Good Friday evening
How some of those involved in the original Good Friday might have felt that evening...
Though a posting in northern Britannia might have been colder, there couldn’t be many worse places to be a Roman soldier than here in Judea. As the sun sank down, Antonius wandered round the barracks, catching up with the talk from the day. There was an unease in the air, in the men, that he didn't like. Even the lad who'd won the dice game and had a new robe for his troubles wasn't as cocky as Antonius would have liked him to be.
His own thoughts drifted back to where he knew the others' were too. The earth shaking, the sun failing - those things weren't right but that wasn't what was troubling them all. You thought you knew where you were when you put someone on a cross, and two of the three they’d done today had been absolutely standard, all the usual stuff you got used to and learnt to ignore. But the other one... The lads who were there agreed they’d never seen anyone go like him.
It was supposed to be Barabbas. He’d attacked a patrol last week so the news that Pilate had let him go because of some stupid local tradition had not gone down well at all. Instead it was this guy no-one had ever heard of. A few of the men had spent the whole night with him, marching him from one part of the city to another whilst Pilate and Herod and the Jews tried to decide what to do with him. No surprise there were a few in the legion that morning who weren’t happy with the hassle he’d caused. That had put an extra bit of spite in their whips - and when that didn’t get a response from him, they’d really gone to work, so bad he nearly didn’t make it to the actual crucifixion. But he still didn’t say anything. He screamed, of course, but no spitting, cursing, promises of revenge; no crying for his mummy either. He’d just taken it.
He had said a few things eventually, they always do. Most of the men didn’t understand because they were new here and hadn’t learnt the language, but those who did said he’d asked his God to forgive them! Could you believe it? Antonius was a soldier man and boy, he would swear he’d never heard anyone on a cross say anything like that. Who would? The captain even said he reckoned the guy was innocent. But what did that matter now? It was over.
And no wonder, the condemned man had been ravaged by whips. Simon could see he’d been strong once but there was barely a shred of skin left on his back – flies were already feasting on him and his back was twitching with shock. His face was bruised and his beard was ragged tufts; He seemed barely human. Simon's guilt at watching the horrible spectacle turned to fear when the soldiers spotted him and ordered him to take the cross-beam, too heavy and too bloody for the man to cope with. You couldn't argue, but you could let the victim know you weren't against him. A brief glance of sympathy was all Simon dared to risk, but the look in the man's eyes held him... Strangely, Simon felt it was the moment of the whole ordeal he would remember most clearly, though when he tried to describe it to his inquisitive host he couldn’t find the words.
Her satisfaction that there was one less trouble-maker in the city annoyed him but he kept his counsel whilst she gave him water to rinse his cloak. At last it was clean enough, and he could go to his room and try to sleep. It had been a terrible day but it was over.
As well as the frustration of feeling unfulfilled, there was strange news from the Temple to deal with. Something had happened to the great curtain that separated the presence of God from the rest of the world. The men on duty had heard a ripping sound within the sanctuary. They had, they said, crept in to see what was happening and there it was, the glorious 60-foot high curtain - torn open! From top to bottom, the men said, from the inside. There were worried faces and fearful mutterings but Caiaphas soon put a stop to all that. That was his job. He gave orders for repairs to be made as soon as Passover was finished, swiftly and silently. The people mustn’t hear about it: he wanted no more trouble. There would be no more after today: it was over.
The silence in the room made the sounds from outside louder. A footstep could be soldiers coming to arrest them; every shout was an echo of the murderous crowds. They were where the Twelve had eaten with Him just the night before, all that remained was the bare table they'd sat around, and the memories that were haunting them. Usually when Jesus spent time with a select few, the rest would interrogate them at the earliest opportunity: what had He said, what had He done, what did it mean? Though some longed to do so now they knew they couldn’t. John’s tears, Peter’s empty stare forbade it.
Grief and despair held them.
It still didn’t feel real, though there was nothing on earth as real as crucifixion. It was like the horrible opposite of when He’d done a miracle – those wonderful moments of astonished excitement that couldn’t be true except that the lame man was leaping around, or the parents were crying tears of joy over their once-sick child. They were like glimpses of your dreams, when you could dare to believe what your heart most desired. What did all that mean now?
They had always been a strange group, nothing really in common except Him, when you thought about it. No wonder those with Him last night had scattered so quickly. They were together again now because nowhere else seemed safe. Peter had been the last to arrive - who knew where he had been? - and he still hadn’t said a word.
That morning, some of them had gone to Pilate’s palace in the hope that Jesus would be freed, or at least let off after a violent warning, but the tide of mob rule had swept over them, and Him. It had happened so fast but lasted so long. His mother had insisted that she go to be with Him. Of all of them, she seemed the most prepared. But how must it feel to see the son you brought naked and crying into the world go out of it in the same way? To see the body you cared for when it was seemingly at its most fragile, desperately breathing its last? The sound of nails being hammered into wood had once meant Joseph, and later Jesus Himself learning His trade. Now she would never be able to hear it without being taken back to that horrible hill.
Most of them had watched what happened from as far away as possible; it was outside the city walls and high up, so they could see from a safe distance. John was the only one of the men who had dared to stay close; against his better judgement Mary had taken them right up to where Jesus was being killed. She had flinched as they hammered the nails into Him. She almost fell faint when they lifted Him up into place and He screamed before the breath was forced out of Him. The crowd around them laughed and swore, and left. The priests looked coldly on. Somehow, He still thought of others. He was still making offers of life to those around Him, even one of the men being crucified with Him. Then He told John to look after Mary as he would his own mother. Then everything went dark.
Having been so attentive to everyone else, Jesus now seemed unaware of anything around Him, and the physical agony in His face was transformed into something far worse. If you’d ever seen Him pray to God you would have never have expected this look from Him - of one who had been abandoned, hated by their closest love. Even Mary couldn’t bear to watch as He hung between heaven and earth, held in a place no-one could comprehend...
The knock on the door shook them out of the past and present fear filled them once more - but it was some of the women. They said they couldn’t bear to leave Jesus but His dead body had been taken down and carried to a tomb. Mary Magdalene explained that Joseph of Arimathea had a tomb in a garden nearby and had let Him be put there. "Joseph's one of the council who killed Him!" someone cried out. "But he told me he hadn’t wanted this to happen," she said. "Then why didn’t he say something last night? Why not...?" Angry questions trailed off in exhaustion: what difference did it make now? They returned to their own thoughts, each thinking the same thing: it was over.
As they bowed down to worship, one of the angels dared to ask, ‘So, is it over then?’
‘No,’ Jesus smiled, ‘It has only just begun.’