The King's Crown
He watched them cast the dice again. Centurion Favonius was guffawing obnoxiously loud for rolling a four, which was not all that funny. Probably drunk. Perhaps that was the wiser course of action for today’s activities. Favonius doubled over in wheezing laughter as he lost a beautiful scarlet homespun tunic to the new Tribune, Marcellus Gallio, the son of the renowned Senator in the Republic under Tiberius. Even the young Tribune looked unusually grave, his azure eyes blank as his Greek slave gathered up the soft cloth in his rough hands. His mind was either in some other place, or desperately trying to be elsewhere.
This must have been his first crucifixion as well.
Centurion Aetius Aurelius glanced up over the short ledge. The voice was so weak that he had barely heard it over the whistling, churning wind. It had come from the center of the three crosses perched in the cold sand, the one with the sobbing women collected at His feet and the boy with the wise eyes. The insurgent called Jesus.
“Ignore them, Aetius,” Centurion Celsus slurred, gesturing flamboyantly with his sixth cup of the bitter Palestinian wine. “They will all be whimpering for their mothers by the end! It is always that way.”
Aetius frowned. “Do they all sound so resigned as He?”
Celsus shrugged, focusing once more on his intoxicating drink. Aetius looked up once more at the cross. The woman closest to Jesus touched His bloodied feet, gazing up into His face.
What did she see?
His sandaled feet felt leaden as he dragged them beneath him, slowly rounding the the scene of termination to the foot of the cross.
The Man had been beaten beyond recognition of His humanity. He hung by the rough iron nails protruding from His wrists and ankles a creature of repulsion, His skin torn and bruised to unnatural colors. Blood matted His dark hair as it dripped from the woven band of thorns encircling His brow.
Aetius knew it to cause intense pain.
His hands was still bandaged from the moment when he had pressed it into this Jesus’ head nearly nine hours earlier.
‘Behold,’ the inscription nailed above Him read, penned by Pontius Pilate himself. ‘The King of the Jews’.
There was little in this depleted corpse that reflected the King He had allegedly claimed to be.
The Palestinian, the one the zealots, women, and children alike called the Messiah, gazed over all with pained and sorrowful eyes that Aetius could see all too well. The sobbing women, the boy holding the veiled mourner holding His feet, the bystanders watching Him and the criminals crucified at either side. Then His eyes rested upon the Roman Centurion standing before Him and to the side. Aetius caught his breath, turning to look away from the dying Man.
He could not. This Jesus held his gaze with the most intrepid stare, His dark eyes brimming with sadness, pain, and more. Love? Pity?
“Father,” He breathed again. “Forgive them. They know not what they do.”
The words, soft and weak and nearly drowned by the shrieking wind, pierced through Aetius’ well-trained guard as a physical blow. He stumbled backwards over his own feet, gasping for trembling breaths.
Forgive them? They had crucified Him, subjecting Him to the most brutal and humiliating form of punishment the Roman presence in Palestine had the power to exact. Forgive them? Had He forgotten the hours of cruel beating and mocking within the walls of Pontius Pilate’s courtyard He had silently suffered before carrying the heavy cross all along the road to Golgotha? Where was the anger? Where were the curses upon the Romans and all their descendants? Where were the promises of revenge from the afterlife?
These were not the words of a king.
Not one of the world.
“He saved others,”
Aetius silenced his breath, listening intently. Those bystanders who cared to stay had known the Man before he had. Had they expected forgiveness? Was this the criminal that Rome had condemned to the death of a traitor?
“Let Him save Himself, if He is the Christ of God.”
“His Chosen One!”
The Roman clenched his fists, his eyes fixing upon the Man on the cross who thought only of mercy for those who had killed Him.
Save Yourself! Prove Yourself the King they say you are.
Aetius stiffened, watching as Celsus climbed over the ledge, swaying with drunkenness. He giggled nonsensically, waving his spear at the dying Man’s face. The younger Centurion fought the building urge to throttle the more experienced soldier, to silence him.
“If You are the...King of the Jews,” he continued, giggling and swinging his cup, now full of the vinegar the soldiers used to clean their cups when they were finished. He shoved it upwards in offering. “Save Yourself.”
Jesus only gazed at him with eyes deeper than the ocean Aetius had crossed from Rome. Aetius clamped a hand around Celsus’ wrist and lowered the spear, pinning him with a stern glare.
“Shut up, Celsus. You are drunk. Leave Him be.”
