Thursday, April 21, 2011

How Jesus Died (Inside the Centurion’s Mind)

And in the days of these kings shall the God of heaven set up a kingdom, which shall never be destroyed: and the kingdom shall not be left to other people, but it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand for ever. (Daniel 2:44)

The heart of a war-hardened Roman centurion remained loyal to the divine Caesar. His mind sought only to fulfill his duty to his emperor, his country, his soldiers and his family. Centuries of imperial rule and military wisdom had created this ancient machine capable of conquering nations and subduing rebellion over almost the entire world. Pax Romana reigned because of him.

When Jesus Christ began preaching, Judea was a far-flung colony ruled by a Roman governor in alliance with the Jewish Sanhedrin, a council of leaders faithful to Moses’ Law and extremely zealous for its many invented traditions. The link between the foreign Caesar and the local rulers produced a delicate balance which worked effectively to quell unrest and to maintain economic benefit for the colonizer through taxes. Both parties, keeping a safe distance from one another, gladly fulfilled each other’s role while keeping the people tractable, safe and productive. Between the two, the Praetorian Guard, under the governor’s command, played a vital role as a strong bridge.

A centurion, in reality, had command over two hundred to about a thousand soldiers. Today, he would be equal to a colonel in terms of command and dignity. He served both as mother and father to his soldiers – training them, inspiring them, fighting with them, laughing and mourning with them, eating and sleeping with them in camp and even dying with them in the battlefield. The road a soldier-leader trod upon to earn his spurs was paved with unending struggle, pain and dedication. The physical strength, mental acuity and emotional alertness required of him allowed little room for error and excuses. Mens sana in corpore sano (sound mind in sound body) – a Roman maxim -- found its pedestal in the centurion’s life.

The unnamed centurion had heard of Jesus since He began teaching in Judea with a band of followers -- former fishermen, tax collectors and ordinary folks. It was his duty to find out what was happening. Some of the soldiers he sent to observe told him of a man who baptized people and Jesus in Jordan River. The centurion remembered his soldiers saying that they even got a “washing down” from the leather-bound, ascetic prophet: Do not abuse your power. Do not get money from the people.

“Who is the leader of the movement then: the baptizer or this Jesus?” The centurion had asked then.

“Well, the baptizer wanted to be baptized but he ended up baptizing this Jesus instead,” was the answer.

Quite a humble person, this Jesus, the centurion had thought.

For about three years, the centurion had heard many things about this Jesus, also called the Son of Man, Messiah or the Prophet. He heard about his teachings of a coming kingdom, about forgiveness and loving your enemies, about praying and about a resurrection. The miracles – now, those were amazing reports -- even led him to see for himself whether this Jesus was for real.

Disguising himself as a visiting merchant, he decided to see for himself one Sabbath when not many people were in the streets. To his great amazement, he saw Jesus heal a man who had been born blind.

Great Jupiter! This man is indeed very powerful. Who is he? Where is he from?

That night, he had a hard time sleeping. Never in the history of Rome or anywhere else had that happened. But being the literate and smart person that he was, he wanted more proof before putting any trust upon this teacher-healer. He also needed to be unattached in order to focus on keeping the crowds who followed Jesus from becoming unruly.

Still, he wanted to know more about this Jesus. He had an unhindered view to a historic and revolutionary event and he did not want to miss whatever good it offered. Besides, it was his duty to keep this Jesus and the excited people within his scope. Also, he needed to keep Jesus from harm in case the Jewish leaders thought of eliminating him unlawfully. Either way, he kept the guard and gave relevant reports to the governor regarding the rising events.

“This Jesus, although he doesn’t seem intent on starting it, may be the source of trouble for all,” he told his soldiers. “Stay alert!”

When Jesus entered Jerusalem riding a donkey, the centurion provided security in the streets of the city. But since it was his duty to keep a close watch over the band of followers, he stayed close and kept even wider eyes and ears than his soldiers. He gathered reports of what Jesus said in the temple through the stories told by some Jewish “friends” (Spies, we would call them. Romans were not allowed inside the temple, you see. He knew the Jewish leaders had also planted spies among Jesus’ followers.) He heard how Jesus toppled the tables and how he lashed at the Pharisees and Scribes. The Sanhedrin almost had to call Roman soldiers in just to prevent the people from causing any more vandalism. Fortunately, only Jesus showed violent behavior.

