The darkness was absolute. No fire burned within range of his sight. Neither moon nor stars bedecked the sky. Had he not taken his post in daylight, he would not have known where he stood. Only the rough stone wall of the crypt against his back served to remind him of it.
The swaddling darkness had robbed him of his sense of the passing of time. The lack was halfway between a comfort and a curse. His thoughts had come unmoored, which partly assuaged the pain of his deed, but if he could not think plainly of it, how, then, could he repent of it?
Several of his men, aware that he’d stood the vigil each of the two nights before, had offered to take the duty from him. He’d thanked them with his usual formality, and declined. This was where he belonged, the only imaginable place where he could finish grieving.
He’d vowed to himself, silently, that he’d stand the night vigils until the tetrarch rescinded the order that the tomb be guarded…perhaps until God should grant him surcease from his regrets.
When summoned to bring a condemned to the place of execution, he’d thought little of it. Executions in this rebellious province were common. Given the belligerence of the locals, they demanded a military guard. He and his had been detailed to this rude place as agents of law. The law required that its forms be protected in their observance, if it were ever to gain the allegiance of the barbarians among whom he dwelt.
Only when he first looked upon the condemned did he realize to what he was to be party.
Throughout the thing he’d been torn between the need to halt it and the imposed duty to see it carried out as prescribed. His reason knew that for him to interfere in the proceedings would only guarantee his own death for insubordinate treason. Yet the urge was powerful. It never slackened, even unto the moment of death.
The coup de grace would linger in his memory until he was no more.
At least the darkness concealed his tears from others’ eyes.
“Dawn is coming.”
The soft words jerked him out of his melancholy reverie. At once he brought his spear to readiness, for in that murk he could not be sure of friend or foe.
“Be at peace, centurion,” said the voice in the darkness. “You have done only what was required of you, though you knew it not. He blessed you even as you pierced his side.”
Confusion buzzed in his head. The voice betrayed nothing of the speaker’s identity, and still less of his purpose. “Who speaks?”
“A witness, and a messenger.”
“Do you seek to defy the law?”
“No more than he did.”
Though the darkness remained as deep as before, he thought he saw the outline of a human figure, a short distance before him. The figure stood still, arms at its sides.
“The tetrarch has interdicted this place to all but the men of the legion. Why come you here?”
“As I have said: to witness. And to deliver a message.”
“Bide.” The figure raised a hand.
A pinpoint of brilliance ignited between them. It grew steadily to become a sphere of soft light that warmed as it illuminated. By its radiance, the speaker was revealed as a young man of great beauty. His complexion was of smoothest ivory, his eyes and hair the darkest jet. The whiteness of his robe could outshine the noonday sun. He was too perfect to be a creature of mortal flesh.
The spear fell from the centurion’s nerveless hand. He dropped to his knees and made to prostrate himself, but the young man stepped forward, took him by the shoulders and restored him to his feet.
“In a few moments,” the young man said, “a mighty working will occur in this place. Though it must be witnessed in the courts that record all things, it was not meant for mortal eyes. So I have been sent. But my purpose is twofold, for you suffer a guilt that is not yours to bear. I come to relieve it.”
“How?” the centurion breathed.
“Thus: you have only done what he wanted. And thus: He knew you for one of his own.” The young man indicated the glowing sphere with a glance. “But you must not be here when he comes forth. It would unmake your mind and his purpose.”
“Is he not truly dead?”
The young man chuckled. “Oh, truly. For three days he has toured the depths of Hell, reproving the Mekratrig and his minions for their insolence and reminding them of the mercy of the Almighty. But his time there is done. He has a little while yet to spend among men. But no one may see him rise. No mortal mind could withstand it.”
The centurion remained upright only by the sternest of efforts.
“Has he forgiven me, then?”
“There is naught to forgive. He was sent among men to teach, but also to suffer and die. It was you he wanted to attend him in the latter task. So be at peace, Longinus of Etruria, and bear no longer the burden of guilt for a duty ordained for you at birth, which you have well and honorably discharged.” His eyes moved to the spear that lay between them. “Guard your weapon well, for it will become an item of legend.”
The young man raised his hand again. “Nunc dimittis.”
The centurion’s heart filled with a serene, all-encompassing joy. He saluted the glowing herald, stooped to retrieve his spear, and strode resolutely westward, never looking back. As he walked, the first light from the east touched the hills of Judea. The rays of the rising sun glinted from his armor.
Dawn was, indeed, coming.
[Copyright (C) Francis W. Porretto, 2010]
Happy Easter, Gentle Readers. The greatest of all promises has been kept. May all the joy of this most joyous of days be yours throughout the year, for “He is risen, as He said.”