(C) 2015 Keith A. Jenkins
All Rights Reserved.
This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
For years I wondered how the Roman soldier who nailed Jesus to the cross must have felt, both during and after the event. Since there was no way to ever know for certain, one year during Lent I decided to put my own thoughts about it down in writing as a kind of interior monologue. This required some imaginative filling-in of the blank spaces in the gospel narrative, of course. As a kind of coherent story line began to come together, I made the bold decision to deliver the monologue, now entitled “About Midday,” in dramatic form as my sermon at the Good Friday service I was planning for that year. Somewhat to my surprise and greatly to my relief, it was well received. At the time, I assumed it would be a one-time experience. However, when I went to serve a new church and volunteered to design and preside over a new kind of Good Friday service that would be part of an elaborate Holy Week observance, I was able to deliver “About Midday” again, and to a much larger congregation that, as the previous one had, received it enthusiastically.
About nine months later, as the time approached to start planning for Holy Week again, I was asked to do the Good Friday service again. I was excited and gratified, but that meant I needed new material. So I wrote a new monologue, from the perspective of Barabbas, and entitled it “He Took My Place.” The year after that I wrote “Just One More Try,” about Peter’s struggle with guilt after denying Jesus. And the year after that I pulled out all the stops and wrote my most daring and speculative monologue of the group—“The Lamb of God”—tracing the thoughts of Jesus himself as he died on the cross, mingled with recollections of his childhood.
And that’s where it stayed for quite a few years. I knew I wanted to write three more monologues to round out the collection at seven, but the well of inspiration had hit a dry spell.
Then, after years of pestering, in early 2015 my friend Marty Vershel convinced me to complete the collection and publish it by offering me a chance to perform one of the monologues at the Good Friday service at his church, First UMC of Missouri City, and sell copies of the newly published collection to his members. It wasn’t really a monetary motive (I sold them at cost). It was more about sharing my reflections with a larger audience. Whatever the motivation, it was enough to start the springs of inspiration flowing again. In the space of just a few weeks, I wrote the three monologues I knew I needed to finish the collection: Judas, Mary Magdalene, and Mary, the mother of Jesus. The work was both invigorating and deeply satisfying—a way to continue leading others, even in retirement, to a fuller understanding of what God did for us in Christ.
My fervent hope is that one or more of these pieces will speak to you personally, that you will see yourself in the faith, doubt, joy, despair, and ultimate triumph of these seven individuals.
Keith A. Jenkins
For as long as I live, I will never forget today. Career soldier in great Caesar’s army, veteran of nearly a hundred campaigns, decorated three times for valor in arms (once by Augustus himself), noble and trusted guardian of the glorious “peace of Rome”–now assigned to this desolate little Hebrew backwater, keeping watch over the most troublesome and most ungrateful subjects anywhere in the empire. And today I, who have killed a thousand men, many better than myself, and never even paused while wiping their blood from my sword, wept at the sight of a man dying by my hand.
What was different this time? Did I pity my victim because he had not come armed against me? Or was I somehow shaken by the unfamiliar heft and weight of the strange weapon in my hand, so awkward and blunt and altogether lacking in glory? It does not ring out when drawn, nor sing when engaged in its work, but rather falls with a dull and lifeless sound. No, it was not these. Nor was it the eerie darkness that blotted out the sun’s light about midday. It was that gaze he fixed upon me, unlike any I have ever seen before, or hope to see again. And it was the words he spoke, so calmly and quietly, when most men cry out begging for their lives to end. O ye gods in heaven, curse the day that I was made an executioner.
“Hey, take a look at this one. He won’t tax us much. Looks nearly dead already.”
“We better get him up first, before he dies, or we’ll only get paid for two.”
“Whose turn to do the honors?”
“Mine,” I said (more to myself than out loud), as I stepped forward and took the crude mallet. Reaching into the sack, I pulled out nine spikes, three sets of three. They were bent and twisted, their points dulled from repeated use. So hard to drive in straight. I hate them. They make me look like a novice . . . as if I were shaking so in anticipation of the violent wrenching and the blood that I can’t even hit a nail on the head. I put the worst three back and searched through the bag until I found shiny, new ones—for the feet. I guess it was the contrast that made me notice the deep reddish-brown stains on the older ones, the only reminder left of their previous clients.
While my compatriots were playing with the prisoner wearing the thorns, I set to work on the other two. So different from battle in the open field. There, every action is instinctive, or it’s your last. Here, the pace is slower. More precise. Using the tip of my thumb, I felt for the spot between the tendons. Just as blind, old Flavius had taught me when I was first made one of the custodians of death. “If you hit a blood vessel on the way in,” he used to say, “they die too quickly. Better to give them enough time to think about their crimes.”
“Nothing even worth gambling for except this cloak!”