Surely, this man is motivated by some kind of ultimate goal for him to defy the Sanhedrin as he does, thought the centurion.

He now wondered what was the final goal of this Jesus? Did he want to ultimately take control over the temple? Was he merely testing the Sanhedrin’s ability to resist Him and the people? Where would he get his weapons to accomplish that? He had tasked his soldiers to search the homes of some of Jesus’ disciples many times in the past. But they found none.

By all counts, this man is a man of peace. He does not know the ways of war like I do. Taking over the temple or the city would require training a big army. But with the Roman legions guarding the province and the city, it would be an impossible task.

So, why is he doing nothing but teach in the temple and in the surrounding towns? For three years, he has not varied his habits. Yet, more and more people are coming to him. And now that he has made a triumphant entry in Jerusalem, he has not said anything to the people that would come close to rousing them to take over the temple or the city.

His claim that he is the Son of God has divided this nation. The leaders hate him; but the people love him. Could he have supernatural power to overthrow Rome and Judea by calling on God’s angels? Their prophet Moses overthrew a great nation before without an army; perhaps, this Prophet will do it again.

This man is very mysterious and very dangerous.

The centurion made a report of the recent events and made an effort to explain to the Roman governor that he had not seen anything like this Jesus or his movement. His recommendation, therefore, was to reinforce the security in the city as Passover was arriving and more people had come to celebrate. It might be that Jesus was waiting for more people to make his final move, whatever it was.

The order arrived one morning at the centurion’s house from the governor for soldiers to assist the Sanhedrin in the arrest of Jesus that night.

So, this is how it will all end? The centurion felt the despair and helplessness. Or perhaps, he has an army trained somewhere and would come at the right moment to begin the uprising. But until then, I have nothing to work on.

That night, they came and arrested Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. He was half hoping that Jesus and his followers would put up a fight; but only one follower did, cutting off a soldier’s ear in the process. But Jesus rebuked the man and even healed the soldier’s wound. The soldiers confiscated a couple of swords and clubs, nothing more.

This man is not putting up a fight. What is he doing? Maybe he wants a more dramatic revolt. We will have to wait.

The centurion waited in vain. Before the Sanhedrin, before the Roman governor and before Herod in Galilee, Jesus did not defend himself. No rescue from any army -- of humans or of angels -- came. When the Jews cried to have him crucified, not even the governor could save him. The centurion, feeling frustrated, accepted his orders from both quarters.

When the governor ordered Jesus to be flogged, he let his soldiers do the job. He felt exhausted and went home to take some rest. Watching another flogging would have been senseless.

Anyway, this is not what I had hoped would happen to this man. Ah, a drink and a bath will clear my mind. Even in battle, such small luxuries can do great wonders. And in this war of politics and religion, a soldier neither wins nor loses. One merely carries on.

Upon his return, however, the soldiers were scourging Jesus with wild abandon.

“The order was to scourge him, not kill him,” he yelled at them.

How can these people laugh at their own cruelty?

He could not look into the eyes of the bleeding man. The crown of thorns and the robe around his lacerated body made him appear neither as a dignified king nor a respectable man by any trace. The laughter he heard around him at this pitiable spectacle seemed to hurt him almost as much as the wounds of Jesus.

After the governor turned over Jesus to the Jews to be crucified, the fate of Jesus fell entirely into the hands of the centurion.

This man has not caused any trouble; but he is being punished and sentenced to die. I envy the governor; he could wash his hands of this man’s blood. Mine are already stained by it.

But he had a task to do and ordered the soldiers to proceed with the sentence. When they arrived at Calvary, he had Jesus nailed and raised on a cross between two thieves.

This is the worst order I ever had to follow in my life, the centurion mused as he watched while people cheered every pound of the hammer on the nails. Yet, the condemned hardly cried in pain. It was nine in the morning.

