IS IT NOTHING TO YOU
A paraphrase of a meditation originally written by Archbishop Joost De Blank, and spoken before the people of St. Stephen’s Church, Westminster, in 1952, telling the story of the Crucifixion as if seen from the eyes of the Centurion in charge of the prisoner Jesus. The words have been changed somewhat to fit in with my conversational manner.
I hated service in Jerusalem, but it was just my luck. Not only to miss Rome and some leave in the spring, but to be sent to Palestine of all places, the most unruly of all the occupied countries in the Empire. Not only that, but to be in Jerusalem at the time of the Jew’s Passover was really asking too much. But I had served long enough in the Imperial Legions to keep my disappointments to myself. As a soldier of many years service, I knew that obedience was the military virtue par excellence, so I kept my mouth shut, but it didn’t stop me from cursing my ill fortune under my breath.
When I think back of that now it makes me smile. Ill Fortune? By sunset on that day, what I thought was ill fortune turned out to be the best fortune that ever came my way. Oh, it wasn’t good fortune like a gambling win that just excites for the moment. It was one growing richer and more rewarding as year succeeds year. I have tried ever since not to be bitter or resentful by what I am tempted to call bad luck or undeserved adversity. The tunnel of darkness is often the door to God’s light, and when that light dawns it is so overwhelming that we can almost forget the dark road that brought us to it. Sometimes we can even look back on that grim course with gratitude.
I’m getting ahead of myself. You never really knew what was going to happen in Jerusalem at the Jewish Passover. It was rather like pitching your tent on the edge of Mount Etna in Sicily, or by the crater of Vesuvius, and you feel the volcano is going to burst into destructive life at any moment. It was the kind of thing you couldn’t properly prepare for, because you had no idea just how the trouble would start – only that you were pretty certain that it would – and that’s why there was a general “stand to” and no forty-eight hour leaves or thirty-six hour passes that weekend.
I can well remember our frustration in the mess. We all had things we wanted to do, but there we had to stay, growing more and more bored with one another’s company and longing for the next few days to pass. I was the duty officer so I was even more tied down than the others, and consequently more bad tempered. I was so tired of kicking my heals that it was almost a relief when orders came through from the palace that the Jewish priests and leaders were raising merry hell about some agitator they wanted to put out of the way.
Pontius Pilate, the procurator at the time was no fool. His policy was always to give the people as much rope as possible, certainly in hope that they would hang themselves but more particularly to make the task of government a little easier. People get so excited about trivialities sometimes that the more you let them exhaust their energies in these small matters the less chance of a serious disturbance. It sounds reasonable doesn’t it? But it didn’t work in this case. You see, this agitator was no ordinary agitator. Great crowds of people had hailed his entry into Jerusalem only a few days before, and we thought at that time that he might be planning some insurrection. – but apparently the insurrection was directed much more against the sly, mercenary, power-grabbling , ambitious religious leaders than the occupying power.
Of course I have learned even more of the truth since then: that this man’s revolution begins in the hearts of people, those hearts where all the lusts known to humankind war within us. Those people who exercise any religious leadership, whether ordained or lay people are the first objectives of his revolution. If only this man’s values and his spirit was given liberty in the Church of God, there would be no talk of empty churches and there would be no looking for other, less revolutionary forces.
But, as I say, Pilate’s scheme didn’t work on this occasion because the priests, and all the vested interests behind them, were so scared that they felt that their only security lay in having the man from Nazareth put to death. The sentence of death was to all intents and purposes a Roman prerogative, so the prisoner became a Roman prisoner, and we were called to take over from the Temple Guard – and he was my prisoner until I signed the death certificate.
I was with him as his chief warden for sixteen or seventeen hours. I had no sleep and he had no sleep. But I was virtually my own master, well clothed, well fed, men to run my orders. He suffered all the tortures of the damned, and yet at the end of it all, when I was ready to drop with fatigue, he was still wholly master of the situation.
From the first flogging and the mocking and the journey to Golgotha to the moments he died – although he was bound and blindfolded and crucified, he was the only person that was free. The rest of us? Well, we all, including Pilate, were pawns in a game being moved by forces beyond our control. I am not making any excuses for myself, but we were Roman soldiers and we learned in a tough school. Those were cruel and crude days. Human life was cheap. Why shouldn’t a crazy prophet who was about to butchered serve to make a Roman holiday? So we had our sport with him, as did Herod’s men of war, and those slimy priests as he hung upon the cross. But we were slaves to a whole host of passions: Pilate desperately afraid of his standing with Rome; myself and the other soldiers bound, it is true , by our military duty, but that duty exceeded by a wave of cruelty that can carry otherwise decent people off their feet, catching us all in so many different ways; the priests shackled by their own wealth and status, slaves of Rome but masters of the people; and the ordinary people carried away in a wave of mass hysteria with no thought for the innocent victim . No one on that dreadful day acted freely. We had all given ourselves to evil powers that warped and twisted our consciences.
Only Jesus of Nazareth was free. There was no need to bind him. There was no need to drive him on. He went serenely on his way, the way of his own choosing, and when we came to nail him to the cross, why the nails were hardly necessary. He mounted the cross like a throne. One could say that he embraced the Cross. He was a King, ruling from the tree. It was as if no man could take his life from him, but that he willingly laid it down of his own accord.
I know now that this is true. I know better than those religious leaders that came and mocked and cried, pointing their finger of scorn: “He saved others, himself he cannot save”. But the truth is: To save others, himself he would not save.” – he died freely and was ultimately victorious over those terrible forces to which we were in bondage. Because he who died on the that cross was the Son of God and was free, all of us who now share his life, are free.
I sit in my cell today and ask myself: What is my attitude to misfortune? How can I learn to be free to all those passions that hold me in bondage? What is there in my life, and indeed in the life of the world – that drives me to crucify him afresh What is it in my life that today makes him once again to accept the Via Dolorosa the way of the cross? What is there in your life that does the same?
For the Reader’s Meditation
1. What is my attitude to misfortune?
2. How can I learn to be free?
3. What makes me crucify him afresh?