According to Christian tradition, a Roman soldier named Longinus was the person who killed Jesus, thrusting his lance through Jesus’ ribs and into his heart. What’s curious about this is that the Gospel accounts attributed to Mark and Matthew are silent about the act that took the life of their spiritual leader. They simply observe that a centurion who stood guard at the execution relayed to Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, that Jesus was dead. The Roman soldiers, who were undoubtedly from various and likely distant parts of the Roman Empire, had mocked Jesus during the execution ritual, performing their duty to Rome with arrogance, cruelty, and utter confidence in the machine of Empire. But then things get weird: something in the final moment of Jesus’ short life — we don’t know what exactly — changed the soldiers’ attitude toward the troublesome Palestinian rebel. Surely this was a son of god, they declare. I have my own opinion about what happened but history is silent and so are the soldiers, so I have no business with idle chatter.
The story of Longinus shows us that from the darkest and most obscene moments of our lives, the personal transformation we once regarded as impossible arises. Longinus, as a good Roman soldier, was surely guilty of many things far worse than showboating at a public execution. In the Christian story, Jesus is the innocent victim and the Roman soldier is the wicked aggressor. But here’s the thing: both men experienced the suffering of the event. Both were touched by an experience of death. They were strangers until that final moment when they were intimately united by the terrible reality that touches all beings who come into this world. Death, suffering, mortality, impermanence — this is our lot. Instead of turning away from each other, something brought them together, opened them to the experience of an enemy who was really nothing other than a brother. It changed Longinus and it changed the world.
Much of the Christian world — including all of the ancient apostolic communities — venerates the Roman centurion from the Gospel story as a holy man. Perhaps on another occasion I will explore how this very same mystery was manifested by the Tibetan mystic Milarepa and by the prophet Dorothy Day who not so long ago walked the very same city streets that Dante and I venerate.
March 26, 2017