One Link in a Chain of Command...

Counters

With Holy Week fast approaching many ministers and worship leaders are flailing around trying to find resources for a plethora of services. Readers of the Methodist Newsletter will find some short pieces I wrote ages ago for such an eventuality, and if you go over to twelvebaskets you will find other stuff that I've written, together with masses of material by other (better) writers. But as a wee taster, here's one of the pieces available there. Its based on a range of gospel passages including Matthew 8: 5-13; 27: 54; Mark 15: 39; Luke 7: 1-10; Luke 23: 47 and parts of it were originally included in New Irish Arts' "I Witness"  event in Belfast Waterfront about 10 years ago.

I’m just one link in a chain of command… I receive orders and I give them… My name is Marcus Antoninus Proclus, senior centurion of the Tenth Legion of the Imperial Army of Rome. Normally I would never order anyone else to do something I was not prepared to do myself… So I would usually strike the first blow. But not today… 
By the time he was delivered to me on the execution ground, he was exhausted… The soldiers had had to press gang someone else to carry his cross piece or he would probably have died on the road… And he was a mess… They usually are… Covered in spittle and mud and shit and blood from the crowds who always gather to hurl abuse and worse at the scum of the earth… Happy to take out their frustrations on the condemned man… Gives them someone to blame for the woes of the world… Better them than us. Yet only a few days ago this same crowd were overjoyed as he entered Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. They tore the leaves off the trees and the clothes off their backs to make a carpet for him to enter the city… I was sent out to investigate with a detachment of soldiers… But there was nothing to it… It was just harmless high spirits… Some of the crowd came and said that our days were numbered now that God’s chosen one had arrived… The King of the Jews. But he was a pretty poor king… No threat to us. That’s what I said in my report. There was no war chariot… No military escort… No fanfares… Just a donkey, and a rag tag band of peasants and children, singing old Jewish songs about salvation. 
But the singing didn’t last, and their hopes of salvation proved short-lived… here was their saviour standing in front of me… A condemned man… If he had come to the city expecting to be crowned, I doubt that he expected that it would be by a bunch of soldiers in a Roman barracks using a crown of thorns… I looked at a notice handed to me by the decurion. Apparently the Governor had ordered that it be put up so that everyone could see who had been crucified… It said “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” 
I looked at him again… It couldn’t be… Could it? You see, 2 years ago when I was stationed in Capernaum up north, my servant Sextus, who had been with me for years, was sick; all the doctors said he was about to die, but someone told me about a Jewish holy man called Jesus, from Nazareth, who was visiting the town and who had apparently been doing all sorts of miraculous healings… Not through potions and spells and all sorts of hocus pocus, like so many other charlatans, but simply by his word of command… So I asked some of the local Jewish leaders that I knew to put in a good word for me… They went and saw him and then came back and told me that he was coming… But it wouldn’t have been wise him coming to my house… It certainly wouldn’t have done my career prospects any good if my superiors had found out… So I sent another message to him saying: “Sir, don't worry about actually coming to my humble house… I am not worthy to actually meet with you… But I know what it is to receive orders and to give them… So just give the command and my servant will be healed.” 
And he did… and he was… Sextus was healed and still serves me faithfully to this day… Actually, speaking of acting faithfully, the Jewish leaders told me that when he got my message, Jesus said “I’m telling you, I have not found such great faith in Israel.” They were a little annoyed at that… they would have been even more annoyed if they knew that I had said it because I was frightened being seen with him… But you see, because of that I had never met him… And even when people were talking about this Jesus character over this past week I hadn’t made the connection… Why would I? It is such a common name, and this all took place up in Capernaum, way up north… 
But here I was, looking at him… And him looking straight back at me… I’ve often been in this position with prisoners… Usually, their eyes are filled with hate, or fear or both… But his… Well it’s hard to describe… But with him looking at me I had to give the order for him to be crucified… The words stuck in my throat… One of my men held the hammer out for me to strike the first blow as I usually did… But after a moment., or was it an eternity, of silence, I told them to just get on with it… 
I receive orders and I give them… I’m just a link in the chain. I gave the command, just as he had done two years ago… His brought life… Mine..? 
I watched as they hammered in the spikes… He was the third we had crucified that morning… the others two had been just the same as the countless others I had supervised before… They had screamed and spat and swore at us as the spikes tore through flesh and sinew and bone and pinned them to the wood… I’m used to that. But looking straight at me he said “Father, forgive them…” And in that phrase I felt the pain of every hammer blow… 
It got strangely dark all of a sudden… Everyone paused for a moment, but then they shrugged and got on with things just as usual. My men divided up the prisoners’ things among themselves as usual, and the crowds came and jeered… as usual… But this time there was an extra edge to the insults: “Hey saviour! Save yourself!” some of them shouted… But he didn’t… 
He didn’t last long… 2 or 3 hours… Then he seemed to summon up strength for one last time and called out loud, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” And that was it… Thank God. 
Damn it! He was a good man… at very least… I’m just a soldier. So I don’t go in for politics or religion or any of that… I simply receive orders and I give them… But what could he have done to deserve that… How could he have been such a threat to the Governor and the religious authorities and Herod, that for once in their lives they forgot their hatred of each other and ordered his execution? I received that order and I passed it on… I had to… Otherwise it would have been me on that cross…

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