A Fictional First-Person Account of the Passion, Through the Eyes of an Unlikely Disciple ~
As we neared the steep rise to the hill called Golgotha, Jesus had reached a point of weakness so intense that the cross drug along the ground mere inches at a time. One of the guards shouted at him repeatedly to move faster as he beat him with a rod. I couldn’t comprehend how the guard expected his efforts to be effective. What man ever gained strength from a beating? I was too afraid to speak my mind, but I wanted to yell out and draw attention to his ignorance. I felt rage growing in my spirit as I watched the sun reflect off the droplets of spit and sweat spraying into the air around the guard’s pompous mouth. I was disgusted by him and could taste the sour bile of my own stomach in the back of my throat.
I lifted my eyes and looked around for Peter and the others, but I couldn’t find them in the crowd. The closer we drew to the summit, the thicker the crowd became. A large number of Jesus’ followers had gathered at the base of the hill to join him on the climb. Many were weeping and crying out, begging for his life to be spared. It was a strange and striking contrast to witness one man’s hatred for Jesus, and mere inches away, another man’s love for him. Had I met these people on the street, the look of them would never have told me such a story – I supposed it really was true that only God could see the heart of a man, and it was left to us to judge nothing more than that man’s actions.
Jesus took one, ragged and unsure step onto the steep part of the hill and fell hard against the rock, collapsing under the weight of the cross and, I imagined, under the weight of his immense burden. The cross came down hard upon his head and across his back, pushing the crown of thorns so deeply into his scalp that there would be no hope of dislodging it. I averted my eyes in reflex just as the guard used his rod to strike the long beam of the cross. He berated Christ, demanding that he rise and finish the walk. Jesus tried, he struggled against the weight of the crossbeam, crying out in effort, but try as he might, he could not move it.
The centurion of the Roman guard, who had followed the procession on horseback, called out loudly to a man walking beside the road in the direction of the market. I deduced the guard chose this man simply because he appeared to be the only man on the road who had no interest in the scene unfolding before him. From the look of him, he appeared to be a man of Cyrene, but I could not be certain. When the man attempted to keep walking on his way, another of the guards laid hold of him and turned him back toward their centurion on horseback. From behind them, surrounded by the mob, I could not make out the words that were spoken, but the time for talking ended quickly and the guards pushed the man toward the cross where it lay in the dust. To everyone’s shock, the man reached down and turned the crossbeam into the air, placing his shoulder into the crux where the two beams met. He shored his footing and squared his shoulders toward the hill. Jesus climbed slowly to his knees and clung to the cross as he steadied himself. He squeezed into the wood with his fingertips, driving his fingernails into the grain with all the strength he had left to muster and then turned toward the hill again. Together they began the slow ascent to the Place of the Skull, Jesus walking slightly ahead of the Cyrenian.
At the top of the hill, the sun reflected off the rocks in such a way that it caused my eyes to squint. There was so much shouting and jeering and, at the same time, wailing and crying out that I could not understand any of the words spoken by those around me. Golgotha could be seen from almost any place inside the city walls, and I wondered if the other men were still on the rooftop, or if they had braved the ascent and now stood somewhere in the crowd. I looked for Peter and John, and even for Mary in the sea of faces on the hill, but I could not find them – though I somehow knew they were there. I looked up toward the sky to gauge the position of the sun. It must have been closing in on nine o’clock. For a moment, my family entered my mind. They would be looking for me by now. How would I explain myself? But then, two guards drug Jesus to the cross and laid him across it. As I watched his shredded flesh rake across the grain of the wood, I felt the dagger of guilt pierce my heart. How could I consider myself in any way? How could my small problems or worry over my wife’s chastising hold even a moment of my attention when compared to the agony of this Galilean – this Messiah?
As I wrestled with my guilt, I watched the guards tether Jesus to the cross. And then, I could not help but hold my breath as one of the praetor’s men held a mallet high above his head and drove it downward against an iron spike. The sound of the hammer against the spike set my teeth on edge. The spike passed through Jesus’ hand as blood sprayed in all directions. I saw a man across from me become ill, right there in the dirt. I couldn’t be certain, but he had the look of a man I’d seen many times, begging, by the pool at Siloam. But, it could not have been that man, because that man had been born blind and this was assuredly a sighted man.
