July 2024

Matthew 28:1-4

Dust filtered into the darkened tomb, silently erasing the signs of mourning. The cold body lay on the bier, lovingly draped in a linen burial shroud.

Outside, Roman legionnaires, eyes juddering in the dawnlight, await this, the third day.

Standing apart from his cohort, Centurion Cassius Andronicus, his body aching from days and nights with little rest yet reeled from the spiteful injustice done to the man in the tomb, this Jew from Nazareth – the one they called Iesus, Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum. King of the Jews. Indeed.

The centurion and his cadre had kept watch at Golgotha, supposedly keeping the peace while pounding spikes through the wrists and ankles of Iesus and a pair of thieves onto three crosses of wood. He hated the place. There was a stink of blood and dead flesh about it, come from decades of Roman crucifixions.

The crime Iesus had been accused of was unworthy of execution. Blasphemy? Plotting against Rome? One man, a handful of fishermen? Ludicrous. The spectacle of the trial had been a mockery of justice. Sadly, there was no help for it. What was done, was done. Jesus was dead. Buried.

The centurion recalled how seven days before, Iesus had arrived at Jerusalem to the waving of palm branches, the shouts of hosanna. The prophet from Nazareth comes! Blessed be his name! Deliver us! Deliver us!

He choked, tasted bile. There were times the Pax Romana betrayed itself.

But then it had not all been Roman perfidy. The moment the Jews realized their presumed messiah had no intention of delivering them from Roman bondage, they became a pack of rabid dogs, snarled and snapping out their vengeance. Worse was the ignominy of the chief priests who simpered behind their purses, bulging with temple funds.

Then his man, Balbus, afire with zeal and contempt, broke ranks and drove his spear into the Nazarene’s side. Andronicus had rushed to arrest him, shouting orders to his decurium, Gaius Marianus, “Bind that fool! Get him to Fortress Antonia! And drop him in the darkest chamber!”

Even on this blear morning, the lingering image of the Nazarene’s blood and serum spewing across Balbus’ face and arms repulsed him. Worse yet were the echoes of Iesus’ cries of death that still rang in his mind. “Eli, eli, lama sabachthani! Father, into your hands I commit my spirit! It is finished!”

What did it mean?

At the very moment of death, his gut curdled at this travesty of justice, Andronicus had shouted, “Certe! This man was the Son of God!”

Then Andronicus, as did all the others, cowered before Yahweh, the God of the Jews, who shook Jerusalem’s very ground in his wrathful grasp, snatching what remained of the daylight up into roiling clouds, darkening the skies over all of Judea, even unto Egypt, even unto Rome.

As if struck by a magician’s spell, the crowd fled like rabbits to their warrens, leaving Golgotha desolate save for a scattering of forlorn women and three pathetic disciples. As his soldiers struck the body from the cross, a woman came to receive the broken form. Mary. The mother of Iesus.

Andronicus turned away, unwilling to watch as the woman cradled her broken son. Instead, he looked to the sky. Three stars loomed the twilight. Nightfall. He

trailed the mourners to a tomb, the one belonging to the Arimathean. Numb to thought, devoid of feeling, Andronicus watched the mourners enfold Iesus in the shroud of burial. Unease gnawed at his innards. Before they were done, he intruded, ordering the mourners aside, commanding his cohort to lever the massive stone door into place.

When he gave the order to place Rome’s aegis upon the stone, the Arimathean shouted, “Hold! An offense! Rome’s eagle defiles the grave!”

Duty spoke for obedience. He felt something goad his spleen. What? Compassion. Disregard. Orders are orders. Duty prevails. His tone sharp as the sword at his waist, he hissed, “Stand aside! The aegis stays!”

The mourners faded into the night, sorrow flagging their footsteps. Andronicus dismissed the cohort, departed the burial ground to the rumbling anthem of an angry heaven and earth. A worm of shame gnawed at his gut. That night, he did not sleep.

Now, on this, the dawning of the third day, Andronicus and his cohort assembled at the tomb. Pontius Pilate had ordered, “See that the tomb is safeguarded lest those wretched disciples come and steal the body away. The Sanhedrin would give me no rest should Iesus’ puppies somehow contrive to give credence to their rabbi’s witless prophecy. Oh, yes, surely, he will rise again.” Pilate’s sarcasm could cut stone. “Ridiculous! Make sure it doesn’t happen, Centurion!”
Standing apart from his men, Andronicus watched them prance, pretending that  their antics might dispel superstition’s stain upon their souls. It was no secret, for all had heard the prophecy: the Messiah will rise on the third day. Nonsense. Impossible. But why did he perspire so?

“Rex Iudaeorum,” one soldier japed, “Come out, come out and take your throne.”

Catcall: “Iesus, Iesus, rise up and join us! A celebration awaits!”

“Yes, we’ll escort you back to Herod’s palace, help you usurp that two-blooded Red Fox!”

“Aye, perhaps Queen Harlot Herodias will invite you in for breakfast!”

“Hah! She had a silver platter for the Baptizer, surely she’ll have another just for you!”

“Come, let’s open death’s door! Surely, Iudaeorum Rex will need our help!”

Thin laughter skittered five men as they bent their shoulders to the stone that would not budge.

Then, as if severed by swordblade, the levity stopped. All eyes were drawn to the tomb.

The light . . .  the light . . . something . . . was wrong with the light.

Bright, too bright, it shone from behind the stone.

Like a cloud of wool, unearthly silence fell on them.

White light sizzled and cracked, scorching the air around the edges of the stone door. Amid a chorus of wails, chokes of terror, trampling of feet, the soldiers fell to the ground, twitching, unconscious. Andronicus remained, shielding his eyes from the awful brilliance. Talons of desperation grasped his heart. He fell to his knees.

A figure in white appeared, then another, strangely beautiful and bright. Effortlessly, they rolled the stone aside, away from the entrance of the tomb.

Light, incandescent, powerful and piercing, burst from within, mingled with a sound never meant for human ears, its very force shaking the ground.

Terrified, Andronicus cowered. He covered his head. His sinews shook, his innards turned to water. Shall I die? he thought. Can I witness this, yet live?

Footsteps approached, then hesitated. Andronicus . . . looked . . .

It was Him! Iesus! The Christ, the Messiah! The son of God! He is alive! He . . . is risen!

The Crucified One, radiant before him, reached down and gently touched his shoulder. He smiled as Andronicus’ tears flowed upon his cheeks. And then He was gone.

Cassius Andronicus, kneeling in the dust, trembling from the blessing of the Risen Christ, bowed and prayed.

“O great and living God, I need none but your armor to protect me. Your sword is mighty, for against you, no man, no spirit can prevail. Lead me, O God, in the footsteps of your Risen One. Praise be to Him who has overcome death!”

Unbuckling his breastplate, he cast it aside. His helmet lay in the dust nearby. Andronicus stood, and hurling his sword deep within the tomb, turned to follow

his Lord.

Copyright © 1983 Peter K. Schipper