Tell It Like It Was
© 2019 CR Britting
I hate this blasted place. It’s cold and wet, and when it ain’t rainin’ or snowin’, the north wind just cuts through you like a knife. It’s miserable, and we have as many causalities to weather as we do the enemy. (Sigh)
Tomorrow I'm gonna to die. I’m sure of it. We're surrounded and outnumbered ten to one. These barbarians from the north are fanatics. You kill one, and two more take his place. Our new commander’s a fool, some cousin of the emperor. This afternoon he led us into an ambush, and he and most of the outfit were slaughtered. There are less than 100 of us now, all that remain of the 4000 who left home so long ago.
I've been a soldier for a long time. It's the only life I know. You can say what you will about spreadin’ Roman law and Roman justice around the world, but for me, it's always been about being loyal to your buddies; stickin’ together, and watchin’ each other's back.
When I was younger, all I could think about was the adventure and fighting for the glory of Rome. But I'm an old soldier now and such things are past me. All I wanna to do is survive one more day. So many of my friends are gone; their bleached-white bones lie scattered in places that we've long since forgotten. And for what? I try not to think about it, 'cause it just makes me angry.
As I said, I've been a grunt a long time. Now I've reached the end of the road and I gotta tell it like it is. And like it was. You who may read this and might be sittin' beside a warm fire safe at home, be thankful you're not a soldier.
For near 20 years, I've carried a secret. I kept my mouth shut like I was supposed to, but it's been eatin' at me all this time. There were five of us who saw it. Now the others are dead and tomorrow I'll die too. So it's time to tell the truth about what really happened.
Maybe it'll settle this uneasiness I have in my heart, this longing I feel whenever I'm quiet...you know, in those times right before you go to sleep, or when you go down to the river…and just sit and watch the water on its way to wherever it's goin’. In those times there's a heaviness in my heart that keeps returnin’ again and again. Oh, you can make it go away for a little while if you drink enough or you're out with friends, but when I'm quiet it always returns. It's about to drive me crazy and I sense if I don't tell somebody the truth, I'll go outta this life with a debt that can't be repaid.
I was in Jerusalem the week they killed that Jew from Nazareth. My buddies and I were stationed there as part of the occupation force. There was a lot of unrest in those days and a number of the zealots had already been executed. We were constantly on the alert and for us, this Jesus character was just one more troublemaker.
It was nothing unusual when Pilate ordered him flogged. I mean, we did it all the time. He was just one more. We brought him in and tied him to this stake in the middle of the courtyard. A few of the guys took turns with the whip, and the rest of us just stood around and watched. We had a couple bottles of the good stuff to pass the time, and my friend, Alpheus, had some women lined up for later, so we were looking forward to getting’ done.
As the flogging proceeded though, I noticed there was something different about this man, Jesus. I mean, he didn't say a word. Ya gotta understand, most people are screamin' after the first ten lashes, and even the hard ones after twenty or so, but this Jesus didn't say a word even though they hit him almost forty times.
I couldn't believe it, so I walked around to where I could see his face. What a shock. I expected hate, fear, anger, anything but what I saw. Oh, he flinched when the whip hit him, all right, but there was an expression on his face I have trouble describing; almost serene if you know what I'm talkin' about. Then the guys stopped for a minute to rest, and the prisoner saw me watching. He lifted his head ever so slightly and looked right at me.
Those eyes! They seemed to look right through me, almost as if my whole life was laid bare before him! Jesus stared at me a few seconds and then the corners of his mouth turned up a little. He actually smiled at me! Not long, but it was there. I saw it and I will never forget it. I was prepared for anything but that.
I've watched many floggings during my time in the army, and I…well, I gotta admit I've swung the whip more than a few times myself. But not since that day. I can't do it anymore. Every time I pick up the whip, I see his face smiling at me.
Well, I stood there almost frozen until the prisoner lowered his head. When his eyes broke contact, I almost fell down. It was like I'd been released from some giant vice.
Still a bit stunned, I walked back to where my friends were gathered and where I couldn't see those eyes. Later, we went off duty and I tried to get some sleep, but I couldn't. I kept thinking about that man and the way he looked at me. When the Cap'n came around to assign men to the crucifixion detail, I begged off.