The blood that poured from Jesus’ wound looked dark and thick, almost like honey dripping from the comb. The praetor’s men repeated the gruesome task again on his left hand, and I averted my eyes. When they moved to his feet, they affixed a small block of wood into place against the beam that would force Jesus to keep his knees bent as he hung on the cross, preventing him from finding relief in even the slightest form. The two soldiers came down hard with their hammers and drove large spikes through his feet and into the wood. The sound the deed made was deafening. But as they worked, the sound of Jesus voice could be heard over the multitude as he cried out in a loud voice, “Abba!” The priests were aghast at his use of the word. He cried out to God like a small child crying out for his father. His vernacular tested me. I had long been taught that such a thing was irreverence and blasphemous, and though my ears bristled at first, my heart cried out from within me, to tell me the truth of who Jesus was. Once he was secure, the guards gathered around something on the ground. One knelt down and the others stood and laughed as they watched him. After moment, they carried what looked like a piece of thin birch over to the cross and laid it on the beam above Jesus’ head. After it had been nailed into place, I struggled to make it out, but could not read it from my distance.
Then, a team of guards hoisted the cross into the air. Blood ran over the cross like oil. Some in the crowd jeered and others fell silent as the soldiers let the long end of the structure fall into a hole that would hold it erect. I felt physical pain tear through my body as the force of the fall thrust Jesus’ body against the spikes and tethers. My pain coupled with the brokenness in my spirit forced me to my knees as I watched. From my position, I looked up to see the sign the guards had affixed above Jesus’ head. It read, Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.
Jesus cried out in anguish as the cross fell into place. The soldiers continued to mock him and prod him as he hung. At one point, instead of water to quench his thirst, they pressed a sponge soaked in vinegar against his bloodied lips. I could see how it burned his raw flesh by the grimace in his eyes. In his agony, he looked up to the sky and prayed aloud, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do!” I wanted to tear my clothes! How could this man pray for those who hurt him so willingly? My inability to comprehend it threatened to drive me mad! I could see a look of disbelief wash over the chief priests’ faces. Another of his scribes began to shake at the knees. He appeared to be full of fear, or guilt, or both.
Until that very moment, I had not noticed that two other men had also been hung on the hill that day, one on either side of Jesus. The guards hoisted Christ up between the two men who, I later learned, had been sentenced to death as thieves. I looked to the sky again. In just a few short hours I’d gone from a simple stroll under the stars to standing on Golgotha with a group of wanted men, whilst watching the crucifixion of a rabbi who may very well be the Messiah. What a morning this had become.
For a long while, Jesus simply hung there on the cross, writhing, struggling to breath and fighting his pain. A crowd of his followers had remained on the hill for hours, as did a collection of guards, the chief priests and scribes, and a spattering of common folk who believed him to be a blasphemer. I saw Peter in the crowd. He had moved away from the others and stood alone, as close to the foot of the cross as the guards would allow. Mary and the mother of Jesus had positioned themselves directly in front of him. I do not think they took their eyes off him even for a moment. The soldiers, perhaps out of boredom, or perhaps out of a ploy to later gain a profit, began to cast lots for Jesus’ clothing. They laughed and joked, entertaining themselves. They seemed to give little regard to the three men barely clinging to life on the hill.
More in the crowd began to disperse as the hours waned, but I could not tear myself away. As the morning dwindled, one of the thieves cried out in anguish. He gnashed his teeth together and threw his head back. His mop of black hair hung wildly down his back against his cross. He then lashed out at Jesus in anger, shouting that if Jesus were truly the Chosen One, he would free them all from the cross. The thief who had been hung on the other side of Jesus shouted back at him in return, “Let him alone! He is an innocent man!” I remember being taken aback by the second thief’s face. It was almost childlike, sweet. Not at all what one would expect from a thief. Again I marveled at how the look of a man and the heart of him could be so vastly different. The second thief continued, “He’s done nothing wrong! We are but getting what we deserve!” Then this same thief turned his eyes toward Jesus and said, “Remember me when you come into your Kingdom.”
I covered my mouth in awe. The priests and scribes were clearly agitated by the thief’s words. The crowds of people who remained on the hill reacted in many various ways. So divided was the multitude, that I was surprised no fighting had begun. Jesus could barely move, but he turned his face toward the man and answered, “Today, you will be with me in Paradise.” I was so struck by those words that I am sure my mouth hung open in a gape. How such beautiful and caring words could fall from a mouth so badly beaten was beyond my greatest comprehension. The camp of priests erupted in anger and agitation, tearing at their robes and making a show of their discontent, grumbling amongst themselves.
