Marcus – the guard
We grew up together, Felix and I. It was always Marcus and Felix, Felix and Marcus. We were inseparable as we ran through the olive groves and hiked in the hills above our village, soaking in the sunshine as we ran free.
Ah, what memories – and how life changes.
As I lie on my bed and look across the brown hills beyond my room in the Judean countryside, I remember the dazzling colours of Italy; the flowers in spring, the grass – not always green, but full of life , the deep resonant blue of the sky and the Mediterranean sea. Perhaps it was because we were young and innocent (not good, but innocent) that made everything look brighter.
Felix and I were bad news for one another, encouraging and daring each other to ever braver and more unwise deeds. We often found ourselves in a tight spot as a result and had many beatings. But it never stopped us from seeking the adventure we always thought was just around the corner.
So I suppose it was not surprising, once we reached the age of seventeen, that we dared one another to join the army. Dreaming of battles and glory, our heads full of foolishness but held high in youthful pride, we bade farewell to our families and volunteered. The army promised us adventure and travel to distant lands; income for the twenty five years of service, and a pension in the form of land or money when we completed that time. It never occurred to either of us that we may not survive. We were young, and death only happened to the sick, the elderly and the careless in our experience. We considered ourselves to be invincible. That was how we saw life; and so we grabbed the opportunity with both hands and volunteered. This was our biggest dare; the one that has brought me here today – alone, with just my children and grandchildren as companions.
The insatiable Roman army engulfed us in its treacherous embrace, and there we were, committed to twenty five years of service, doing whatever our superiors ordered us to do, going wherever we were sent. We became honed fighters, fit enough to walk over twenty miles a day carrying our equipment, ready to defend the Empire whenever we were called. We were part of a tough fighting machine of battle-wise men whose antagonists caved in before us. We fought in many campaigns; but the glory we sought was unattainable and we saw sights and experienced events more horrific than we had ever imagined possible; and yet we did survive. Somehow we managed to protect each other’s backs.
In between the campaigns there were long times of peace when we patrolled borders, built bridges and roads, and cleared land for planting and building.
Felix and I served together under the Centurion, Lucius; and so it was that we followed him to the Province of Judea several years before the end of our service. We were based in Jerusalem. It was a strange land, with people who had a strong single-minded belief in one god. It was difficult to understand how that could be, but they were unshakeable in their belief and held their temple as sacrosanct. They caused us a lot of trouble, these people, who called themselves ‘the children of Israel’ and the ‘chosen people of God’.
The city was seething with potential uprising. A man, calling himself ‘the Son of Man’ had been preaching a message that held the seeds of rebellion against the might of Rome. He spoke of a kingdom and we were watching him, ready to move in and arrest him at any moment if the need arose. So far that moment had not arrived, but some of the local people were incensed, for what he said went against all their beliefs. One day the leaders in the temple arrested him and, after questioning him they took him to Pontius Pilate who sentenced him to death by crucifixion. The crowd demanded it and, concerned about an uprising, Pilate agreed to their demands. Soldiers and the local people abused the man as he carried his cross to the Place of the Skull where he was crucified as so many others are who rise up against the great Roman Empire.
Some of my fellow legionaries were involved in the arrest, the trial with Pilate, and the crucifixion. This was routine work for us; just another local man who wanted to overthrow Rome. The populace needed to be taught that this was not a wise course of action to take.
Again, to satisfy the Jewish leadership, some of us were ordered to go to the tomb where he was to be buried. Felix and I were among those chosen.
We went to the garden where the tomb was situated and watched as the man’s friends laid him inside. I noticed they handled the body in a way that showed great reverence. We were used to seeing people entomb those they loved, but somehow this was different. To say they showed respect is not enough. Reverence is the only word that works. I wondered why that event had such an impact on me.
We sealed the tomb with an enormous stone. Usually the stones used for this purpose were just large enough to close the entrance. But this stone was much larger. It took several of us to roll it into place. It was evident that the authorities were expecting trouble, for, in addition to the stone, we were ordered to guard the tomb for several nights. We had heard there was talk of the man saying that he would rise again and so the authorities were taking no chances. They did not want the man’s friends coming back during the night and stealing the body, then saying what he had foretold had come true.
So we were on guard when the event that shook Jerusalem happened.
There was a full moon and a light breeze blew. It was a night of shifting shadows. The silence was eery. Not an owl called. Suddenly there was a violent earthquake and a flash of bright light. It was terrifying. I do not remember what happened next. It was as if I fell into a deep sleep and, whilst sleeping, had a dream I have never forgotten.
I dreamt I saw a bright light shining from within the cave. In awe I watched as the stone rolled, of its own volition, to one side, and a man, glowing with life and health, walked out into the garden where I stood, transfixed by the wonder of what was unfolding before me. In my dream, the man came towards me. The light emanating from him was not so bright that I could not see him. He came straight up to me, put his hand on my shoulder and smiled. I will never forget that smile, or the way his love for me shone in his eyes. It was as if the hard shell I had built around my heart cracked and shattered into pieces in the power of his love, and I realised, in that moment, I could feel emotion, love and fear again. Then the dream and the man faded away.
