The Soldier at the Cross

By Helen McNeil


A Roman soldier on duty at the crucifixion thinks back on what he experienced the first Easter.




I am soldier. A Roman soldier. That should tell you quite a bit about me. I've seen everything and done most. Stuff you can't tell the wife and kids. I was on active service in Jerusalem among those godless Jews. Maybe I shouldn't say godless because their view of God is the cause of most of the trouble round here, and trouble there's been in plenty over the last few years. That's why Caesar sent Pilate down here, and it was just my luck to get sent here with him. I don't know which is worse, lots of gods that are easy to placate, or just one god that kicks up bobsy-di over the least little thing.

As I was saying, there was plenty of religious trouble in Palestine. All trouble was basically religious because their government was meant to be religious. You just couldn't separate the two. So whatever was going down in Palestine the situation was always a complicated political wrangle, with everybody wanting their say and a good chance of someone getting crucified. Even their leaders thought that was better than a Roman invasionary force turning up. If I were in their sandals I'd think so, too!

I was unlucky enough to be on duty when they were going through the whole rigmarole again with this year's Saviour. I'd done crucifixion duty plenty of times before. It's barbaric, but you get used to anything. I'd done it so often it was a bit like dipping sheep back on the farm at home. You can just about predict when and where the prisoners are going to try and run and you just have to get your balance right and use their own weight to bring them down. As they come racing through you grab them, kick out their legs from under them so that they just about fall right onto the cross. Easy. That was the trouble, it was too easy. I should have picked it right from the start. I don't like it when things are different. You don't know how to react. If you don't react right for a Caesar you could be on the next cross, or doing a ”Summer Season” at the Colosseum. And while I like the theatre I've never aspired to go to a Royal Command Performance as an actor.

In an occupied country you have to expect that the leader of the Liberation Army is going to do his thing, especially out here, ‘cos it's all in the name of their God, and their prophets have been predicting a Saviour for centuries! But this time the bloke said he was God - or God's son. Whatever the difference is, that sure wound up the rest of the leaders. Like I said, it was different - right from the start. The Jewish leaders were too keen to be rid of him - and Pilate was too reluctant! There was something funny going on, all right. That was the first thing.

Then this chap never even tried to make a break for it. We had him in a pretty firm grip as usual, but there's always a bit of scuffle when you untie them to lay them on the cross. That's when you have to be on your toes. But this guy didn't even try to get away. Just about laid himself on the cross. Course, he screamed just as loud when the nails went in with the pain, but there was none of the usual cursing. Gods - some of them can curse! I've heard it all. But this bloke - this bloke - just looked at me. I looked away quick. I turned my back and got on with the rest of it, then I called the boys to haul him up, away from me. There were three of them that day. Once they were all up, it felt like business as usual for a while, ‘cos the other two made enough noise for the three of them. I could take a bit of a breather. They weren't going anywhere. You could still hear the puffing and panting as they fought for breath. Even so, the other two had some left to swear with. Still, everything was under control. Should have known better, really.

I'll never forget that day. Never. It changed my life. I've only got to close my eyes and I'm back there. I can remember even the smallest detail, like everything was moving at half the usual speed. Right on noon, the weather packed in. One minute bright sunshine, the next great dark clouds rolled in, blackening the sky. Everything was dark. Couldn't see my spear shaft in front of my face. People were crying, calling out to their god. So was I except you couldn't hear me. Didn't dare out loud. I had to look as if I was in control, even If I wasn't. Had to keep order, you know.

The temperature plummeted. Titus was all right, he wrapped himself up in the prisoner's garment. He'd won it playing dice. I was frozen. You could smell the rain in the air. You know that musty smell just before it comes down? Then it came, an absolute deluge. Thunder and lightning raged in the sky. You'd expect the storm to move off, but no, it just stayed right overhead. Three hours it lasted. I really got the jitters. Perhaps the bloke was right, he was God's son and his dad had got mad. I think they must all have been mad. It certainly felt like it.

Then the prisoner called out. Course, it was all in the native dialect. Couldn't understand it myself. Don't think many others did either ‘cos there was some discussion about what he said. One person said he was calling out to Elijah, one of their prophets, someone else said he was complaining that his God had left him. You could be forgiven for thinking so, considering the weather. I couldn't stand it. I stuck a sponge on a stick and nipped up the ladder and gave him a drink of spiked vinegar. You know - pain relief. He looked at me then. I can't describe the depth in those eyes. He didn't speak. Yet I knew he was thankful. His eyes said - “This isn't your fault. You are caught up in something bigger. Much, much bigger”. By the time I got to the bottom of the ladder he was dead.

I've seen plenty of men die, but no-one like this man. It can take days for a crucified man to die, cursing til the last. Not this Jesus. He made no complaint, yet some other agony, too deep for words, seemed to finish him off. It seemed to me that all heaven had been in mourning.

Then the sun came out again. Just like that! I've thought about it a lot you know. He and I were caught up in something far beyond politics. I don't care what anyone else thinks. I prefer to think he was the Son of God. Hope he was - cause if he was, I know that he's forgiven me.

© Helen McNeil 1999

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