What really happened on that first "Third Day"? One man knows, but...
It was a sad time in the home of General Flavius Augustus. The old man, sick for years from consumption was nearly dead. His family and friends had visited his bedside repeatedly. It was heart wrenching to see this good man suffer. His time was near, and a pall seemed to settle over the household-more out of respect for Flavius and the life he had so gallantly lived.
Now, broken with sickness and fever, the old man was nearly finished with this life, and would shortly be joining the Gods for the next life. Refusing to eat, Flavius would accept only sips of water from his servant.
Merlinus had been with Flavius from the very beginning, it seemed. He would surely be lost without his master. What would become of him? It was true enough. He got his freedom some years earlier, paid in full by his kind master. Then, what would he have done with himself? For nearly forty of his sixty years, Merlinus had served every need of this good man. Merlinus had saved Flavius that time not far from Jerusalem. Had he not discovered the hiding place of his master, Flavius would surely have perished that very day! In the true st of Roman tradition, a life saved is a life owed.
Besides, they had grown "comfortable" with one another after all these years. Merlinus could tell the thoughts of this man by the way he walked! He had served with him in battle for almost twenty of his years. He knew the truth of the legends regarding Flavius' widespread reputation as a fierce warrior. As a leader of men, there was no equal. Heroes were not common in those days, yet Flavius persistently refused the title, with anger. He was a kind, gentle, and good man who would help a friend in any difficulty.
Flavius Augustus was a man with secrets. He would suddenly explode in anger whenever anyone tried to thank him or extol his goodness! He hated public recognition. Merlinus had seen this terrible wrath before. While not fearing his master, Merlinus never provoked him either. Somehow, it just worked out. Their partnership had endured over 40 years. Somewhere in that time that neither could point to, they had become friends.
It was a sad day in the home of Flavius Augustus. And no one was more heart-broken than the faithful servant, Merlinus.
Just after time for the mid-day meal, Merlinus checked on his master. Flavius was sitting up in his bed, his eyes wide. Fear so shone from his countenance as to be palpable. The master looked into the face of his servant with the look of a wild man cornered by a raging lion.
"Clear the room, Merlinus! Make them all leave me, but thee! Make them go!"
"Yes, Master. It is well. I am here. I will make them leave. Fear not!"
"General Flavius Augustus desires privacy, my friends. Please leave now, and give him his rest. The fever is upon him, and I fear he will over-exert himself if we do not as he asks. Please, leave us now."
As he escorted the few visitors from the room, Merlinus tried to asuage their fears with only his tender voice of calm assurance. "It is only the brain fever, I am certain. He is a very sick man, you know. Be well. I will tell you when he is willing to see you again. Be well. Shush, child. All is well. I'm sure he only needs rest. Be well!"
Smiling, Merlinus gently escorted the mourners into the courtyard. He returned as quickly as he could to the side of his master, and his friend.
"Are they gone?", Flavius inquired with great animation when his servant returned to his side.
"Yes, Flavius. We are alone, I assure you my friend."
Flavius visibly relaxed, gushing his creaking breath into a fit of coughing, his chest rattling. His face turned almost the color of a beet as he fought, struggling to catch his breath. He lay back into his bed, as Merlinus wiped spittle from his chin.
Gently, Merlinus took a cool cloth, wrung the water from it, and wiped his master's face. Closing his eyes, Flavius accepted the ministrations of his servant calmly. Turning to wet the cloth again, Merlinus was suddenly aware of a very strong hand encircling his wrist.
"Do not leave me, Merlinus! Sit with me a while. Please?"
"I am here, master. I will not leave you."
Drawing a chair to the bedside, Merlinus did something that was cause for his death. He sat, in the presence of his master.
These were two old men, friends together for a few more moments. Then, one would be dead, and the other might as well be. He would be lost. Merlinus was suddenly very tired.
For a few moments, it seemed as though Flavius was asleep, dreaming. He would occasionally mutter some nonsense through his sleep. Whatever the vision was, Merlinus suspected it was not pleasant.
"We are a pair, aren't we, Merlinus?" The question came from the dying man, who was looking calmly at his friend. His eyes gleamed. Had it been a different place or time, Merlinus would have expected his master to rise to battle!
"Oh, indeed we are, Flavius, indeed we are."
"I'm dying, you know."
"Yes, master. I know."
"Perhaps now, I will find rest with the Gods, and those evil Jews will stop hounding me!"
Merlinus had been with this man his entire adult life. No one had hounded Flavius Augustus! This he knew. This was the legendary General of the Roman Legion. The Caesars had sought his counsel. There was nothing for which Flavius lacked. He was even a welcome guest in the Senate!
Looking quizzically at his master, the expression on the face of the servant spoke volumes.
