All is dark. As light gradually dawns, a single silhouette is seen. As the music swells, the prophet sings, "Behold on the mountain the feet of the man bringing good tidings of peace." Two other prophets take their turns and then they all sing together, "Now is the time at last to heed the prophet's call and return to the Lord. Turn again and be forgiven. And it shall come to pass that whosoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be delivered!"
So begins Tetelestai. This dramatic presentation of the last week of Jesus' life has effected my life in numerous ways. Most importantly, it has made the story more concrete and real to me. The following stories are not just roles that I have played, they are people who I have been.
My dear Graetius,
I have not written in such a very long time. You must pardon me; matters of state weigh heavily on my mind and I am not allowed the slightest margin for idle reminiscing. I fear that the hand of fate draws closer with each passing day, my friend. This station bears me ill, I think. My head throbs unceasingly and my knees have begun to ache when I rise in the morning. Even now my hands quiver with anxiety. There is not a night that goes by without some image of our youth entering my thoughts as if the gods wished to torment me with a past that cannot be again.
I write to you now in somewhat of a predicament. I have received word that Emperor Tiberius' sickness grows stronger. Every day he slips farther and farther from reality. There has been yet another Jewish revolt, this time in Samaria. Now the Jewish leaders have sent formal complaints to Rome requesting my removal from office. Damn these Jews! I cannot stand to stay in this province for another year!
These Jews and their fanatical religion will be the death of me. I do not understand these people. They are forever searching for a cause, some leader to seize their fanatical instincts and set them loose on the world. They dream of kings long since gone and a holy nation that now lies subject to the Roman Empire. They are a nation of impetuous youths and zealous elders. Their incessant pursuit of their long dead nation wears me ragged. Why must they cling to past glories and stifling tradition? This province will not be pacified unless every last one of them is slaughtered. They have fire in their blood. There's a stubborn bone in their backs that will not bend unless broken. Why will they not submit?
There is trouble brewing, Graetius, mark my words. I fear there will be great bloodshed soon. The storm that has been building below the surface is about to break. Many Jews will die, but my successor must deal with that. There has already been enough blood on my hands.
Ah, but it could have been me. That Passover could have run red in Jerusalem. His name was Jesus of Nazareth. With a word he could have had the entire province in an uproar. The people were ready to die for him and for the lost nation of Israel. I think they caught in him a glimpse of the glory that was once the holy city of Jerusalem.
But he never said that word. He refused to have their blood flow through the streets; for that they killed him. His blood flowed where theirs no longer had to. He had such power! But never did he use it; never did he allow the mob of fanatics to go hurtling to the death of their own making.
What a man he was! Even as he stood before me, on trial for his life, he held the bearing of a king. He was completely unconcerned about his own survival. I have never met a more innocent man. Despite all of the priests' attempts to cast blame on him, nothing stuck. It seemed this man had never done anything wrong.
Ah, Graetius, there's been too much bloodshed. So much blood has been spilled and I have not escaped unscathed. My hands! They're stained! No matter the hours of scouring, my sins lie embedded in my soul. If only guilt might be cleansed from one's conscience as simply as blood is cleansed from silk.
I let him die, Graetius! He'd done nothing wrong, but I released him to be crucified by the angry mob he died to save. I couldn't save him, Graetius! By the gods! I couldn't do it. There would have been rioting in the streets. I couldn't sacrifice the precarious calm for the life of one man, no matter how holy.
Claudia tells me of a man named Barnabas. She says that I must speak with him. I do not know if I can. Wild rumors are circulating of Jesus' death. Strange, miraculous stories! I find myself drawn to them as if by some morbid fascination with my own damnation. If what they say is true... What if they say the truth?
I can't bear it any longer! So many have been lost and so many defiled in the name of peace. I fear that I must count myself among the defiled. This mortal husk consumes me day by day. Nights I spend pacing the chamber to lie unmoving on the floor through the morning.
I must find rest, Graetius. I beseech you, allow me to stay at your estate. My own wreaks too much of long nights spent brooding in the dark. My sins, they seek me out wherever I hide! Nowhere is there peace. Judaea is doomed to turmoil and bloodshed. My own body is wracked by the pains of age and guilt--Jesus died to preserve this so called peace. It seems Jesus' death was of no use but to trouble an old man's sleepless rest. Is this what it has come to? A man who longs for the cold arms of death to soothe his troubled soul? Perhaps I will go see this Barnabas as Claudia suggests. There is no harm. My hands are already stained. Damned twice is still damned. Perhaps he even means to help.
Peace and long life to you,
Governor Pontius Pilate
"Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest." Matt 11:28
"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but save the world through him." John 3:16-17
"You know, I was there when this whole thing started."
Several men walk along the roadside. Dust cakes their feet and their eyes are wearily downcast. An elderly man is talking to one of the youngest men of the group.
"I saw it all happen. It was many years ago. My first encounter with our would be savior was when he first came to Jerusalem...
