I huddled in the dank corner of the dark cell.
The shouts of the crowd roared in my ears, freezing my heart with cold fear. It was a frenzied sound that made my skin crawl with something other than the filthy bugs that shared my cell.
I winced at the nastiness of the slimy muck that had long since filmed over the cold floor, as I pressed my palm down to aid in shifting my aching body to a slightly different position. The roaring crowd outside at least took my mind off my impending fate, momentarily, and placed it on another's.
Their cry was for blood- but not mine. I was a simple thief, and my death would be routine. Perhaps it was Barabbas' blood they screamed for. But I'd heard Barabbas had been pardoned- by the people themselves.
Crazy, I thought. To release a man like Barabbas was to smite one's self.
Who had taken his place? Who could be so vicious, so evil that Barabbas was the better of the two? I'd heard rumors, but they made no sense to me. Why would a people choose a madman over their own king?
But they were just rumors. Who knew the stature of the man passed over in favor of a murderer. His sins, I thought, must be great to warrant such radical movement from the same people who had condemned the killer Barabbas to death.
My own fear crept back in as I heard the heavy footsteps of the guards nearing my cell. I shifted again, pressing back into the corner, this time not noticing the filmy muck that smeared beneath my hands. Every nerve in my body tensed and focused on the sounds outside my cell. A loud clanking echoed through the small confinement and through my head as one of the guards unlocked the door and jerked it open.
I fought their hands as they tried to drag me out, though such resistance was useless. A sudden agonized scream exploded from me as I was struck hard across the back of my neck. My head swam and dizziness washed over me. The guards grabbed me beneath the arms with rough hands and half walked, half dragged me out of the cell and up the stone steps.
The roaring of the crowd exploded in my head. The guards dropped me on the ground and before I could move, a fierce weight was dropped on my back, driving me down closer to the earth. The smell of the ground was strong in my nostrils as it mingled with the odorous stench of animal droppings and the sweat of the frenzied crowd. I gasped for air and clawed at the dirt as I struggled to get my feet under me and lift this unbearable weight.
"Move!" The stinging tip of a soldier's leather whip lashed my hip, cutting my skin. Blood, like a serpent's flickering tongue, trickled down my thigh. "Get up!"
My jaw clenched. Pressure settled in my temples as I pressed hard against the ground with my palms and somehow stood to my feet. But the weight of the wooden cross hunched my form as I stumbled forward, piercing slivers burrowing deep into my back and shoulders like tiny insects.
A burning heat scorched my lungs. I sucked for air while my naked feet scuffed the surface of the hill that led up to my place of death. The place of a skull, it was called.
The soldiers threw me down on top of the cross they'd taken from my shoulders.
Fear cut through my heart as a centurion grabbed my right arm and stretched it out the length of the cross beam. He stomped his foot down on my wrist, pinning my hand while he picked up a large, steel spike and mallet.
Cold sweat dampened my face and stung my eyes as the tip of the spike pressed against the skin in the center of my palm. I gasped sharply and tried to pull my hand away, but the soldier's foot held it secure. I watched in horror as he raised the mallet and brought it down with amazing force.
The spike sank into my palm, crushing down through the small bones of my hand and nailing me to the cross. A hoarse scream tore free of my throat and my body writhed over the surface of the support beam. I was still screaming when a second spike pierced my left hand. I writhed harder, my hips jerking violently as spit foamed and clogged my throat, muffling my cries of agony. The centurions strapped my arms to the beam with ropes, pulling them tight until they cut into my skin.
Two soldiers I couldn't see, caught my flailing legs and pressed one foot on top of the other and jabbed a third spike hard against my skin. My chest and hips arched suddenly, fiercely as the spike broke a path down through the surface of one foot and then the other, sinking deep into the dogwood beam beneath my bottom sole.
My throat swelled till my screams were little more than choking gargles.
Through the dark haze of pain, I felt the cross rise off the ground and drop down hard into its slot, jolting my body and tearing from me a clear scream this time.
I watched the blurred crowd draw in closer to the three crosses. I didn't know who hung suspended beside me. The other man I'd met in prison- I didn't like him.
A score of women gathered at the foot of the cross beside me, weeping for the condemned soul. My head dropped down against my shoulder and I saw one of the women wrap her arms around the base of the support beam and press her face against the wood as her body shook with her grief. I wondered if she was the man's mother.
I raised my eyes to the dark sky and prayed for death to take me quickly. But I feared death as much as the pain that tormented me. What hell awaited me on the other side of that veil?
I turned my head and watched the stranger beside me. A sign had been nailed above his head; King of the Jews. The rumors had been true - they'd crucified their own king.
The people's shouts rose powerfully in the air as they slung curses and accusations at the man. He looked down at them, not with warranted anger and hate, but with an undue compassion I didn't understand.
His tormented face reflected a love that stung my eyes with tears, and I heard him plead softly, "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do."
The soldiers below us ripped his clothes to pieces, dividing them among themselves. And for a carefully stitched raiment, they cast lots to see who would possess it.
The people- whose king he was- stood watching him. And rulers gathered close, deriding him. "He saved others." One of them shouted harshly. "Let him save himself, if he be Christ, the chosen of God."
A roaring laughter rose from the soldiers who had crucified us three, and threw at him cruel mockings, thrusting up sponges of vinegar to quench his thirst. Then laughing harder when he turned away from their offering.
What has this man done? I wanted to scream. But I said nothing as pain swelled my throat; he had done nothing. Somehow I knew this.
"If you be the king of the Jews." One soldier shouted. "Save yourself."
I closed my eyes to the scene unfolding below me, but I couldn't close my ears. The pain in my body swelled and pulsed until I was sure I would lose consciousness. And as I teetered on that ledge of darkness, I heard another voice suddenly hurl curses at the man. A voice not from below, but across from me.
I opened my eyes slowly and with great effort, and stared through a bleary haze at the other thief. His agonized face was twisted with rage and hate.
"If you be Christ." He cried out viciously. "Save yourself and us. Get us down from here."
I trembled through my pain. "Do you not fear God, even now?" I rasped thickly, seizing his watery eyes. "Seeing you are in the same condemnation? We, indeed, have been justly condemned and receive the due rewards of our deeds. But this man has done nothing wrong. Nothing!"
My chest heaved and tears swelled in my aching throat as I looked to the King of the Jews, rejected and tormented by his own people, and met his eyes. If there had been any doubt in my mind that this man was the son of God- it left me in that instant.
"Lord." My voice choked uncertainly. "Remember me when you come into your kingdom."
He looked at me through his anguish, and I saw his love- not for me alone, but for all those who had beaten him, accused him, cursed him . . rejected him. And for all those who would do the same in times to come.
Somehow, though pain twisted his body, a smile touched his lips, caked with his own blood. Such precious blood, I realized.
"I say to you." He promised softly. "Today you will be with me . . in paradise."
The pain in my body didn't fade, yet the anguish in my soul had been erased by his words. And though my body swelled and pulsed with the agony of my punishment, it was still too small a price to be allowed the assurance of those words.
And to die- beside the Christ.
~ The End ~
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