of the vanquished. I was a nameless, faceless soldier in a war machine far bigger than I imagined, and I would be missed by no one if I died. I had no one to grieve over me. I had no love.
I had served to kill Love.
Written by Sifa Asani Gowon