There had been many rumors of a new messiah coming from out of Galilee. I admit, I did have my hopes up. He had performed many miraculous signs and I thought this may be the king God had sent us to finally free us from the Romans. I was very disappointed when I finally saw him. He acted nothing like a king and he came riding into town on a donkey. That's no way for a king to enter Jerusalem. Naturally, I left in disgust.
My next encounter was on the following day. I had gone to the temple to buy some doves to sacrifice on behalf of my master Annas, when Jesus entered. He had brought a whip and began to flail about, lashing any within reach and destroying valuable merchandise. Aghast, I realized that something must be done about this, so I ran to tell Annas the news.
Annas decided that I should observe the man to better understand what kind of a danger he posed. I found him amidst a large group of followers. Typical to a wandering preacher, he had attracted all the worthless scum of society and I found myself holding my breath to keep from being made unclean. I sat at the fringes and began to listen to the teachings of this carpenter from Galilee. By the God of our fathers, I have never before or since heard such a masterful blending of truths and lies. He was always sure of himself, even when he was in obvious disagreement with our holiest men. Some pharisees were there questioning him. He never answered their questions and then he began to ask them questions without answers. They left in a huff and when he began to blatantly insult them, I had had enough. I would report to Annas. My decision was made. This man was dangerous, and needed to be dealt with immediately.
Annas made a deal with one of Jesus' closest followers so that we could arrest him when he wasn't surrounded by a large crowd. We finally got him in the garden of Gethsemene. What few followers that were with him put up a little fight, but he himself realized fighting was useless. I took him to the High Priest. I knew that Annas would put him in his place.
Annas began as he had when intimidating several other troublesome preachers. He laid out very plainly how much trouble Jesus had gotten himself into and hinted at the consequences of continueing in his heretical ways. He then allowed Jesus a chance to redeem himself by stating what he really believed. Jesus, being stubborn and bull-headed, refused to recant saying that Annas already knew what Jesus had taught. I couldn't stand by and watch this man show such disrespect to the high priest, so I lashed out at him in righteous anger. He simply took the punch and then turned toward me. That's when I felt the full power that lay behind this man Jesus. His cold stare left me speechless as if some evil spirit had deprived me of my tongue. After that display, Annas sent Jesus to be tried before Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin.
The trial before the Sanhedrin went horribly wrong. It was as if this man had the power to hold back all of God's most righteous men. The witnesses that were called to testify against Jesus couldn't even agree. That was when Caiaphas took charge. I knew he could bring down Jesus. Caiaphas only had to pose one question. He asked Jesus if he was the son of the Almighty. Jesus, sealing his own fate, said that yes, he, a carpenter's boy from Galilee, was the son of God. Conviction was a certainty. All that remained was the approval of the death sentence by Pilate.
I have never had any love for Pilate or any other Roman for that matter, but in order to get Jesus out of the way we had to go through him. Pilate was a spineless but wicked man who derived his only real pleasure in life from frustrating Jewish leaders and occasionally slaughtering Jewish citizens. It was little wonder that he decided to prolong Jesus' trial as long as possible. Despite Caiaphas and Annas' fervent arguments Pilate only gave in when the crowd threatened to riot. Even then he refused to claim responsibility for the execution saying that we Jews had to do it ourselves. If that was the only way to get it done, I would have crucified him myself.
Crucifixions are always an ugly business. Therefore, after observing his frailty for perhaps a quarter of an hour, I retired to the temple to cleanse myself after being so near to him. It would take many sacrifices to get his oppressive presence off of me. It was about the ninth hour when a terrible earthquake struck and the curtain to the Most Holy Place was ripped in two. Averting my eyes lest I be struck by God's wrath, I knew this sign to be the passing of Jesus' demon from the earth. He was finally destroyed. God had again triumphed over the enemies of Israel.
It wasn't over though. This man had left such a stain upon the very land itself that we are still in the process of removing it. Now his followers claim that he has risen from the dead and walks among us. What fools! Do they not know that Jesus was a false prophet, just like the prophets of Baal? Shall they set up a statue and worship it as King Nebuchadnezzar wished Daniel to do? The shame of it is that these heathens are casting a dark shadow on the Jewish faith. That is why we must destroy them. We must uproot the weeds before they spread.
...and that is what we are here to do, Saul. We must drive out the wicked just as Elijah slaughtered the four hundred prophets of Baal. But I grow weary. Look, we are nearing Damascus. It should not be long before we reach the city."
The men continue their long trek. They walk down the road and turn as the path curves around an outcropping of trees. Saul never reaches Damascus.
The rest of the story can be found in Acts chapter nine.
"But God demonstrates his own love for us in this:
While we were still sinners, Christ died for us."
"I can't believe it!" A tall dark-skinned man exclaims. "There've been wild rumors flying around ever since those crazy women made up that silly story."
"I don't believe it either, but you can't deny that we all want it to be true," reasons another somewhat shorter man. "He was a wonderful man. He just didn't know when to quit."
The two were carrying on a lively conversation in a fairly crowded room. The lanterns sent wild shadows dancing on the wall, distorting what little could be made out.