My legs had grown so tired, I could no longer stand. I looked to the sky once again. The sun was almost directly overhead when a hard wind began to blow. Without warning, darkness fell over the land as though the sun had been blotted from the sky. The people around me grew terrified. Some of the priests fled and many of the onlookers abandoned their places on the hill and ran back to their homes in an attempt to escape the mystery of the darkness. I could tell some of the priests had begun to doubt their own righteousness, while others stood proud. In the darkness, I crawled over to the place where Peter knelt. I placed a hand on his shoulder and I could sense his grief and his confusion. He didn’t say so, but it seemed to me that he expected Jesus to prove his might that very day, to overthrow the Romans and the Pharisees and take his rightful place as King. But just then, I heard the Christ call out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and it became painfully clear to me that Jesus would not walk away from the cross in triumph.
It seemed as though hours had passed as we remained gathered there in the darkness. I could no longer tell the time because the sun gave no light. The high wind had been blowing steadily since the darkness fell and I clutched my tunic to my body for added warmth. Some of the guards held torches that did a wild dance in the wind, but cast just enough light to illuminate the agony of the hill. We could see that Jesus’ breath was slowing. I could no longer hold back my tears as we all watched him gasping for air like a fish writhing on dry land. As I watched him, there beside Peter, in the dirt, on the hill called Golgotha, he spoke again, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit. It is finished.” With that, he gave up the ghost and died.
As soon as his head dropped low against his chest, the earth beneath us began to quake. Panic set in among the people. His followers mourned with great sorrow, crying out in loud voices, but they did not flee despite the fearsome nature of the wind and darkness. With that, the shaking of the earth grew stronger and the heavy veil of the temple tore in two from bottom to top! I gasped in disbelief. No one had touched it, no one was near to it. Not even the strongest man in Jerusalem could have accomplished such a feat. I could see the whites of the chief priest’s eyes as they grew wide and fearful. The soldiers charged with guarding Jesus were uneasy. One ran away furiously as the earth quaked beneath his feet. He fled down the hill and toppled as he ran, rolling end over end in the shadow of darkness. As more people fled in fear, the centurion did his best to steady his horse. As he did so, he called out in the direction of the Pharisees, “Surely this was the Son of God!” He yelled with such guttural authority that another guard dropped his spear and knelt on the spot, weeping as though his life had just been stripped from him. The baltea of his uniform made a clinking sound as it whipped in the wind. How would he live with himself after this day? The centurion called out to the now lone guard remaining at the cross and signaled him to spear Jesus, to guarantee his death. The guard held the spear in his hand and thrust it upward into Jesus’ side. Blood and water poured from the wound like a spring in the desert.
Mary, James and his mother had moved near to the foot of the cross. No guard stood by to stop them. None would dare try. The women wept and cried out. Peter and I moved closer to them. As I stood there, staring up at the cross where Jesus’ lifeless body hung limp against the wood, the reality of what I had just witnessed began to set in. I took note of the darkened sky, the earthquake, the torn veil at the temple and my heart began to beat rapidly in my chest. I was overcome with fear and I fled. God help me, I fled. I ran as fast as I could down the hill, stumbling and tripping in the darkness. I am ashamed to admit it now, but in that moment, the fear was too much to bear – it was impossible to run from the fear, but I tried. I ran as hard and as fast as I could, back to my own street and my own house.
But instead of turning to my own front door, for reasons I still don’t fully understand, I kept running. I passed my home and returned to the small house where I had first been introduced to followers of the rabbi Jesus. There was only one man inside the house, the man who had told us of Judas’ demise. He had a ruddy complexion and his tunic was dusted with flour. I could tell he had been at the millstone as he dusted his hands on the rag he had tied over his belt. I could smell stew in the air and I wondered if any of the others would have the stomach for an evening meal. He recognized my face, though I did not know his name, nor he mine. He appeared to be busying himself for the sake of being busy, perhaps in an effort to quiet his troubled mind. He appeared to be going about the preparation for the Sabbath day. My mind reeled, and I could tell this man understood my plight. He offered me some warm bread and wine, and I eagerly accepted. I wasn’t hungry in the slightest, but I thought perhaps the food would do me some good. Perhaps it would right my mind. I found a place on the floor by the fire and lounged in silence as the man went about his work, only stopping to wipe his tears or look out into the street. I assumed he was watching for the others or for approaching members of the Roman guard. I opened my mouth to offer help, and though my will was intact, the physical ability to stand had escaped me. He told me to rest, and I was grateful.
