An Easter story...
Dawn. There was a light fog that played along the ground, a whiteness that carried with it a feeling of moisture, and runnels of water trickled down the outer surface of the large rounded gateway stone to the right of the tomb. The stone weighed as much as ten or fifteen men, and sat at the top of an incline cut into the side of the hill in which the tomb had been cut.
The previous night, the stone had been at the bottom of the incline, covering the opening in the rock. Inside, on a stone shelf, sat a neatly bundled pile of folded linen, traces of dried blood showing in patterns here and there.
The linens had been wrapped around the body the guards had been ordered to guard, a body that no longer rested in the tomb. Pilate himself had ordered the guard, at the request of the Jewish priests and Pharisees. The guards trembled, waiting for the arrival of the Centurion, knowing that they had failed in the mission and that they could face punishment as severe as death for their failure.
There was no excuse. Ten of them at any one time would be in the area and awake, four in front of the stone, two on either side, and two patrolling in the area around the graves. They would trade positions midway through the watch, to stay fresh and alert, and none of them could understand what had happened. They were all seasoned soldiers, why Marcellus alone had served Rome for more that twenty years! They were professionals, hard men who did not flinch when dealing out death. After all, they fought with sword and spear, and often watched their enemy die face-to-face. And now, because they had botched a simple assignment, they faced their own death.
It was not the boredom, that was a part of the job, and something they had all coped with before. Guard duty was often boring, especially a job such as this, with no wine to be had, and no women to wile away the night hours. But they had all done it before, and this assignment was far simpler than most. It hadn’t been that long, they had been posted to the tomb. They had been sent the morning after the execution, in fact.
The stone, at that time, was still in place, and they had sealed it, per directives. Guarding a bridge against enemy attack, holding the entrance to a valley, guarding the gates of a fortress against those who would attempt a breech in the middle of the night, these were jobs worthy of a Roman soldier when there was no actual combat to be had.
Around here, combat was usually in response to attacks out of the hills by a people who refused to be subjugated, refused to be cowed, refused to bow to the authority of Rome.
But this? Guard a dead body, to keep it from being stolen? It was perhaps the weirdest assignment that any of them had had to deal with in long and variegated careers, and one that should have been simple to carry out. If any Jews showed up at the tomb, kill them and leave the bodies for a warning against further intrusion on the peace of the grave. Of course, dead men can be pretty peaceful. At least, they were unlikely to cause trouble, although dead bodies could begin to stink after a while.
So the assignment had all the earmarks of being a plush assignment, one that would tend to keep them all away from escort duty for a camel caravan, or guarding Pilate’s Headquarters. After all, how hard could guarding a dead body be?
The stink. Now, there was an odd thing. These Jews had some kind of silly religious rule; they couldn’t do anything with a dead body during their Sabbath Day. So, they had to get the body of this malcontent down before sunset, get it over to the tomb, stick it inside, and roll the stone in place with no real body preparation. After three days, you would think that the body would start to smell. But the men closest to the tomb noticed no odor at all. And this was not a whole body, so to speak.
Some of them had been there in the courtyard when the Jew was brought in. He had been whipped, punched, kicked, slapped, and otherwise seriously abused. They even made a crown of thorns for the Jew, and pushed it down on the Jew’s head. In fact, the crown dug in and couldn’t be removed, so they left it there when the Jew was taken to Golgatha to be crucified. The Jew’s wrists were punctured through, and both feet were punctured during the crucifixion. So there was a lot for the blowflies to work on, a lot of area for them to use for a feast and to lay their eggs and begin the rotting process. Yet, the only odor wafting from around the edges of the stone that covered the grave was an odor of sweetness, more pleasant than anything any of them had ever smelled before.
It wasn’t the women. The only women they had seen at all since taking the assignment had been the ones that had showed up that morning, just before dawn, carrying some bottles of pungent stuff and some cloths, to properly prepare the body for entombment. The outer guards had prepared to stop them, but both they and the women noted the rolled away stone at the same time. It was odd. They stopped and appeared to be talking to someone, someone unseen to the guards. At once, they turned and ran away, back toward the city, and they dropped all they were carrying in order to perhaps run faster. The guards could not find who it was they were talking to, and they were unable to leave the scene of what could be the end of their careers.
When had it happened? They couldn’t agree on anything, other than that they had all been struck down by something. Was it a drug that had felled them, or a spell from a sorceress, or one of the gods for some reason? None of them knew, none of them could even guess, but the facts remained. They had, to a man, all gone unconscious at the same time, somewhere in the preceding night. The guards in front of the stone, the guards on either side, the guards on patrol, and the relief. All lost in slumber, yet an odd fact intruded. The guards that had been on patrol walked narrow paths with stone on either side, yet they were unbruised, uninjured, unmarked, as though what had felled them wished them no harm and felled them gently.
Now they saw the Centurion approaching, their leader. His face was grim, as he called them together, and they feared the worst. Death was the penalty they most likely faced, and they all knew there was no way out.
He spoke to them:
“The Jew you had been send to guard, who�s dead body rested in the rock, was the same Jew that had healed my servant. He was a person of great power, and the Jews in their Temple feared him. Even in death, he was a threat to their peace. That is why they wanted a Roman guard. You have failed yourselves and me”
His voice trailed to silence, as the figure appeared. He stood before the Centurion and smiled. A hand scarred with a closed wound, one made by a nail, reached out and rested on the Centurionís shoulder. The gentle voice said “Your men did what was required of them, faithful
soldiers as they are. Will you all lay down your swords, leave the service of Caesar, and serve me?”
With tears in their eyes, the hardened soldiers laid their swords in a pile, and turned to leave. The figure was gone, but they spoke among themselves, as they left the tomb, and the cemetery, and as they left the service of Caesar. “He is risen. Truly, He is the Son of God. HE IS RISEN!”
Dave Hoffman is a Capitol Hill Coffee House staff writer.
Copyright April 6, 2007, by Dave Hoffman. Use granted to all who note that this article originally appeared at Capitol Hill Coffee House, and provide link to same.
Beneficium accipere libertatem est vendere.