“Sir, the men say they won’t do this one.”
“What nonsense is this?” I turn and stride angrily towards the middle prisoner. Since my promotion to officer two years ago I’ve never suffered insubordination, and I’m certainly not going to let it start in this public arena. I haven’t seen such an ugly crowd for a long time. My men are going to have their work cut out to keep them at a safe distance.
The middle prisoner is lying on the ground, stretched out ready for the nails. A gaggle of privates are standing around uneasily. Two of them are arguing. Quintus – I never had him down for a trouble maker – is gesticulating angrily at Marcellus.
“What’s the problem here, Quintus?” Keep it low key to begin with – give them time to back down.
“Sir, we can’t crucify this man!” He keeps his fists clenched as he turns to me. His knuckles are white.
“Well, why ever not? You seemed to enjoy the five you did last week!”
“But, sir…,” at least he has the grace to look embarrassed, “…this one is different. There’s something not right about it.”
“Papers!” I hold out my hand, and check the procurator’s seal on the execution orders. “No ambiguity about this, Quintus. Get on with it, man.”
The crowd has edged closer. I recognise some of Jerusalem’s leading citizens among them. Clearly this execution has political importance. The city has been at simmering point for the last few days. Best get it over with.
“Here, I’ll do it myself.” I snatch the mallet, glaring at the soldier to let him know that I’ll be taking this up again later. Stoop over the prisoner, who turns his eyes towards me….
Age of a million mornings. Weariness of a million evenings. Those eyes I have seen before.
I drop the mallet and step back.
The fever was consuming him with the ferocity and certainty of a wild beast. My faithful steward, and my good friend. His wife was draped over the bed in premature mourning. We had watched and prayed for three days. It could not be long now.
Suddenly, my agony of impotence was broken with a daring possibility. The Jewish rabbi-healer. I’d seen men dancing on their abandoned crutches after his touch. Perhaps he would have a little power to spare for a Roman centurion’s servant.
He was talking with group of hard-faced Pharisees when I arrived. Urgency lent me boldness, and I elbowed my way through. He turned his eyes to me. Not hurried. Not angry. Not curious. Searching, seeing eyes.
I spluttered my request. “Master, my servant is sick. Will you help him?”
He rose to his feet immediately. “Yes, he is very sick. I will come at once.”
Sudden panic seized me. I couldn’t have this man in my house! He knew things. He would see at once what sort of man I was. Shames I’d thought I’d buried for ever would be transparent to him.
“No, master, no! You don’t need to come to me. I know a man of power when I see one. When I tell my subordinates to do something, it gets done, whether I’m there to supervise or not. Just give the command. That will be enough.” I stopped, breathlessly.
The rabbi smiled. “More faith here than in Israel, my friend! You can go home now. Your servant is healed.”
I remember his hands, too. As I left, eager to see the healing he’d promised, he’d laid a gentle hand on my arm, staying me for just a second. Very much a man’s hand – rough skinned, with a firm grip. He’d looked at me, with those eyes. And then I realised it didn’t matter that he hadn’t come to my home. He had seen it all anyway.
My heart was heavy as I walked home. My servant healed, my shame known.
The arm is stretched out along the wooden beam, the hand open, cupped slightly as if waiting to receive a blessing.
Eternity is frozen in this moment of indecision.
I kneel beside him, my mouth close to his head. Disfigured by his pre-execution scourge, he still has surprising dignity.
“You! What are you doing here? I can’t crucify you!”
With difficulty, he turns his face towards me. Again, that awful sensation of being laid bare. But this time, something else besides. No, it was there before, but I was too blind to see. Behind the knowledge...love. Intensified, even, by the agony of now and the agony to come. All is stripped away, and in his eyes is love.
And in my heart, the unspoken words, “How can I ever be forgiven for what I am about to do?”
And in my heart, the unspoken reply, “There can never be forgiveness, unless you do.”
So I seize the mallet, and swing it; feeling, rather than hearing, the soft crunch of metal through bone.
Inspired by Matthew 8 and 27
© Helen Paynter 2005