After I had my bread and wine, I felt the exhaustion of the day closing in on me. My eyes grew heavy and though I fought to stay awake, my body wouldn’t allow it and I fell asleep. I have no idea how long I laid there on the floor, for I have no idea what time it was when I arrived back at the house. Instead, I was startled awake the next morning by the sound of movement in the room. One man tiptoed toward the door and several others lay sleeping. The man who had startled me let the door close quietly behind him. I assumed he was taking a trip to the latrine and I knew I would not be far behind him. Not every man was there, but I did see Peter, who was leaning upright against a wall, as though sleep had come against his will as well.
As the sun rose on the Sabbath, so did the atmosphere of grief. Several of the men had watched as members of the Roman guard sealed Jesus’ tomb with a large rock. They shared that two men by the names of Nicodemus and Joseph had taken Jesus’ body off the cross and prepared the grave clothes with Myrrh and spices, and then carried him into the tomb. I could not help but think about his mother. I wondered if she had seen the tomb sealed and my heart broke for her. Having recently lost my own mother to sickness intensified my pain.
There was so much confusion in the house that day, about what had transpired and what to expect next, that I feared to question anyone. I could tell the men didn’t know what to do. Some discussed returning to their previous lives and picking up where they’d left off, not out of desire, but out of a lack of options. On the one hand, they seemed crushed that Jesus didn’t come down off the cross and assert himself as king, and on the other hand, they tried to remain faithful to the promises he had made them. They clung to their hope by a single strand of hair. It seemed evident to me that they had truly believed Jesus would conquer Jerusalem and become king. They had been committed to him, and now he was gone. His death also meant death to their way of life.
The morning gave way to afternoon on that silent Saturday, and I finally mustered the courage to ask Peter to tell me more about Jesus. He hesitated, still grief stricken and confused, but he began to share with me some of the things he’d seen and done since meeting the rabbi. As he spoke, some of the other men began to share as well. I listed to story after story and heard the men tell of miracle after miracle. Hours passed and I found myself so riveted by the accounts of Jesus that I mourned the loss of a relationship that could now never be.
An urgent knock came at the gate just as we were placing food on the table for the Sabbath supper. The men in the room tensed. I realized at once that we had let our guards down. Peter was the first to stand and Matthew after him. James drew a poker from the fire and with his action, I felt my heart move into my throat. “It is only Andrew!” Peter announced. Again, the relief in the room was palpable. How much more of this could I take? James ran to open the gate, still grasping the poker in his fist. Once inside, Andrew lowered the hood from his head and turned to the basin to clean his hands. “Where have you been, brother?” Peter threw his arms around Andrew, as though they had been parted for years.
“I snuck to the tomb, but there were guards in place!” Andrew answered. “The priests have gone so far as to have guards placed outside the tomb, imagine such a thing!” Peter looked from man to man. I couldn’t tell if he was full of hope, or fear.
As we sat to eat the evening meal of stew and bread, I thought of my family, eating their Sabbath meal without me, wondering where I must be. What must they think? Guilt threatened to consume me. But as Peter sat next to me, wiping tears from his eyes once again, my guilt melted away as he began to tell me about the Kingdom of God as he’d come to know it through Jesus’ teachings. And somehow, I knew I was exactly where I was supposed to be.
Saturday was both long and short at the same time. Spending the day with men who were mourning the loss of their closest friend and teacher was difficult; perhaps the most difficult part of the whole experience. I mourned him too, especially having seen it all unfold. But my familiarity with Jesus had been from a distance. I had never known him like these men. Still, what had happened to me in the courtyard, and then again on the road – those experiences were undeniable. Every time I started to doubt a story I heard from the men in the room, I could once again hear Jesus’ voice saying “I know you”. I told Peter I could not rationalize the things I’d heard. I could not make sense of it, no matter how hard I tried. He answered me by saying that Jesus had once told him “All things are possible for one who believes” and I marveled at his words.
