The day is dark on a Friday so long ago. The life drains from an unusual man as He goes to His gloomy end. Is He not supposed to be the One, prophesied by Scripture? Yes, but we find Him too powerless to save Himself. The injustice of corrupt leaders and what is expedient for an Empire subdue the One claiming to be “the Son of God.”
Now barren of life, this man must be too weak to prevail over the plottings of mere mortals. For the centurion can think of no other reason for this man to be dead before him. Such dark thoughts stir inside this man of military might. Bleaker still when you consider the institutions meant to protect and uphold what is right, conspire to destroy life, and defend what is wrong. A dark day, indeed, on a Friday beyond our reckoning.
Earlier, three years before, Jesus begins His public preaching and teaching. The long-awaited Son of the heavenly Father reveals Himself to all. Yes, He comes to undo the damage of our first father’s unfaithfulness! How? By Himself becoming the faithful Son. Through Adam’s plunge into sin, the night of death descended on the life of all. The prophesied Serpent-Crusher, the Second Adam, will one day restore the world.
Not only Adam but the nation of Israel, Yahweh’s chosen people, also fail at being faithful. The book of Exodus calls Israel “the firstborn son” (Exodus 4:22). In their wilderness journey, they become bold, choosing how they will come to their Deliverer from death. On their terms, through the form of a pagan Egyptian god, they try to worship the Almighty (Exodus 32:5). Such misery they bring on themselves.
At His birth, the angels sing of the Father’s Son, now incarnate. The baby grows into a man and receives John’s baptism. So begins the start His saving work for all, now public for everyone to recognize. From town to town, He goes. The number who believe in Him, who also become sons of God, increases. Many now follow this rabbi, with a core of 12 disciples, whom He is grooming for a future task.
Now, all the hope is bereft of life, with a dead man hanging on the tree of death. The followers shrink away, as others fear the same fate. The religious authorities in Jerusalem reject Jesus as the Father’s Son, colluding with an Empire, stirring up the people against Him. A disciple of His betrays Him. Most of the others flee, frightful and afraid. The crowds below the hoisted man, mock and jeer Him.
Later, St. Matthew recounts these events. “My God, my God! Why do You abandon me?” (Matthew 27:46). From all appearances, the Father also flees from this rejected man dying by nail and wood. Soon, death arrives, and the hope this Messiah once brought fades with His death. So alone is this so-called king, soon to be forgotten.
Not so fast, for all is not as the day portrays. A criminal next to Jesus relies on Him to be who He claims to be, asking the promised Savior to remember him in paradise. An eerie blackness descends when this man between two convicts, breathes out His last. The earth trembles. In his years of experience, this death is unlike any other.
A professional soldier, an officer in charge of a hundred men. One does not receive such rank without being seasoned in the ways of killing. This crucifixion is one of many for him. The centurion is disciplined; perhaps, hard, cynical, and unemotional.
The man who commands 100, will carry out his day’s work. Without fanfare or calling attention to himself, he will do his duty. For the deeds of the day, done by others, put him in such a place. The Roman Governor conducted the trial, and others decided the punishment. A loyal soldier he is. So, he will follow orders and do them well.
To a Roman, crucifixion is a shameful death reserved for slaves, rogues, and rebels. So humiliating is this death, the Empire forbade this form of execution for its citizens. No, Rome reserved death by pounded spike and wounding wood for only the lowest scum, not for someone to be revered and praised. Yes, this contemptible death is designed for the bottom dregs, creating disgust for those slain in such a way.
With a battle-hardened detachment, if anything stirs inside this commanding officer, respect and veneration are not the emotions to expect. For this soldier, on this day of death, our Deliverer decided otherwise. For this military man, everything is now different. An unsettling dread, but also a confounding admiration, grips his soul. No longer can he linger, unmoved, masked behind a soldier’s indifference.
The enfleshed Christ will soon die in front of this commander. Astonished, he gazes in wonder, with all loathing and hatred gone! With such a calm dignity, this Jewish prisoner conducts Himself on the cross. Many mocking words harangue this man, with taunts for Him to save Himself—since they call Him the Son of God!
