As the tremors from the earthquake subsided, Cassius looked toward Golgotha in the distance. People were panicked, moving down the path quickly. Dark clouds boiled over the hills and over all of Jerusalem. Behind him, he could hear screams coming from inside the walls of the city. It was chaos. One of many Roman soldiers ordered to watch for trouble as another radical was crucified, Cassius could not believe how dark it had become. It was as if the earthquake had thrown sand into the air and blotted out the sun. Sand was everywhere, pelting him – driven by the wind. He wondered what could be happening on that hill as the man the Jews called Jesus was being crucified.
He surveyed the people clinging to each other, some wailing after the quake. It didn’t take long for another soldier to come down the hill and tell him of the scene near the three crosses.
“It’s the most astounding moment I’ve ever experienced!” exclaimed Martel. “You felt the quake, right? It happened the exact moment he perished.” His eyes searched the face of Cassius for recognition.
“Settle down. What are you saying?” Cassius asked. Martel then turned back toward Golgotha and pointed.
“They said it,” he gasped. “They said he was the Son of God.”
“Don’t be foolish,” Cassius said. “Of course they said that . He was claiming to be the Messiah.”
“But, I believe it,” Martel said, and he looked straight into the eyes of Cassius. “I know it in my bones.”
“It’s the earthquake, it rattled you. Have a seat here…”
“I’m telling you, I was assigned to the detail,” Martel said. “There were 10 of us keeping the crowd back, pushing through the streets and clearing the way. But, it’s the strangest thing, he wasn’t fighting it. He didn’t try to stop or escape like other men. This Jesus carried that beam with the kind of strength I’ve never seen. They’d nearly whipped him to death, blood everywhere, still pouring out of the gashes in his back. He was exhausted, but kept going.”
“You saw how it ended, though, right?”
“I saw everything,” Martel said, his eyes wide and clear. “Heard everything. He forgave us. When he looked at me…” Martel choked on his words and put a fist up to his mouth.
“Get yourself together,” Cassius said. He glanced around to make sure no one was overhearing this crazy story. “The man died, like any other man.”
“No,” Martel countered. “He gave up his life. I watched him.”
Guarding the tomb
Later that day, after the Jews had prepared the body of Jesus for burial, Cassius was tasked with escorting the body to the tomb. He and seven other soldiers made their way slowly to the site, then watched a few of the man’s followers lay him in the tomb hewn from rock. They struggled with the stone, so Cassius and the other soldiers stepped in and pushed it into place. Cassius strapped ropes across the stone and sealed them with wax, as ordered by the Centurion in command. After a while, Cassius told the followers to leave. Two women were reluctant to leave, but he insisted.
“There won’t be any gatherings or vigils,” he said and he picked up a stone and hurled it at two men who were not moving fast enough.
The next morning, Cassius found Martel off by himself.
“We were there all night, no problems,” Cassius told him. “I was worried that his followers would show up and try to steal the body.”
“Most of our night was spent looking for the rest of the Galileans,” Martel said. “They’ve either scattered or bolted for Bethany. I hope they have.”
“Watch what you say,” Cassius cautioned him. “Pilate may not be done executing people yet.”
“I don’t care about Pilate,” Martel said and he stood up. “This was no ordinary man. Did you feel his presence in the tomb?”
“I felt the cold night air,” Cassius said, dismissing the idea. “I’ve been alone for three years since I left my family and home to serve in the army. Last night was no different.”
“You didn’t see his eyes,” Martel said. “It was as if he looked into me… he recognized me.”
“You are crazy,” Cassius said. “Better not say that to anyone else. And pray to Apollos you don’t get picked to watch the tomb tonight.” He turned and walked out of the tent without looking back.
A sky full of stars
After sleeping in the afternoon, Cassius found a detail about to go into the city to help guard the temple during the Passover festival. He stepped forward to volunteer but was intercepted by the same Centurion who assigned him to the tomb before. He was stuck.
At the tomb, Cassius checked over the ropes. They were still sealed. The place was quiet. As the sun neared the horizon, the evening began to cool off. Once they got a fire going, the four naturally gathered around it. Each of the three with Cassius spent a couple hours on watch at the crest of the hill, guarding the path.
Later on, Cassius took his turn on watch at the crest of the hill. He could see down the path in the dim moonlight. Nothing moved. Looking back, he could barely see the campfire embers glowing behind an outcropping of rock. Cassius shivered. He looked up at the sky. As his eyes adjusted he could see more and more stars. He searched and blinked and stared. More and more stars shimmered before him, covering the night sky. He felt like he was looking into eternity.
After a long time, he slowly walked back toward the others, he could see a glow a little brighter than before. He was relieved they had stoked up the fire with more wood. As he came around a bend in the path he saw two of the soldiers asleep next to some cooling embers. It didn’t make sense. He walked around the outcropping and the glow became brighter. His eyes were fixed on the tomb. He couldn’t believe it. The stone was black but there were shafts of light dancing around its edges, barely able to squeeze through the tightly sealed tomb. The light pulsed and ebbed like a heartbeat.
“What is going on?” Cassius shouted. At the sound of his voice, the third man awoke from his position near the stone, where he slouched against the rocks. A shaft of light escaped the tomb and played across his face long enough for his eyes to grow very large. His mouth opened but he couldn’t say anything. A gasp escaped as he scrambled to his feet and ran toward the others. Cassius caught the guard by the arm. The pulses intensified for a moment as the four guards stared at the light, stunned. Then the sound of escaping air pierced the night and three of them ran. Cassius didn’t move.
