Anthrocide is the official website for D.L. Hamilton, author of several Christian novels and essays.

Archive for April, 2020

The Guard

Of course, I am actually here to learn what you have to say. But knowing how the government views this “sect” to which you belong, I understand your caution and your wish to hear my story first.

Let me begin by saying that ever since I was a child my desire was to be a warrior for Rome. I watched with envy as the legions would march through the city, shields and helmets gleaming in the sun. As soon as I was old enough, I fulfilled my dream by becoming a soldier in the Roman army. I served for many years, fought in several battles, and believed that our cohort was held in high esteem by our commanding officers. But that belief was called into question when we were assigned to the worst post in all the Roman Empire: Judea. I and all my comrades wondered what we had done wrong to be assigned to such wretched duty. The terrain is hot and dry and the cities plain and primitive. But the worst part is the people. Everywhere else I have served throughout the Empire—Macedonia, Gaul, even Egypt—soldiers of the Legions are treated with honor and respect. Some are even grateful for Rome’s presence in bringing order and civility in place of chaos and lawlessness. But in Judea, we were regarded only with hostility, resentment, suspicion, and contempt. Where those in other places would bow to us in deference as we marched through their cities, the Jews would sneer and spit on the ground. They even considered any of their own people who served Rome as traitors. They had a strange religion in which they worshiped an invisible God who told them He was the only true God and that they alone were his favored people. They believed that they were superior to all other people on earth—and yet, here they were, occupied by the might of Rome. In their misguided arrogance, they refused to eat, converse, or interact with outsiders—whom they called Gentiles—except where they could make money off us. And for a nation who claimed that their God considered greed to be evil, they were as greedy a people as I have encountered anywhere. I was stationed at the garrison in Jerusalem, their capital, and I truly hated every moment I spent there. But, as a soldier, my duty was to serve Rome wherever they sent me, and thus I did so to the best of my ability. Shortly after we arrived, some of those who were already there showed us where we could purchase strong drink and willing women, and so I tried to make the best of it.

It was in the early spring, when I had been there only a few months that the Jews held some sort of religious festival. Something to do with commemorating their being freed from slavery in Egypt when their God killed off all of the Egyptians’ first-born. They called it Passover, but even after someone explained it to me it still made little sense. Anyway, thousands of pilgrims flocked to Jerusalem for the celebration. Then, at the beginning of their most holy week, a huge throng ran outside the city to cheer and pay homage to a holy man they called their savior or Christ: one Jesus from a tiny Galilean village called Nazareth. A squad of us soldiers was sent to monitor the crowd, but they did not become unruly, so we took no action. As for this Jesus, riding into the city on a young donkey, He seemed ordinary enough to me.

My next encounter with Him was the following day when we were sent to quell a riot at their temple. By the time we arrived it was all over. Questioning those who had been there, we learned that this Jesus had chased the merchants and moneychangers out of the temple, tipping over their tables and sending their coins flying. Apparently, He must have been a man of considerable bearing to separate these greedy men from their money. Ha! It did my heart good to watch them crawling around the temple grounds in a panic trying to collect up as many spilled coins as they could grasp.

I began to inquire around to see if I could discover who this Jesus fellow was. Never have I heard such conflicting answers to such a simple question! Some said He was just one of their teachers with very different and dangerous ideas. Others said he was a prophet of their God. Still others said He was a great commander who would rally their people to throw off their oppressors. I was quite aware that by this they meant Rome. I even found a Jewish priest standing in front of his house and asked him about this Nazarene. At the mention of His name, the priest spat on the ground and accused Him of being a deceiver who was trying to acquire a following and usurp the religious leaders’ authority. Yet there were also people who claimed that the Nazarene was a miracle worker who could calm storms at His command, heal the sick, turn water to wine, and even raise the dead back to life. Eventually I decided that, whoever He was, it was of no consequence to me (although having water turned into wine was pretty appealing for a soldier. Ha!). And so, I just shrugged it off.

Then, early in the morning before the most holy day of their festival, word circulated around the barracks that this Jesus was on trial before the governor, Pilate, but that he could not find any crime that Jesus had committed and was going to have him flogged and released. Later, our commander ordered a squad of soldiers to crucifixion duty. Three criminals were to be executed, including Jesus of Nazareth. As I got the story, the Jewish priests had incited a shouting mob to insist that He be crucified and, not wanting to foment further unrest, Pilate relented. Fortunately, I was not assigned to the execution squad. It is a most distasteful duty. One nails the criminals to crosses and then has to wait around hour-after-hour, day-after-day for them to slowly die. Anyway, at that point I thought I had heard the last of this mysterious Nazarene.