As evening turned to night, the house grew quiet. Something about the darkness intensified the grief. Pain seems to become more acute at night. I should have gone to my own home, but I could not, and these men had now embraced me as one of their own. I felt a sense of purpose within this group unlike anything I’d ever felt before. It seemed as though simply being near them gave me something greater than myself to base my life around. I could not explain it. On this night, I was given a mat to sleep on in the upstairs room. Peter withdrew to an inner room by himself, feeling the need to be alone. But John sat and talked with me into the night. He asked me, had I met Jesus before this day, would I have followed him; would I want to be a fisher of men, and even though I had no idea what he meant, something compelled me to say yes.
At some point, both John and I fell asleep, sitting upright on my borrowed mat, leaning against the wall. When day broke on the dawn after the Sabbath, rest had restored my sense of responsibility and I knew I simply had to go home. I imagined my wife moving from neighbor to neighbor asking for help to find me. I pictured my sons visiting the home of the physician on the far side of the city, or visiting the prison. My heart ached and I longed to go to them. I chastised myself for being so captivated by this man Jesus that I would so easily neglect all that I held dear in my life, but at the same time, I could not deny that I felt no guilt or shame in my choice. My life had been forever changed by what I witnessed on that Friday, and by what I heard on that Sabbath Saturday – and now I found myself eager to discover what those things might mean for my Sunday. I could feel change deep in my heart – a form of excitement I couldn’t explain, as though something wonderful had happened. But, when I looked around, nothing had changed. It was both exhilarating and agonizing at the same time.
I rose as quietly as I could, hoping I might be able to sneak away without waking the others, but as the morning sun began to wash the room in light, through the only open window in the entire house, the others began to stir. I explained that I must go and tend to my family, and I thanked them all for their graciousness. I gave my word that I would return, and I embraced Peter as a brother. As I passed through the gate and onto the road home, I saw two women approaching. They were running and shouting, and raising their arms into the air. As they grew closer, even from a ways off, I could see that it was Mary, along with the mother of Jesus. I moved to the side of the road to let them pass. They were move so quickly, they didn’t even see me. What had happened?
I turned again toward home, and then stopped in my tracks, turning back to the house where the disciples of Jesus had stayed. I stopped behind a stone wall and listened from a distance while Mary told Peter and John that they had been to the tomb and that the stone was rolled back. They spoke of an earthquake, and an angel who had the appearance of lightning, and who told them to share the good news! The guards had become so afraid that they fainted straightaway. Then, Mary said something that struck me to my core, “We have seen the Messiah! He lives!” She shouted out the words. “We fell at his feet! We touched him!” Mary held up her slender hands as though to emphasize the physical nature of her experience. I don’t know why I kept myself hidden. I think it was because I felt somehow unworthy of these men. It doesn’t make sense to me now, but watching the scene unfold from behind the stone wall felt right to me at the time. Could it be? Could he really live? Had he risen? Reason pushed doubt into my mind, but something in my heart forced me to push back. Yes! He had risen! I believed!
Peter shouted and the others ran to hear his words, there was much rejoicing at the gate as Mary and the mother of the Jesus turned to lead the men toward the tomb, so they could see the sight with their own eyes. They ran, and as they passed me, crouched in my hiding place behind the small stone wall, I heard Mary say, “Galilee! He said to tell his brothers that he would meet them in Galilee!”
I gathered myself and as soon as they were out of sight, I ran as fast I could toward my home. I ran down the street and past the place where, just days prior, I had met Peter in the dust, past the place I had concealed him in the shadows, past the place my life had changed forever without me even knowing. I burst through the door of my home and found my wife pacing. She had a broom in her grasp, but she wasn’t at work. A look of worry was spread across her lovely face as she pulled her soft brown hair to one side. I was moved by my love for her and felt my eyes grow teary. When she turned to me, I could see a blend of relief and anger in her eyes, but I addressed neither. I grabbed her and pulled her close to me, kissing her a great many times. She began to laugh, and seemed to forget her anger.
“What has happened?” She asked breathlessly.
“I must go again! I must go to Galilee!” I told her. “Tell my sons to meet me there!” I shouted as I rushed back toward the door. My excitement and anticipation seemed to have renewed my youth.
“Galilee?” my wife asked as she followed me outside, clearly confused. “What is in Galilee that our sons should travel two days to meet you there?”
“The Messiah!” I answered.