I met him as I was leading my sons to the temple, where we were to offer a lamb for the Passover. The crowd was always a burden on Jerusalem, but this year…this year there was anger. All day the crowd had continued to gather, and normally there was weeping and penance for our sins, but this year it was different. Few were focused on the Passover. Most were focused on their blind anger.
I lead my sons on a three week journey from Cyrene to Jerusalem. Oh, if I had the money, we could have taken the voyage all the way to the shoreline of Israel, but we are a poor family, and we have to make do with what we have. For three weeks we made our way from Cyrene, across Egypt, and on to Jerusalem and the temple, leading our lamb along the way. We were continually dodging the Roman soldiers who patrolled the highways, the soldiers who were constantly hounding us, spitting the words, "filthy Jews," through clenched teeth as if cursing us.
By the time we arrived in Jerusalem, the crowds were so thick that I feared we wouldn't make it to the temple in time to offer our sacrifice. My boys could feel the tension building around us as the city flared from one shouting match to another; they held the edges of my cloak to ensure we wouldn't be parted.
We couldn't find a way to the temple. It was as if the crowd was pushing us farther and farther away from where we wanted to be. Finally, we found an alley that would take us around the bulk of the crowd and possibly give us access to a less crowded street. My boys were clinging to me as we wound our way through the mass of people. Suddenly, the crowd parted and I saw a Roman soldier riding a horse down the street many paces in front of us. As he rode along, he was followed by a squad of foot soldiers who were armed with swords in their hands, forcing the people to make way. My hand reached underneath my cloak to ensure that my short sword was still there and I felt comfort in knowing that I could defend myself against the soldiers. I've fought the Romans before, and I'll do it again if necessary.
The people were yelling and cursing as the soldiers parted the way. I couldn't make out their words, but it became clear to me that they were shouting at the procession of condemned men, who were being led to be crucified. Suddenly, the crowd behind me surged forward and I felt my young son's hands being ripped from my cloak, and we were separated for the first time in their lives. I tried to return to them, but the people kept pushing and pressing, and I had no choice but to move with them. As we neared the procession, I could feel rocks and dirt pounding me as the people behind me began throwing debris at the soldiers and the condemned men. At that moment I saw him.
Him? Was it a man I was looking at? He was more of a beast than a man. I have served as a soldier on more than one occasion. Never, in any battle I have ever fought, never, have I seen a man in such condition. Even though he was many paces away from me, I could see that his skin was shredded into ribbons of flesh, and the cloth draped over him was soaked with blood. A crown of thorns had been pressed into his hair, and it seemed as though the thorns had been driven deep into his skull. He could only see with one eye, for the other was swollen and bleeding. His beard, or what was left of it, had been ripped from his face. The cross he was bearing was dripping with his blood and left clumps of bloody soil behind him, marking the way he had come.
It seemed that every step he took was accompanied by a slap of a whip against his back and shoulders by the merciless soldiers who were driving him forward as if he were a mule burdened beyond his capacity. The man stumbled under the weight of his cross and pitched head long onto the street and landed with a bloody splat at my feet. He almost splashed his blood on me, and would have done so had I not jumped back in time. His blood would have caused me to become unclean, and I would have been defiled by it. I had to make a sacrifice today. I had no time for defilement.
Fury began to build within my chest as I looked down at this…this…criminal, who almost ruined my Passover sacrifice. I began to yell at him as well, wishing that the soldiers would drag him away from me so that I wouldn't be burdened with him anymore.
As he lay prostrate under the weight of his cross, I noticed that a smear of blood marked the cobble stones on the highway, leaving an impression of his face on the ground. Just as quickly as I felt the anger I felt saddened and I saw him differently, and I felt the words of my protest being choked away from deep within my chest. The beast that lay in his own blood was not a beast at all, but a man. Perhaps he had children just as I did. Perhaps he was someone's son. Perhaps he was someone's brother. No matter what he had done, he certainly didn't deserve to be beaten the way he had been. The longer he lay on the ground the angrier the soldiers became until their whipping him had no point to it. He was exhausted and weak. There was no way he could walk much further, much less bear the weight of that miserable cross.
The soldier on the horse recognized that the criminal was spent and he yelled a harsh command at his subordinates to find someone to carry the cross for him. Yes! Someone should help that man. It was the humane thing to do. Someone should help him.
I saw that the centurion was searching the crowd to select someone to help him, and fear and crawled down my spine when I understood that the soldier had picked me. I began to peddle backwards with indignation, but the crowd was pressing me forward. I saw the soldier's hand reaching to grab me and my own hand reached for the sword underneath my cloak. Filthy Roman soldier, how dare he lay a hand on me! I'll show him…
But before I could grab my weapon, his hands were on me and I was being thrown across the street by his brute strength. NO! It can't be me! I can't be defiled by that criminal's blood. I have to make a sacrifice, I can't be defiled!
Yet I had no choice. The soldier was standing over me and yelling, "Carry that cross, you filthy Jew." When he saw the defiance in my eyes his hands lifted his sword and I could tell that he would run me through if I resisted him.
I'm certain my face was twisted underneath my snarl as I accepted that this criminal was about to ruin my life. Frustrated, I grabbed a hold of the cross and began to lift it from his back and I felt his hot blood drip down my hands. Revolted, I withdrew my hands and let the cross crash into his back once more. And then I felt the harsh sting of the whip as the soldiers rejected my protest. ARGH! This ruins everything!
Jerusalem is a rank smelling city. The tanners who scrape animal skins and then dye them during the curing process cause the city to smell like polluted death. It's a stench that's always offended me. But this man…this man was foul! The blood had dried to his skin, mixed with sweat and who knows what, it was all I could do to be near him.
