Saturday, April 11, 2009

Barabbus

This is the post I intended to write yesterday, but my computer's been giving me fits that last couple of days, so sorry!  Years ago--37 or 38, in fact--when I was an eager young Christian, very involved in Young Life, I heard a particular message the week before Easter.  Honestly (though my many pastor friends will be discouraged to know this!), it's one of the few messages that has stayed with me, through lean seasons and times of plenty.  In fact, every Holy week, I think of it, feel it pull me into the drama in a unique but pertinent way.  So here is my ode to my former club leader, SA, with thankfulness and humility to his speaking and his profound impact on my life. Note: With a novelist's license, I add my own imagination to the sliver of details in the text.

I've been sitting in this dark cave for weeks.  Or maybe it's been months.  Time has a way of slipping when the only light comes through one small unreachable hole far up the rocky walls.  Sometimes I stand on my toes to try and catch a long draught of fresh air into my lungs, but maybe I only imagine clear, sweet air.  Maybe this is the only life I've ever had.  As the shadows darken until the night is so inky around me I cannot see my fingers waving in front of my face, I lay on the lumpy pile of hay that substitutes for a bed, and I try to sleep.  When I close my eyes, the images of someone's former life pass through my head.  It's difficult to get from those passionate, sunlit days to this dark emptiness, where I've been told my execution is only hours away.
I knew what I was doing was dangerous.  Pushing past the limits of the law to thwart the Roman occupation of our land, the inposition of their government on our people.  It is wrong, I say, even now.  This is our land, the land the fathers were given by promise.  Yes, I wanted rebellion.  Yes, I incited riots. But I believed what I was doing.  I believed it was a God-given task set before me. 
But there came that day, that life-changing day, when a riot escalated.  Many of my friends were hurt that day, others taken to this very prison where I sit.  And though I got away, a burning anger grew in me.  There was one particular man who did not value life, especially the lives of Jews.  I looked at the wounds on my friends that his club had inflicted, and my fists clenched, my jaw tightened, and a vision of eye for eye began to swim in front of my eyes.  In the end, my plans became reality.  I took his life in cold blood as he stepped from the door of his very home where his wife and children awaited his return.  I felt no remorse when I slit his throat.
But since my arrest, I've come to regret that taken life. Death comes swiftly toward me now.  I watch the change in light in this hole, and wait for it.  That death now also rises up to haunt me.  Like a spectre, the man stands in his doorway, his hands outstretched.  I, who thought I was a good man, with a love for freedom, and truth, now face the truth that my hands are slick with another's blood. I hold them out and feel the weight of my sin, expanding to hold even the smallest wrongs I did others.
So here I sit, waiting for the death that comes today--for the out of the pain of my own making. 
Prisons are not silent places, for all their isolation.  In the last while, I've heard rumors of another instigator.  My information comes primarily from guards, who talk in low awed whispers of this man, this Jesus, who is a different kind of rebel.  Different than me.  His words, they say, are smooth as honey and as sharp as a sword, and when he looks a a person, his eyes pierce so deeply, they seem to divide bone from marrow. 
I can't imagine such a man, such authority in his speech as this one.  They say he can touch the sick with a hand, or words, or even mud from the ground.  The blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk.  I remember a man, the old beggar by Bethesda's pool.  He lay there for years, waiting for that water to ripple.  I should have given him a denari or two, but I was always hurrying by.  That man, that very man, now walks upright, like a real man.  They say this Jesus told him to stand up, and he did--no waves in the pool were ever that effective.  I wish I had seen this man--just once--though I'd be afraid of what he'd see in my eyes.  I know what I am, finally.
Last evening, when the guard brought me food, he reminded me that this is Passover.  "If you're lucky," he said.  "You might be even be the prisoner who's released."  Then he laughed a mirthless laugh, and pulled the door shut behind him.  Paralyzed, I held my bowl, imagining my name was called and the door unlocked.  A freed prisoner at Passover.  I'd forgotten this possibility.  But I shook my head.  They'd never set me free. A murderer, a insurrectionist.  I flung the bowl against the wall, watched it slide down onto the dirt floor.  Then, as my stomach growled, I  rushed over and planted my face in the muddy gruel.