"Ah, my good friend Merlinus. You think that you know all there is to know about me, don't you?" Flavius' eyes were dancing, his smile appearing once again on his fever-ridden face. The wrinkles on his furrowed brow were from a smile now, instead of the pain.
"Well, my friend. There is one thing you do not know of me."
"There is much of you that I do not know, Flavius. You have withheld much in your life. The burden of your secrets has aged you well."
"Yes, friend. That is very true . Yet, there is one thing that you must know before I take my leave of you. But you must swear to me, on your name, that you will tell no one--ever--of it!"
"Flavius Augustus! After forty years, I need say nothing of the kind to you. You know this." Merlinus was calm, looking at Flavius as one friend to another.
"You have been the best, kindest, and bravest soul I have ever known, Flavius."
"Brave? Brave! Me? Ha!" Flavius expelled the words as if they were poison.
"Yes, Merlinus. I have been brave. I have been the bravest coward Rome has ever known!"
"Calm yourself, Flavius! You are talking like a man possessed!" Merlinus' features took on a look of concern, and doubt. What was his friend referring to, in this fevered state? He surely must be out of his mind.
"I have been a coward, a liar, and a thief, Merlinus. My honor is but vapor. I have hidden myself among the foxes for most of my life. I am an enemy of the State, and a traitor to my people!"
"Flavius, what is this that you speak? To me, who knows you best? This cannot be!"
"Do not be angry with me, my friend. I speak only that which is true . But, you have given me your pledge, and I cannot find rest with this on my heart. So I will tell you what only I have known for nearly forty years. You will hear me, and speak of this to no one! Do you give me your word, Merlinus?"
"Yes, master. I give you my word, upon my life."
"We have seen much in our lifetime, Merlinus. But, there was a time when we were apart. Do you remember?"
"Of course, Flavius. There was only one time we were ever apart. Jerusalem."
"Yes, that is it, Merlinus. Jerusalem."
"I well remember, for it was nearly a week before I found you, in the wilderness. We struggled together for over a month bringing you back to health. I remember it well. How glad I was to have found you, Master."
"And, how glad I was to have been found by you, my friend. Had I been discovered by anyone else, I would surely have been killed in the Coliseum!"
Flavius Augustus looked into the face of his friend and servant, with a look of peace.
"Killed, Flavius? How so?"
"I was there, you know."
Flavius looked upwards, to the ceiling of his bedchamber. He was suddenly lost in his memories. Merlinus simply waited. He knew when his master was feeling the need to speak.
"Those Jews, Merlinus! They have hounded my peace, my sleep, and my patience for these many years! Well, now they will hunt me no longer!"
"I was on the detail to watch the grave, you know." Flavius looked to his servant for a sign of recognition. Merlinus merely nodded his head, looking downward, concentrating on the memory of those days.
"We had come to Jerusalem to control the crowds for that celebration they were having, what was it called?"
"Passover, Flavius. They called it the Feast of the Passover." Merlinus spoke quietly. His master had never once questioned his knowledge of such things. Had he inquired, his servant would have been torn limb from limb. His body parts would have been scattered to feed the Vultures in the desert.
"Yes, that's it exactly! Passover! I was but a young soldier then, not even a Sergeant. Ha! Oh, those innocent days of youth, Merlinus."
Merlinus had no idea where this tale would go, but he knew that his master was suddenly on very dangerous ground. Death has no secrets. Dying, on the other hand, has secrets sufficient for eternity. If Flavius Augustus asked, he would tell. But not unless, and until his master demanded to know. His life depended upon it. Even now, only one word from General Flavius Augustus, and Merlinus would die. He never let this knowledge be far from his mind.
"Oh, we drank, and we ate, and we had prostitutes on that Friday, Merlinus! Some were trying to forget the strange happenings on that day, but I was condemned to remember them for all of my life. Oh, how have I so offended the Gods, Merlinus? How?"
"I do not know, Flavius. Have you offended the Gods? I don't think so honorable a man as you could offend the Gods, not really."
"We woke late on Saturday, past mid-day. I was still drunk from the festivities and thirsty for more! Then that blaspheming Centurion called upon my group for duty! Of all the soldiers in the Legion, why me? I was so very drunk, I could barely stand up! If not but for the Gods, that day would never have happened!"
Merlinus looked softly into the eyes of his friend. "Perhaps, Flavius. Perhaps."
"But, no! We twelve were to stand guard! We were to stand guard over a rock, Merlinus, a stone! Until noon on Sunday, we were to stand and watch a stone!"
"Merlinus, you know the penalty for sleeping on duty is death. Imagine cowardice in the face of the enemy! And, my enemy was nothing but a rock! Drunk, thirsty, and sore, I only wanted to have more of the Feast! But, I had to watch a stone!"
