(This story first appeared a few years ago in the ACW anthology Write the Vision.)
I’ll never forget that day. The cruelty of the soldiers, the mocking of the crowds. The sickening metallic “clunk” of hammer against nail, swiftly drowned out by piercing screams. Endless hours in the searing heat, watching as the life slowly drained from his bruised and battered body. Oh yes, I was there right through to the bitter end – which was more than some of his so-called friends could manage. It was the least I could do for him; even though it broke my heart to see him up there, covered in blood and gasping for breath.
I thought back to his childhood. To me he was the most beautiful baby ever. Of course, all mothers say that about their firstborn – but I can still remember the pride I felt at his birth and the overwhelming sense of gratitude to God as we took him to the temple to be dedicated. Our faith has always been a central part of our family life. My son loved it when we went to visit the temple on feast days – and he was always full of questions, often ones that we his parents couldn’t answer! Who would have thought that such childish innocence would one day end up here?
The first I knew of his arrest was when one of his friends burst in through the doorway, eyes wide with terror. It was all too obvious from the look on his face what had happened; the verdict was inevitable.
Friday dawned bright and clear. Jerusalem was full of visitors, come to celebrate the Passover Festival, and so there were plenty of witnesses to mark his faltering steps out of the city towards the place of execution. Clearly exhausted, he stumbled several times along the route. There were two others with him destined for the same fate, but I confess that I scarcely gave them a second glance – I only had eyes for my son.
The execution was efficiently – and brutally – carried out. The soldiers joked amongst themselves as they shared out the belongings of the condemned. A large part of the crowd had hung around to enjoy the grisly spectacle, taunting the slowly dying figures. Gradually their words filtered through to my brain. Most of their attention was focused on the central cross.
“Look at you now!” they jeered. “You saved others – why don’t you save yourself?”
Obviously I’d heard of this man – he was some sort of preacher, I believe. He’d been unpopular with the authorities for some time, but had a tremendous following amongst the ordinary people. Some of them had even claimed that he was the long-awaited Messiah. Personally I thought that this was rather far-fetched and that he should have been more discreet – no point in stirring up trouble. Besides, no one was ever going to achieve anything by getting on the wrong side of the Sanhedrin. Still, it seemed a shame that he had ended up here.
And my son? I confess I still don’t know where we went wrong with that boy. He’d always been so sweet-natured – mischievous, maybe – but a son to delight any mother’s heart. And yet, with hindsight, I can see that gradually over time he changed, became harder and more distant. The younger ones began to complain of things going missing – but then children are always losing things. It seems so obvious now, but at the time I never suspected that my son was the culprit.
I finally woke up to the truth when I found him examining a beautiful gold brooch, set with precious stones. Nobody of our acquaintance could possibly afford to own such a costly thing. My son, my precious son, was nothing more than a thief. How could he have done such a thing? And how could I not have realised what was going on? I felt so ashamed, so humiliated. I was also scared. What if he got caught? Roman punishments were always swift and severe. I had seen too many examples of their justice to hope for any leniency there. And I knew – as he knew – that what he was doing was wrong. It was clearly written in the laws that Moses passed down to us, laws that he’d heard expounded every Sabbath since childhood.
Deep down I knew it was only a matter of time. Then, last month, he and his friends foolishly laid an ambush for a Roman official travelling to Jerusalem. They knew – don’t ask me how – that he was carrying gold to Pilate, the governor. What they hadn’t counted on was the size of his escort. They were hugely outnumbered. My son and another were captured and thrown into prison to await the sentence of Rome. There was never any doubt about what that sentence would be.
And so here he was, paying a heavy price for his folly. The abuse from the onlookers was getting louder now, and the thief on the cross furthest from me was joining in.
“If you’re who you claim to be, you should rescue yourself – and us!” he shouted, his voice full of bitterness. The crowd cheered. This was good entertainment. And then my son spoke.
“We are only getting what we deserve,” he said wretchedly, “but this man – he’s done nothing wrong!” He twisted his head awkwardly towards the central cross.
“Jesus,” he whispered – it was an effort now for him to get the words out – “Jesus, remember me when you return as King.”
“I tell you,” came the gentle reply, “today you will be with me in Paradise.”
I’ll never forget that day. People are saying now that the preacher is alive again. Perhaps his claims about himself were true after all. One thing I do know: only God could have turned an execution ground into a place of hope.