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Title: The Centurion's Story
Author: Burrell, David James, 1844-1926
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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COPYRIGHT, 1892 and 1911,


I am an old man now; the burden of fourscore years is resting upon me.
But the events of a certain April day in the year 783 A.U.C.--full
half a century ago--are as fresh in my memory as if they had happened

At that time I was stationed with my Hundred on garrison duty at the
Castle of Antonia, in Jerusalem. I had been ordered to take charge of
the execution of a malefactor who had just been sentenced to death.
Accordingly, on the morning of the day mentioned, I selected twelve
of my men, such as were hardened to bloody deeds, and with them I
proceeded to the Prætorium. All was hurry and excitement there. As
it was the time of the Jewish Passover, the city was thronged with
strangers. A multitude of people had assembled and were clamoring for
the death of this man. On our arrival he was brought forth. He proved
to be that Prophet of Nazareth whose oracular wisdom and wonder-working
power had been everywhere noised abroad. I had heard much about him.

He claimed to be the Messiah for whose advent the Jews had been looking
from time immemorial; and his disciples believed it. They called him by
such well-known Messianic titles as "Son of Man," "Son of David" and
"Son of God." He spoke of himself as "the only-begotten Son of God,"
declaring that he had been "in the bosom of the Father before the world
was," and that he was now manifest in human form to expiate the world's
sin. This was regarded by the religious leaders as rank blasphemy and
they clamored for his death. He was tried before the Roman court, which
refused to consider the charge, inasmuch as it involved a religious
question not lying within its jurisdiction; but the prisoner, being
turned over to the Sanhedrin, was found worthy of death for "making
himself equal with God."

I remember him well as he appeared that day. From what I had heard I
was prepared to see a hard-faced impostor or a fanatic with frenzy in
his eyes. He was a man of middle stature, with a face of striking
beauty and benignity, eyes of mingled light and warmth, and auburn hair
falling over his shoulders. It was not strange that he looked pale and
haggard; for he had passed through three judicial ordeals since the
last sunset, besides being scourged with the _flagellum horrible_ and
exposed to the rude buffeting of the midnight guard. He had been
clothed in the cast-off purple of the Roman procurator and wore a
derisive crown of thorns. But, as he issued from the Hall of Judgment,
such was his commanding presence that the multitude was hushed and
separated to make way.

The cross, constructed of transverse beams of sycamore, was brought and
laid upon his shoulders. About his neck was suspended a titulum on
which was inscribed, _Jesu Nazaret, Rex Judæorum_. I was told that
the Jewish leaders had objected to his being called their King; but
Pilate, by whose orders the titulum was prepared, was for some reason
insistent and answered them shortly, "What I have written, I have
written." It was easy to see, however, that they bitterly resented it.

At the accustomed signal my quaternions fell into the line and the
procession moved on. I rode before, clearing the way. The people
thronged the narrow streets, crying more and more loudly as we
proceeded, "_Staurosate! Staurosate!_ Crucify him!"

The Nazarene, weak from long vigils and suffering, bowed low under his
burden. A woman in the company, by name Veronica, pressed near and
wiped the dust and blood from his haggard face. It was reported that
the napkin when withdrawn bore the impress of his face, marred, but
divinely beautiful. Whether this be true or not I cannot say.

As the multitude surged onward toward the Jaffa gate, a cobbler named
Ahasuerus, as if moved by a malignant spirit, thrust his foot before
the prisoner, who stumbled thereat and fell. In punishment for that
cruel deed he is said to be still a wanderer upon the earth with no
rest for his weary feet. This, too, is a mere legend; but certainly I
have found, even in the grim business of a soldier, that retribution
like a fury pursues all pitiless men.

We passed through the Jaffa gate and entered upon the steep road
leading to the place of execution. The sun flamed down upon us; we were
enveloped in a cloud of dust. The prisoner at length, overborne by his
cross, fell beneath it. We seized upon an Ethiopian who chanced to be
in the throng and placed the burden upon him. Strange to tell, he
assumed it without a murmur; insomuch that by many he was suspected of
being a secret follower of Jesus.