"Cap'n," I told him. "I'd like to pass this time. I'll take any other duty, but I've got a bad feeling about this one."
He stared at me for a few seconds. The Cap'n and I had been together for a long time and he knew I was not one to ask a favor without a good reason.
"All right, Lucius," he said finally. "You owe me one."
"Thanks, Cap'n." I breathed a sigh of relief, thinking that I had seen the last of this man Jesus.
I was assigned to one of the regular guard posts for the day, and, for a while, everything went fine. But then black clouds came racin’ across the sky and blotted out the sun. It was the eeriest thing I ever saw. It lasted a long time and then the ground started to shake, real hard. We had trouble standing, and several of the lighter buildings nearby collapsed. Then, just as suddenly, the sun returned. Weird.
We got back to the barracks later and I was looking forward to an evening off. I shoulda known better. I hadn't been back but half an hour when the Cap'n came in.
"Lucius," he said with a wicked grin. "I've come to collect that favor you owe me."
One hour later four of my buddies and I were standing guard at the tomb of this Jesus character. Can you believe it? Boy, was I mad! Never again would I ask for a favor! For the next three days, we had to stand guard over this stupid tomb so that no one would steal the body!
C'mon, I mean, who would want to steal a body? You can't sell it or eat it or trade it, so who would want to steal it? Apparently, some of them holy men at the temple thought that Jesus' friends might take the body and claim he’d come back from the dead. Give me a break. Is that stupid or what? I've been around a long time, and when a man is dead, he's dead, okay?
At any rate, there we were. There was this huge stone propped across the opening to the tomb, and the thing probably weighted near five hundred pounds. Nobody was gonna move it without us noticing. So we made ourselves comfortable as best we could, and took turns cursing the Cap'n in the way all soldiers do their officers.
The first couple of days were no big deal and the time passed quickly. We had to run off some curiosity-seekers from time to time, but that was all. One more day and we'd get a day off. Thank goodness. Our beds in the barracks ain't much, but they sure do beat sleeping on the ground.
“Lucius. Wake up.”
I was startled from a sound sleep by a hand shaking my shoulder.
“What? What’s, uh, goin' on?” I stammered, trying to collect my wits.
It was my friend, Claudius, but right about then I was ready to slug him.
"Somebody's comin', Lucius.”
With a groan, I got up, and as the visitors grew closer I could see it was two women. The same two that had been buggin’ us all weekend.
"You're up kinda early, ain't ya ladies?" I asked, still a bit upset over my sudden wake-up call.
"Our Lord promised he would rise on the third day," one of them replied.
I rolled my eyes. Yeah, right.
"Well, go see for yourself," I told them, pointing toward the tomb.
The women walked over to the huge stone and stood in front of it like they expected it to move all by itself. I winked at Claudius. "Take more’n than one man to move that rock, ladies. Why don't ya give it up? He ain't comin' outta there."
At that moment the sun broke above the horizon. A shaft of light pierced the semi-darkness and landed on the tomb just above the stone. Funny...it didn't do that yesterday.
After that things got a little confusing. The ground started to shake again, just like the other day, except more so. All of us fell down. If that wasn't enough, the whole place lit up with this brilliant white light. And in the middle of the light stood a figure. It looked kinda like a man, but I couldn't be sure because the light was so intense.
Whatever it was, it seemed to raise an arm and point it at the stone...and so help me the stone started to move! It moved further and further until the whole entrance was uncovered.
Well, at that point, I was almost ready for that Jesus to come outta there like them women said, but nothing happened. The light just got more and more intense, and finally, it was so bad I couldn't stand it and I had to close my eyes. And still, it got brighter.
I woke up later and when I opened my eyes, the light was gone, and so were the women. What in the world had happened?
As I got up, I looked around. All my friends were asleep or unconscious, I couldn't tell which. I looked in the tomb, and, as I half expected, it was empty. He was gone. I guess it's possible the women could have taken his body, but there's no explaining that white light or who rolled the stone away. I wished I knew for sure.
"What are you looking for, soldier?" came a voice from my left. I turned...and so help me it was him. It was Him. I knew it was, but there was something different now. He was no longer bent and broken as I saw him in the courtyard, but standing tall and well, regal, if you know what I mean. Then He smiled, the same half-smile I saw during the flogging, the smile meant just for me!