The Centurion rolled his eyes with another spasm of giggles and dropped back onto the ledge. Aetius swallowed.
This is your duty. Leave Him.
He turned away from the cross.
“Are you not the Christ?” barked the criminal hanging on his left as soon as the soldier’s back was turned. Aetius stopped. “Save yourself and us!”
“Do you not fear God?” sobbed the man on the right, his chin resting on his bare, bony chest. Tears coursed down his dirtied cheeks. “You are under the same sentence of condemnation as He! And we were accused justly, for we are receiving the due reward for our crimes. But He,” His eyes swung to the crucified between them as Aetius turned once again to look. “This Man has done no wrong. He is innocent.”
Aetius felt the muscles in his arms tighten and his stomach churned. Had Roman law truly stooped so low as to condemn innocent men, even Palestinians?
And it had been himself to punish this innocent Man through a crown of thorns.
“Jesus,” the criminal started again, his voice low and catching on barely suppressed sobs. “Remember me...when You come into Your kingdom.”
The slightest smile touched Jesus’ mouth.
“Truly, I say to you,” He sighed through bleeding lips. Aetius moved closer to hear. “Today, you will be with Me in paradise.”
He was in a daze. The Man must be mad to continue a charade so involved as posing as the King of the Jews, the Messiah, even unto death. But there was no wildness in His eyes.
He must be mad, or telling the truth.
The wind picked up. Aetius’ cloak writhed wildly against his shoulders. The women at the feet of Jesus paid no mind to their snapping clothes, looking only up at His face. There was a ripple of unrest through the crowd of bystanders and Aetius glanced around him. The sky had darkened to a near pitch black.
This was not normal.
Jesus’ chest heaved for painful breaths, gasping against the wind. The woman at His feet sobbed all the louder. Aetius cut through the crowd of women and touched the boy’s shoulder. The Jew looked at him listlessly, tears in his young eyes.
“Help me,” the Roman breathed, gesturing to the woman. Slowly, the boy nodded, bending to the woman.
“Mary,” he whispered, gently taking her arm. She looked up at him quickly, standing and looking back at the man. Aetius moved to back them farther from the dying man, but Jesus spoke again.
“Woman, behold your son.”
Mary froze, her eyes skipping to the boy beside her. The disciple’s gaze was fixed on his master. Aetius frowned as Jesus continued.
“John, behold your mother.”
Seemingly involuntarily, John’s arm surrounded Mary and she let him draw her near, holding her, protecting her. Aetius watched the interaction with mounting confusion and turmoil. What bad could come from a Man who brought families together? Who forgave even His murderers from the very cross on which He hung?
But what sort of king would do such a thing?
What had they called Him? The Messiah. The Chosen One.
What had He called Himself?
The Son of God.
“Father!” the Man cried, his voice rising clear and powerful as if it had command over even the wind. “Into Your hands, I commend My spirit!” The wind died. Aetius felt the change, but took no notice of it, his eyes fixated on this one who claimed to be the Son of the Jew’s God. The one the wind obeyed. Slowly, Jesus relaxed, hanging limply from the nails piercing His hands. “It is finished.”
Aetius watched the final sigh, alone and followed by no other. He felt the woman Mary and boy John collapse beneath his hand, sobbing and holding each other. He heard the chaos from below in the town, picking out the Aramaic screams of “The curtain! The Temple curtain is torn!”.
He had murdered this Man. This spotless Man. This...holy victim.
He had killed the King of the Jews.
“Truly,” he heard himself whisper, unaware of the words turning over in his mind. “This Man was innocent.”
John looked up at him, his face stained with desperate tears. Aetius met his young eyes, seeing sorrow and fear, but also faith. Despite everything, the Roman found himself envious of this boy with his child-like belief in this Man. He nodded to himself, looking up once more at the victim hanging on the cross.
“Truly, this Man is the Son of God.”
The Centurion flexed his hand. The one that so carefully pressed the crown into the King’s head. With his other hand, he slowly unwrapped the bandage. There was no surprise in his mind as he ran his fingers over his perfect hand, unmarred by the scars of the thorns that pierced the holy head of the Son of God. He released a slow breath, viewing all his doubts as though watching every memory of his life roll before his eyes. One miracle would have been enough for him.
This Jesus, though, had granted him so much more in only minutes.
He had granted him a faith he had never had.
“This is not over.” He reached down and gently pulled John to his feet, the boy still cradling Mary in his arms. “Where are the others? His followers?”