The anger in his voice caused Merlinus great distress. Suddenly, he knew well of what his master spoke. The garden, Gethsemane, and the Cross. He was suddenly very afraid. Merlinus did not wish to remember, much less talk of this with his master, not now. Not ever.
"And, those Jews! Their 'soldiers' were not about to forget about the Passover! They had brought wine, Merlinus. Skins, and more skins of wine were brought by them, and to them, until the early hours of our watch on Sunday morning. With each arrival of new skins, the old wineskins would be collected and removed. We were guarding a stone! So, we drank with them. We talked with them. And, Merlinus, when they slept, we slept.
"Yes, I know. Death was the penalty, Merlinus. But I was a young man, full of wine. And, besides, you only get killed if you get caught!"
There was a twinkle now in the eye of Flavius Augustus. He was smiling wanly to his friend, who had the look of utter terror upon his face.
"Just before sunrise on that Sunday morning, Merlinus, I arose from my slumber. I alone was awake, as all the others...the Jews, and my fellow soldiers slept. I had to relieve myself. I went away a few paces, into the grove and knelt down behind some bushes to relieve myself. And that's when it happened."
"But, what happened, Flavius Augustus?" Merlinus was beginning to sweat, his fear and anguish clearly visible on his face. Flavius looked into the face of his friend, with a countenance as calm as the face of an Angel.
"I was squatting down in the brush, relieving myself, Merlinus. I had chosen a place that was somewhat obscured from the others. There was a donkey between me and the rest of my fellows, you see. I considered this a good omen. Privacy given my bare ass by another Jackass!"
Flavius broke out in full laughter, which turned instantly into a fit of consumptive coughing, bringing blood through his lips. Merlinus immediately jumped up, and wiped the face of his master, so that Flavius might not see the dark, foamy redness. Everyone knew that this was a sign of imminent death. Merlinus did not want his master to be afraid, not now.
After a few moments, Flavius had regained his breath, and Merlinus was standing beside him, his hand upon his master's wrist. Looking into his friend's face, Merlinus knew his master's time was near.
Breathing in rasping gasps, Flavius Augustus' face was turning the color of light ash.
"The stone, Merlinus. It began to move. There was no one near it. The Jews were in a drunken stupor, just the same as I had been. I stood, and moved away from the bushes, and the stone was rolling to the side of the grave without assistance, Merlinus! There was a light, shining from within the grave, I tell you. And, then, the stone stopped rolling! The light grew brighter and brighter, Merlinus. It was brighter than the noonday sun! Had the sun been shining that moment, it would have paled to this light, I swear it! I did not know what to do, Merlinus."
"Master, tell me the rest of it now. I must know." Merlinus' voice had an edge of desperation.
"There appeared a man from within that grave, Merlinus. A man, dressed in white! He was the same man they had hung on the Cross! I saw him! He came out of that tomb, and walked! I was terrified, Merlinus! Crying in fear, I ran. And, I kept running. I did not know where to go, or how I would ever explain my absence from my post. I did not care, Merlinus! I declare it! I did not care!"
"You saw him, Flavius? You saw Jesus?" Merlinus now looked in awe at his friend.
"Yes, if that be his name. I saw him come from that tomb as fully alive as you or I. I declare it! I saw him! There was light all about him, and I could have sworn I heard singing! I know you think me crazy from fever, Merlinus. But, I swear to you, Merlinus. This is not the raving of a lunatic, nor the vision of a drunken soldier! It is the truth! I, Flavius Augustus, declare it!"
"There, there, my friend, calm down. It is all right, now. Calm yourself!" Merlinus took the cloth, and again mopped the brow of his friend. Therefore, there had been a witness! Merlinus was shaking, but not from fear. He was shaking from gratitude. His Lord HAD risen, just as they said. It was true . It was all true !!
Looking down upon his friend, Merlinus took the hand of Flavius Augustus in his own, and began to pray silently to his Lord. He looked again into the eyes of his friend, and master, and knew that life had left him. Flavius was dead.
General Flavius Augustus would never know. It was Merlinus himself who told the Roman Commander that his friend was ill in Jerusalem that day. Had he not testified upon Flavius' own name, Flavius would have been hunted down and killed as a traitor to the Empire. Flavius would never know that the other soldiers had fled, fearing their lives for having slept while on guard. Flavius had never been the missing soldier. He had been the only soldier accounted for. Merlinus had been his friend for over forty years, and had never known the secret haunting this bravest of men. Now he would place his master--his friend--upon a funeral pyre, as one final act of fidelity.
"Receive thou, O Lord Jesus, thy servant Flavius Augustus into Thy tender care. Amen."
Merlinus arranged the body of his friend, and went outside to announce the death of the hero of the Roman Empire, General Flavius Augustus.