As we surged on with din and uproar a group of women standing by the
wayside rent the air with shrill lamentations, on hearing which Jesus
said, "Daughters of Jerusalem, weep not for me, but for yourselves and
your children; for behold the days come when they shall say to the
mountains, Fall on us! and to the hills, Cover us!" It was a weird
prophecy, and ere a generation passed it was to the letter fulfilled.
There were those in that company who lived to see the Holy City
compassed about by a forest of hostile spears. Its inhabitants were
brought low by famine and pestilence, insomuch that the eyes of mothers
rested hungrily on the white flesh of their own children. On the
surrounding heights crosses were reared, on which hundreds of Jewish
captives died the shameful death. Despair fell upon all. And in those
days there were not a few who called to mind the ominous words of the
Nazarene, "Weep not for me, but for yourselves and for your children
after you!"

The road we journeyed has since been known as Via Dolorosa. It led to
the round knoll called Golgotha, from its resemblance to a skull. As we
drew nigh we perceived two crosses, already reared, on which two
thieves of Barabbas' band had been suspended in agony for some hours.
Their twisted bodies stood out grimly against the sky. Our prisoner, as
an added mark of obloquy, was to be crucified between them.

Our spears and standards were lowered, and Jesus, being stripped of his
outer garments, was laid prostrate upon his cross. A soldier approached
with hammer and spikes, at sight of whom the frenzied multitude ceased
their revilings for the moment and pressed near. The prisoner preserved
his calm demeanor. A stupefying draught was offered him; but he refused
it, apparently preferring to look death calmly in the face. He
stretched out his hands; the hammer fell.

At the sight of blood the mob broke forth again, crying, "_Staurosate!_"
But not a word escaped the sufferer. As the nails tore through the
quivering flesh his eyes closed and his lips moved as if he were
holding communion with some invisible One. Then with a great wrench the
cross was lifted into the socket prepared for it.

At this moment the first word escaped him. With a look of reproach and
an appealing glance to heaven, he cried, "Father, forgive them; they
know not what they do!" It was as if he were covering our heads with a
shield of prayer. In this he did but practise his own rule of charity
and doctrine of forgiveness, "Love your enemies, bless them that curse
you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully
use you."

His prayer, however, seemed but to rouse anew the fury of his enemies.
They cried out in mockery, "Come down! come down from thy cross. Thou
that boastest of destroying the Temple and rebuilding it in three days,
save thyself!" The priests and rabbis, standing by, joined in the
mockery, saying, "Aha, he saved others, himself he cannot save! Let him
come down if he be the Messiah, the chosen of God!" My soldiers
meanwhile disputed as to the apportionment of his garments; I noted the
rattling of dice in the brazen helmet wherein they were casting lots
for his seamless robe.

The thieves on either hand joined for a time in the mockery; but
presently a change came over the one upon the right, whose name was

This man, like his fellow, had belonged to a notorious band of robbers
who infested the road to Jericho. His life had been passed in bloody
work; but the patient demeanor of Jesus touched his heart and convinced
him that He was indeed the veritable Son of God. The other thief joined
in the mockery, but Dysmas remonstrated with him, saying, "Dost thou
not even fear God? We indeed are condemned justly, receiving the due
reward of our deeds; but this man hath done nothing amiss." Then
presently, turning his pain-racked eyes toward Jesus, he entreated,
"Lord, remember me when thou comest in thy kingdom!" The Nazarene
straightway turned upon him a look of compassionate love, saying,
"To-day thou shalt be with me in paradise!"

An hour later this robber's head sank upon his breast; but in death his
face wore a look of indescribable peace. The time came when the word of
pardon addressed to this man was a message of hope and comfort to other
great sinners. He who saved Dysmas in the article of death, plucking
him from the edge of the abyss, was thenceforth believed by His
followers to be able to save even unto the uttermost all who would come
unto Him.