However, that night my commander assembled a group of us and assigned us the most peculiar duty I had ever heard of. We were to go and guard a tomb. Now, I have been posted as guard over many things over the years, but never a tomb. We all wondered why, but a soldier’s job is to obey orders, not to question them. Eventually we were told simply that it was the crucified Nazarene who had died and was buried in the tomb, and that, for the next three days, we must not allow anyone to steal His body. Why anyone would do so, or why it would matter if they did, was never made clear to us. The tomb in question was located in a garden next to where the crucifixions occurred and belonged to a rich Jewish Council member named Joseph.

We were split into two four-man squads. My squad took the first watch, from dusk till dawn and the second squad would relieve us throughout the daylight hours. The entrance to the tomb was covered with a huge stone that would require at least three strong men to open, so there was no chance that some individual thief would sneak past us and remove the body unnoticed. Furthermore, we were instructed to place a cord across the stone and the tomb and fasten the Roman seal on each end so that any attempt to move the stone would be obvious by the broken seal.

We stationed ourselves not more than ten paces from the tomb entrance and there we sat and waited. Guard duty is often boring in the best of circumstances, but this, guarding a tomb, was excruciatingly so. It was only later that we found out that, because it was the day the Jews call their Sabbath, there was no chance of anyone coming near the tomb that first night and day anyway. To do so would have been expressly forbidden by their religion. At dawn our relief squad came, and we went to the barracks for some sleep. Eventually our turn came again and with each passing hour the foolishness of what we were doing became more and more irritating to me. To pass the time we cleared a small patch of ground for casting lots and endured the boredom by either gambling or just sitting back and swapping lies about our skill as swordsmen, the battles we had fought, and the women we had conquered.

As the merest hint of the light of dawn was appearing on the first day of the week, I remember vividly the relief I felt that, finally, this ridiculous assignment was nearly over for us. In fact, I was just about to say something to my comrades about that when it happened.

First, there was this sensation; it is quite difficult to describe. My senses—vision, hearing, touch—were suddenly heightened far beyond their normal capacities. It was as if I could almost see, hear, and touch the air around me itself. Then, an instant later, the ground shook. I had been in an earthquake once before, but this one was far more intense. I was perplexed that, although it knocked all four of us off our feet, none of the nearby buildings were affected by it at all. Before I had the chance to even think about what that might mean, there came a blinding light directly from the front of the tomb. It was nearly as bright as the sun, but whiter somehow. I looked at my companions and all of them stared at the light with the same expression of shock and astonishment that I wore. I looked back at the light and, as my eyes adjusted to it, I could see that it was not just a light, but a man, or at least the form of a man. The being, whatever it was, did not stand on the ground but hovered above it. Then the creature made the slightest gesture of his hand and the stone, that massive boulder that sealed the tomb, rolled away from the entrance by itself! As if that were not enough, the being of light then floated upward and sat upon the stone.

Now, I am no coward. As a soldier I have faced death on many occasions and somehow always had this feeling of invincibility. Even beneath that, I felt that if I were somehow not invincible and were to lose my life in service to my commander and to Rome, well, so be it. That was a soldier’s duty. And yet, this phenomenon I witnessed terrified me. Instead of behaving like a brave warrior, my knees shook and my heart melted like those of a little girl lost in the dark woods that snivels and whimpers for her mother.

And then appeared yet another creature of light. This one entered the tomb and, in the light that it radiated, I could see what appeared to be the dead Nazarene standing and conversing with the creature. It was then that my soldier’s instincts took over. Someone had just entered the tomb that we were there to guard. Our orders were to see that no one took the body, and by the gods, I would follow those orders! Two of my companions in front of me were on their knees, but I stood up and grabbed the hilt of my sword. To my utter dismay, I could not pull it from its scabbard, no matter how hard I tried. I even used both hands and nearly tore the leather girdle from my waist trying to unsheathe it, but to no avail. I looked at Justinian, my closest comrade to my right, and he was struggling in the exact same manner, unable to get his sword out. Then, silhouetted against the glow of the being of light, I watched as Jesus of Nazareth, his burial shroud around him like a cloak, walked out of the tomb toward us. At this my shaking knees gave way and I fell facedown. I covered my head with my arms and hands and felt myself lapse into unconsciousness.

