It is Easter weekend. A crowd is gathered around three crosses erected on a low hill just outside of Jerusalem. We can see the faces in the crowd…
Jesus: Aggravation. Front and centre are the men on the crosses. On the middle cross hangs a Nazarene names Jesus. He has been crucified just moments before. Blood still trickles freely from the wounds in his hands and feet. His body, bearing the marks of a recent flogging, is a mass of cuts and contusions. His face, caked with dried blood, is contorted with unbearable pain, his beard matted with blood and dust. But his eyes are closed, making it is difficult to read much from his face.
Thieves: Desperation. Their faces too, smeared with blood and mud. Although clearly in much physical pain as well, they both have their eyes wide open, bulging from their sockets with fear, bawling out their terror loudly. The point in their crucifixion when they will welcome, even beg for death, is still hours away. Right now, they are terrified of that great dark unknown. The voracious beast the stalks every human being throughout their lives, is now breathing down their necks. They had joked about hell in better times, laughing with their cohorts. But this is no joke. Death is at hand.
Soldiers: Alienation. These men had performed hundreds of crucifixions before this. They had seen it all. Watching so many people - men, even women, die on this very hill over the years, had seared their emotions. These men were takers, not givers. They took their wages, took their pleasures, took charge, took lives, took whatever they wanted. Impassively now, they went about their work, clearing up their tools and keeping an eye on the crowd, should people get out of hand, as often people did at such events. Minds hardened by too much trauma, too much suffering, too much death, they wore a smirk of indifference on their faces.
Crowd: Anticipation. The crowd they sought to control, on the other hand, were eager for blood. Perhaps thankful that it was someone other then themselves on the cross that day, their faces shone with a morbid delight in the prospect of this brutal entertainment. They displayed that instinctive confidence of all crowds – that their numbers, their majority, rendered them immune to the human spectacle they were witnessing. Emboldened by the notion that, “We are everybody. Surely they can’t punish everybody” – they began to call out obscene taunts at those whose tortured bodies writhed before them.
Pharisees: Self-congratulation. Near the back of the crowd, knots of religious leaders whispered together. Their faces were smug with the self-congratulating knowledge that Jesus’ death would validate them. They had been right. They had bested Jesus. They had proven once again that they were better than other men. They were certainly better than this stinking crowd of sinners. They had no need of any messiah, any saviour. They could save themselves. He had posed a serious threat, challenging their hegemony of the God-business. But they had won. Forget the lies. Forget the bribes. Forget that the means were dirty and unethical – it was all justified by the ends. There he hung, bleeding. Mere mortal after all. They had won.
Disciples: Agitation. Interspersed among the crowd nearer to the foot of the cross, his disciples wore expressions of deep agitation. Perplexed. Frightened. Angry. Confused. The men blinking back tears that the women shed freely. They had believed. They had bought into the dream. But it wasn’t supposed to end like this. Sure, Jesus had forewarned them. Yes, he had even talked about his death. But… surely not this. This scandalous execution, a victim of the devious machinations of the priests. After all he had done – feeding the hungry, delivering the tormented, healing the sick. So many were healed. What of the Kingdom now? What of that shining hope for a better world? What of God? What of truth? What of this man who had walked, ate, lived, and laughed with them? What of this amazing brother they had all grown to admire and yes, love? What now?
Centurion: Comprehension. On this face alone that day: comprehension. He had risen to the position of centurion for this very reason – his ability to see through all the smoke, all the emotion, all the agendas. To keep his head when all around him others were losing theirs and blaming it on him. His years of military service had hardened him like the other soldiers, but somehow, he had never let it blind him. He saw everything going on around him – the crowd jeering, the Pharisees gloating, the women weeping, Peter pacing, the preacher dying. He had dealt with a lot of troublemakers during his term here in Jerusalem, but this Jesus guy was different. He didn’t seem bent on throwing off the Roman yoke. He seemed more interested in getting under people’s skin. Jesus didn’t fit into any of his boxes. As the afternoon wore on, he had chosen a place to stand his men could come to him, but where he could also see Jesus’ face. And he watched. He watched as physical torment ripped across that visage. But that didn’t last long. Soon he saw the brow furrowed and it was obvious that his gaze was now focussed inwards, focussed on something more compelling than the pain. He shot a look upwards as the sky grew inexplicably dark. Even the boisterous crowd were subdued by it, apprehensive now. The mood had changed, this was no longer fun. But their feet seemed rooted to the ground. The wind blew suddenly chill, stirring up dust eddies down the hill and beyond. He felt a tremor ripple through his feet. He glanced down just as the ground was jolted again, stronger this time. Unmistakably an earthquake. Another jolt. It was too much for the crowd, who broke from their trance and began to scatter, crying out as they ran. He did a quick visual check to make sure his men were still in their places. Good. His gaze swung back to the face of the man on the cross. But it was all over. He was dead. Surprised, the centurion stood and stared, his eyes slowly drinking in every detail. Suddenly it all began to come together. He drew in his breath sharply and held it as his mind raced. Yes. Of course. Yes, yes, yes. Piece by piece the evidence fell into order. Finally, he began to exhale. “Truly,” he whispered, more to himself than anyone else. “Truly this man was the Son of God.”