Not far from the cross stood a company of women wringing their hands in
helpless grief. Among them was the mother of Jesus. When her infant son
had been brought to the Jewish Temple, an old priest took him from his
mother's arms and prophesied, "This child is set for the fall and rise
of many in Israel"; then looking upon the mother, he said: "A sword
shall pass through thine own soul also." At this moment his word was
fulfilled; the iron entered her soul. Her dying Son beheld her, and,
with his eyes directing her to one who was known as his favorite
disciple, he said, "Woman, behold thy Son!" and this disciple thereupon
bore her fainting away.

It was now noon, clear, scorching, Syrian noon. But a singular mist was
gathering before the sun. Shadows fell from the heights of Moab; and as
they deepened more and more the gleam on shield and helmet faded out.
Night rose from the ravines, surging upward in dark billows,
overwhelming all. A strange pallor rested on all faces.

It was night, an Egyptian night at high noon! What meant it? Manifestly
this was no eclipse, for the paschal moon was then at its full. The
Jews had ofttimes clamored for a sign, a sign whereby they might test
this sufferer's Messianic claim. Had the sign come? Was nature now
sympathizing with her Lord? Were these shadows the trappings of a
universal woe? Was God manifesting his wrath against sin? Or was this
darkness a stupendous figure of the position in which the dying
Nazarene stood with respect to the deliverance of the race from sin?

Once in a Jewish synagogue I heard a rabbi read from the scroll of
Isaiah a prophecy concerning the Messiah; that he was to be "wounded
for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities; that by his
stripes we might be healed." It was predicted that when this Messiah
came he should, bearing the world's burden of sin, go into the outer
darkness in expiatory pain. Was it at this awful moment that he carried
that burden into the region of the lost? Did he just then descend into
hell for us?

Hark! a cry from his fever-parched lips, piercing the silence and the
darkness, "_Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?_ My God, my God, why hast Thou
forsaken me?" Save for that terrific cry of anguish the silence was
unbroken for three mortal hours.

I have known other victims of the cross to vent their rage in impotent
wrath, to spit their hate like asps, to harangue the crowd with
helpless protestations, or to beg for the death-stroke; but this Jesus
preserved a majestic silence. The people also seemed wrapped in a weird
terror. Naught was heard but the rattling of armor as some soldier
jostled his comrade, or the sobbing of women or the dropping of blood.
Thus until the ninth hour of the day.

It was now the time of the evening sacrifice, and the darkness began
slowly to lift. Then the Nazarene uttered his only word of complaint:
"I thirst." Whereupon a strange thing happened. One of my soldiers,
trained in the arena and in gladiatorial contests--a man who had never
been known to spare a foe, delighting in the sack of cities, looking on
unmoved when children were dashed against the stones--this man dipped a
sponge in the sour wine which was provided for the guard, and would
have raised it to the sufferer's lips. But the Jews cried out, "Let be,
let be! Let us see if Eli will come to help him!" For a moment the
soldier hesitated, even joined in the cry; then giving way to the more
merciful promptings of his heart, lifted the sponge and assuaged the
thirst of the dying man. It was the only deed of kindness I noted on
Golgotha that day. In return for it the Nazarene cast upon his
benefactor such a look of gratitude that he was ever after a different
man. His nature seemed to be transformed by it.

Then Jesus cried with a loud voice, "_Tetelestai!_ It is finished!" Did
this signify that his pain was over? Well might he, after such anguish,
utter a sigh of relief. Or was it that his mission was accomplished? So
have I seen a laborer turn homeward from his day's work with pleasant
anticipation of rest. So have I seen a wayfarer quicken his footsteps
as, at eventide, he came in sight of the village lights. So have I seen
a soldier, weary with the stress of conflict and wounded unto death,
bear the standard aloft as he climbed the parapet and with his last
voice shouted for victory!