When I came-to, the man-like creatures of light were nowhere to be seen. The sky had become no lighter, so I surmised that I had been out only a minute or two. As I got to my feet, I saw that my companions were also coming-to and I roused them to come with me to inspect the open tomb. When we looked inside, the body was missing. Only the strips of linen used to wrap the body were laying neatly arranged on the ledge along with the folded cloth that had covered the corpse’s head. The air still held that strange sensation as if the creatures of light might still be nearby.

“What is this?” asked a pale, panicked Justinian. “What did we just see? And where is the body?”

I answered, “I saw two man-like creatures made of light, one of whom rolled the stone away without touching it and the other helped the dead man, the Nazarene, to his feet. Is that what you all saw?” My question was answered with wide-eyed nods all around. “I also saw the Nazarene walk out of the tomb before I blacked out,” I added.

“What are we to do?” asked Justinian. “We were here specifically to see that the body was not removed. We have failed in our duty; a crime that will mean our deaths. And what explanation have we to offer? That some strange creatures made of blinding light made us faint like dead men while the body got up and walked away? The only thing that would keep the commander from killing us instantly will be his laughter at such a bizarre tale. Even I do not believe it, and I witnessed it! What can we do? Our relief squad will be here any minute.”

“It must be something to do with these Jews’ religion,” I said. “This Nazarene was proclaimed by many to be a holy man of their God. I know where one of their priests lives. Let us go there and see if he might have some explanation for this. It is our only hope.”

As we started to leave the garden, a group of women was coming with spices, apparently to complete the job of embalming the body of Jesus. A body that was now alive!

“They are headed to the tomb,” said Justinian. “Should we stop them?”

“Why?” I responded. “We were to prevent anyone from stealing the body but, as we know, the body is no longer there to be stolen.”

The moment we left the garden, that feeling of heightened senses ceased. We hurried to the house where I had spoken to the priest a few days earlier and pounded on his door.

“What is this?” he asked as he answered the door. “Have I done something wrong?”

“No,” I said, “but we have seen something that is beyond strange and want to know if you can explain it to us.” He did not invite us in, but there in his courtyard we told him our fantastic tale.

He listened with ever-widening eyes and when we had finished, he instructed us to remain where we were and to speak to no one until he returned. In his nightclothes with only a blanket wrapped around him, he headed off down the street in the early dawn. Before long he returned with several other of the chief priests and, shortly afterward we were joined by the High Priest himself, one Caiaphas. We then told our tale again, and one of the priests was sent off in a rush. They asked us questions until that man returned with a bag heavy with gold coins. They doled out an even share of the coins to each of us and told us to claim that the body of Jesus was stolen while we slept. They assured us they would fix it with Governor Pilate so that we would not get into any trouble. I started to ask how we could claim something happened while we slept, since if we were asleep, we could not know what happened, but given our situation I decided it was best left unsaid.

We went back to the barracks and later that day our commanding officer had us accompany him to see Governor Pilate. I honestly believed we were being taken for execution. However, instead Pilate asked each of us what our plans were once we returned to civilian life. I told him that my father had a farm and, as he was aging, I planned to take it over for him. My comrades all had similar stories. Pilate seemed pleased at that and then handed each of us what appeared to be a hastily drafted letter thanking us for our service to Rome, discharging us from the army, and wishing us good fortune as civilians.

He then said, “I believe the Jewish High Priest has provided you a considerable sum of money, a small portion of which should buy your passage to your respective homes.” He then had our commander take our swords and armor and sent us with two soldiers to the coast to board a ship for Rome. I returned to my father’s farm, married and had children, and live there to this day on the outskirts of this city where I now sit speaking to you.

I never mentioned my experience in Jerusalem to anyone and had put the entire incident out of my mind until a few weeks ago. My wife mentioned that an acquaintance told her of a religious sect that met in secret and worshiped one called Christ. Upon hearing that name I told her the tale I now tell you. We sought more information from her friend and that eventually led to my sitting here, in this home before you this very evening.

That then, is my story. So now it is your turn. Can one of you tell me who this Christ, this Jesus of Nazareth is, and what it means… to me?

A Short Circuit 

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