John shook his head a little. “I do not know. We were separated in coming here.”
Aetius met his eyes earnestly. “You must find them. The Pharisees who demanded your master’s death will not be satisfied unless His legacy is destroyed. You must keep the others safe.”
“Where can we go?” the boy breathed. Aetius glanced back at the Roman soldiers under the ledge as they stirred, casting away the dice and wine to finish their ugly duty here.
“There is a house in Jerusalem that I can provide for you and your friends. You must stay there until I say it is safe.”
“His body…” John murmured, looking back uncertainly to the cross. Aetius cast his eyes around in a hurried scan of the crowd gathered. He nodded once.
“Joseph. Of Arimathea.”
“Good. He is wealthy. The legion has had dealings with him many times. I shall approach him about caring for the body.”
“He was a follower of Jesus. He will gladly do as you ask.”
“Than go. Be safe.”
John nodded and began to move away. Mary reached out and laid a hand on Aetius’ arm. He stopped, meeting her eyes. Such virtuous eyes reinforced with a pure and solidly founded faith. Again, Aetius wanted what she and John had. She nodded at him.
“Thank you. He thanks you.”
A chill ran up his spine. He touched her hand and removed it from his arm.
John led her away at a quick pace. Aetius watched them descend the hill of Golgotha. Satisfied that they were well out of harm’s way, he turned back to the gruesome scene. Favonius was raising his hammer to break the legs of Jesus. He had already done so to the other two, who slumped gasping for breath.
“Wait!” Aetius demanded sharply. Favonius swung back to him, eyebrows raised over glassy eyes.
“He is already dead, don’t you see?”
The Centurion looked back at the limp body and shrugged. “There is one way to know for sure.”
“Indeed,” Celsus grunted, hefting his spear in his hand. Aetius opened his mouth to protest, but the drunk man thrust it upwards and the head sank into Jesus’ side. The soldier groaned in disgust as blood and water poured from the open wound. “He is dead.”
“Aetius,” Tribune Marcellus called, tossing him a folded white cloth. “Help Junius remove the body.”
The young Roman swallowed, nodding slowly. “Yes, sir.”
He slowly approached the cross as Centurion Junius climbed up the back, bearing a hammer to pry the nails from the wood. A woman remained at the foot, her arms wrapped around herself as she stared. Aetius stared at her a long second. She had seen much for her young age, he was ready to wager.
“Did you follow Him?” he asked quietly. She did not look at him.
Her eyes slowly swung to him. “Are...are you a follower?”
Aetius drew in a silent breath as Jesus’ right arm dropped loosely from the cross.
“I do not know. You must leave here. Send me Joseph of Arimathea. I must speak to him.”
Slowly, she nodded, backing away from the scene. “Yes. I will.” She turned and ran.
Jesus’ body was slowly dropped to him. Aetius held his breath as he reached up and gently lowered the dilapidated form to the clean white cloth Marcellus had passed to him. His fingers brushed over the wounds in the Man’s hands and came away stained with His blood. Tears speared at the young man’s eyes. He had done this. Carefully, he stretched forward and, his bare hands stinging, removed the crown of thorns from Jesus’ head.
Silently, he held it in his hands, staring at it.
I did not force this upon Him. He accepted it. Why? Who is He?
A short man with a white beard and tassels approached him with a demure step and lowered eyes heavy with sorrow. He bowed a little to Aetius, but his gaze was fixed on Jesus.
“You sent for me, Centurion?”
“Yes.” Aetius looked up at Junius. The drunk soldier was trying to get down from the cross without falling all the way. “You must take the body before the men of your Temple, your Pharisees do. They would not treat it the way He deserved.”
Joseph’s bushy eyebrows shot up. “Sir?”
“They gave Him over as a condemned criminal. He must be buried as the innocent Man He was. Talk to Pilate. He will surely grant you freedom in the possession of His body.”
The man hurriedly nodded. “I have a tomb, newly carved, in my garden. It is where I wished to lay Him.”
“Than let it be so. Go.”
“Bless you, sir. May God bless you.” He hurried back towards Jerusalem.
Aetius looked down once more at the body in his arms. Jesus looked quite ordinary, but He felt unworldly. Even in death, the Roman felt the peace exuding from Him. He rested in it as he carefully wrapped the corpse in the cloth.
“Hurry it up, Centurion! I’ve a headache worthy of Jove’s wrath!”
Aetius shook his head a little. Jove? The man had no idea.
He held the Son of God.