The dying man grows pale, and every breath becomes a hard labor. The life is leaving Him, but the officer’s ears only take in His words of forgiveness and comfort. A prayer to His Father in heaven leaves the lips of this mangled mass of bloodied flesh.
Compared with others he crucified, the commander can find no comparison. A blackened sky during midday. The earth rumbles and rocks split. Did his eyes spot a dead man walking in the distance? A foreboding fear passes over him. No, this man can’t be a criminal, for the lawless do not come with such divine power.
How easy to assume all life now also quakes, ready to collapse. For if people can kill this man, who cannot be a mere human, this world must also be dying its death, as this divine Being also dies. The commander can explain these events in no other way. For nature itself is testifying to the identity of this man, now limp and lifeless. Yes, this man of war now realizes—this dead man is the Son of God.
So, he stares into the gloom. Through the shadows, he ponders the Light of Life. The strange happenings, which earlier confused, and the hate-filled words directed to this man spiked to the splintered beam, now add up. No, this cannot be to the end, but the beginning of something new.
What the officer takes in around him also testifies to the truth. The mouths of others declare the truthfulness of the man and the claims of who He is. So strange, for their words affirm the opposite of what they are trying to snuff out!
The Sanhedrin pronounce Him to be a prophet, ridiculing Him as they declare Him to be the “Messiah.” The priests, scribes, and the elders below the killing cross call Him a Savior and King. Those passing by taunt and scorn, naming Him “the Son of God.”
Without realizing, they fulfill the words of their Greek-language Old Testament. For they quote from the book of Wisdom, thinking they are proving themselves right. No, they only show themselves to be wrong. “For if the righteous man is the Son of God, God will help Him and rescue Him from the hand of His enemies” (Wisdom 2:18).
Those passing by, the Sanhedrin, and the crucified criminal preach Christ through the words of their attacks. From the mouths of mockers comes the proclamation, removing all doubt within this executioner. The Creator of faith uses the spoken word, which joins the events of the day, creating belief within this soldier.
The words “My God, my God” is not the cry of someone turning away from the Almighty. No, this is the prayer of someone experiencing the anguish of separation from His Father. The seasoned warrior now realizes words are leaving His mouth, “This is the Son of God.” How can he speak anything else? No one but someone with divine power can cause these miracles to take place.
The commander’s confession helps us understand the blessings behind the cruelty on this Friday of long ago. For the man dead on the cross can only be Divine. Nothing else explains what happened. The commander finds himself calling this man “the Son of God.” In the mind of this man, the light now comes, driving away the darkness. Now he understands. Yes, all is complete as the crucified One said!
The Son carried out the Father’s will for our salvation, fulfilling the mission from His heavenly Father. Through His death, the prophesied Christ triumphed over the Devil and all damning powers of hell. The only Son of the Father sacrificed Himself in death for all, which means His death counts for us, as well. Yes, He is the Son of God!
The Church’s oral tradition tells us this centurion, Longinus, grew in his trust of Christ and, later, died a martyr’s death. Now, since this is from oral tradition, we can’t be sure of this fact. Of this, however, we can. The one who believes in the crucifixion of the Father’s Son, and holds this faith to the end, is saved from sin, death, and Satan.
In three days, the centurion’s confession will prove correct as the One who died rises from the dead. The mocking bystanders also reveal the truth when they quoted Old-Testament prophecy. Yes, the Father did “rescue [Jesus] from the hand of His enemies” in His resurrection.
With our Lord’s executioner, we realize the darkness is not the end. For the prophet Amos foretold, the Lord “will make the sun go down at noon and darken the land in the daytime” (Amos 8:9). The Apostle John also tells us, in sadness, “The Light [Jesus] entered the world, but people loved darkness instead of light” (John 3:19).
In Christ, a new life, eternal life, is ours. Through the Holy Spirit’s working, He brings you to love the Light, Jesus, and trust in Him for life unending. For He is the Son of God. Like the centurion, we also glorify the Father and confess Jesus. For only He gives us life into all eternity. Amen.