And then the last word. It was spoken softly, as if from the threshold
of the other world, "Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit!" Then,
as he yielded up the ghost, a look of surpassing peace fell upon his
upturned face, which lingered even after death had put its rigid seal
upon it. Thus he fell on sleep. I have ofttimes since been reminded of
that look when I have seen an infant lulled in its mother's arms, or
when, walking through a Christian cemetery, I have noted upon the
tombstones of martyrs the word "_Dormit_: He sleeps."

The supernatural darkness had now given way to a calm twilight. The sky
was covered far toward the zenith with a golden splendor crossed with
bars of crimson light. It looked as if heaven's gates were opened; and
one gazing through could almost seem to see the flitting of superhuman
shapes and hear far-away voices calling, "Lift up your heads, O ye
gates; even lift them up, ye everlasting doors, and the King of Glory
shall come in!"

At that moment the earth rumbled under my feet; a shudder seemed to
pass through nature. It was said that as the high priest was kindling
the lamps in the Holy Place of the Temple, in connection with the
evening sacrifice, the great veil hanging before the Holy of Holies was
rent from the top to the bottom as if by an unseen hand. This happened
at the instant when the Nazarene yielded up his spirit, and his
followers are wont to say that when he passed from earth to resume his
heavenly glory a new and living way was opened up for penitent sinners
into the Holiest of All.

The execution being over, the people slowly dispersed to their homes.
Twilight settled down on Golgotha. A group of wailing women lingered
for a while, then went their way. Against the sky stood forth the three
crosses. On the uplifted face of Dysmas the moonlight showed the look
of ineffable peace that had settled upon it. The face of the other
robber was fallen upon his breast. In the midst Jesus looked upward,
dead but triumphant! Long and steadfastly I gazed upon him. The events
of the day crowded fast upon my mind and my conviction deepened that
this was no impostor, no fanatic, no common man. My conscience was sore
smitten; my heart was inexpressibly touched by the memory of the things
which I had seen; and, with scarcely an intention, I said aloud, but
softly, "Verily, this was a righteous man."

Then I reined my horse and rode down the hill. The lights were kindling
in Jerusalem; the beacon on the Castle of Antonia was beginning to
glow. At a little distance I drew rein and looked back at Golgotha. His
cross was there outlined against the sky. I felt myself in the grip of
a mighty passion of doubt and wonder! Who was he? Who was he? I would
go back and see!

I dismounted beneath his cross and gazed upward, unmindful of the
strange looks which my soldiers cast upon me. Tears came to my eyes,
old campaigner though I was, tears of grief, of penitence, of dawning
faith. I knelt; I prostrated myself before the Christ who hung dead on
that accursed tree. I rose again and saw him. Dead? Nay,
living!--living evermore in the glory which he had with the Father
before the world was! The truth went surging irresistibly through my
soul; until at length, able to restrain myself no longer, I cried,
caring not though the world heard me, "Verily, this was the Son of

                     *      *      *      *      *

I am old now, and the end draws near. For half a century I have loved
and served Him. I have known trials and sorrows not a few, but His
presence has upheld me. The promise he gave his disciples the night
before his death has been my mainstay: "Lo, I am with you alway!" In
the faith of that promise I have seen men and women die with the light
of heaven on their faces, heroic amid the flames, triumphant before the
lion's eyes. I have heard them once and again protesting with their
last breath, "_Christianus sum!_ I am a Christian!"

I, too, am a Christian, and humbly proud of it. The cross in my time
has been transformed from an emblem of shame into a symbol of triumph.
And the Christ who suffered upon it has been made unto me wisdom and
righteousness and sanctification and redemption. He is my first, my
last, my midst and all in all. I have learned somewhat of the meaning
of his life and death and glorious resurrection. Many wonderful hopes
have I; but the best is this, that I--the soldier who had charge of his
crucifixion--may yet behold his face in peace; that I, who bowed that
night with broken heart beneath his cross, may some day look upon the
King in his beauty and fall before him, crying, "My Lord and my God!"

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