Today, on October 29 (October 16 O.S.), the Orthodox Church invites us to celebrate the memory of an unusual saint who might have been the first Gentile to become a saint. Gentiles were people who did not belong to the Jewish faith and who worshiped pagan gods. He was a centurion of the Roman garrison based in Jerusalem during the rule of Pontius Pilate, the prefect of Judea in 26-36 AD. Unfortunately, we don’t know much about this saint.
Let’s imagine two Roman soldiers and their centurion who kept guard near a hill called Golgotha (lit. ‘skull’) on the Friday before the Jewish Passover. The shadows of three crosses with three blood-covered bodies pierced the cloudless sky. There were people—scornful or anxious, indifferent or crying—under the crosses. Did any one of them know that it was the most important event since the time of creation of the world and man—the re-creation and redemption that opened to us the road to the restoration of the lost harmony?
We can be certain that Roman guards were the most indifferent and bored of all the spectators. While Jews felt that this event was a part of their national history whether they liked it or not, Roman soldiers perceived executions as a monotonous routine. Moreover, they were “on duty” and couldn’t indulge in the “innocent entertainment” that they enjoyed while their governor judged Jesus, nicknamed the Messiah—a liar who called himself king. The exotic Oriental titles were amusing to them, so they had a lot of fun in the praetorium, playing “fake king” and throwing dice to find out who was going to be the next “king”. Remember a school game where one person turns away and covers his face with his hands, all the while others poke at him and then jump off, and he has to guess who punched him? The fact that this game was known and played by Roman soldiers stationed in Judea was proven by archaeological excavations. The battered and tattered “king” couldn’t have come at a better time. “Great!” one of the soldiers said. “Here is the king for the game! But first, let’s make him wear royal clothes!”
Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the common hall, and gathered unto him the whole band of soldiers. And they stripped him, and put on him a scarlet robe. And when they had platted a crown of thorns, they put it upon his head, and a reed in his right hand: and they bowed the knee before him, and mocked him, saying, Hail, King of the Jews! And they spit upon him, and took the reed, and smote him on the head. And after that they had mocked him, they took the robe off from him, and put his own raiment on him, and led him away to crucify him. (Matthew 27:27-31).
Now they had to stand under the scorching sun until late in the evening, and then kill the crucified men, take their bodies off their crosses because it is forbidden to leave them hanging on Passover, and throw them into a nameless pit for executed criminals. A boring, boring job.
All of a sudden, the anguished King of the Jews cried out, and yielded His spirit. People immediately felt that the earth shook and saw cracks in between the rocks. The whole world shook in sorrow. The sun hid its face, and mysterious darkness wrapped up the mountain. The air was stuffed as if a thunderstorm was about to begin. The soldiers were at a loss for words. The centurion took a long look into the face of the Crucified King, and exclaimed, “Truly He was the Son of God!” Something extraordinary must have led the rugged officer, for whom suffering, blood, and death were a common attribute of his job, to utter these words!
The Holy Tradition preserves the name of that centurion. His name was Longinus. When he became a Christian, he retired and lived in his father’s house. Pilate sent a report about the centurion to the Emperor Tiberius and received the emperor’s decree to execute the apostate. They beheaded Saint Longinus. A part of the
relics of the holy centurion is preserved in Saint Peter Cathedral in Vatican.
Translated by The Catalog of Good Deeds