The first one looked like a tough character, filled with hatred, angry at a world that had failed him—angry at me for doing my job. But he turned his eyes away as I raised the mallet, so I hit the head of the spike off-center, letting the mallet glance aside and crush one of his fingers. The second one was crying. Said he was innocent and didn’t want to die.
“I don’t care about what you did or didn’t do. None of that matters anymore. The only truth around here is my truth.”
My helper and I hoisted two of the crosses upright, then let them drop into the holes in the ground with a jarring thud. We watched eagerly as our victims felt the tug of flesh against the nails for the first time—a feeling that would become all too familiar over the next few days.
“Bring some of that wine over here. They’re thrashing around so much I can’t line up straight on the feet.”
When they brought the third man over to me, I studied him closely for the first time. That’s when I noticed he wasn’t like most of the men I see. He stared me right in the eyes, but never said a word. It was almost as if he knew me, but I was sure he didn’t. I stay away from Jews. But this one was different. I could see that he was already in much pain, but he never made a sound. The braided ring of thorns around his head outlined a dozen puncture wounds, each one streaming blood. The gouges in his flesh from the lashing even made me feel weak. (I had never seen thirty-nine before.) He looked like he should be dead, but somehow his eyes were filled with life.
“This one thinks he’s the King of the Jews.”
“That’s why we get him. No kings allowed but Caesar.”
“I heard he claims he’s the Son of God.”
My aim was perfect. The downward force of the mallet drove the spike through his wrist and into the rough wooden beam in a single motion.
I used the weight of my knee to hold his right hand down to the wood so both of my hands were free. I positioned my second nail and raised the mallet, pausing only briefly to check his eyes once more for some sign of the effect all this was having on him. Nothing!
“Curse you! You shall not resist the power of Caesar! I will make you yield!”
Number two found its mark perfectly, but he never made a sound.
We set his cross in place just as we had the other two, and I reached for my final nail—for his feet. No one had ever taken all three nails without crying out, and I was determined that this pitiful Jewish rebel was not going to be the first. My helper held his feet in place—crossed at the ankles—and I lifted the mallet high above my head. But I never heard the blow hit. The blinding flash of lightning knocked me to the ground, the air around me exploded with the clap of thunder, then all was darkness.
Trying to struggle to my feet, I reached out in front of me and felt the base of the cross. I ran my hands up along its rough surface until I found his feet. They were warm and wet—with his blood—which ran down onto my hands. I looked up, and in the darkness I could barely see his face. He seemed to be speaking to someone. I could see his lips moving, but I couldn’t hear the words. Then he looked down at me. Our eyes met. I had never seen any man look like that before. Anger I understand. Hatred I understand. Even fear. But I didn’t understand what I saw in his eyes. It was tenderness—almost like the way a mother looks at her newborn baby. He was looking at me—the man who put him to death—with tenderness—with love.
Those haunting eyes were the last thing I saw. When I regained consciousness, I was lying on the stony ground beside a makeshift fire. The chilly air of the approaching dusk had drawn the men of my detail to huddle nearby, warming their hands, watching me. The lowering sun cast the shadows of empty crosses over the hillside.
“Where was he,” I thought, “this one called Ihsus—the King of the Jews?”
“Where did you men take the prisoners?” I asked.
“Dead already. Broke their legs. Families took the bodies.”
“What about that third one?”
“Just shouted something then died before we got to him.”
“What did he say?” I asked. But I knew what they would say. Roman soldiers don’t pay any attention to Jews—especially to condemned prisoners hanging on crosses. By tomorrow they wouldn’t even remember him—but I would. And I had to know what it was he said before he died.
I ran down the hillside toward the Damascus Gate. The Jewish Sabbath was beginning, so the streets of the city were nearly empty. I called out to those I saw,
“Did you know the one named Ihsus, the one crucified today?”
But they all turned from me in silent resentment and fear. I must have seemed like a madman—a Roman soldier desperately looking for a crucified Jew. But I didn’t care what they thought. I had to know what he said before he died.
The voice of my centurion snapped me back to reality.
“Gaius! Where have you been? Your men said you ran off babbling something about one of the prisoners.”
“The one called Ihsus, Sir. The ‘King of the Jews.’ You were there, Sir. What did he say before he died?”
“He cried out to his Father, something about forgiving us because we didn’t know what we were doing. But I don’t even know who his father is.”
My centurion was still speaking as I turned and walked away. As I passed out through the Damascus Gate, I felt odd—almost as if I weren’t myself anymore. All I could think of was this strange Jewish prophet named Ihsus.
How could he be so calm in the face of death? How could he forgive me after what I did to him? Why did I still feel the warmth of his blood flowing down my hands?
By the time I reached the hillside, the sun had set. In that cold, lonely place, I found three women. Their grief was so strong, they didn’t hear me approach until I was nearly upon them. I thought my uniform would frighten them, but instead they seemed to welcome me. Without saying a word I joined them at the foot of the cross on which he had died, and together we wept.