“Run!” one shouted back at him. Their frantic footsteps faded in the distance. Cassius stared at the tomb, pulsing from inside, shafts of light bursting forth faster and faster until suddenly… silence and black. He blinked trying to focus. Crack! A jolt like lightning shot from the tomb, lighting up the blackness, sending the stone spinning off like a coin. Cassius caught his balance. It slowed and toppled 10 paces from the tomb and silence again enveloped Cassius and the night.
Drawn to the tomb
Cassius looked up – the heavens still hung in the sky. His heart was thumping in his chest. He took a step, then two, closer to the tomb. He stepped around the stone, torn ropes singed at the edges, still clinging to it. Finally, he stopped at the entrance, then noticed a shadow on the inner wall of the tomb. His body wanted to turn and run, but he couldn’t. He was drawn forward and stepped into the tomb and was startled to see a man standing there, clad in a robe white as a cloud. His face was radiant, eyes warm and bright. The man motioned a welcome.
“Do not be afraid.” When the man said this, Cassius felt a peace surround him gently and calm his heart.
“Who…?” began Cassius, and then he stopped when he noticed the man’s hands. The man was folding a large burial cloth and a gouge in each hand glistened slightly.
“I am Jesus.” The soldier could only nod slightly. Jesus smiled at him, then finished folding the cloth and set it down. Cassius noticed a smaller cloth and not knowing what to do or say, he gathered it, rolled it up and set it aside.
Jesus walked to the entrance and stepped outside. Cassius quickly stepped out and saw Jesus stretching his back, raising his interlaced hands toward the sky, cracking his knuckles in one movement. Cassius glimpsed at the horizon as some sunlight started to glow over the distant hills.
“This is the most beautiful time of day,” Jesus said. “No matter where you are.”
A glorious tapestry
Cassius thought for a moment and said, “Back home, there is a field of wildflowers…”
“Oh, yes,” Jesus said, nodding. “Beautiful land in that valley.” As they watched the sun come up, the sky morphed to shades of purple, orange, and blue with a splash of gold. It reminded Cassius of home. He felt like his chest might burst. He thought of his wife and her smile, his kids running toward him. The sky was a glorious tapestry of color.
“Did you do that?”
“That’s just air,” Jesus said. “You should see what I can do with water.”
Cassius eagerly gave him the nearly-empty sheepskin at his waist. Jesus drank deeply from it, taking all the water that he had.
“Thank you, that was kind,” Jesus said and handed it back. Cassius looped it over his shoulder and a weighty thump struck him in the side. The sheepskin was full now. Cassius looked at Jesus with a puzzled expression.
“You’ll need it to get home,” Jesus said.
“Your wife and children miss you.”
Cassius looked at the amazing sky and said, “This may be as close as I get to seeing home again.”
“Do not worry,” Jesus said. Their eyes met. “One day, Cassius, you will make it home. You will see your wife smile and hold your son and daughter.” And Cassius realized the man knew him. An idea escaped unchecked.
“They say you are the Messiah. You’ve come to set your people free.”
I’ve won the victory
“I am the Way and the Truth and the Life. I’ve won the victory my Father asked of me. I’ve come to set everyone free – if they will only believe.”
“In me,” he said, pointing back to the tomb. “That I am risen.”
Cassius glanced at the tomb and the stone and then Jesus. He looked up at the colorful sky, felt the sheepskin full of water at his side. Cassius experienced a deep peace he’d never known was possible. He peered into the eyes of Jesus for a long time.
Sounds came from down the path; women were crying.
“Go, someone comes for me,” Jesus said to Cassius, and they embraced. “And do not be afraid, for I will be with you.” Cassius walked away, amazed and overjoyed.
When Cassius got near the compound, he saw Martel loading provisions onto a horse. Cassius ran up to him and spun him around.
“You are not crazy,” Cassius said. “I saw him. He walked out of the tomb.”
“You saw him? What do you mean?”
“There was a blast of light, the stone flung aside and, and… He lives!”
“When did this happen?”
“Not even one hour ago. He spoke to me and he gave me this,” Cassius said, holding up the sheepskin full of water.
“Glorious!” Martel said. “Didn’t I tell you there was something special about him?”
Before Cassius could answer, they were interrupted by the Centurion shouting orders at two soldiers, practically dragging them along the path near the city wall. He was shouting about cowardice and obedience and calling them names.
“He’s sending more messengers to Rome,” Martel said. “Word came that the last two were killed by robbers. These horses are for them.”
The Centurion shoved them toward the horses. They argued they would rather die in battle than be killed delivering a message. There was no glory in being a messenger, they said.
A message to Rome
“I disagree,” Cassius said. “It depends on the message.” He recalled what Jesus had said to him about getting home one day. “I will carry the message to Rome, Centurion.” He eyed Martel who responded with a knowing look. The soldiers told him he was a fool who would perish in the desert or at the hand of robbers.
“I am not afraid,” Cassius said.
But the Centurion dismissed the idea, saying he had no water to cross the desert. But Cassius simply took the sheepskin off his shoulder and handed it to the Centurion, who tasted it. Marveling at its purity he gave it back to Cassius. He gave him his orders and wished him well.
Cassius mounted the horse and Martel handed him the reins to the pack horse. They walked toward the main road.
“You really did see him,” Martel said.
“I did and he was inspiring. He looked at me and I could tell he knows me.”
“So you got to look into his eyes? What was that like for you?
Cassius started his horse up the road leading to Rome and his home. He looked back and said, “I felt like I was looking into eternity.”