We all woke at the same time and looked at one another in horror. The tomb was open. The stone had been rolled away. I knew it was one thing to dream about such a thing, but to have it happen in real life was a different and very serious matter. How had the man’s followers managed to come and roll the stone away? It was too heavy to do this without making any noise. Why had we not heard anything? It was difficult for us to get to our feet. I was shaking so much that I could barely stand. Now, I had faced endless situations when my life was in danger and I had handled them with bravery. Why was this so different? I looked across at Felix. He was pale and trembling.
We were all mystified. There was a great deal about that empty tomb we did not understand.
We were cautious, swords and spears at the ready, as we crept forward; and we peered inside. Felix bent down to look and reversed out at once – his face once again white with shock. Others did the same. When it was my turn, I could see the tomb was empty. There was no body where the body had been placed on the Friday night. In fact, there was no sign of a body at all. There was just a pile of grave cloths lying on the shelf down one side of the tomb.
Was my dream a dream, or had I really watched what had happened during the night? No one else seemed to have been affected as I had been. The possibility occurred to me that what I had seen was true. Perhaps no-one else had dreamt that night. I kept silent, keeping my thoughts and my feelings to myself.
I am a practical man, and I believed there must have been a rational explanation. But there was no sign of intrusion. Inside the tomb were the prints of our own sturdy sandals, the standard issue of every Roman soldier. Nothing had happened to disturb those, and none of us had ventured far enough into the tomb to make new footsteps and hide any others. No, these were our own marks from two nights before when we had checked inside before sealing the tomb. How could that be?
We talked about what course of action we should take now. The authorities would discover the empty tomb in time. We decided it was best to go and tell them ourselves. We were reluctant to do so, knowing the punishment that awaited us would be death, but we could not think of any alternative action we could take. There was nowhere to run; nowhere to hide.
Felix’ face lit up. He suggested we went to the chief priests and told them! It was really their problem. The Roman authorities had only placed the guard to keep the peace between themselves and the Jewish leadership. It was more of a Jewish problem than a Roman one, now that the man was dead.
So that is what we did. We went to the Court of the Gentiles and obtained an audience with the temple leaders. They were surprised that Roman legionaries would want to see them, and reluctant to speak to us, but when we sent a message to them that it concerned the tomb in the garden they agreed to see us. They were shocked and angry when we told them what had happened, and left us to go into another room to discuss the situation.
When they returned they offered each of us a substantial sum of money to buy our silence. It did not take us any time at all to accept. If they did not want us to speak about it we were happy enough with that. They told us that we were to say that the man’s followers had come during the night and had stolen the body. They assured us that if the report reached the governor’s ears they would cover for us so that we would not be punished. The proposal seemed strange to us, but it was also a relief and was too good an opportunity to miss. So we went along with the story that the authorities arranged between them and we took the money offered to us. None of us ever spoke a word of it to anyone.
However the more I thought about it the more I felt uncomfortable about the lie. Yet I faced a dilemma. If I told what I had seen, lives were at risk. If I kept quiet, then who would know? What could be the harm in silence? Maybe I was wrong, but I did not speak out.
Strange events happened in the city in the following days. We heard reports of the man being seen alive. Nothing much misses our ears. Felix dismissed these reports as hysterical stories, but I had a strong feeling there was truth in them. I began to ask questions. I did not make a big issue of it – just asked here and there and began to build up a case for the astounding truth of the matter.
During the months that followed I became convinced that this man was God and that the Roman gods were idols. I accepted that there is, in fact, only one living God – and this man, the one I had seen in my dream – was God Himself, come to the earth to live and die for the salvation of mankind. It was His body that we guarded that night; and His resurrection that happened as we slept.
In the end I believed. Life has never been the same for me since that moment. I have told the story of Jesus time and again – but never my part in it – and I have lived with His presence and His blessing all these years. I gave the money I received for my silence to the apostles and they shared it out amongst those in need. I was glad it had been used to help others who follow Christ.
Felix was sceptical. He brushed the stories away, even when I tried to talk to him later. At the end of our time of service he went back to Italy, a wealthy man, with his bribe from the Jewish authorities and his pension from the army. I do not know what has become of him.
I accepted land here when my time of service had ended. I had met a young Christian girl at the home where we gathered to worship and married her and have lived happily here for many years. I love this land. This is where my Lord lived and taught and this is where I have wanted to spend the rest of my days, doing the same. My beloved wife died two years ago, leaving me with two sons and a daughter, and several grandchildren. And now it is my turn to die. As I lie here in my room I have watched my grandson with pleasure as he has written down this account for me. I cannot lie on my deathbed and not share the story with those I love. Maybe they will be blessed by it. Maybe they will meet the risen Lord as a result of it. Possibly others may come to know Him too. This is my prayer for all who read it.
Jesus Christ lives! He is the Son of the Living God and He walked this earth and died on the night of the full moon during the Jewish feast of Passover; I guarded His tomb for two nights and witnessed the stone roll away and the risen Lord walk free – and I saw the empty tomb on that far ago morning in Jerusalem.
I pray that you too, my child, as you read this account, may meet with the Lord, Jesus Christ, and come to know Him as your Lord and Saviour.