People who were passing by mocked him. The soldiers were gambling over his cloak. One of the thieves hanging beside him cursed him. The Jewish elders dared him to come down and prove He was the Messiah.

“Father, forgive them for they know not what they do,” the centurion heard Jesus cry out.

The Roman laws which I serve and his own laws have condemned him; but my own heart cannot even condemn him. And yet, he will not condemn anyone. What great love this man has!

At noon, a black darkness covered the entire land. It seemed like the Sun itself stopped shining for there were no clouds; not even the stars or the moon appeared. Light itself seemed to refuse to shed its presence upon the scene. Torches were brought in by the soldiers for they could not move within the gloom.

What kind of man is this that even Nature grieves at his suffering? I have seen both courage and fear in the faces of men who died in battle. My comrades who bled and died in my arms defied death and the enemy and cried out for more blood. But this man refuses to fight, forgives his enemies and brings sorrow even to a man like me who has stared at death so many times. He... he is all alone in his agony and, yet, it is I who feels abandoned.

“I thirst!” came the cry from the cross. Upon hearing this, a soldier gave him wine vinegar mixed with myrrh and soaked in a sponge. But Jesus did not drink.

“Enough! We have mocked him long enough. Let him die with dignity,” said the centurion.

He thirsts for something else. Whatever it is, we have no power to give it to him.

“It is finished,” Jesus spoke.

The centurion felt the end was near. He had been standing several paces from the cross and had remained there to see everything that transpired. He had forgotten about his duty to Caesar, to his country, his soldiers and his family. The only obligation he had at that moment was to the man on the cross. This time, he spoke to Jesus from his heart.

You were placed under my command, for me to observe, to control, to protect, to scourge and now to crucify. In my tour of duty in your land, I have seen many die on a cross – yes, under my command. Men who deserved to die. I know you do not deserve this. But you wanted this. That I know now. For what purpose? I do not know.

In Rome, we have a hero who was bound to a rock for stealing fire from heaven and giving it to humans. I see now that even as you approach death, Prometheus that you are, even the light dies with you. It is my privilege to see a man whom we Romans would call a true hero of the people. No, we would call you a god! For that, I give you honor.

The centurion took off his helmet, unsheathed his sword and stood it on the ground.

Father, into Your hands I commend my spirit!

With such a piercing cry, Jesus died. It startled every one. Even the land shook with such a force that the centurion fell on the ground. In the lingering darkness, he stayed down kneeling and supporting himself on his sword. People were screaming and trembling. No one, not even the mockers who had gathered like vultures uttered a word. Only the centurion’s clear voice rose above the rumbling ground and fearful cries.

Vere filius dei erat iste!” (Truly, this man was the Son of God!)

It took a while before the chaos subsided. The darkness dispelled in a moment and the soldiers took enough courage to gather back around the cross at the centurion’s call. It was three in the afternoon.

It was a custom for executioners to make sure that those who were crucified were dead before they were brought down. The centurion hesitated to give the command when it was Jesus’ turn for he had a glimmer of hope that he would still be alive.

Perhaps, it is his way of surviving this great injustice. Wouldn’t that be a great vindication for the innocent? The governor, who understands our laws more than I do, believes so.

“Sir, we have to do this,” asked the soldier ready to plunge the spear into Jesus’ heart.

“What‘s another wound to a dead man?” The centurion waved his hand and walked away.

The centurion went home that day pondering. He had proven something to be true and still had some hope remaining that that truth would last long enough for others to see. He only had to nurture that hope.

Today, many do not believe that Jesus is the Son of God and that He lives and reigns in Heaven. Many others do not even believe He ever lived at all. One man witnessed how Jesus died -- and believed.

(Painting above: "The Roman Centurion" by Nathan Greene)

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Parable of the Last Doll

Many appreciate those lovely Russian “nesting dolls”, very popular as gift items. The original “Matryoshka” doll set, carved from wood in 1890, is shown at left. The smallest doll is a baby while the largest is a mother holding a rooster. All the inner six dolls are girls, except for one boy.