Hours later, a commotion arose out of my window, awakening me.  Dawn was slowly lightening the dimness of the room.  Then, suddenly, I thought I heard my name.  Slowly the volume grew, "Barabbus! Free Barabus!" they cried. "Away with this man.  Crucify him!"  My heart began to pound.  Then the door swung open and two guards pulled me to my feet and drug me out of the prison into the open courtyard where a huge crowd had gathered, all yelling loudly, "Crucify him."  Pilate, the Roman governor who I'd spent my life trying to overthrow, stood in front of me.  Beside him was a rather ordinary man, whose hair was lank against his sweaty face.  "Again, I ask you," Pilate said, "who will you free?  Barabbus or Jesus."  My head jerked toward the man.  This man, this ordinary, hurting man, was Jesus?"  Then my wish came true for Jesus lifted His head and looked into my eyes.  His eyes were deep chocolate, but flooded with so much light, it was like they were fire, warming something in me I didn't know was cold.  Flooding me with...was this love He gave me?  Even now?  In this moment, when the balance of death hung between us?  One way or another, it would tip. 
The crowd yelled again. "Free Barabbus!" and "Crucify him, crucify him."  Louder and louder, while Pilate, who clearly wished they'd make the other choice, stood quietly for a moment.  "What crime has this man committed?  Nothing that warrants the death penalty...like Barabbus here," He didn't say those words, but I heard them just the same. "I'll have him punished then release him."  But the unruly crowd wouldn't calm down.  They pressed and pressed for Jesus' crucifixion.
Pilate finally shrugged his shoulders and nodded to the guards.  The ones holding me untied my hands and shoved me down the steps into the crowd.  I stumbled, then turned and looked at Jesus. "This is for you," His eyes seemed to say.  We both knew it.  He had done nothing wrong--and I deserved to die.  I turned and fled through the crowd, and stood in the shadows where I could watch.
A short while later, the crowd began to move through the streets, out toward the place of the death, where two crosses already rose in the sky.  Like the one that should have had my name on it.  As the crowd thinned, and the hill grew steep, I saw Jesus trip and fall, the heavy wood painful on his mutilated back.  A young father was pulled from the crowd to carry it--if I'd been close enough, it might have been me--carrying the cross for the man who would die in my place.
At the top of the hill, Jesus was thrown down, and nails were driven straight through the flesh of his hands, and the bony tops of his feet.  I felt each pound of the nail, and a scream rose in my throat.  This man's pain is my fault, I thought.  It should have been me.  Pilate's words came back, "This man has done nothing that warrants death."  And I have done everything.  The cross rose with its burden of man, and then Jesus looked down on us.  Looked around the crowd as He lifted up against the nails to try and draw breath into his lungs, just as I had so often in my cell.  Only he lifted up against bleeding hands and nailed feet, and agony distorted his face.  But not His eyes.  They still looked down from that heighth, love blazing in them.
Two other criminals hung beside Him, less fortunate than substituted me.  One mocked and scorned Him, but the other spoke words I might have said myself, "We deserve to die. Remember me," he told Jesus, also words I wished to say to Him.
"I tell you the truth, this very day you'll be with me in Paradise."  And me?  I wondered, will I be with you, too?
As if I'd spoken aloud, He answered.
"Forgive them, Father." He whispered. "For they don't know what they are doing."
"I am thirsty." 
Looking intently toward a young man standing with some women, holding one who seemed ready to faint, "Woman, behold your son. Son, behold your mother."
 And then a Psalm rose from His lips: "Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?" 
 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?  I listened to the words of that Psalm, and lowered me head.  For me, I thought.  God forsook Him for me.  The love I'd seen in His eyes built in mine for this man, this Savior, this Jesus.
"Into your hands I commit my Spirit." His voice was now almost gone.  With great effort He looked around once more, then His head dropped and it was over.
I stood on that hillside until the crosses were empty. 
Then turned, and went on my way, ready to live and die for this man, this man who died in my place.

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