"Peace be unto you," he said, raising a hand in greeting, and I could see the dark spot in his open palm. All of a sudden I realized what the women had been talking about. By some miracle, this man was alive again!
Then I thought of how we’d abused him in the courtyard, beating him and calling him names.
"But…but…it can't be," I stammered taking a step backward. "You're dead."
"Don't be afraid," he replied his voice gentle. "Today you have seen the glory of my Father, who reigns over heaven and earth and life and death. He loves you, just as he loves me."
I felt something well up inside me and tears ran down my cheeks. "Lord, what would you have me do?"
"Show love to others, even your enemies. Obey those in authority over you and help those in need. For in doing so, you keep my commandments."
I couldn't help it, my eyes filled with tears, and I couldn't see clearly. I wiped them with my hands, and when I looked again, He was gone.
It's been 20 years now and in all this time I never told anyone what happened. When my buddies woke up, they didn't remember anything except the white light, and so I kept my mouth shut.
The chief priest was furious when he found out the body had disappeared. He questioned us, and for a while, I thought we were in a lotta trouble. But when we told him about the white light, he got the strangest look on his face. Then he hemmed and hawed a while and finally ordered us to say that Jesus' followers had taken the body while we slept. He gave each of us a large sum of money, and he promised to cover for us if there were any repercussions for our "falling asleep".
Well, there was no way I could keep the money. I gave it to a kindly man I knew and told him to use it to help the needy.
Once I got back to the barracks, I thought things would return to normal. But they didn’t. I kept thinkin’ about Jesus, and I had a strange urge to learn more about him. Some of his followers were havin’ meetings, and so one night I changed into civilian clothes and snuck in the back to see what they were doing. I didn’t understand it all, but I heard enough to know that God loves me. Then they asked people to come forward for prayer. No way I was gonna do that, but when they prayed for people to accept Jesus as their savior, I prayed along with them.
Since that time my life has changed. I no longer kill when I can avoid it, and I find pleasure in tryin’ to help people when I have the opportunity. Some of the old-timers who knew me back then say I'm somehow different, that I sure have 'mellowed' in my old age! I am different, but I could never tell anyone why. Until now. Lord, forgive me for my silence and make my death tomorrow an honorable one.
If this letter should find its way to my parents in Rome, please tell them I love them.
* * * * *
The noise of battle began to subside. The shouts of the victorious barbarians were winding down, and the mopping up had begun. Garcon, the barbarian king, frowned as he walked through the battlefield. All the Romans were dead, but more than 400 of his own were killed or wounded. It had been a costly victory.
Still, they may have learned something important. Someone had found a scroll on one of the Romans. No one could read it, but the king realized the writing might be important.
It didn’t take him long the find a large pile of bodies.
“Is that him?” Garcon asked the man who had found the scroll.
“Yeah,” the man replied. “Big guy, ain’t he?”
Indeed he was. The Roman was fully two meters tall and powerfully built. He was obviously dead, for several dreadful wounds were clearly visible. The man's short sword, still in his right hand, was covered with dried blood, and around him were scattered the bodies of seven of the king’s men.
Look at his face!" the king said in astonishment. The Roman had a nasty gash from a sword-cut on his forehead, but his lips were turned up in a half-smile.
Garcon was a brutal man and killed many through the years, but something about that smile touched him. He glanced at the scroll and wondered about its mysterious contents.
"Give this to my scribe," he said, handing it to the other man. “Tell him to translate it as soon as possible. I want to know what’s so important he carried it to his death. Then bury his body deep, so the animals won't get it. It's the least we can do for a brave man."
Then the King turned away, still thinking about the Roman and wondering why he died with a smile on his face.
Could it really have happened that way? Could Jesus, tied to the stake in the courtyard, still have seen something special in the heart of a lowly Roman soldier? And could Jesus, just risen from the dead, still take the time to bless that soldier and turn his life in a new direction?
Of course, He could. That's because Jesus loved people, not just church people, either. Especially not just church people. More often than not, he sought out the unloved and the despised and changed their lives. He dealt equally with rulers and slaves. To put it in today's vernacular, Jesus is an equal-opportunity Savior!