I swallowed hard and began to lift the cross and was suddenly impacted with the weight of what should have been a small burden. This cross was made from green wood, and was heavy. It was heavier than I ever imagined. How had this emaciated man carried it so far down these crowded streets? It was heavy to me, and I was not bleeding from every inch of my body. As the weight of the cross was lifted from his back, the man gasped for breath, and I realized that it was pressing the very air he was breathing out of his burning lungs. I held the cross for a moment, and then settled the weight of it on my shoulder. Once free of his burden, the criminal gathered his strength and then stood. For a few seconds, he tottered on his feet, and then he looked at me.
No, that's not true. He looked through me. I felt that man's one good eye piercing my very soul, as if he was reading every thought that was in my mind. As he locked his eye on mine, I felt suddenly ashamed of my own selfishness. This man was condemned and was walking the last mile of his life, and I was angry because I had been inconvenienced by a dying man. Was it so much to ask? Was it so much that I help a dying man to his death?
His face bore no expression as he seemed to find strength and he joined me underneath the cross and pressed his bloody body next to mine. Together, we began to make our way down the street toward the city gate. Every step we took I could feel the sharp bite of the whips as the soldiers continued to drive us to this man's death. His exhaustion was apparent each time his feet moved. Many times he fell, and each time he chose to get up. So many men would have quit, but he was determined to see his way to the end. Here was a man who had strength! I think I would like to have known him before he was condemned. I respect strength, and this man's ability went beyond the physical.
As we cleared the gates and began to climb the short hill just beyond Jerusalem, his weakness overwhelmed him and he couldn't move any further. The weight of the cross was causing me to pant, but I hated to see the soldiers beating him every time he faltered. I reached down with my free hand and lifted him to his knees, and then to his feet. And then I embraced the cross with a deeper grasp, and reached across the beam and wrapped my arm around his, locking his flesh against the cross itself. I then carried him and the cross up the hill, his feet barely finding the path as I drug him along. "We're almost there," I kept whispering to him, as if he would find relief in knowing that his death was drawing closer with each step. "It's almost over."
Once on the hill, he collapsed into a heap near the hole that would support his cross. I continued to bear the weight of the cross as the soldiers made short work of nailing the other two condemned men to their own trees. Their pitiful cries offended me as I watched their pathetic faces protest the pain of the nails pounding through their flesh. How could they cry like little girls, when this man, this bleeding, broken, poured out, man was stoically enduring his shame with grace?
I felt the soldiers lift the cross from my shoulders, but somewhere along the way I began to identify with that cross, and the man who was bearing it, and I actually fought to keep it. Of course, it was not my cross, but his, and the soldiers pried my bloody hands from the beams. It was his death, not mine that was about to occur. It was his hands that were about to be crushed by the weight of the nails. It was his…choice?
It all became very clear to me, like the sharp point of a spear. The only way a man could endure such torture was if he chose to do it. A truly guilty man would have succumbed to his guilt long before this. Only a determined man could endure so much. He had to be innocent! That was the only way he could stand it.
The soldier grabbed me by the cloak and threw me across the open ground, where I lay at the feet of the snarling crowd who had followed us from the city. I lay there a moment before I could gather my strength to rise to my feet. I felt hands reaching out to me, not the harsh, grabbing hands of the soldiers, but the warm, caring hands of a mother tugging at me as I pulled myself erect. I looked to my benefactor and found myself gazing into the tear stained face of a woman. This woman was looking at me with gratitude, and I knew then she was that man's mother. No one else seemed to care what happened to that innocent man, but his mother didn't leave him. And that caused a question to burn deep in my soul.
How could a mother simply allow her son to be crucified? I know, I know, a woman had no status to do anything about it, but she should have been, what? Outraged? Truly this man had to be innocent, for I saw it in her eyes. She had a purpose and an understanding as well. She was heavy with the weight of a mother who was watching her son die, but she was doing it with a quiet dignity that I failed to understand. Unless… Unless she, too, knew that he was innocent. The mother of a guilty man would have held her head in shame, but not this one. But? Why would she let him die? Wouldn't a mother try to stop it? Even though she couldn't do anything about it? Why would she seem to accept it?
Then one of the chief priests began to mock the innocent man. He was yelling at him to come down from the cross, and to save himself if he truly was the Son of God. The Son of God? Is that was this is about? That's blasphemy! If it was true, why, he deserved to die!
I couldn't help but steal a glance at his mother as she absorbed the accusations being railed against her son. She had a confident, knowing look about her. She made no effort to stop them, to explain that he was only pretending to be the Son of God. A mother couldn't suffer to let her son die that kind of death for a lie. It had to be true.
This man claimed to be equal to God? To be God, Himself? Could it be? Could he be the one they were calling the Messiah? My heart leapt within my chest when I realized I had been so close to the one who made the blind to see. The words of the prophet Isaiah began to burn deep within me, "…he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquity…" Is it possible?
What had I done? Had I hastened the death of the Promised One? His blood was on me!
My hands were shaking. I had to leave the crucifixion. I had to go. Yes! My boys were still in Jerusalem and were probably in terror for being separated from their father. I must leave here and go find them. It took me more than five hours of searching to locate them. In my absence they made their way to the temple, which was mysteriously quiet, for the veil in the temple had been destroyed. There would be no sacrifices this year. Perhaps never again.
In the days that followed I heard much talk about that man who was named Jeshua. It seems that He was indeed the Son of God, for there were many reports throughout Jerusalem and as far away as Emmaus that people were seeing Him. I freely admit that I heard those stories with great skepticism, for people are prone to chase excitement. But then I saw Him with my own eyes, and when I did, my heart leapt within my chest. For a long moment he stared back at me with those eyes that burned deep into my soul. He simply smiled and said, "Get your boys and follow Me, Simon."