"I think we should all just forget about it and go home," the first man sighs. "It was such a waste. To think we gave up our jobs, our family to follow this lunatic. I don't know why I didn't see it before."
A woman pipes in, "No! You don't understand! If he really did..."
"Did what? Don't tell me you believe that nonsense! If anyone here can tell me honestly that they saw him come back to life, then maybe I'll think about it. Anyone?"
The silence stretches out the window into the dark courtyard outside.
"I didn't think so. See? Just another..."
"I saw it happen." A figure unnoticed until then emerges from a shadowy corner. Gasps are heard as the group sees he's dressed in the armor of a Roman guard.
"Come, please, tell us," the shorter man coaxes.
He grasps at his hair and breathes a long sigh before beginning.
"You realize I could die for this. I am, at least for now, a soldier in the Roman army. We are the best trained, best disciplined, and best supplied army in the entire world. I have been taught since birth that dieing in battle was the highest honor and would assure your soul's passage to Elysian fields. I have worked and trained and suffered for five long years to get where I am now. And I just threw it all away.
Just last week I was on duty in Pilate's palace and they brought this criminal in. Apparently, Caiaphas and several other priests really had it in for this guy. I really hate him. Caiaphas, I mean. There he is acting all pious and like everyone should be groveling at his feet, when all he did was have some of his friends in high places talk to certain people and there he is high priest. Of course us lowly guards don't dare touch him because all he needs to do is say something to one of his friends and there we are stuck in this wasteland of a province forever. Well, they brought this fellow in on some trumped up charges demanding crucifixion. Oh, I'd seen things like it before mind you, but the more I looked at this guy the more I thought that this was somehow different. I think Pilate saw it too because he kept trying to persuade these people on the brink of riot that this man had done nothing wrong. I don't know exactly what happened but Caiaphas must have pulled some strings and finally Pilate gave in. So I was to crucify another pathetic victim who hadn't done anything wrong. But I'm just a guard, right? I mean, I have to follow orders."
Here the guard choked and it was plain to see he was fighting back tears.
"Alright, here we were taking this man to be crucified, and I guess someone decided to have him carry his own cross. It's pretty sick if you ask me. He'd already been whipped and beaten, so he was in no shape to carry a cross. He fell twice trying to carry that thing. The second time we grabbed somebody from the crowd to finish the rest of the way. I reached down to escort the prisoner to his execution and he looked up at me. He looked not at me, but more through me. I can't describe it. The worst part about it was that there wasn't any hate or malice in those eyes. It was his eyes, I think. They looked into me and understood all of my deepest longings and, I don't know why, but he looked at his executioner, at me, with compassion. I'll never forget that.
We got to Golgotha and they nailed a sign to his cross: THIS IS JESUS, THE KING OF THE JEWS. The priests were worried that someone might try to save him so we stood guard over this dieing man. I stood below him as his life ebbed away to nothing. A drop of his blood landed on my arm. I couldn't bring myself to wipe it off though. It just seemed to be too precious to waste. Now, most criminals on their crosses die trying to shout obscenities and spit on people at the same time. He wasn't like that. Jesus prayed. The whole time he was up there I could hear him talking to his Father. Then he sayed something that stopped me in my tracks. He said, 'Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do.' That was when the full weight of what I'd done hit me. Here was this man who'd done absolutely nothing wrong and yet I was killing him. I couldn't do anything though, could I? I had to follow orders. Even if the whole world should crumble I still had my orders. Right? As he said his last words the world shook and the midday sun turned black as night. Needless to say that scared the heck out of me. So, we took him down and buried him as soon as possible. Finally, I was done with it and I could go on with my life, my career, and forget about Him, about Jesus."
A stiffled sob escaped from the guards lips and a round, wet tear rolled done his face to splatter on the floor.
"This morning, of all places, I was assigned to guard his tomb. Again the priests were afraid of someone stealing his body. Those priests are paranoid as anything. I was guarding the tomb along with three others. I guess I couldn't come to grips with this thing I'd just had a hand in. I sat appart from the others brooding. I do that sometimes when I'm confused and afraid. Some women came to grieve when suddenly a bright light shone down on me and there was a son of the gods who spoke to me. To me! He said, 'Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen.' I looked and the entrance to the tomb had opened and inside there was no body to be found. Then it hit me like a ton of bricks. All my life I'd been striving and reaching and for what? I had dreamed of being a courageous soldier fighting battles, not a heavily armored executioner who dragged innocent victims to their death. If this pure honest man had really come back to life, then I had another chance. My sword and my spear never meant anything to anyone, but this Jesus whose ragged and worn body collapsed beneath a cross had grabbed my mind and touched me like no person or thing ever before."
Streams of tears flowed openly down his face now but he was grinning widely. Several other faces in the room were wet too.
"It's true then!"
"He, he really is alive!"
"We must go tell the others!"
The guard spoke again, "That's why I came here. Do you know where I can find Jesus?"
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