If I were to make a set, I would probably begin with the smallest doll. Easiest to hardest, which works well with crammers or late-bloomers like me. But anyone could just as well begin from top to bottom. It would depend on one’s fancy or bias. Either way, the last doll would certainly be, to the maker, the most cherished. One would eventually have learned enough from mistakes that the last doll would be perfectly and lovingly done.

And you thought looking at or handling those dolls was all there was to the doll set. Sure, we all love opening up the big mama or papa doll and down to the smallest family member, lining them up and counting them. Putting them all back together is just as delightful. The magical feeling actually mimics Nature’s many processes. Hence, through it we become part of the artistic or creative process of discovery and synthesis.

Physicists and cosmologists explain the origin of the Universe through a similar fashion. They say that in the first three minutes of the Big Bang, hydrogen and helium nuclei were already stable. 700, 000 years later, much of the H and He available (together making up more than 99% of all the elements in the Universe) were already formed. The Big Bang Theory somehow provides scientific proof of the Genesis claim that God created the Universe from the tiny atom particle to the galaxies and beyond. From down up. Within our bodies, in fact, are the components that God carved out first – water made up of hydrogen atoms (the same material needed by stars to produce light) and oxygen, carbon and iron. And many more.

This small-to-big process is also apparent in many things around us. The Solar System parallels the structure of the atom. The river system, from its tributaries to its distributaries, is similar to a tree's root and branch systems (not to mention the human circulatory system). A mother gives birth to a daughter who will give birth to another girl and so on. Males are, in an indirect way, bearers of seeds that produce the tiny babies of the world. The laws of creation and reproduction came about because a wise, all-knowing Creator put such obvious order in His handiwork.

Everything then is part a whole and the whole derives its essence from the parts.

So, if God made the tiny and the big, how did He do it? That is, what did He use to form all things, whether finite or infinite?

To answer this, we will have to reverse the process. From the big to the small and beyond? What!!?

Before anyone could carve a tiny “babushka” doll, one would have to get wood. Obviously. But in God’s case, what did He have before He made the tiny hydrogen atom? Yes, He had protons, neutrons and electrons. Or even tinier energy particles than those. But wait? What was the source of all those particles? Scientists will probably not agree; but there was nothing before there was something. The logic works; but it defies logic. Faith has to take over from this point.

Inside the last tiny doll is nothing. While the Universe continues to expand at speeds beyond our imagination, the purpose of God to bring back all things to the beginning will not be thwarted. As people build gigantic structures, they actually behave like God – not so unlike the people of Babel who built a tower in order to challenge God. As nations go about coalescing to form a global nation under a global government, they actually think the way God does – to bring all people under His mighty rule. And yet, they are not able to do so because they go about it in their own selfish and wicked ways.

What shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his soul? One can succeed in building the biggest doll set but it will be the same dull doll as the tiniest doll, in shape and in essence. The biggest business company will still make use of the same formulas that made it a success in the beginning – for good or ill. A trillion dollars will seem like a million dollars to a convicted drug-dealer who needs only five dollars to pay for his last meal before his execution. Correction, he or she gets the meal free of charge. The world is worthless compared to the value of the soul.

In the beginning was the Word. There was nothing first. The Word brought everything into existence.

When Christ said that anyone who humbles himself will be exalted, we understand His way for us. He who denies himself will gain life. When we become nothing to this world, we will receive everything. The meek will inherit the Earth. His mission on Earth then was to reverse the process of Creation and create the New Creation. Having seen how humans have failed to appreciate His gift of life and abundance in a perfect Universe, He decided to call us to look into the last doll – into our spirit which He created lovingly and perfectly in His own Divine Image.

Crush a tiny babushka doll and you will end up with a mess of wood. Vaporize it and you will have disassembled atoms. You reverse the Big Bang and you get the Big Yawn into Oblivion. Nothingness.

In the beginning, there was nothing – no matter, no space, no time. And God said, “Let there be light!” And there was light.

Today, that light has been covered and hidden deep inside the last doll. Whoever uncovers the light will have life eternal.

(Photo above taken from